आँखों देखी—The film begins with flying and ends in flying. A man takes a leap off a cliff and piercing wind brushes against his face and lo, he is a bird! Elevated and detached, this man is soaring, gliding, winging his way to a liberating flight. By releasing his body. By unlocking his senses. We are invited to take that leap along with him, where the achingly lyrical and the sharply intellectual jostle and beckon us. A leap into a world of childlike whimsicality. But also into hardboiled and sensory matter of factness. That leap takes place at many levels. Most notably we are invited to partake in a sensual, romantic and amoral crossover. And if I may venture, this dare recovers a crucial, lost and esoteric world view, through a beautiful parable moored right in our present, right amidst ourselves in the by-lanes of old and crusty Delhi.
Crucial because it brings to attention our own lyrical modernity at a time when this word, modern, has become turgid or is being constantly, sometimes viciously, being bombarded from various quarters—philosophically, socially, formally. Likewise, the term romantic seems to have lost its sheen and shine. The film goes to the root of the modern sensibility—revealing that rambling, travelling, whimsical, restless, obstinate spirit of freedom amidst what seems mundane and routine. This parable of the everyday also powerfully takes head on the tired metaphors of our banal certainties—surpassing ethics, varieties of political opportunism, and the bankruptcy and orthodoxy of those who dabble in social justice, ossified metaphysical and moral certitude, utilitarian celebrations of consumption. Naturally, every world-view has its own finitude and limitation and this one is no exception. But there are reasons to hold up this richly subtle film at a time when mediocrity and smartness are more or less the mainstays of ‘new’ cinema.
लड़का गौ है —The Boy is a Simpleton
This is Bauji’s fable, the story of his twin flock: one makes the home—his garrulous, loving, conservative wife, his two highly sensitive children—young adults really—and his younger brother’s family. The hearth is one— एक घर एक चूल्हा. Then there is Bauji’s workplace, a world peopled by small-time travel agents and customers. And also his neighbourly acquaintances—the masterji and the pandit, the kirana grocer and the mohalla loafer— a few of whom will eventually become part of his select sect of believers in the senses (eye is a metaphor) and in the maddening unbelief that such a position must spawn and uphold. This, at a more social level. But the narrative is about another subterranean story—the discovering of a sensory, sceptical and experiential germ within Bauji’s own self, and trying to live life and choose death by responding faithfully to such stimuli. The eye becomes the metaphor here.
The family discovers that their daughter is in love and the father (Bauji) discovers, with his own eyes, that the lover boy is a lovely chap, a simpleton— लड़का गौ है, he confides to his wife—the young suitor is more of a lamb actually and not a threat to their daughter at all. That’s it. This is an extraordinary revelation. A joyous realization. And a decision is taken. Bauji will henceforth trust none: laws-dicta-dogma-statute-hearsay-news-science-debate-polemics-lecture-hectoring-bullying-suasion-emotional atyachar. Nothing. Save his senses and the experience that passes through such sense perception. And he will spread whimsical happiness, needlessly. Thereafter the narrative is a ride through this singular commitment to verification; a paean to lived, sensuous experience. Leading to one’s यथार्थ through अनुभूति. Truth, यथार्थ, is therefore piecemeal, infinite and subjective. But such a steadfast belief in experiential verification leads neither to systematic suspicion nor to any highlighting of the ego. Far from it. It leads rather to a quirky, endearing but contrarian world; a world that celebrates throbbing, giving relationships. Bauji declares that one has to first unlearn habits in order to enter this new world— सब कुछ सच्चा होगा, सब कुछ अच्छा होगा—henceforth, everything will be true and everything will be good.
कलाकंद था—It was a Kalakand
This is what one may call claritas— साफ़ नजरिया, as a song in the film puts it; there is new buoyancy in his gait, a new conviction in his dealings. The local panditji offers him some prashad and the sceptical Bauji comes to the conclusion that it is nothing but sweetmeat – कलाकंद था, it was kalakand a minute ago—but after he gobbles up the sweet, now it is plain matter. Matter is vibrant. As Leon Kass has said elsewhere: “…we do not become the something that we eat; rather the edible gets assimilated to what we are…the edible object is thoroughly transformed by and reformed into the eater.” 1 A journey in radical material romanticism begins by celebrating life as food—the kalakand inaugurates a new sunshine (आज लागि लागि नयी धूप) whose magic is matchless (जादू है अनूप). Bauji stops worshipping altogether. And as one bystander says, by taking this step: ‘पंडितजी को टेंशन दे दिया’ |
This sense of unease in the priest arises from the latter’s realization that Bauji is actually hinting that all knowledge comes from our fallible senses. God, spiritual power and such things do not have much sway once you are in this zone. We can never penetrate the secrets of appearances—that is a realization. One must therefore revel in the senses, in our touched-and felt known environment. One must ingest and imbibe every bit of the sensual, fully. And through this immersion in the senses you drink life, deeply—to the lees. And it then follows that all judgement depends on sense perceptions—dynamic, active senses. Long ago Pierre Gassendi characterized such a sensual sceptic as a “…hunter who does not pursue wild animal sluggishly like an onlooker but hunts with keen senses and tracks it down zealously.”2. Bauji is a now a happy hunter. Such a realization is a direct challenge to the whole enterprise of phenomenology. And it turns sensual consumption on its head and encourages dissipation. (No wonder this film is the complete and total obverse of the festival circuit indie success— Ship of Theseus).
Bauji’s life is full of crossings, each one more daring and esoteric then the previous: he quits his job, takes on the priests and middlemen, infuses a sense of practical reasoning (प्रमाण, न कि अनुमान) and beauty among his acquaintances, takes us through to the bare minimum of the sensory world, indulges in probabilistic gaming, stops professing by taking to muteness since the linguistic world itself is a vast consensual order. Finally, his restless self, bored with the certainties of life, has no other option but to espouse voluntary death so that he can live.
होंगे —May be
When asked whether it is true that Manmohan Singh is the nation’s prime minister or whether the day is Sunday, his answer is: होंगे (may be). The sceptic will keep others on tenterhooks, not giving in to stray information, opinions, speculations and abstractions. He is content to merely suggest and leave it there. 3 Therefore he dismisses the idea that the earth is round or that the falling of an object must be explained through the theory of the force of gravity. These are scientific and theoretical abstractions—nothing to do with real, lived life. When asked whether such a philosophy is bound to make him a small fish in a pond, his reply is telling “हां में कुए का मेंढक हु पर अपने कुए से परिचित हो रहा हूँ” (Yes, indeed I am small fish but I am trying to make sense of my pond). He seeks depth in the surface. And we shall soon realize how grand, how excruciatingly beautiful the flight of this small fry is. At one point, Bauji, along with some other converts to his emerging philosophy, stands at busy street corners with placards which say— सब कुछ येही है , आँख खोल के देखो –everything is here, open your eyes and you will notice. When asked about death, he points to the same placard.
Gradually and steadily he lowers consumptive expectations and shuns and shears excesses from life—reflected in (un)designing the wedding card for his daughter and eventually taking to silence for while. He briefly toys with the idea of aphasia—or speechlessness. This is more of a classical sceptical tool which might mean ‘non-assertion,’ that is, a refusal to commit oneself to definite alternatives. In this context speechlessness, an initial reaction of stunned silence, might have been subsequently replaced by ataraxia or freedom from worry. That is the standard classical sceptical solution. 4 But worry he must. How can he not? For what is life without worries and anxieties and tribulations! He banishes all and disbands his troupe (टोली) the moment he notices his comrades are turning themselves into disciples. Stasis bores him. Withdrawing from the rough and tumble of life is out of the question. Life must be affirmed— कितना सुन्दर है यह जीवन—how beautiful is this life and how wondrous it is to realize that all that happens actually passes through me and through my senses, he says. It is here that Bauji rejects the detached classical sceptical position and takes a much more happy, romantic and attached perspective in his world of radical doubt. 5 More on this in a bit.
Back to the story. It soon comes to light that Bauji, with all his humility and goodness intact, has a knack for betting. His extraordinary skill in betting takes a significant shape in the scheme of things because betting is a way of taking a leap outside of the necessity of natural laws or cultural givens to a zone of probabilistic reasoning. Gambling suggests that there are apriori imaginary possibilities for a game to take route and it is only through an intelligent experience of the game that one may understand and work out modes of positive probabilities by which the die would be loaded in a particular manner. 6 We begin to calculate the likelihood of one event occurring out of multiple possibilities. One is working on a mathematical logic that is probabilistic and not logical—as Bauji says—‘सम्भाबनायों का खेल है यह न कि भावनायो का’ One must assume that through calculable estimations one can get the desired results. In this case, Bauji makes a habit of winning. Sure, he has to reach higher probabilities through mental calculations, (say of game theory) if he has to win, but the stakes that are pitted against him are constituted within a radical domain of chance and uncertainty. He has to take a leap of faith into probability.
But there is a beautiful secondary point here. Bauji’s indulging in the world of gambling also allows the film to make an amoral point about the art of living on the edge. Bauji makes yet another crucial crossing the moment he turns into a habitual gambler. With no moral compunctions whatsoever. His move (and the acolytes dangerously follow his example) takes out the layers of social stigma and moral censure attached to gambling that usually stops middle class folks from seeing it as it should be seen: as an art of pure probability. It is not an indulgence in greed, mind you, but an indulgence in moral scepticism and wish fulfilment actually: ‘अगर तमन्ना हो तो जीत सकते है खेल’ Probability is another name for wish-fulfilment. Life itself is a huge gamble—one might lose again and again and yet one will rise up with new hope. Naturally, his साला, brother-in law, mired in middle class morass, is the most horrified among the members of his jolly band, for he realizes the full implications of the levels of subversion that is happening here by the legitimizing of gambling as a mere probabilistic art form.
मन तार तार —the Heart Aches
But the film is not about just legitimizing a particular philosophy. It is not a propagandist film. It would be a lesser work if that were the case. The joy of the film lies in its sense of a fleet footed romanticism—for it wants to touch the unique, the wondrous as much as it desires to stay rooted in the material, the mundane. If one takes a step back from the film and takes a look at the eye that is at the camera– आँखों देखी– one may find one has stumbled – accidentally, on purpose – upon a director’s visual rumination on his own art practice, to which the actors and technicians too surely would have contributed collectively: about how to come to terms with such apparently contrary pulls—between flight and groundedness, between important everyday realties and extraordinary miracles that art and life might offer to us. Dreams, even artistic dreams, cannot remain dreams. They must be actualized. Art must be experienced firsthand and art’s wonder must be disseminated. So the backend-collective of आँखों देखि offers us two possibilities.
First: how a thing becomes something and the ordinary turns into the uncanny. “How does it happen [to all things around me] that my look, enveloping them, does not hide them, and finally, that veiling them, it unveils them?” asks Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 7 Does not the visible world resound at a distance, through a modulation that is ephemeral? One thinks about a momentary crystallization of visibility, an artistic epiphany, where epiphany is not mere miraculous revelation but a reflection of and a folding back into the moment. The visible and the sensory are not just things but ‘a possibility, a latency and a flesh of things.’ The seer among us begins to feel this palpitation in things visible. The artist too by consistently interrogating the sensory world—touches that world with his vision and turns the tactile into the uncanny. This is what the parable does—this particular parable of Bauji—it is an exemplar sensible. The visibilia turns into visionary art. The visible is not a psychic material but a deeply material-romantic realization. It is at such a moment that मन becomes तार तार —the heart aches, and a refrain suggests that moment—my lover and the cool wind floats by my side. Sense is romance and romance sense. But can we take in so much lyricality, such intensity and fulfilment? A sense of that original restlessness vexes us. And another decision must be taken.
Life is so lyrically beautiful that one has no other option but to take one’s life.
Such an unbearable lightness of being can only be verified by death. This is perhaps what Jibanananda Das had called the ‘fatal wonder that runs within our blood stream’ (আরো এক বিপন্ন বিস্ময়/ আমাদের অন্তর্গত রক্তের ভিতরে/খেলা করে). Life and death are two mirrors facing each other. The twin mirrors illuminate sense so that the sensory does not remain mere data of perception. It arrives to us as an exemplar, as a spread of a certain universal, incandescent visibility. The team that worked for and with आँखों देखी, within, behind or beyond the film, has bequeathed us this bit—this invisible reserve of pure joy.
Krishna, the Uncanny Impulse
This sense of the uncanny gets distributed in another way: the manner in which the everyday is projected in the film—through a spare existence of living and loving. In other words: through the elemental. Bauji is surely a harlequin and a fool—such childlike naiveté must pass through the bodily and the grotesque. Sordidness and the elemental is part of our everyday sense of the aesthetic that removes it firmly from the world of taste or consumption. At one point the whole sceptic troupe wants to verify whether the tiger roars or barks or mews. So they visit the zoo. After a prolonged wait, the tiger indeed comes up with a majestic roar and the reaction to that is so elemental, the reflex sensory reaction so sudden, that the scene must confirm an aesthetic of the fool: Bauji pees in his pyjamas, willy nilly. And that is what the reality and materiality of art is all about. The elemental complements the mirror of the uncanny. The act brings us to the ground but the miracle remains intact.
The impulse of the uncanny troubles the sensory sceptic and vice versa. So they intertwine. Each realizes that the other resides within its own form. The leap is impossible without either. The complementary impulse burns the one who is infected with it. And sets ablaze those who come in contact with such infected souls. One of the songs in the film puts a finger on this drive: ‘How can I sleep in the night? Krishna’s image I cannot get out of my mind.’
1. See Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and Perfecting of Our Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) and the excellent chapter on edible matter in Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, a Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
2. Pierre Gassendi in his Opera Omnia tells us about the importance of investigating nature and thus increases our chances of making a decision that would eventually augment our happiness. According to Gassendi, the more one knows about what one is observing the more likely one is to approach its true nature, without ever actually achieving that goal. The natural philosopher is urged to investigate the ways of nature and our daily experience rigorously and carefully. If we are to have knowledge of an object’s essence, Gassendi proposes, such requires a “perfect interior examination” of that object, which is apparently not something we may gain from empirical study. Gassendi also contests the Aristotelian view that we can know universals, on the grounds that we cannot perceive anything more than particulars in the world. Nothing is also certain about logical demonstration save the limits imposed upon it by the frailty of human intellectual capacities. See, Opera Omnia. 6 Volumes. Reproduction of 1658 Edition with introduction by Tullio Gregory (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Frommann Verlag, 1964).Bauji is not an atomist or a pure nominalist though. But not unlike Gassendi, a libertine ethics is at the heart of his enterprise.
3. For a discussion of the idea of suggestion to sensation, See, Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Derek R. Brookes (ed.), (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1764/1997) and Lectures on Natural Theology, Elmer H. Duncan (ed.), (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1780/1981).
4. Classical scepticism, say in Pyrrho of Elis, Sextus or Timon Phlius. Pyrrho’s pupil Timon, for example, says that the person who is to be happy must look to three points: First, what are things like by nature? Second, in what way ought we to be disposed towards them? And finally, what will be the result for those who are so disposed? He [Timon] says that he [Pyrrho] reveals that things are equally indifferent and unstable and indeterminate. For this reason, neither our perceptions nor our beliefs tell the truth or lie. For this reason, then, we should not trust them, but should be without opinions and without inclinations and without wavering, saying about each single thing that it no more is than is not, or both is and is not, or neither is nor is not. Timon says that the result for those who are so disposed will be first speechlessness (aphasia), but then freedom from worry (ataraxia); and eventually getting rid of pleasure. Such a detached mode, a mode that asks us to withdraw from life itself, Bauji rejects. For Pyrrho primary writings, see: Long, A. A. and D. N. Sedley, 1987, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2 vols), sections 1–3. Vol. 1 contains texts in English translation with philosophical commentary; vol. 2 contains original texts with philological commentary. See also, Richard Bett, Pyrrho, His Antecedents, and His Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Sextus Empiricus, Against the Logicians, ed. Richard Bett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
5. This is what Richard Popkin has called ‘mitigated scepticism.’ See, Richard H. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979) and The History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
6. The seventeenth century philosopher Jean-Rene Vernes in his quirky, sharp essay Critique of Aleatory Reason makes a precise point about this principle which Rajat Kapoor, as a director, advertently or not, is asking us to mark: that whatever is equally thinkable is equally possible. This idea of quantitative equality between the thinkable and the possible allows us to gamble with life by working out the probability of an event when we play a game of chance. Quentin Meillassoux makes this point in providing a powerful alternative to both Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s stable moral categorical imperatives in After Finitude.
7. See Maurice Merleau Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible. For a different perspective on the uncanny, see Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines in Skepticism and Romanticism. Also, Cavell, The Uncanniness of the Ordinary, Tanner Lecture on Human Values, 1986.
8. Jibanananda Das, আট বছর আগের একদিন (Eight Years Ago One Day). জীবনানন্দ দাসের শ্রেষ্ঠ কবিতা ( কলকাতা: ভারবি , ১৯৫৮/১৯৬৬ )
Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English at Delhi University. email@example.com