I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses,” wrote the great stalwart of Indian theatre and film, Utpal Dutt, in an essay in 1979. “It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves.”
Classic: In Gol Maal, a comedy directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Dutt (right) played a memorable role. Hindustan Times Archive
What can we say about this clearly Marxist aesthetic? Is it true? Was it more relevant 30 years ago than it is now? Shouldn’t art be seen as a realm, a force, independent of social and economic realities? Are artworks themselves a product of class and power interests, or can they be seen as something more detached and capacious, above petty propaganda? The great merit of the two argumentative new collections of Dutt’s essays, On Theatre and On Cinema, is that he writes not just from the viewpoint of someone with definite politics but also as a practitioner in these arts, trawling the artistic seas of his time in search of productions that catch his eye.
What is the place of local Indian theatre traditions such as jatra, yakshagana and tamasha in modern Indian plays? Do Indian films make cunning use of religious rhetoric to camouflage the iniquities of Indian social life and keep the masses quiet? Are Indian actors on stage and screen guilty of overacting? These are some of the still relevant questions explored in these essays, at once critical and empathetic, written by Dutt in the 1960s and 1970s.
On Theatre: Seagull Books, 202 pages, Rs425.
I suspect that outside of West Bengal, most Indians remember Dutt today as the goggle-eyed, hectoring patriarch of Hindi comedies such as Gol Maal (1979), in which he memorably asserted a continuum between Indian tradition, manhood and virility, and moustaches. But Dutt’s work for commercial Hindi and Bengali cinema was only a small part of his oeuvre, and to him probably the least important. As a teenager in the 1940s, he came across the travelling theatre of the Kendals and received rigorous training in Shakespearean drama. In his thirties, he wrote a string of plays critical of past and present power structures (he was jailed by the Congress government in West Bengal in 1965 for the subversive message of his play Kallol). Dutt’s range was vast. He acted in and directed jatra plays, and reviewed new plays and films for journals; one month he might be seen in a Satyajit Ray film, the next in a speedily made farce.
Like many intellectuals of his time, Dutt looked—perhaps with glasses that were too rose-coloured—to Russia and not to the West as the crucible where the future of humanity was being shaped. Following Marx and Lenin, he deplored “the all-pervasive alienation of men in any society based on private property”, and harangues bourgeois society for commodifying “all that mankind once considered sacred” and for peddling crude superstitions instead of standing up for independence of thought.
He often has a point. In a speech given in 1991, he excoriates the TV Ramayan that brought life to a standstill on Sunday mornings in the 1980s for its crude glitz and covert ideological agenda—“monkeys and bears speaking Sanskritized Hindi, holy men flying over painted clouds”—and connects this to the jingoism and chauvinism that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The serial, he thunders, was nothing but “a fairy tale written by an alcoholic”. If this makes Dutt seem like too much of a scold, then elsewhere on these pages we find him reviewing one of his own performances under a pseudonym and cheekily declaring: “Mr Dutt as Othello was rather a pitiable sight, with his voice gone, his breathing laboured and his bulk enormous.”
On Cinema: Seagull Books, 162 pages, Rs350.
There are excellent appreciations here of the films of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Charlie Chaplin, written in rich language, with great attention to individual scenes and points of detail. Like most practising artists, Dutt never lost his capacity for wonder, for pure pleasure in an artistic idea truthfully realized or a detail vividly brought to life.
His politics can be too rigid and censorious, but his aesthetic sense never allowed itself to be shackled, and nowhere on these pages can he be found supporting the banalities of socialist realism. He knew very well, as someone who became a character each time he went on stage or faced a camera, that “all artistic activity consists in camouflage”. Anybody interested in the arts can read these books for both profit and pleasure.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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