Cinema as inherent transgression

DHANANJAY RAI

THE 2017 Hindi film Newton is a moving and sombre work of art. The film serves as a critical case study for defending bourgeois principles in a liberal democracy in the face of pervasive illiberalism. Newton disrupts the typical setup of Hindi movies, which are rife with ‘feudal familial romance’,1 by emphasizing and idealizing ‘political equality’, the most vital characteristic of modern democracy (one person, one vote, by the ballot box). It is a spirited, brave, gutsy, and engaging interpretation of ‘political equality’. Political equality is always present, but there is no economic inequality, and the social hierarchy that results from that is also absent. This article assays the meaning of absence-presence through ‘inherent transgressions.’2  

The idea of inherent transgression is distinctive because it draws attention to the process by which transgression is made possible for much greater integration. Ideological identification depends on inherent transgression, as Slavoj Zizek emphasizes and develops the idea/practice. According to Zizek, ‘The “inherent transgression” refers to the notion that the very emergence of a certain ‘value’ which serves as a point of ideological identification relies on its transgression, on some mode of taking a distance from it.’3

In actuality, inherent transgression as ideological identification occurs through its violation to support symbolic dominance. Moreover, ‘In disavowing the structuring function of the Public Symbolic Law, the subject can apparently act freely and transgress the Law.’4 The interesting twist is that ‘this freedom is illusory; when the subject positions them-selves “against” the symbolic order and attempts to destabilize it by transgressing its boundaries, the big Other has more than anticipated this attack – it has, in fact, preinscribed the disturbance into its very constitution, and offers the transgression as a forced choice. The content of the transgression does not undermine the Public Symbolic Law but rather functions as its  unacknowledged, obscene support”.’5 

Democracy, supported by liberalism and capitalism, now includes inherent transgression as a core component. In capitalism, the distinction between the two is clearly defined. In other words, democracy deals with political equality without much encroachment in the economic realms. Any transgression of the sanctum sanctorum order is regarded as sacrilege. The separation is sustained and made worse by inherent transgression. People are allowed freedom. The well-established mechanism will enable people to confine themselves within the realm of political equality. The transgression takes place for violation of political equality.

Since the state foresees the transgression, numerous mechanisms, including the freedom to vote, the freedom to select a representative, the ability to change governments, the existence of multiple political parties, the presence of civil society, and the freedom to form associations and express opinions, are theoretically granted and put into practise. Political equality becomes a self-sufficient entity.6 

The inherent transgression is allowed and resolved within the realm of political equality. The realm of the economy is left untouched. Liberal democracy does not promise equality in the economy. Even wealth inequality and income inequality are considered the living dynamism of the market. Since the inherent transgression operates and exhausts within political equality, economic inequality remains untouched. This becomes exceptionally crucial in the context of India. Despite the neo-fundamentalist attack on political equality, violation of it invites substantive attention. However, social-economic inequality has been accepted fait accompli development. According to World Economic Database, the top 1% accounts for 30.7% of the wealth (Wealth Inequality). In terms of income inequality, the share of the top 1% is 21.7%.7 

According to Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, India is witnessing a return to colonial inequality. For them, ‘… the top 1 percent income share is at its highest level (22 percent) since the …[creation]… of the Income Tax during the British Raj, in 1922. Top income shares and top income levels were sharply reduced in the 1950s to the 1970s, at a time when strong market regulations and high fiscal progressivity are implemented. During this period, bottom 50 percent and middle 40 percent incomes grew faster than average. The trend reverted in the mid-1980s with the development of probusiness policies.’8 

Prabhat Patnaik adds that neoliberalism’s attacks on small producers are supposed to be the critical missing piece. ‘…[T]he assault on petty production launched by neoliberalism constitutes an important factor behind the growth of income inequality.’9  To put it another way, neoliberalism and capitalism are critical issues in the discussion of inequality. Sadly, one remains distant from protesting in the face of injustice realism owing to inherent transgression.

Against this backdrop, a debate on Newton (a Hindi film released in 2017; directed by Amit V. Masurkar) becomes crucial to understand the cinema as inherent transgression. The film was widely praised and received by audiences and media. The film was primarily praised for showing dynamics and struggle for/in democracy. The movie was sent as India’s entry for the best foreign picture category of the Oscar Awards, in addition to winning the best national film award from the Indian government. Therefore, reading Newton, Democracy and Capitalism congruently in India becomes crucial to understand the inherent transgression.

At first, the film apprises a threat to the government by Maoists who want to topple it, and they have a base in the mineral-rich jungles of Chhattisgarh. Then, the film displays the information as follows: ‘The mineral rich jungles of Chhattisgarh in Central India serve as a base for communist guerrillas, popularly known as Maoists or Naxals. The aim is to topple the government through an armed revolution. This war has been raging on for more than three decades.’

In the opening scene, Maoists shoot and kill a local leader just before an election. The question of ‘the mineral-rich jungles,’ which briefly surfaces for around eighteen seconds at the opening of the film, is put off by the brutal murder committed by Maoists. After that, it is a long journey towards epitomizing the best bourgeois value – the ballot box.10 If the 17th and 18th century liberals construed social contract as an epitome of the people’s consent, 19th and 20th century liberals ‘focused on the ballot box as the mechanism whereby the citizen periodically conferred authority on government to enact laws and regulate economic and social life.’11 In other words, the people’s consent was reduced to the ballot box for definitional and operational purposes. 

The film is the perfect example of political equality. This eponymous film unfolds the story of a day in democracy when the election takes place. An officer (Sanjay Mishra) explains the complications of the election process to the presiding officers. The impeccability is so crucial that even a goon, as the officer brings to the fore, can get elected but cannot disturb the election process (political equality). In other words, political equality is offered to the nemesis as well. The officer, in conversion with Newton Kumar (Rajkummar Rao), highlights the most significant contribution of Newton (scientist) in social life, that is equality before nature (being qua being): ‘the fall of Ambani and a commoner will be equal due to gravity.’

This is the moment concerning political equality. In liberal theory, a social realm decided by ascriptive identity is summarily rejected. This makes political equality possible. However, the social is also shaped by economic inequality. Since Newton (scientist) is a reference point of social life in the film, it becomes imperative to discern Newton’s metaphysics of social. Without discounting Newton’s contribution to science, Akeel Bilgrami problematizes Newton’s metaphysics of social, which opened the possibility of land usurpation by capitalists.

According to Bilgrami, ‘the metaphysical picture that was promoted by Newton (the official Newton of the Royal Society, not the neo-Platonist of his private study)… viewed matter and nature as brute and inert, as something that is active only when it is acted upon… .’12 And this ‘...was sold to the Anglican establishment and, in an alliance with that establishment, to the powerful mercantile and incipient industrial interests of the period in thoroughly predatory term.’13 This followed the usurpation of resources and unmitigated accumulation. In other words, since political equality eventually distances itself from economic equality, the social created by class remains unaddressed in liberal democracy.

Newton Kumar (a changed name from a unisex name, Nutan Kumar), an unmarried and newly appointed upper division clerk in the district collectorate office, is on probation. He stays in a middle class residential colony with his parents, where the circuit breaker keeps tripping. He is studious, and his room has a framed photograph of B.R. Ambedkar on the wall. He, an MSc in physics, refuses to marry a prospective match since the girl is only sixteen-and-a-half-year-old and has studied till class ninth. In return,  he gets his father’s abusive behaviour for not marrying the girl through sarcastic comments: ‘as if you would a get proposal of Brahmin or Thakur girls.’ So he refuses to take dowry but insists on marrying a graduate girl.

The backdrop is essential for the rejection of social based on ascriptive identity for the arrival of ‘being qua being.’ The materialization of ‘being qua being’ is individual and political equality is extended to individuals. In other words, according to liberal thought, political equality cannot exist without rejecting social ascription.

The parliamentary election is taking place for the first time in a village called Kondanar. The officer who allocates election booths to the presiding officers gives this information to Kamal Kishore (Sunil Ramkrishna Borkar), an experienced poll veteran who echoes the utmost importance given to political equality: ‘election takes place even for a single person in Gir Jungle.’ Knowing that Kondanar village falls in the Dandakaranya jungle, Kishore escapes this dangerous election duty by citing heart problems and his newlywed status. Newton is called for the same task. So far, he was placed in reserve. The film uses reserve metaphorically. Newton could have been assigned the task of presiding officer sans spectacle detour. This leads to the moment of spectacle where refusal to go due to violence is an extraordinary violation.

Newton’s acceptance, on the other hand, is usual. This practice, or the a priori normalization of acceptance of political equality, is committed. The refusal of the Kishore is the sine qua non for making Newton’s commitment to political equality absolute. He remains unperturbed. He is being kept in reserve and is disturbed by a reluctant (Kishore) who has shown no commitment to political equality when it matters the most. A political equality claimant can now assert themselves politically due to the disappearance of a reluctant participant. To maintain political equality, a subalternity must take the place of the privileged opportunist. The people’s consent is brought and tested when, from base camp onwards, Newton and Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), an assistant commandant of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), confront each other.

Before reaching the base camp, the allusion to areas with Maoist influence, such as Pakistan by security personnel, sets the tone for eventual developments. Aatma Singh advises Newton not to go to the school in Kondanar, which is eight kilometres away. There are 76 voters registered in nearby areas. Undeterred by Aatma Singh’s suggestion that voters be asked to come to the base camp and vote, Newton asserts himself as the presiding officer who would decide the place of the vote. For Aatma Singh, getting votes is the same as getting the populace’s approval. As a result, he comes across as utterly teleological. On the contrary, Newton emphasizes the procedure established by law for obtaining consent.

Despite much disliking of Aatma Singh, Malko Netam (Anjali Patil), a local Hindi teacher at school, joins the election team as the Booth Level Officer (BLO). More than any film protagonist, Malko is the most significant protagonist for political equality. Her entry ends the search for the people who are the supposed ‘beneficiaries’ of political equality. So far, the film has dealt with the abstract issue of political equality. Now, Malko is both interlocutor and local. This interlocution is not only between Gondi and Hindi but also between two worldviews.14 

Moreover, the state needs interlocutors to procure the ‘consent’ of locals. Newton, Malko, Loknath (Raghubir Yadav), Sambhu (Mukesh Prajapati), and security forces reach the designated school. Burnt houses surround the depleted school. The school wall has agitational writings. Newton enquires whether Maoists write these, and Malko answers crisply that burning houses engender anger. While the people (voters) are yet to turn up to vote, the election brigade engages in numerous conversations. Malko informs Newton about her teaching in Hindi though the students’ language is Gondi. A disinterested protagonist and escapist, Loknath points out that an election is a mere change of face of leaders who care about vote when food is unavailable.

The moment of ‘spectacle’ reaches a conclusion when a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) is about to visit the polling booth along with a foreign journalist amidst 0% polling. Paramilitary forces manage to bring people from nearby villages to vote. Since the people have not seen an electronic voting machine (EVM) before, Newton briefs them about the machine and how/whom they can vote. Newton informs them about candidates and the casting of the vote as a constitutional right.15 For voting, he explains, you will not get money. However, there are more considerable benefits as in rules making, etc. Malko interjects, ‘we have our own rules running into thousand years.’ Newton requests her to cooperate. A Patel stands up and says he is ready to go to Delhi as Adivasis’ leader. One winner from the list will go to Delhi, Newton responds. Will they, one voter asks, ‘get a better cost for tendu leaf?’ According to Malko, they seek freedom from the government and the Maoists.

Since Newton could not respond to multiple queries, the conversation came to a halt. Aatma Singh interrupts the gathering and calls for a vote prior to this topic being discussed. The DIG, along with the media, arrives. The election is declared successful as Newton informs the DIG that 39 out of 76 people have voted. An Adivasi points out that ‘nothing will change.’ To close the election process before 3 p.m., an ambush is staged in a stage-managed manner.  On the way to the base camp office, Malka returns home, showing a clenched fist, signalling change is possible while requesting Newton to use his sixth sense.16 Newton completes the election process after a scuffle with the security forces by enabling the four young villagers to cast their votes.

After calling their bluff, fleeing with the EVM, and threatening them with a gun to get the four votes, he is severely beaten by the security squad. The film ends with the spectacle of the punctuality of Newton, who asks Malko, who has come to meet him, to wait for five minutes for tea since lunchtime is scheduled five minutes later.

The film advances the best defence of political equality led by Indian democracy by way of rejecting the social constituted by ascriptive identity. In the film, the roles of individuals eclipse the ontology of ‘beings’ for the arrival of ‘being qua being’ (omission of history for contemporary parity).  This is no mean achievement when political equality has come under attack by communal resurrection. The movie is an attempt to shape the idea of individuals. The most significant caveat of the film is ignoring ‘economic inequality.’

Only focusing on political equality makes economic equality suffer the most. This social or class becomes a naturalized phenomenon. For this naturalization, interpellation plays a key role. For Louis Althusser, ideological state apparatuses play a significant role in helping the exploitation of labour power and continuing the relations of production. This happens through interpellation, where individuals become subjects.17 There seems to be a perfect interpellation in Newton’s case. The film reduces everything to political equality while not questioning the exploitation of labour power of Adivasis and relations of production (the antagonistic relations between Adivasis and their exploiters are not pointed or arrived at). Therefore, social relations constituted by economic inequality do not invite attention. 

Newton, the protagonist, the Adivasis or the film, does not question economic inequality and social constituted by class. The Maoist violence, which reduces all questions to violence in a classic case of rudimentariness, causes the interpellation that the alternative to violence is only political equality. Political equality is approached in a tautological manner by both Newton (a deontologist) and Aatma Singh (a teleologist). They are convinced about democracy or the success of democracy through ‘percentage’. The end success of democracy is numbers. For Newton, it comes from constitutional ethics; for the police officer, it is recording the vote. Interestingly, the interpellated effect is sustained in both cases as the police officer remains neutral on the question of whom to vote. His sheer focus is on numbers.

This leads to another query. If Newton (film) causes interpellation, how are critics or cinephiles made aware of the narrative where Capitalism’s economic inequality and associated social relations are absent? Put differently, if the ballot box is ideological state apparatus (as Slovak Zizek points out by way of a theoretical impasse in Althusser), what is the link between ideological state apparatus and ideological interpellation? In other words, how does the democratic process (principles and practices) persuade people of its virtues? How has the polling of both officers internalized the goodness about the election for democracy? Is this internalization complete?

Zizek suggests that ‘…internalization… never fully succeeds, that there is always a residue, a leftover, a stain of traumatic irrationality and senselessness sticking to it, and that this leftover, far from hindering the full submission of the subject to the ideological command, is the very condition of it.’ 18 Otherwise stated, wide-ranging convincing about democracy is not completed due to residue. Newton represents a ‘traumatizing site’ and, therefore, incomplete interpellation.

This opens the possibility of exploring a humanist approach within the liberal discourse to treat Adivasis from a political equality standpoint against the formulation of the Repressive State Apparatus that Adivasis as wholly other, who are un-assimilable and thus worthy of violence.19 Another residue is Malko in the film. Malko expresses dissatisfaction. However, this dissatisfaction is guided by the inherent morality of bourgeois democracy, which can be discussed without allusion to the primitive accumulation of Capitalism and violence.

Nevertheless, the process of liberal democracy is not completed without allusion to Malko. Zizek points out that this can be understood by focusing on ‘doing’ rather than ‘knowing’. According to Zizek, people know very well how things are, but they still do it as if they did not know.20 Malko does not know about liberal democracy, but believing in it is not a correct proposition. She participates in democracy as if unaware of actuality but still thinks she knows. In other words, she knows the limitation of liberal democracy but still participates. This participation (doing) is shaped by unconscious fantasy, argues Zizek. ‘The funda-mental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself.’21

The residue (not complete internalization but the condition of ideological command) is linked
with ‘ideological disidentification’. Absolute suppression, in Zizek’s opinion, is a fruitless endeavour. It has not been fructiferous. People require space to negotiate. They should feel free to disidentify with the regime.
22 Newton takes a risk to complete the election process. His ideological disidentification helps him to fulfil constitutional ethics. Malko’s insistence on being Adivasis is essential. Malko is a reminder of the rules of Adivasis. She scolds Newton for not knowing Adivasis well despite living nearby. In response to Newton, whether she is pessimistic or not, she describes herself as an Adivasi.

Malko’s confidence oozes out from non-alignment with the state. She declines to wear a bulletproof police jacket. She feels more secure without it. She continues stating that being local is fine. She opposes both the Maoist and the state. What do these represent? This enables disassociation from the regime without risk. She consistently insists on local. She is separated from the regime, but this separation has boundaries.

Zizek claims that these ongoing violations are what he refers to as inherent transgressions. The ‘inherent transgressions’ are tantamount to the subversive behaviour of people to control them eventually for more significant purposes. She defies the idea of protection. She also fights
the construal of percentages as democracy. She is not out of sites of the state, but her defiance is ‘inherent transgressions.’ If Ambedkar’s photograph is shown at the beginning
for political equality, his eventual absence of reference in the film becomes crucial for the film to allow ‘inherent transgressions.’. At the fagend of the film, the actual mining issue is reduced to a total of ten seconds out of the total length of 6420 seconds, which is 0.15% of the length.
These inherent transgressions are permissible without the actuality of social relations of production.

Though the film shows the success of voting (56.57%) complicatedly, it appeals to resurrect political equality sans allusion to economic inequality and abandon the social constitution by ‘class’. However, this remains problematic as Zizek underlines concerns: ‘Here, Marx’s key insight remains as pertinent today as it ever was: the question of freedom should not be located primarily in the political sphere – i.e. in such things as free elections… Real freedom resides in the “apolitical” network of social relations, from the market to the family, where the change needed in order to make improvements is not political reform, but a change in the social relations of production. We do not vote concerning who owns what, or about the relations between workers in a factory. Such things are left to processes outside the sphere of the political, and it is an illusion that one can change them by “extending” democracy: say, by setting up “democratic” banks under the “people’s control”.’23 

Put differently, economic inequality and social constituted by class are sustained by residue, ideological disidentification, and inherent transgressions – exhibiting dissents without allusion to economic inequality and associated social. 

To sum up, economic disparity, which also refers to social interactions, is not addressed in defence of political equality. Due to inherent transgressions in the film, the fundamental question of the primitive accumulation of capital and its onslaught on Adivasis and their social relations with others has been avoided in the film. In order to accomplish this, inherent transgressions are essential for the growth of the body politic. This is the film’s significant omission: the Adivasi question is also a class one in addition to the one about political equality.

 

Footnotes:

1. Madhava Prasad coins the term ‘feudal family romance.’ M. Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Cinema: A Historical Construction. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000. 

2. Ellen Meiksins Wood categorically highlights ‘the separation of the economic and political in capitalism.’ The theoretical phrase (political equality and economic inequality) is derived from her in this article. Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism’,  New Left Review  1/127 (5&6), 1981, pp. 66-95. Zizek uses the concept of ‘inherent transgressions’.

3. Slavoj Zizek,  ‘The Inherent Transgression’,  Cultural Values 2 (1),  1998, p. 4.

4. Christine Evans, ‘The Inherent Transgression’, Zizek Dictionary, edited by Rex Butler. Routledge, New York, 2014,
p. 136.

5. Ibid.

6. Sidney Verba and Robert Dahl emphasize political equality profusely. However, political equality remains active only in the political realm. Sidney Verba contrasts the positives of political equality with the dangers of political equality. Sidney Verba, ‘Would the Dream of Political Equality Turn out to Be a Nightmare?’ Perspectives on Politics,  1(4),  2003, pp. 663-679. In Robert Dahl, political equality is contrasted with political inequality. Robert A Dahl, On Political Equality. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006. According to David Held, Marx and Engels contend that the fight for political equality by liberalism and liberal democracies against tyranny is crucial to human emancipation. Nevertheless, ‘liberty, equality, and justice’ could not be realized solely through the ‘free’ competition for votes in the political system and through the ‘free’ struggle for profit in the market realm. David Held, Political Theory and the Modern State: Essays on State, Power, and Democracy. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000, p. 49.

7. https://wid.world/country/india/

8. Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty, ‘Indian Income Inequality, 1922-2015: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?’, Review of Income and Wealth 65(S1), November 2019, pp. S33-S62. http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/ChancelPiketty2019RIW.pdf

9. Prabhat Patnaik, ‘Neoliberalism and Inequality are Inseparable’, Newsclick,  19 December 2017.  https://www.newsclick.in/neoliberalism-and-inequality-are-inseparable

10. Bourgeois value does not always entail a pejorative meaning. Politics both in theory and practise have benefited from political equality.

11. David Held, Political Theory and the Modern State Essays on State, Power, and Democracy. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000, p. 29.

12. Akeel Bilgrami, ‘Gandhi, Newton, and the Enlightenment’, Social Scientist 34(5&6), May-June 2006, p. 19.

13. Ibid., p.  21.

14. Gondi is spoken by around three million people (https://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011Census/Language-2011/Statement-8.pdf ) in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by tribals.

15. Article 326 of the Constitution of India grants universal franchise rights.

16. At this crucial point, Newton experiences his eureka moment, which sets the stage for his subsequent thrashing. I am thankful to Saagar for this point.

17. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2001.

18. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso,  London, 1989, p. 43.

19. I am thankful to Deependra Baghel for these reminders.

20. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, London, 1989, p. 30.

21. Ibid., p. 33.

22. These Zizek works may be cited in this context: Slavoj  Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, London, 1997; Slavoj Zizek (Judith Butler and Ernesto Laclau), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. Verso, 2000; Slavoj  Zizek, Enjoy your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. Routledge, New York, 2001.

23. Slavoj Zizek, ‘Democracy is the Enemy’, London Review of Books, 28 October 2011.  https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2011/10/28/slavoj-zizek/democracy-is-the-enemy/