Raise the Red Lantern

downloadAn image that is usually inconspicuous due to its ubiquitous presence is often dismissed as having multiple meanings or a potent symbol beyond its immediate aesthetic signifier. The long history of a bitter sweet relationship with our neighbouring country China has witnessed an array of assortments transported and diffused into ours as part of the cultural baggage. We have our own appropriated versions of Chinese cuisine at every nook and corner of the streets, fengshui merchandise displayed in our households, a mannequin of a laughing Buddha and most strikingly the Chinese lanterns as an important Oriental image to (re)create a temporal and imagined space within our culture. However, to locate within this image of a Chinese lantern a meaning(original or constructed? Oh wait, all meanings are constructs) is to situate it within a particular setting, thus enabling a particular discourse to perpetuate through reification.

Raise the Red Lantern is a film directed by Zhang Yimou in 1991, which deploys the singularly spectacular image of Chinese red lanterns as a leitmotif around which the entire narrative revolves. Based originally on a novel, Wives and Concubines by Su Tong, this cinematic adaptation takes us to China, during the Warlord Era(1916-1928) and showcases the social hierarchy, with intersections of class, gender and sexuality.During this period, marked by schisms between military cliques, each group or faction struggled to keep its authority and legacy untainted. The question of honour and customs became an integral part for the maintenance of tradition and traditional values. Interestingly, masculinity becomes synonymous with powerand has to be manifested and legitimised equally in the domestic sphere via the female body.

The film opens with the chief female protagonist, Songolian, as a nineteen year old girl, who has to come to terms with her social reality that deprives her of an education and subjects her to the fate of being born as a girl, destined to marry without her choice or consent. The death of her father forces her to unwillingly marry into the wealthy Chen family, showcasing the usual trope of a Patriarchal order, where a woman’s security and honour is safeguarded by the male. The scene then shifts to the Chen family, where Songolian enters the household, dressed as a simple young girl, but the shift into a new social order has important ramifications, that would seal her fate forever. Once into the palatial household, the doors and walls enclose on her the burden of maintaining a legacy, of being the forbearer of a social order as a mistress amongst many others to (re)produce power through a male progeny. She is introduced to us as the fourth mistress, but her status in a marital order is based on inequality and subjugation under the male dominion. What strikes us however, at the outset, is the grand ceremony with which the lanterns decorate the household. We soon realize the symbolic significance that the lanterns have within the household. It becomes a marker signalling not only prosperity, good omen and auspiciousness, but also a sign of authority via sexual prowess. The master of the Manor, Chen decides on his whim the mistress with whom he would spend the night, which in turn would be a signal for the chambers of the particular mistress to be decorated with lighted lanterns, and to get royal treatment. The lighted lanterns thus symbolise authority exercised by those who are virtually concubines pitted against each other in the competition for sexual legitimacy.

Sexual intrigue, sexual potency, jealousy, illicit relationships, decorum are some of the themes developed in this visual narrative, with the undercurrent of a hierarchy developed in almost all the relationships. Interestingly, the mistresses are vying against one another to assume superiority within the household, although they are virtually concubines, disposed at the service of the master. Moreover, their position as concubines, gives them the power to exercise authority over those who are lower in the social rung, like Songolian’s attitude against the maid Yan’er (who too dreams of becoming a mistress, against the social rule). It becomes a battle where class and gender intersect in complex and shifting patterns. Against the backdrop of familial rules and rituals, there is a brooding sense of secrecy, of an uncanny feeling that literally transforms the mansion into a monstrous presence, a prison, from which there is no escape.

We also are presented with a plethora of audio-visual tropes, of magnificent silk kimonos, decorated curtains, of porcelain crockery, of flutes, gramophones, and the shrill voice of the third mistressMeishan singing, that lurks even after her death, (as an indicator of the absent presences in the household) and finally the lighted lanterns, that complement the setting of an Oriental home to showcase how each of these things attain a meaning beyond their materiality. Moreover, we witness Meishan’s room as a reminiscence of a certain past which she clings on to, steadfastly. As an opera singer, her room is decorated with artefacts from an Opera, that almost transform her chamber into a museum, and Songolian’s flute that belonged to her deceased father,chime well with this settingto indicate the futile attempts to hold on to a certain past within a changing social order.

In this new household, Songolian finds herself estranged and unwillingly part of a relationship marked by deception and jealousy among the other mistresses. Facade is a very witty ploy used in the film, which marks not only the homosocial bonding between the female characters but also the element that cements the walls of the palace. Unable to coax her husband to sleep with her, and hence deprived of royal authority, she herself feigns pregnancy. It is by these deceptions, of Songolian, of Meishan(in her illicit relationship with the family doctor,Gao) and the deserted attic, around which the narrative revolves thatthe stark truths are revealed: Songolian’s fraud is discovered, Meishan’s affair exposed and the attic becomes the space where death looms large.

At the end, all of Songolian’s attempts become vain, and the moment of recognition or anagnorisis, is ironically premised on her loss of rationality, of her sanity. As she discovers the horrid truth with her own eyes, about master Chen being a murderer, sentencing Meishan to death, for breaking the proprieties of ‘social order’, of her inability to bring a male heir, of a life devoid of love, she recognises herself in the liminal space between life and death, sans sanity.The film ends with the entry of the new and fifth mistress who now would replace Songolian’s authority(if she ever possessed one) and thus power becomes contingent and constantly shifting in the changing matrix of experience. At the end, we as audiencestoo are left baffled, wondering about the indices of sexual politics and power within the familial space of home and tradition and the elusiveness of freedom, of choice within the demarcated dungeon of Patriarchy.

-Ayesha Begum

The Periodic Table


In retrospect, I remember being one of that tribe of eighth graders who, bewildered by the initial rush of quaint scientific names and signs, secretly questioned, either in their minds or more vocally when amongst the most tightly insulated coterie of fellow classmates, the practical utility of committing to memory the first twenty or more elements of the Periodic Table. Eventually, if not out of bona fide curiosity, then at least due to the dire necessity of satisfactorily vaulting the hurdle of examinations, we did develop, in varying degrees, an intellectual familiarity with that solemn Table of elements. However, no sooner did that compulsion expire than poor old Mendeleev’s Periodic Table- ironically bearing an uncanny resemblance to the innocent buildings children make with colourful blocks of Lego- was quickly packed and parcelled to the farthest reaches of memory, collecting the dust of oblivion. But what is it like for a chemist who has had a life-long commitment with the elements? What memories of youthful happiness and hope, idealism and resistance, love and loss are invoked by the Table? Can the chart then be something more than just a multi-coloured cabinet of methodically arranged fundamental chemical entities: perhaps a coded testimony to a life lived?

Primo Levi’s (1919-1987) The Periodic Table, translated from the Italian original by Raymond Rosenthal, and first published in the USA and the UK in 1984 and 1985 respectively, is intriguingly unique in its amalgamation of autobiographical recounting of significant life events with precise scientific descriptions of various chemical elements and their properties.However, the Jewish Italian author’s own perception of the work, as explicitly put forward in the final chapter entitled, “Carbon”, leads him to regard his work as neither strictly an “autobiography” nor a “chemical treatise”. Rather, he defines it as a “micro-history, the history of a trade…, such as everyone wants to tell when he feels close to concluding the arc of his career, and art ceases to be long.” Similarly, in another chapter titled, “Silver”, Levi candidly confesses to his friend Cerrato, that he finds it unfair “that the world should know everything about how the doctor, prostitute, sailor, assassin…and Polynesian lives and nothing about how we [i.e. the chemists] transformers of matter live”. Consequently, he desired to write a book containing stories not of “the triumphant chemistry of colossal plants and dizzying output”, but those of “the solitary chemistry”, which more often than not required of the chemists to fight against the hostility of matter or “hyle”- “an obtuse and slow-moving enemy”- with nothing more than “their brains, hands, reason and imagination.”

Nonetheless, a reader would be quite far off the mark in assuming the book to be a dull, relentless chronicle of a chemist’s frequent failures, sporadically alleviated by either momentary or lasting breakthroughs. In each of the twenty-one chapters, named after different chemical components derived from the Periodic Table, the titular element plays a vital role in catalyzing human interactions which, in turn, are events having the potential to leave unfading impressions on one’s life and memories. As such, these components not only exist in the stories in their elemental forms but also acquire a larger metaphorical and thematic dimension. For instance, in the story, “Zinc”, the unreactivity of pure zinc is symbolically associated with the aloofness of Rita, a fellow student at the Chemical Institute, towards whom Levi felt the youthful stirrings of a nervously amorous attraction. Since zinc can be activated only through addition of an impurity, Rita being a Christian and Levi a Jew, i.e. one of that race of people who during the years leading to World War II were described by the Nazis and the Fascists as being impure, Levi proudly considers himself to be that essentially indispensible impurity,which breaks Rita’s emotional isolation and forms a bond of love.

Similarly, in “Iron” the eponymous metal epitomizes the heroic strength of character of the author’s friend, Sandro Delmastro, who died “fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command.” Furthermore, while in “Gold” the noble metal symbolizes for Levi as a prisoner the infinite possibilities of a life of freedom, in “Tin” the metal highlights the realistic compromises rooted in an often inevitable reconsideration of one’s idealistic vision of a free and adventurous profession. Interestingly, Levi’s training in chemistry also enabled him to survive the ravages of Holocaust in unforeseen ways. For instance, when he worked as a skilled slave labourer in the laboratory of a rubber factory at Buna, he was able to smuggle cerium- required to make flints for cigarette lighters- to barter it for food for himself and his friend, Alberto in the concentration camp.

In addition to these, The Periodic Table stands as a testament to Levi’s passion for storytelling. This is amply exemplified by such fictional tales like “Lead” and “Mercury”, which stand out in the manner of islands in a largely autobiographical narrative. Furthermore, the author seems to have believed in the therapeutic value of the exercise of writing and/or telling stories. He reminisces that after his liberation from Auschwitz at the end of World War II, he had feverishly recorded his experience in a book, namely, If This Is a Man, published in the USA under the title ofSurvival in Auschwitz. Indeed, Levi appears to imply that inventing stories, based on lived experiences, is one of the most effective psychological processes, by which one strives to come to terms with a traumatic past, or gain absolution. Such is the case with Bonino, a Jewish client from Levi’s days as a “Customers’ Service” officer, and Doktor Lothar Müller, the civilian supervisor of the production plant at Buna. While the former frequently narrated a continually updated- and probably fictitious- story that featured him doing a courageous act when captured by the Fascists, the latter seems to have modified his memories related to the concentration camp in an attempt to soothe his guilty conscience.

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a haunting work of nostalgia. Each account has the mellow quality of being viewed through wizened eyes that have seen the highs and lows of life. Indeed, this undying, almost cheerful, spirit of an old man telling his stories is movingly captured in the Yiddish epigraph that opens the volume: “Troubles overcome are good to tell”. Levi’s unpretentious erudition,humour, honesty, lucidity of thought and sincere attachment to the humble things of life- are all of a delicate flavour. So much so that it linger long after the book has been returned to its place on the shelf.

– Aritra Mukherjee

Raees : Much Ado about Stardom

Directed by Rahul Dholakia, 2017.

img_20161207_185553I was looking forward to Rahul Dholakia’s Raees’ release like any other popular film lover would do. A film set in Gujarat, generic in nature and a Muslim bootlegger as protagonist is something that surely catches one’s interest. In the time of ultra-nationalism and Hindu rightwing upsurge, of which the director has been perennially aware about in almost all his earlier films, Raees promised a lot. All the central characters – the hero, the heroine and the villain – are played by Muslim actors (the lead actress is from Pakistan). But, when we are done watching the film, one tends to ask whether, as promised, the film provides the same critical feeling against mainstream politics or its uses, as any other run-of-the-mill Bollywood super hit, or does the film exploit liberal politics to lure a certain audience who otherwise would have remained indifferent to the film. I think in this context, Raees fails miserably. While saying so, I also acknowledge the fact that never for a moment did I feel that the film is being dishonest to its `cause’, but it suffered from poor execution; something that you don’t expect from a competent film-making platform backed by the market.

To my belief, the film had two obvious formal options to follow; firstly, that of following standard generic conventions of gangster movies and fitting things into place and secondly, showcasing the stars in a way that if the generic thirst doesn’t get quenched then the audience would at least have some take-home value in terms of performances. Taking a cue from Bollywood’s earlier manifestations of socially outcasts, gangsters and marginal male characters, the film consciously reminds us of Amitabh Bachchan starrers from 1970s. The film also uncannily resembles Mukul Anand’s 1990 film Agneepath where Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and the title character of Raees shares almost similar life events: a rebel kid who gets hired by illegal organizations turning into an uncontrollable gangster-messiah who is constantly chased by the state and its machinery, finally meeting his inevitable death.

Raees quite intelligently places itself in the league of earlier popular classics and also tries to revamp the angry young man persona with more relatable contemporary swag and style. The film works flawlessly on Shahrukh Khan aka SRK’s star persona. In its promotions,from its first look to the trailer, the film has been showcasing miyan bhai ka daring (the ‘muslim’ man dares) image of the male star by fetishizing his body and stylizing his gestures. But the problem is that, such fetishizing tendencies end up overinvesting in the fetish object more than the historical reality, which is the context. My problem with the film precisely lies there. The overexposed star body – created out of stereotypical ideas of clothing, makeup and mannerism – kind of reduces the politics of the films to the religious identity of the star.The Pakistani actress, Mahira Khan, with no exceptional acting skills remains just a female consort and the archenemy police officer, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, becomes the statist moral center.

As far as the plot is concerned, the film offered us something fascinating. The Robin Hood bootlegger takes one ethically wrong step and falls, typical of a gangster film. But a film is not only its plot. The script has four writers and it seems as if they were responsible only for their sections, the parts don’t gel into a whole. The humour and the drama of the first half just vanishes the moment Raees grows up. As if the sheer presence of SRK made the writers so sure that they deemed further character development unnecessary. They perhaps forgot that apart from narrative progression, writing a script also calls for a character arc. The grown up Raees as the miyan bhai needed something more than ‘dare’ and stylistic display.

The writer responsible for the romance scenes has also failed miserably. The moment you lose interest in the romance scene of a SRK film, either the film is trying something new without being sure or they have just lost it or both.

The only scene I think I will remember is when Raees stops the rightwing political leader’s rath (chariot), a moment when the clash of religious identities and stardom of SRK seemed to gel so well.

However, one could still appreciate the effort, which shows – for example – in the much-publicized song sequence where Raees enters the opponent’s den to commit a reluctant massacre. The moment of transformation – Raees apparently has not committed murders before – will inevitably lead to self-destruction. But the poor editing, shot-taking and other technicalities failed to deliver the pathos. The sequence borrows the song, only song of the film that one might remember, from Feroz Khan’s 1980 film Qurbani and tries hard to objectify Sunny Leone, the sex starved Indian public’s current porn fetish, and fails.

Raees is a long film; too long to make you feel ‘I know he’ll die at the end so let’s get over with it’. The times we find Raees in a soup, he comes out of the mess triumphantly but the moment he dies is almost predictable and unlyrical. A fallen hero always demands an epic goodbye and the moral and ethical archenemy needs better reasons to kill him than merely unidimensional obsession.

To me, Raees is a faulty exercise of scriptwriting though it started with positive political intentions. Whatever my criticisms are, could have been not there had the film been better crafted. The actors did their job, the director did his and so did the screenplay writers but none of their output worked together on the screen. And we ended up with a much-promised mainstream political film reduced into a star spectacle and nothing else.

-Shenjuti Dutta

Boimela, Books and the Fetishistic Share


The virtual world regularly startles us with new trends and phenomena. The great Kolkata Book Fair, an integral component of the fair-ly crazed Bengali cultural landscape has spawned yet another of such trends. This time it’s not just the inane boimela selfie, itself a part of the compulsive need to exhibit every aspect of one’s life and that too almost as it happens, especially with the advent of ‘live’ streaming; but rather the ‘boimela buys’ that are thronging one’s homepages and walls. The boimela buys refers to those pictures through which the reader as consumer shares with facebook friends names of all the books he or she has bought from the book fair. The question is,  is this yet another avenue of declaring and sharing one’s love of books or an invitation to intellectual discussions based on recently acquired books or yet another manifestation of the pervasive consumerist culture of commodification? The question takes us into an inscrutable zone of intent, on the part of the person sharing the pictures and how he/she represents the act of sharing itself. But if I indeed buy the book for my own intellectual curiosity and spiritual succour, what need is there to share the pictures of the bought books in the first place? But perhaps I am too much of an antisocial introvert to understand the gregarious outpouring of bibliophilia that seems to engulf the educated Bengalis of all ages during this time of the year. But then again this is a rumination based on personal unease and hardly a definitive assessment of evolving fads. But from where I stand, it might be argued that the three dimensional tactile presence of the book and the world of experience it contains, becomes flattened into yet another ornamental commodity, in a typically postmodern manouevre, which has been overwhelmed by its sign-exchange value to such an extent that the original utility or use value becomes irrelevant and almost spectral. Since reading a book means participating directly into an emotional and spiritual experience, the flattening of the book into a euphoric image of one’s latest acquisition, might well suggest an intensified alienation on the part of the reader as consumer, for whom the mere act of reading is no longer sufficient but must be supplemented by proliferated images of acquired books and the consequent flooding of likes and congratulatory comments. Perhaps, yet another proof of such alienation becomes visible when one reader, that too an academic, rather enthusiastically exclaims: “19ta holo” (bought 19!). Through such quantitative exclamation, the book, once defined by Milton as “”the precious life blood of a master spirit””, an almost quasi-human extension of the sentient but mortal human self, becomes reduced to a mere number, in this case a digit between 1 to 19, almost reminding one of the numerically identified labourers in Rabindranath’’s Jakkhapuri in Raktakarabi (The Red Oleander). The book in this case becomes yet another commodity, like shoes, golden earrings, pairs of jeans or cartons of milk and declares the inevitable disappearance of that aura of wisdom, enjoyment, delight or consolation that it perhaps once had. This is not to suggest that books are no longer capable of ensuring such responses, but rather that in the interpellated psyche of the reader it has undergone a transformation of its identity. And of course the infection is contagious. One declaration of 19 is immediately followed in comments by a day-wise breakup of another person’’s acquisition of books, perhaps numbering 21 or 33, with a dutiful nod to little magazines which operate as signifiers of cool nonconformity without necessarily being radical. In the process the Facebook wall becomes a veritable auction house of commodified books with each bidding to prove him/herself a greater bibliophile than the other. This becomes possible because the book, more than being a product of human creativity or thirst for knowledge or myriad moving experiences of one hue or another, becomes yet another appendage to the digitally manufactured self which remains ever insecure, ever unstable and strives to arrive at an ever-receding terminal of fullness which remains ever-receding because the quantitative calculation of acquisitions only serves to chimerically mask an insistent void at the heart of the self through an illusion of cultural refinement and intellectual erudition. Volpone counts his gold and jewels, the modern gulls count their books but the underlying malady perhaps remains similar. The fetishistic drive inherent in the dynamics of capital thus devours even those books as commodities which once perhaps became celebrated precisely because they were trying to guide the readers towards realms of experiences free from the clutches of capital and its cronies. In the process we are offered another glimpse of the complex intersections of literature and capital in which most of us are consciously or unconsciously enmeshed. This is neither new nor surprising. In a world where authors of fiction may be provided with millions of dollars as advances, where cinematic versions of books and associated merchandise captivate people around the world, making an author one of the richest women in her whole country, already replete with enough filthy rich, how does the precious book retain its autonomy and resist the machinations of dominant consumerist ideology which privileges spectacle, numbers (note here the sublime gratification received from a substantially high number of ‘likes’) and individual acquisitions? One of the reasons why the call to read and buy books, regularly aired in the Kolkata Book Fair, seemed so enchanting and gratifying in the past was the misplaced hope that through greater immersion within literary worlds, it would perhaps be possible to develop a sensibility that refutes the consumerist commodification generally proliferated through video-games (computers weren’’t common in our childhood), televised soap-operas and run-off-the-mill cinematic potboilers with their alluring combination of opulence, individuality and fantasies of instinctual gratification. Such a conception seems utterly naïve and misplaced from the vantage point of today’’s ruminations and again indicates how no supposed sanctuary is actually safe, no refuge actually immune from the insidious logic of the market, unless there are systemic upheavals. Of course, I am merely a jaded academic with hardly any solution in sight. So I end my rambling and turn as always to Eliot, who asserts his relevance even now:

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;

The world revolves like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

– Abin Chakraborty