Beyond CinemaScope and Technicolor: the World of Anamitra Roy
Anamitra Roy’s recent ‘film’ Memories of a Dead Township (2012) expresses clearly the concept of existential angst but it also avoids falling into the trap of the student film maker's addiction to ambiguity and bleakness as merely self-indulgent ends in themselves. We sense that there is a difference between philosophical games and hard thinking. But in his latest intriguing film he is also presenting a sense of home that is always slipping away, and needing to be deconstructed and reconstructed. It is home as absence of home. But it is not just another exercise is postcolonial deconstruction theory.
For Anamitra Roy there are two aspects to the issue of community. One is practical and economic; it is a case of voice and aesthetic survival:
“I need my voice to be heard. It’s better to sing a chorus than shouting alone in the street. We didn’t even have money to submit to any international film festival till this year. So, if I have 10 friends to watch my film my filmmaker friend knows another ten. Ten of us together can reach out to 100 people. That was the basic concept behind Little Fish Eat Big Fish.” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012)
But in my interview with him, Anamitra Roy also suggested that
“community is the place every human being belongs to. The origin of my family is actually Bikrampur Pargana, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before the riot (I really don’t know why) our family moved to Agartala, Tripura, India and became the royal priests. I, at this point of time, live in a district called Hooghly in West Bengal, India and I don’t like the fact that I don’t have any connection with the origin. Everything was alright; I got this gut feeling since I realized that my life has changed a lot after we moved out of Dunlop Estate (The place in my last film).” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012)
In his film work Anamitra Roy presents his themes with a degree of playful interrogation and poetic charm. These aesthetic aspects keep the viewer (and listener) engaged in the subject matter of home on a more immediate and deeply personal level. He explores the precarious notion of a return to the 'home'; and the impossible necessity of the return. The narrator’s experiences in turn become a metaphor for film making as an attempt to frame a shot, and find a perspective, as a mean to locate and to remember. This process also suggests the idea of building an identity that involves a gain and a loss of self; and perhaps that is also what happens in film editing; a kind of psychoanalytic censorship: reconstruction, displacement, and synthesis. It is dream-work but also a way of ciping with the trouble of reality, and the return of the repressed, as Freudians would say.
Anamitra Roys’ recent work led me to reflect on the work of others who have written about time, memory, and home. In his book Imaginary Homelands (1991) Salman Rushdie has written about the genesis of his novel Midnight’s Children in familiar terms of longing and alienation:
“I realized how much I wanted to restore the past to myself, not in the faded greys of old family-album snapshots, but whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor. Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim.”
While Rushdie is an alienated globe-trotting superstar, Anamitra Roy is more of an inner exile (passionate about Bengali issues) who came to the audio-visual media in a last ditch bid to secure a minor part for the oppressed to share in a dialogue about the ownership of space and the right to participate as an authentic member of the local community. In our interview recorded on below he explains that used to be a poet and writer working with Bengali ‘Little Magazines’ (he still does). But parents are sending their children to English Medium schools with the result (as he sees it) that “their next generation doesn’t have to face the problems they had regarding language.” As a consequence, “the mother-tongue is becoming an unimportant second language for Bengalis.”
Anamitra Roy does not have the benefit of an international readership and lucrative publishing contract. His canvas is smaller than Rushdie’s, but no less significant. In the case of Rushdie there is a revealing irony in the way that he positions himself on the big Hollywood screen, while Anamitra Roy is in the business of subverting large-scale corporate film production.
Where perhaps Rushdie and Hartley would agree is that, in the words of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” Viewers have commented on narration and soundtrack in Memories of a Dead Township as major strength of film. Certainly they add a lyric dimension and provide an emotional continuity as well. In Memories of a Dead Township the creative narration deployed a variety of styles and cinematographic techniques in order to provide ways of exploring a landscape and homeland that is being erased. It's not an overtly political film; it is not propaganda, or a programme of reform. But it does make a statement about the nature of self-identity and the creative-destructive force of 'civilization' I have just been reading the book Dialectic of Enlightenment by Adorno and Horkheimer and was pondering how it took the devastation of two world wars for Europeans to reflect on limit-case-rationalism’s complicity with colonialism and capitalism over the last three centuries. Today everything is being thrown in question. The British and the French are arguing over the award of lucrative Indian defence contracts for much-needed fighter plains. In the Western media today India is likely to be represented as the emergent superpower and motor of economic growth alongside China, Russia and Brazil. ‘Creative-Destruction’ is just another phase of capitalism without boundaries or limits. As Marx noted in his Communist Manifesto (1848)
Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. [...] It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the whole of bourgeois society on trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of existing production, but also of previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed.
Creative destruction has also been taken up as an idea by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter who adapted and popularized it as a theory of economic innovation. In celebratory terms, take the publisher’s advertisement to Tyler Cowen’s Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures:
A Frenchman rents a Hollywood movie. A Thai schoolgirl mimics Madonna. Saddam Hussein chooses Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as the theme song for his fifty-fourth birthday. It is a commonplace that globalization is subverting local culture. But is it helping as much as it hurts? In this strikingly original treatment of a fiercely debated issue, Tyler Cowen makes a bold new case for a more sympathetic understanding of cross-cultural trade. Creative Destruction brings not stale suppositions but an economist's eye to bear on an age-old question: Are market exchange and aesthetic quality friends or foes? On the whole, argues Cowen in clear and vigorous prose, they are friends. Cultural "destruction" breeds not artistic demise but diversity. (Princeton University Press, 2004)
These days it is not so fashionable to write about inequality, damage and distress, unless you are a minority political activist and outsider. We hear less now about the world that V. S. Naipaul described in his book India: A Wounded Civilization (1976). Naipaul’s world, like Rushdie’s, was also modern and transnational, a relocated and dislocated homeland. But Naipaul also saw how money and power worked, and used all his poetic skills and creative engagement to describe it. Symptomatically, his book opened from the perspective of Bombay airport as he watches the new nomads of capitalism: the passengers from an earlier flight, by Gulf Air; he notes the ‘Indian businessmen in suits’ and ‘a few Arabs in the desert costumes which now, when seen in airports and cities, are like white gowns of a new and suddenly universal priesthood of pure money.’ (Foreword, p. vii) But he also felt and transmitted the sense of being the outsider trying to remember the displaced ancestors who had inhabited the plains of the Ganges:
“In India I know I am a stranger; but increasingly I understand that my Indian memories, the memories of India which lived on into my childhood in Trinidad, are like trapdoors into a bottomless past.” (Foreword, p. xi)
In Anamitra Roy’s film there is also a ghostly/spectral quality; the sense of a life that is haunted by the past; by sounds and images; that reminded me - again quite deconstructively - of the work of Jacques Derrida in his Specters of Marx (1994) phase. So it was fascinating to have the opportunity to interview Anamitra Roy and to find out more about his life and work.
He started film editing in 2006. In 2008 his girlfriend, Sriparna, bought a second hand miniDV and in the same year he met poet Arupratan Ghosh. They made their first film with Arkapratim Mukherjee. Roy says that the film was mostly a failure except the fact that this film caused the birth of Little Fish Eat Big Fish, his No Budget film forum. One of the first influential films for him in 2004 was Francois Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups - 1959) which deals with a young boy who ‘survives’ his violent school and brutal childhood. I had the opportunity to ask Roy if he had favourite film makers?
“There are no favourite film makers for me. There are favourite films only. I one I feel most close to is from my country and my language – Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. He is special for me. Except him, I like a lot of filmmakers from all around the world and from all the genres almost. The range is like from Bela Tarr to Emir Kusturica. Or from Andrei Tarkovsky to Mikhail Kalatozov. From Renoir to Godard to Breillat sometimes. Kenji Mizoguchi to Takashi Miike; it’s hard to specify really. Even Jon Jost. I love films.” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012).
Anamitra Roy is highly critical of the traditional and well-established media system of power and influence. He states, for instance, that ‘Television and the industrial products have blinded our youth successfully.’ His critique of Hollywood is concise and devastating; but it also hints at a clarity of rejection of that system: “They understand what business is i.e. how to invest wisely to fool others and make a lot of profit out of that.” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012)
But there is another species of bondage that comes from the critical orthodoxy of the established art community. Accordingly, one of the collective’s films was called “Jean-Luc Godard Had No Script”.
It was a part of their Five No Budget Films (2010) compilation and was made available on Youtube. It was one of the most popular films produced by their forum. Rather than being just another slavish tribute to Godard, they wanted to critique of Kolkata’s worship and illusion of Godard. The tone was one of mockery. Roy’s face was painted full white like Europeans, but his hands did reveal the colour of his native skin. He distorted his accent but spoke in Bengali. “All I wanted” Roy says “was to break the illusion that has given birth to an all-talk-and-no-work culture as well as to provide a theoretical basis for the ‘Indian No-Budget Filmmaking’ which was started by us.” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012)
Sometimes Roy chooses to work with a script and stick closely to it. At other times he has experimented pragmatically with a more improvisational approach. As he says with regard to Memories… of a Dead Township (2012) “I told my father and sister to improvise on the basic melody (the theme) as I thought the music must resemble the memory in pattern, that is to say, which can not be reconstructed and whatever you play is the perfect and the imperfect at the same time.” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012)
Clearly, Anamitra’s work crosses many boundaries. I wanted to conclude the commentary by offering the perspective on Memories of a Dead Township of another British film-maker, artist, and community development worked:
“I watched the film and it's a subject matter that is close to my heart so... It made me want to grab my camera and make a film of a place of my own in response, it made me want to open up a dialogue about place and memory with someone from this totally different part of the world, I felt this amazing connection with this guy and felt I understood all the things that were actually left unsaid! It made me think very deeply about the role of place and the consequences of change and the politics of change, quite weird really! I loved the concept of searching, capturing a fragment and the more questions than answers style! I loved the play with construction (of the film), destruction (of place and memory), reconstruction (of memory) by deconstruction (of place), the role of place in memory and that great ending the reconstruction of place by drawing it! Then the subplot that was about these glimpses into how someone else lives, this connection with the other who was connected with this place and the way it meandered and the poetic narration and reference to the changing seasons were all great so I liked the storytelling very much...” (Interviewed on 4th March 2012).
But the final word must go to the film-maker and his colleagues. Does Anamitra Roy have a dream project for the future?
“Anything or everything I work on becomes my dream project for that point of time as I know that life can throw me in a gutter just any day and I might not be able to make films anymore. I’m on the edge and I don’t feel that my society has accepted me whole-heartedly. So, now, my dream project is to make this crowd-funded feature. I know I will be able. After completion only, I’ll think about the future and the next dream.”
You can follow the updates of ‘The 0ne Rupee Film Project’ on this blog http://onerupeefilm.blogspot.in/
Facebook Page for Little Fish Eat Big Fish
Blog of One Rupee Film
Facebook Page for One Rupee Film
Little Fish Eat Big Fish on YouTube
Anamitra’s article on film courage
Little Fish Eat Big Fish DVDs on Zinemaya