indian cinema heritage foundation


11 Dec, 2020 | Archival Reproductions by Kumar Sahani
A still from Kumar Sahani's film Kasba (1991). Image Credit:

Narrative is most intricately woven with ethics. It is narrative which determines the involvement and the alienation of the spectator-director. It invites him to participate or to distance himself to change or to accept reality and its interpretation. It can free him from his own ideology and that of the ruling class, simultaneously: or imprison him in both.

The cinema, which is being discussed for the most part by Metz and others, is one subservient to ideology, not concerned with ethics but the pathology of pleasure. The ethical person cannot go to such spectacles, far less make them. His aim is to integrate himself, not to suture the wounds of his own identity and that of his mother.

In fact, ethics is interaction. The conflicting forces that act upon us through our natural and cultural being and, often, as we have noticed, by the confusion of the two, produce a response which looks at the manifest either as epiphany or as tragedy. Or better still, knows the presence of the one in the other. Both are propelled by action upon knowledge.

Narrative proceeds through action. The action of the narrator, author and maker, through his mode of address shapes the world to an end that he considers to be worthwhile in itself. The interpreter, bringing his history into play, enriches it with his own experience. The spectator carries it back into life, elevating the repetition of desire, to affirm the realisation of being which assumes self-determination.

The four ends of man are simultaneous in sequence. Dharma, artha, kama and moksha are not unconnected with the pursuit of happiness in honour, wealth, pleasure and contemplation which Aristotle takes as nodal points of discussion in his work on ethics.

The problem of narrativety in our times has been the replacement of God by mechanical causation. The structural rigidity of a framework which underlies concepts that reduce acts to invariance excludes the participant-observer. To compound the loss of agency with the illusion of reality, inexorably led by its 'scientific' natural laws, threw the spectator out into the cold, deprived of his passion, incapable of ecstasy or pathos, or any form of awakening to self-awareness.

While science initially liberated us by a complete submission to the law, it can only realise itself out of its present impasse in the life-sciences by admitting the presence of individual agencies that wish to cross the threshold from the subject to the self.

A group of cells may have the same code but the object of their action is to individuate themselves.

The reason that there is yet no anarchy is that the action is affirmative and not negative.

A reductive, definitional and functional understanding tends to end up with essences which give birth to other essences or, at worst, their corruption. One goes to the origins to clarify, not to muddy our thoughts, to view in them that glorious act which annihilated the given code in favour of virtue, wealth, beauty, truth.

One aspires to that improvisation which includes the excluded, having known that even nature abounds in redundancies.

The blank screen can be the most closed or the most open form of narrative. In the horror of the vacuum that it provokes, one may fill up the space with projectiles of a passive subject whose identity is manufactured in impotency; desire reduced pathologically repetitive; the object fractured into fragments; the morality of a system beyond him imposed through illusionistic means confusing the moral with the natural law, the central equation being that of private property.

The foundation of the great republics, it is true, has been laid upon the institution of private property. But this institution has been itself built upon the misappropriation of the majority by means of war, trade and the enunciation. 

It is the enunciation which seems to have determined the group's identity of itself; having found through it that inner space-time by which it first became the other, the group used its enunciation in outer space-time towards disintegration of whatever it confronted itself against, treating the other as still-life or barbaric, who as long as he had another tongue or colour, was destined to be nature morte.

In that sense, Christianity is right in giving the same weight to thought, word and deed, if only not linked to original sin. The question is to free desire from guilt. Self-awareness will then not be series of voyeuristic acts fragmenting infinitely the subject and the object, just so as to be able to create a self-image. The integration of the 'psychosoma' can only proceed if while distinguishing different function, we acknowledge the source as common to both sensuous and mental functions. It is their objectification that fills us with awe and wonder with what we make of ourselves.

The modernist debate as well as art practice, having inherited a closed system of cause and effect, "the sins of the father having visited the children", has tried to contain itself through a minimalism that frees forms of either specificity, history of its events. In this way, Freud's Oedipus Complex is assimilated into variations upon a myth; psychoanalysis itself as a system and not practice. The conflicting and converging aims of man when viewed from a metapsychological and linguistic perspective, embedded norms into natural law and deprive the spectator both of his voluntary and his transcendental act.

He is first denied the status of subjectivity by the doctrine of individualism, by the positing of an absolutely knowable-consumable objective reality. The rarefied and fetishistic parts of an indestructible structure are offered as constructs of his desire.
If God doesn't exist, collage does. Preceded by poetry, art, cinema and of course, the experience that generated these superstructural fragments of figuration, present-day criticism is developing the same capacity and anarchy of a passive subject.

In the 'Third World', the reflection of this loss of faith - for, what else can we call it? - is demonstrated through fundamentalism, fanned by the totally transparent literal terms of discourse that develop finally into opacity in any dialogue. Praful Bidwai's excellent analysis of the modern-day Kulturkampf in our 'different' world from the first and second reveals to us the violence of intellectual passivity. It is through all our differences that we will increase the richness of the surface of a collage being stuck on elsewhere.

As the fortuitous is condensed into vacant metaphors, the absence of organicity forces an organisation of symmetries. The novel form, in trying to criticise that iron law of the market-became-nature introduced the full subjectivities, whose energies were released by that very turn of history. The accident, too, came into its grasp, with its simultaneous presence in the organised event. Unpredictable mutations became part of the historical praxis of its times. Through its own critical structure, it came upon the loss of significance and the absence of life in its metaphor.

It has had more than one way open to it since about the time that the cinema has placed itself parallel to it. It could restore itself by a movement towards myth, presenting and naming it as such, while transforming it through its descriptive passage of time. It could enlarge and deepen the metaphor by permitting the word to enter unknown recesses of the mind. It could enter into a formal equilibrium with itself.

The safest method, of course, is the last one. And, by and large, the modernist solution has been content - in all the arts - with finding an equilibrium which is, at least, not false.

This step has to be the very first towards re-integration. Before we can ask, "where do we go from here?", we have to know exactly where we stand.

The fictional form may then appear as a long-drawn-out algebraic equation in descriptive language to describe a state of events that had neither the blood nor the sweat of things past. It seems to approach the symmetry of verse, while poetry itself withdraws into collage, asymmetries that yield meaning only in and through their disproportion. Films, likewise, that thus break away from the dead and arid mainstream are unable to water the banks that meander about them.

There is obviously a crying need for restoration. The cannibalization that has taken place will have nothing more left for it to feed on, not even its own body which it construes as its own image......

The beginning will have to be made with the gaze itself. The gaze that fixes itself in aggression or lowers itself to find the same fetishistic pleasure would have to lean to be attentive instead.

To see through the intermediary of a "machine that does not see what you see" and yet to build the bonds that beings an things are waiting for in order to live, it will need the profound look of the reverie. It is that caress, at once intimate and distant, that holds together the flaying limbs. The groping hand, the exasperated breath, legs that strike air instead of water or earth, all contained by the look. The voice comes later, filling up her absence.

The words fill up the sounds; the images, the words. The body, the images.Invocations of breath in the body, of life which returns it to life, music, enchantment.

These are magical happenings which we all encounter and observe, extraordinary in their everydayness. They are the propulsions to knowledge, not in contradiction to it as those who wish to mystify might wish to proclaim. But, of necessity, they are the frontiers, rather than strictly within the scope. Narrativity in the film obviously has to transform this enchantment of musical elements into a space-time axis that includes the visual, the auditory and the historical.

Our articulation of these functions has been, hitherto, separate, forming traditions within single homogeneous cultures which develop with the suppression of parallel possibilities not only within the sense-continuums referred to but also mental systems of organisation. Thus melody might develop at the expense of harmony; it may also demand that units may not be separate from one another and brought together in a perspectival combination. Instead, the combination, the harmonic, may be contained in the unit from the overtones of which a sequence is developed. Inevitably, the historical can be viewed as being inherent in a situation, action as being. The reverse would be true in a predominantly harmonic system. Action would be seen as being. However, in both cases, the simultaneity of the two would be established.

As indeed would be, in every case, the placement of the individual in the sequence with the intervals that he will fill up with such significance, mental-emotive-physiological-semsory that carry itself over into the passage of time, not only within the work of art but outside it.

The cinematographic sequence has destroyed the old condensation of drama and the evocatory description of the novel. On the other hand, by providing the visual concreteness of 'events' and 'characters', it has given a privileged position to their relationship as they constantly redefine themselves. It is the music of history, as it is of colour and form that the cinematographic event brings out where earlier the historical had articulated itself in arbitrary signs (often reducing ethics to a culture-specific morality proclaiming itself as absolute). Simultaneously, the visual in its earlier incarnation had to overcome its representational 'thereness' by appeals to magical-decorative function or to mythical condensation. With the opening out of the sciences of perception (which inevitably have to look upon every presence only within a scale to make any sense of it) and the cinema which assimilates and grows out of these sciences, all art has been given a new lease of life since it brings to the foreground, again, not the existence of things and ideas separated, distinguished and understood but held together, grasped, lived and restored. Or, at least, that is what the cinema, like all art, is capable of, when left to itself.

Yet, it is hardly ever left to itself. The strategies for the exploration of the self have to contend not only with the profit motive and the propaganda machine, obviously present as controlling forces, but also with the resistance of modes of thought that persist even if they no longer serve the dominant ideologies.

At the formal level, the difficulty lies in transpositions. From myth to music, from the articulated series penetrating to an unconscious to the permeation of the entire body and mind with the rhythms and self-created world, with all the immortality of time.

The visual distinctiveness of phenomena is transposed to the aural of intellectual, moving towards the opposite directions of poverty of matter. It is as if the logic of systems constructed by us leaves us all the time in partial realisations that militate against each other. Each art and each tradition of threat, linking itself to history and to nature, tries in despair to break itself down to re-integrate the whole of existence.

Compounded with the modern empiricist total fragmentation, these transpositions are themselves rendered, both in theory and in practice, into mere transliterations from one discipline into another, referring to little else beyond the narrow 'terminologies' and techniques that were crafted to contain ineffable imitations of immortality.

Evidently, the impulse was spiritual, the breathtaking experience psycho-somatic, the forms social. The spectator too must enter, find the points of entry into this inner world extending into space-time, simultaneously, in his social-psychological, the personal as universal being.

The gift that one makes to nature in return for being gratuitously part of it has to be renewed constantly. In the renewal, the epiphany may turn into tragedy, yet will uplift the pathos to such heights that those behind by it will weep more of their wisdom, less of their sorrow.

I think that as we pass from a world governed by law to that where a sense of play and the joy of re-creation will be made real, as full and eternal in its t transitory reality, we will discover the narrativity that cinema has to offer, the ethics of weaving a language, with which you may wrap and unwrap yourself in sensuous ease; not to shroud existence with a will of prophecy, but to facet experience with the brilliance of a thousand suns.

It is at this catastrophic hour that we may wonder how we have survived our tale. Like Yudhisthir, we may assign reasons for the fall of those who did not survive and were believed. Like Yudhisthir, we may overcome the ultimate ambivalence of the many religious and societies to affirm our faith in the dog.

We may, at the end of a millennium, be weary of the world. Let not the world be weary of itself.

This essay was originally published in the book Frames of Mind: Reflection on Indian Cinema, edited by Aruna Vasudev. The image was not part of the original article and is taken from the internet.

  • Share

About the Author

Kumar Sahani is a filmmaker known for Maya Darpan (1972), Tarang (1984), and Kasba (1989).