In one of the early scenes in the film, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata hain?, we see Albert Pinto entering his house, and demanding a cup of tea. A harmless demand otherwise, becomes the first moment in the film where Albert voices his distrust of union politics, a distrust that sets his tea above and against his father’s association with the mill workers’ strike. Also present in the same scene, his father tries to justify the strike to his wife by pointing at inflation and low-wages. However ‘Strike-vrike’, as Albert brands it, makes it an event of complete banality which should not be seen as either radical or favorable. A garage-mechanic by profession, he cites his own non-participation in the strike at the workplace as a source of his upward mobility, which for him stands for knowing his upper-class clients by their first-names. As illusory as it sounds, the naivety with which Albert embraces it, is what drives his anger for the better half of the film. This obstinate anger is aimed at severing his class-affinities, his slice of reality.
But before one tries to house Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1980 film, in the political context of Mill strikes, one needs to grapple with the complex history of the protest itself. H van Wersch’s work on the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982, is possibly one of the most comprehensive book on the subject. The lack of scholarly or artistic interest in the area contrasts sharply with other strikes like the miner’s strike in England (1984-5) which has already produced a vast body of literature. Thus, Mirza’s film, exploring what Marx would have called the ‘historical present’, adds to an otherwise unattended historiography of worker’s movement in India. And it is in order to contain this history that the film employs radically new techniques, like the montage and the vaudeville, something that I will discuss eventually. Anand Patwardhan’s twenty-two minute documentary Occupation and a recent feature film, City of Gold, are the other two representative ventures towards the Textile strikes.
Textile Industry and its problems are almost as old as Bombay, or rather the city’s industrialized form. Under the aegis of the British East India Company, attempts were made to set up textile industry in Bombay but the initiative failed as it was impossible to induce a sufficient number of weavers to settle in Bombay which had not much to offer beyond swamps and stretches of marshy land. It was only after Surat lost the war to the Marathas in 1759, that Bombay became economically important. When the industries finally started to appear, in early nineteenth-century, Parsee Nanabhoy Davar set up the city’s first textile mill calling it Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company (1856).1
A far cry from this is the early Nineteen-eighties, where around two-fifty thousand workers went on strike demanding bonuses and better working conditions. Regarded as one of the largest industrial strikes in world history, this effort obviously had behind itself years of planned unionization and politics. ‘Meeting zyada, Kaam kam’, is the taunt used by an anxious manager in the film. The textile strike that rocked the trade union world in the eighties was for the workers an outcome of their pent up frustrations. Mirza too has to briefly work with the interview mode, in order to lay out the conditions that occasion the strike, and thus the film. These inter-generic moments are not rare in his cinema, Saleem Langde Par Mat Ro, a 1989 film, is a case in point.
Nevertheless the film remains incomplete in its understanding of union politics. It shies away from the fissures that grip the union system itself. The performance of RMMS (Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh) has been mentioned time and again as one of the root causes of the strike. The RMMS became the sole representative of the textile workers under the Bombay Industrial Relations Act (BIR) dating back to 1946, a position it enjoyed due to the weakening of the communist union during the war. Congress’ role in the national independence struggle helped it to gain a certain monopoly as far as worker’s support was concerned. However, RMMS’s excessively formal structure gave way to a more aggressive, and unfortunately more individualist, unions like MGKU (Maharashtra General Kamgar Union), headed by Datta Samant.
When textile workers struck work for a day in September 1981 there was no indication that this event, bearing the characteristic of a ritual, would in due time turn into the biggest strike the Indian subcontinent has ever witnessed. It is officially acknowledged that the textile strike lasted 18.5 months, or involved more than the 2.5 lakh textile workers. Albert Pinto came almost a year before the big strike, and thus it is just the ritualistic element of the strike that Albert is aware of, and that is what supposedly makes it unworthy of his attention.
While workers around him, like his father, are registering their dissent, both by using RMMS and against it, Albert is content with the imported cars that he can borrow from the garage. Borrowed cars in his case also imply a borrowed voice. So not unlike the cars, Pinto uncritically borrows the vocabulary and cadence of the actual owners who, not surprisingly, belong to the class his father’s fighting against. The reason why the owners strike an easy relationship with Albert is that in him they find a suitable surrogate for their economic and moral ideals. The conversation that Mr. Briganza and Pinto share (at 58:00 to 60:00), tells us how Pinto is caught in an imitative act, where anger is the only a suitable medium for him, to float his anti-political stand and at the same time dominate Stella.
As Wersch highlights in his book, the agitation was for proper bonus settlement and as before the prevailing expectation was that the unrest would subside after some positive result was achieved. But what changed in 1982 was Datta Samant, who declared that the fight would not just be for higher bonus but also wage increase and permanency of badlis (casual laborer), demands almost unheard of till then. But since this had to wait another year after Mirza’s film, Albert’s skepticism can also be understood as a response to the RMMS’s ineffective run so far and the unhappy compromises that the strikes in the past led to.2But this does not override the blatant hedonism and agitation that his character lapses into.
In the chapter, The Working-Day (Capital Volume 1), Marx poignantly captures the paradox of human labour as a commodity and its resistance to the very idiom. The ambiguity that surrounds the limits of a regular working day is what creates the maximum surplus value in a liberal economy. Thus, when talking to the capitalist Marx’s labourer says: “The commodity that I have sold to you differs from the crowd of other commodity, in that its use creates value, and a value greater than its own. This is why you bought it…What you gain in labour I lose in substance. The use of my labour-power and the spoliation of it are quite different things.” Throughout the film Pinto’s father cites a similar concern. Poor working conditions and incommensurable wages become for him the chief reasons for joining the protest. These are also the very realities that Pinto chooses to misrecognize and consider inseparable from labour. He sublimates his own exploitation and his fathers, in order to create an illusory version of mobility which does not need to consider things like working-day and milieu.
Another vector of the Mill-workers strike, that the film constantly refers to and enacts, is crime. Crime becomes both a referent to and identity of, the protest. Following Mr. Briganza’s logic, Albert too believes that the striking workers are nothing but criminals. This practice of juridically constructing all acts of radicalism as crime is not new. Thus, there are multiple attempts in the film, by Albert, Mill-owners and popular media, to naturalize the referent ‘gunde’ (criminals) while talking about the workers on strike. It is only by criminalizing the protest that Mr. Briganza gets to earmark its anti-national and anti-progress potential, a rhetoric which one is more familiar with today than ever. Mirza uses this with strategic juxtapositions, where the rhetoric is never challenged directly, but is shunned by contrast.
This does not deny the fact that the strike did involve extremely violent practices from both the sides. This not only gave a way to a city that was turning hostile by each passing day, but also skepticism towards regular forms of work. Dominique, Albert’s brother, becomes such a ‘skeptic’. In one of those theatrical moments in the film, reminiscent of IPTA’s involvement in the cinema of the 40’s, a group criminals break into a musical, pointing out the false choices they thought they had and how a criminal world trumps them. These choices, interestingly, are arrived at with a full cognizance of available opportunities and working conditions. Gyan Prakash’s reading of Doga- a vigilante from Raj comics- follows a similar argument. According to him, Doga not only comes up as a response to street-crime but more importantly, those being regulated through the offices. The ‘song of no choice’, as one may call the vaudeville, uses this dual idea of crime when it says: “sadak se sikho, aur seth se sikho”, implicating both the Mill Owners and the Unionists alike.
This duality goes unrecognized even in official reports. Mill owners and Government had consistently attributed the unexpected success of the strike to the violent means supposedly adopted by Datta Samant and his MGKU. The MOA (Mill Owners Association) used to speak of ‘a fear psychosis’ created in the minds of the workers as result of beating, stabbing and murders by the Unionist. Wersch notices how the newspapers uncritically aped this phrase and gave an easy opportunity to the Millowners to seek police protection and give a negative view of the strike to the public at large. Breaking from the rubric, defined by Albert’s father as ‘Mill ek seth ka, Paper dusre seth ka’, Mirza’s film achieves certain political relevance in that it understands, reproduces and undercuts the mainstream by constantly issuing the necessary revisions for the viewer, and ultimately for Albert.
Jaques Ranciere in his book The Future of Image, talks of cinematic Montage as a political tool. A technique in film editing in which a series of short shots are edited into a sequence to condense space, time, and information, Montage has come to signify multiple things.3But Ranciere defines it as an incommensurable singularity, which becomes an operation of communalization.
The ‘Solitude of the Camera’, as Ranciere calls it, is fulfilled by Mirza in his long photographic shots of empty mills, protests, workers and their families. The montage in Albert Pinto engages in establishing a dialectical relationship between the protests, its participants and the logic of industrial development. While it harmonizes the workers in a collective of images, and an absence of speech/text, it creates its antipode in the speech/text of the garage owner. Even during the speech-act, the camera strategically frames the workers in a gaze of silence. The dialectic that is so central to the cinematic mode, between that of sentence and image, in Mirza’s hands becomes symbolic of protest. Like the Soviet Montage, Mirza couples heterogeneous elements, that of silence and collectivity with that of voice and laissez-faire. And by doing this, like Ranciere’s dialectical montage, he reveals “the secret of a world— that is, the other world whose writ runs behind its anodyne.” It is also through the montage and its power of contrast that the film creates a transitional space for Albert. The montage holds its sway as much over the audience, as over the other characters in the film, who seem to be implicitly responding to the collection of images that intersperse their own narrative.
This culminates into Albert himself conducting interviews with a varied bunch workers, who open up to him about the precarious working conditions. This not only impacts Albert’s worldview, but also challenges the fictional function of his character. His role as a surveyor and interviewer almost mirrors that of a documentary film-maker, and tries to pull his character out of the morass of fiction that he had created for himself, and which the narrative so far had comfortably attributed to him. Mirza seems to break the idioms of narrative cinema within its very frame by bringing in elements from vaudeville, documentaries and progressive theater.
In what seems like a conflict of screens, the film creates its own contrast in a video-interview with the Mill-owner. The interview that is screened inside a cinema hall as preface to a feature film, finds its opposition, surprisingly, in Albert. This final scene constantly switches between Albert and the Mill-owner, severing Albert’s relationship with his class-superiors emotionally and, through the device of the screen, also physically. His anger, in a juxtaposition of two separate speech-acts, seems to be cognizant of the class-struggle that surround him. The very fact that Stella, Shabana Azmi’s character, supports this anger, draw for us the political arch that the film bestows upon its eponymous character. As Albert Pinto’s anger is channeled from a personalized control-seeking banter to a more generalized voice of his class, the film seems to be changing its response to the titular question that it had created for itself. The narrative of film, its political and ethical epicenters, are locked behind this same question, ‘Albert Pinto ko Gussa kyun Aata hai?’4
1. The rise of Bombay as the most important Indian center of industry and trade cannot be separated from the emergence and development of textile industry in the city. Under the aegis of the British East India Company, attempts were made to set up textile industry in Bombay but the initiative failed as it was impossible to induce a sufficient number of weavers to settle in Bombay which had not much to offer beyond swamps and stretched of marshy land. But a natural harbor made it a trading center anyway. After Surat lost the war to the Marathas in 1759, Bombay had a steady rise a economic and administrative power. Thus, when British army defeated the peshwas and took control of the city, they effectively unified the Deccan with the Konkan region with areas of Gujarat, keeping Bombay as nucleus. It wasn’t long, that in 1856, Parsee Nanabhoy Davar set up a textile mill calling it Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company.
2. Going by the workers’ statements, 28 percent of their families (which might include other relatives apart from wife and children ) were against the strike right from the start. This may be broadly attributed to the issues at stake being more remote to them than to the workers (this certainly holds true for the families living in the villages).
3. Ranciere, “It is that of the heterogeneous, of the immediate clash between three solitude: the solitude of the shot, that of the photograph, and that of the words which speak of something else entirely in a quite different context. It is the clash of heterogeneous elements that provide a common measure” “This common measure can be read through the dialectical and the symbolical way.”
4. Three years after the textile strike, and partly in response to it, the Government announced a new textile policy on 6 June, 1985. The change particularly suited the Bombay mill owners because it came soon after the disastrous textile strike which made it possible for them to rid themselves of surplus labour without having to pay the customary costs of retrenchment.
Wersch, H. Van. Bombay Textile Strike 1982-83. Oxford University-Press,. 1992
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Progress Publishers, 1986.
Prakash, Gyan. Mumbai Fables: A History of an Enchanted City. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Ranciere, Jacques. The Future of the Image. Navayana Press, 2012.
Mantra Mukim is reading for the M.A. in English Literature at Delhi University.