What’s poetry got to do with it?
THE phenomenon called Naxalism – now simply Maoism – has always lent itself to great aestheticism. In fact, what ideological rhetoric has not achieved for Maoism, literature and art have. The latest in a long tradition of novels, poems and films on Naxalism – of which we have a great many since the 1970s, especially in the regional languages – was Sudhir Mishra’s 2003 Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi (HKA), which brought Mishra back from the margins into the main frame of Indian cinema. The strange powers of Maoism thus got admitted in the most unlikely of sites – in ‘Bollywood’ – on the argument that Maoism could produce, if not revolution, then great art! This write-up is not a review of the film, which one could both greatly like and have great differences with. Here, the film is an occasion, a pretext, for speculating about the coincidence of poetry and revolution in our times.
Of course, one cannot forget that the film is already six years old and pre-dated the great prime ministerial declaration of Naxalism as the greatest internal security threat to our country. This is crucial. Surely, a film on Maoism today will have to be differently thought and differently filmed, for Maoism is once again contemporary – indeed current – in a way that it had not been some years ago, at least seemingly. In HKA, however, Naxalism is a thing of the past and the movie is an act of a fond looking-back, though not nostalgically. In fact, the power of this movie lies precisely in the way that it pitches the time of Naxalism – as past yet never fully past – thus giving it a peculiar and persistent texture.
The film opens, expectedly, with the documentary footage of Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’ speech – while the world sleeps, India awakens to freedom etc. Immediately after, the director’s own words scroll down the screen – Nehru made a mistake, he says tongue-in-cheek, for at our own midnight much of the world was indeed awake and moving on! Of course, our parents, says Mishra, loved Nehru – but the children would indeed move on, and pull the nation with them ‘in a thousand directions.’ Indeed, despite the mandatory ‘all characters are fictional’ disclaimer, the director whispers to us that this is a movie about people as real and as proximate as our own parents and that it is nothing other than an effort to reconnect, inter-generationally.
For Sudhir Mishra, here is where Naxalism lay – in a time in between history and now. History-as-such – documented, black and white, figured by Nehru, the faceless crowd and the high-flying flag – is fully past. The now is simply now – unthematised, left outside the frame, presumably self-evident to the spectator viewing the film. In between lay a time, the Naxal moment, which has not quite passed into history, but is just enough past to resist full understanding – somewhat analogous to our parents, who confound us with their own datedness and yet with their galling intimacy and immediacy. Not incidentally, all the protagonists’ parents figure centrally in the film – the fraught and fond relationship with parental, rather than historical, time acting as supplement to the exchange between the peers themselves.
Such a strange in-between time, shorn of both historicity and currency can, of course, only be evoked. It cannot be disciplined into history – written, reproduced, taught. Nor can it be simply lived, rendered into experience, news or ethnography. Such a time is simply not available for direct reference as either object of knowledge or as one’s own life. Or to say the same thing differently, our relationship to such a time remains always tantalizingly unsettled, unresolved.
In a way, that is in the nature of revolutionary times as well – that our relationship to it always remains unresolved. Revolution, after all, is a strange event, always impending, always a promise, but always postponed. But it is also already past in that it happened elsewhere – in China, Cuba – causing it to appear forever displaced and distant, even when we feel as if we have passed through it. Revolution as phenomenon then stubbornly appears outside both history and the contemporary – defying our standard frames of representation and capturing – for the revolution has neither happened nor not happened, so that we can neither have it nor give it up.
Sudhir Mishra’s film is animated by this strange relationship to time. Of course, some would say that in Maoism, revolution is only the capture of state power, nothing more, nothing less. But who would disagree that the power of the word lay elsewhere – in the ambiguity of an idea that signifies both event and state of being. Hence, the persistence of the idea of permanent revolution – i.e. of revolution as life itself. HKA pitches the Naxal moment precisely thus – by removing it from the site of ideology and history to the site of life itself – life which surrounds and recasts the very question of the revolution as event.
The film depicts three lives through 1969 to 1977 – spanning the time of Naxalbari, Emergency, the JP Movement, and the defeat of the Congress. Siddharth, the privileged son of an ex-judge, is the ideologized one, who goes to a Bhojpur village to make revolution. Vikram, the son of an impoverished small-town Gandhian is a fixer, who chases money and scoffs at the Marxist pretensions of Delhi’s rich and famous. He is anti-ideology and politically promiscuous. Geeta is middle class. Yet she is not quite entrenched, because of her diasporic past, and starts off as somewhat of an outsider, empathetic but also sceptical.
Geeta loves and follows Siddharth to Bhojpur and ends up staying there, fully transformed, even after Siddharth returns to upper class, professional life. Vikram in turn loves Geeta, and follows her into the killing fields, becoming the unlikely sacrificial victim of the age of revolution. Killings, rapes, sterilizations, rallies, elections, police encounters – all appear encompassed by these lives. The three live by each other, accounting for their lives in frequent letters, and sometimes even laugh together and at each other – as do the poor, in Geeta’s words, despite their miserable lives.
In these lives, however, there is no justice, no retribution. Neither do these lives follow the logic of heroic tragedy, nor of sacrifice and redemption. Vikram, the final sacrifice, is an unwilling and unwitting one, without honour or martyrdom, terrorized in the face of death and cursed with life afterwards. Siddharth goes through war and bloodshed, longings and escapades – willingly and patiently, such that his eventual return gives nobody vindication. Geeta simply carries on. The story does not end. The narrative refuses to resolve. So then, one could ask, what drives the story – namely, Sudhir Mishra’s story of Naxalism? I believe it is the poetry.
The film’s title, we know, is a line by Ghalib – hazaron khwahishein aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle. It is a familiar line – about a thousand desires, ‘each one worth dying for’ or alternatively, ‘each one of which kills.’ The double meaning is critical – and tells us in no uncertain words that the director is intending to make us read ‘desire’ for ‘cause’. The cause of the revolution is now the desire for it. It is this question of desire that gives intensity to the story of these lives, the story of Naxal times. In HKA, the desire for revolution, the desire for the woman, desire for money – all elusive and entangled – work together to render hazy the object of desire itself. The object of desire then becomes incidental and subordinate to desire as such and its unique kind of intensity, which shines forth irrespective of what or who it is a desire for.
Interestingly, Sudhir Mishra does not choose from the repertoire of what has come to be called ‘Naxalite poetry’ today, much of which has been written in Hindi and by poets from Bihar and UP. Such Naxalite poetry could very well have been more appropriate to Sudhir Mishra’s story. But he chooses a Ghalib couplet instead. The shadow of Ghalib serves to dislocate the Naxal moment from its proper place and time – its historical context so to speak, figured in the dates 1969, 1975, 1977, which pop-up on a black screen time and again. For Ghalib is of a completely different, even incomparable, place and time.
But then, that precisely is the point. Ghalib and revolution are two incommensurable moments which lend passion and charge to each other – while other poems in English, Hindi and Bhojpuri, all invoking desire, suffuse the story from beginning to end. In other words, the use of poetry works to release desire from its representation as desire for something, making it appear both timeless and relentless. Thus desire becomes, via a move through poetry, the main protagonist of the film on Naxal times.
If we agree that poetry is an artifice that exposes the limits of our language – indeed, of both our everyday worldly language and our technical, specialized ones – then poetry is rather appropriate to a phenomenon such as the revolution, which defies all referentiality. Sudhir Mishra’s HKA tells us that one can and must seek the revolution, just as one seeks love, but that the story will never end in satisfaction. For revolution, like love – or for that matter money – is not a substantive thing, not object, nor event. It is merely desire, which invents and reinvents its own object.
It is then an error to judge desire in terms of the object it chooses. One must judge desire in terms of what it does to life. After all, HKA is primarily a depiction of life that discloses the secret code of desire – namely, that desire for one thing can work as, indeed even become, desire for another. So Vikram’s desire for money changes, unnoticed, into desire for Geeta and Geeta’s desire for Siddharth changes, seamlessly, into desire for justice. The story of Naxal times, for Mishra, is then a story of the poetic workings of desire, and how it can rewrite lives and selves.
But how does poetry work in cinema? Usually, we think cinema and the novel together – understanding both as narrative forms and as forms that mobilize the visual, even if not the picturesque. They seem like natural allies, such that novels being rendered into films produce no surprises whatsoever. Also, we have recognizable parameters for judging the success of a cinematic rendering of a novel. Poetry, when it figures in films, however, makes us wonder.
Of course, one could see poetry simply as part of the soundtrack – cutting across the visuals and the dialogue like lyrics and music do, creating ambience and supplementing the visual. In HKA, however, poetry is far more central. It is central because it redeems – gives sense to – a narrative which by its nature can have no resolution. The Maoist subject does not win, nor does s/he stand defeated – s/he only lives on. So too the revolution, which refuses to happen even when it revolutionises lives. The story itself then has no closure, and cannot function simply as plot. The story of revolution – and of love – must then be turned into poetry. For poetry is a form that not only does not demand resolution, it also bends language to allow otherwise unthinkable metaphorical slippages between objects, desires, words.
Acommon criticism of Sudhir Mishra’s film of Naxal times has been that it had middle class subjects rather than revolutionary peasant heroes. But is not that constitutive of the Naxal moment? It is precisely this which distinguishes the story of Naxalism from the story of other kinds of peasant movements and mass movements. If one made a film on a peasant movement such as in today’s Lalgarh or in 19th century Santhal Pargana – the narrative would have to be very distinct from the Naxal narrative. The specificity of the Naxal moment – and its particular poignancy – lay in the lesson that the revolutionary imperative can lure those who are not born into it. It lay also in the lesson that to be born into poverty does not make one a natural or a necessary revolutionary subject.
As Sudhir Mishra’s film tries to argue, a revolutionary subject is one who has passed through a restive and turbulent cultivation of intense desire. The workings of this desire can never be grasped by discourses of economic necessity or ideological imperative. If it can be grasped at all, it is through poetry and its unpredictable twists and turns, in a potent analogy with life itself.