Acid Rock, Mrinal Sen and The Seventies

On February 4, 2011 by admin

Sharmadip (Toy) Basu

The Bengali Marxist film-maker Mrinal Sen’s Kolkata Ekattor, or Calcutta ’71, is celebrated in the genealogy of Indian New Wave cinema as an exemplar of dialectical storytelling. Released in 1972, it comprises four discrete short stories by different authors. In, and through, these narratives, Sen’s directorial gaze seeks to render apparent the ‘lie of freedom’—a powerful ideological orientation vis-à-vis 1947 that grounded Marxist criticism in India at the time. And like artistic productions emanating from this ideology, Calcutta ’71 is a scathing class-critique of the Indian nation-state’s diseased underbelly, during its immediate pre-natal past, and in the first two decades of its post-natal being. For someone unfamiliar with this second installment of Sen’s famous Calcutta Trilogy, the pedigree of the film would make it appear an unlikely point of departure for an essay that seeks to pursue the subcultural life of Sixties’ American music in the city. But Calcutta ’71 helps me enframe a couple of my concerns. How are the class relations worked out in which American music is represented to be embedded in mid-seventies India by a Marxist-Realist filmmaker, who claims a high degree of correspondence between representation-of-reality and reality-of-representation for much of his oeuvre? In the process, can we also chart a certain new cultural-musical subjectivity animated by re-articulations of Sixties American music in the city during the 1970s?

Positioning Rock Music in a Realist Narrative:

Each of the four constituent stories that comprise Calcutta ‘71 is grounded in a different decade, sequentially, from 1930s onwards. Each story follows disparate denizens of the erstwhile imperial capital, caught in different stations in life. Nonetheless, voluntarily or by ascription, the characters are also subjects of that of much fraught category: the genteel bhadralok class Training its critical lens on subjects of this entropic category, Calcutta’71 begins with a depiction of the dehumanizing compulsions of urban poverty in colonial Calcutta of 1930s. The second story addresses the utter vacuity of this genteel moral apparatus against the backdrop of the 1943 Bengal Famine. Sited in a compartment of a 1950s Calcutta-bound suburban train, the third narrative concerns food-crisis and the ad-hoc violence unleashed on the under-classes by self-appointed protectors of bourgeois civility.

And then, follows the closing movement of Calcutta ’71. Set against the backdrop of far-left political tumult, brutal state-repression, and abject living conditions in the city at the close of the Sixties—something that would putatively find its democratic resolution with the election of the Left Front coalition government to the state legislature in 1977—it is this last story that sets my reflections here. Here, one is made to confront the total disjunct of the urban elite—of the corrupt politicians that this class yielded—from the life-worlds of the people that they supposedly represented. To set the tone of this narrative at the very outset, Sen deploys a signal audio-visual maneuver. If the day-train headed towards Calcutta provided the spatial and sonic setting for the third story in the film, the fourth begins abruptly on the downstroke of electric guitars in unison, enveloped by a 4/4 backbeat being pumped out of a drum-set, and flashing strobe-lights against the night sky. Thus, at the drop of a single frame, the audience is yanked out of the local-train and its concatenated rhythm, out of the 1950s, and launched straight into Calcutta of 1971, into the sprawling gardens of an elite hotel. In terms of the city’s present-day spatial layout, the hotel could be located anywhere on Park Street and its adjoining areas: once the heart of colonial Calcutta’s ‘White Town,’ and now the preeminent site of postcolonial desire and colonial nostalgia. There, an evening party is underway. The sonic cue of drums and guitars on which the film’s final movement begins is sourced to a four-man Rock band, in situ. From a corner-stage on the lawns the band churns out a stirring up-tempo jam (composed by Ananda Shankar). Its sound invokes similitude with that of the San Francisco bands of the Sixties’ Haight-Ashbury milieu: the sound of Acid-Rock music; typified by bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.; replete, with their characteristic improvisation techniques, mediated by modal Jazz and the influence of Raga music on the latter. Yet, it is striking that no one in the party pays the band any mind; there is no active audience for their music. The cynosure of all eyes, and ears, instead, is Mr. Bannerjee—the industrialist-politician who, we are informed, secured his upward mobility in the class and political ladder by black-marketing food-grains during World War II. In fact, the only time the presence of the band is acknowledged explicitly in the narrative is when Bannerjee, facing the band, claims to his acolyte the credit for having hired them. In the film, Bannerjee is the manifest embodiment of the ‘lie of freedom’ that Mrinal Sen sets out to unmask. He is representative of the anglophilic, postcolonial urban bourgeoisie—that, in Sen’s gaze, merely replaced the British at helm of political power in 1947, while the exploitative structure of the colonial state remained intact in its postcolonial guise. Comfortably sequestered from the blighted everyday life of the masses, the field of power that Bannerjee defines cannibalizes everything in its ambit. It renders human relationships hollow and evacuates all revolutionary potential from art. It is an ideology critique. Hypocrisy of the urbanity and other concomitant sins drip from almost every statement that Bannerjee and the other partiers utter.

Their crudity gets gratingly heightened against Sen’s pivotal use of montages over events at the hotel. Apposing documentary-stills and moving-images of malnourished bodies, of political protest and State-violence, frames with only verbal text and communist iconography, these montages act as the mottled mirror of reality to the phantasmatic world that the party defines. Its worth noting though that each time such a montage takes off, and then returns to back to the party, it does so via the Rock band. The camera cuts to exclusive shots of the stage and tight close-ups of the musicians; the sound of music is foregrounded manifold. We see ecstatic expressions on the faces of the musicians as their rhythmic charge plays runway to the montages, placed strategically by Sen to hammer in the ethico-moral bankruptcy of the social formation which the party mirrors. This deployment of the band will become clear in the following clip where Mr. Bannerjee belabors his audience on the necessity of mobilizing a vanguard political party that will carry the new nation forward.

As the evening progresses and alcohol flows, the depravity of bourgeois decadence assumes burlesque proportions. Crucially again, it rests on the band to lead the hotel party to its logical end; or, at least that end, which Sen’s historical materialist critique envisages for the conjuncture of Calcutta ’71. The cinematic frame rides the jam to a sudden crescendo, and then skitters along with it; the music: into a dense feedback of techno-industrial noise, and the party: into a lifeless black-screen. In the process, yet another defining trait of the Sixties’ San Francisco sound gets tellingly invoked: the technique of leading an improvisatory jam into a feedback that either brings a piece to end; or, out of which, the melody of a new song emerges, and harmonic order is restored.

But Calcutta of 1971 could not allow Mrinal Sen to weave a new harmony out of the feedback. Instead, there appears out of the lifeless black-screen the face of a man, possibly a far-left Naxalite activist, or one identified as such by the police. He speaks straight into the camera and the audience. He tells us, he has just been killed. The head wound is visible and still running blood. In cinematic fact, he is historical time itself, both dead and alive. As an embedded witness to injustices and violence over time, the murdered man delivers a meta-commentary: on issues that the four stories in the film bring to play, on the pernicious and precarious state of the Indian nation. It is this that emerges out of the feedback of Calcutta ’71: a dead historical-conscience in its afterlife.

The Rock Band in/of Calcutta ’71:

From this rather long description of the party-sequence in Calcutta ’71, I would like to draw attention to two critical axes of signification that cross-cut each other in the film: (i) the social-formation that a self-professed Marxist Realist filmmaker like Mrinal Sen deemed to be the proper locus of American Rock Music in India; (ii) the deeply ambivalent sites and meanings actualized by the band and its music: composed for the film by sitarist Ananda Shankar, despite Sen’s definite efforts to ground it in the particular social formation. Led by guitarist Cyrus Tata—a Calcutta-born Parsi—the band is central to Sen’s narrative. In that, Sen situates the band as immanent to both the real-time of the hotel-event and the novel-time of cinematic representation. It is not simply there as the musical accoutrement for a high-society party. On the one hand, it acts as the background score, as aural atmospherics, of the film when the camera is trained on the partiers at the hotel. On the other, the band serves a specific musical function when Sen launches his montages of the world outside the hotel, depicting sites and signs where, paradoxically, music, as such, would be out of place as a phenomenon.

The band’s Acid Rock music, then, in Sen’s vision, is not just the soundtrack to the time-space of bourgeois merriment. It is, in fact, the soundtrack of the zeitgeist itself, the spirit of the global Sixties with all its contradictions. And this ‘global’ qualifier is of some importance here. If Sen’s goal was only to unmask the hypocrisy of the neo-colonial urban elite, he could have achieved this on the strength of the screenplay and the visual composition of the film alone: such is the stark opposition in which he places his characters vis-s-vis the historical times they inhabit, where even a dialectic is impossible.

Any other soundtrack, as atmospherics and/or music, would have sufficed without diluting the message that Sen wanted to convey. One could even argue that popular Bangla Adhunik (Bengali modern) music with its plethora of songs, weaved around themes of heteronormative love and good cheer, or that ultimate signifier of modern bhadralok musical advancement—Rabindrasangeet¬, would have worked better to further underscore Sen’s musical-historical critique of bourgeois insularity. While the specificities of the film’s setting, which mimics elite Park Street hotels that were famous for their live western music scene, negates the usage of other such music, the question still remains: why this pivotal staging of not just any band music—something that Hindi and Bengali popular cinema strategically deployed when it wanted the lead-pair to act ‘Western,’—but specifically an Acid-Rock band?

The latter’s intentional placement in Calcutta ’71, in my view, is to perform the dual operation of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The first operation projects Calcutta’s fulminating politico-cultural milieu as symptomatic of the same tumultuous condition signified by the world-historical signpost, the Sixties—something that exceeds the historical time-space of just the Indian nation-state. This move, then, places Calcutta of 1971 in the temporal locus of a specifically global historical-conjuncture. In that, America and Acid Rock serves as spatio-musical embodiment of the globally chaotic times.

In this deterritorializing movement, the specificity of Sixties’ America, simmering with the Counterculture, Civil Rights, New Left, and anti-Vietnam War movements, is of signal value, particularly as it pertains to music. Even if the last of these four movements canopied a constituency that cut across that of the other three, there were significant ideological differences between the other ones in terms of their politico-cultural orientation. Of particular importance here is the ideological asymmetry between the Counterculture and the New Left. Though cross-pollinated in terms of actual adherents, the former advocated withdrawal from not just the normative cultural values of a technocratic and atomized post-war American society. More importantly, it advocated active withdrawal from the political sphere, as such—a tendency immortalized by Timothy Leary famous utterance: “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The New Left, on the other hand, despite the internal differences over modes of political action, explicitly sought to fashion a counter-hegemonic bloc against both, the American State, as well as party-directed Marxist politics. Even though Calcutta ’71 does not shed any light on Sen’s estimation of the New Left, the import of his usage of an Acid Rock band in the film, ergo, his reading of the American Counterculture, becomes clearer in the light of the above discussion. Acid Rock was after all the musical index of the Counterculture when it gathered critical mass in mid-60s’ San Francisco, and burst forth to widespread media attention with the Human Be-in, on January 14, 1967.

The second of the two operations that the music performs follows a vector complementary to the deterritorializing function outlined above. In that, Sen reterritorializes American Acid Rock music in terms of its factual presence within the city-space of Calcutta in 1971. More importantly, he uses the music to reterritorialize its supposed consumers—the postcolonial urban elite, with its vacuous cosmopolitan trappings—firmly within the historical matrix of colonial oppression in India, and its persistence in the post-’47 epoch. It is, however, of significance to note that Sen does not allow the band and its music to escape the force-field of the artistic black-hole that this class wills into being. Ultimately, this music too turns into an object of bourgeois fetish, a mere ornament to the party at the hotel. For, if we recall, none of the partiers actually pays the band any mind. If the life-world of the urban elite is totally severed from that of the masses, it is well removed from that of the musicians’ as well. In fact, by themselves, the band and the musicians reference an almost autonomous cultural site in the film.

The affect Sen tries to generate through his visual treatment of band and the musicians is a further clue to this. In their total immersion in music, the rapturous expressions on their faces, their sartorial preferences, they are made to appear equally alienated from the reified realities that they provide soundtrack to: both, the elite party at the hotel, and the depredated masses in the city. In this, Sen’s acuity as a realist filmmaker stands out. Though he stages his dialectical critique in stark oppositional terms—something that, in fact, threatens to freeze the dialectic into a static dichotomy—his representation of the band as removed from the two polar life-worlds in the film, actually corresponds faithfully with historical reality.

For the band, its members, and its music, are a reflective constituents of the new politico-cultural subjectivity that first came into being in Calcutta in the late 1960s. Fundamentally mediated by the discourse and (musical) practice of the American Counterculture, this new subjectivity, constituted the near-end of the sociological short hand: the “generation gap,” a term that gained currency precisely during this time. The Acid-Rock band in Calcutta ’71, and of Calcutta in 1971, thus, marks a deeply ambivalent space, time, and social location. One could even say that it marks a heterotopic site, proliferated with difference: of power and desire, of dire need and dire excess.

In the context of the film sequence, the point that I want to make is that the band inhabits a spatio-temporal flux; it is neither inside nor outside the narrative and its historical time. The band, then, is of spectral essence to the film: its loud amplified music is there for everyone to hear, yet no one really acknowledges its presence. This cinematic representation of the band could have easily been the one in reality though—about which, some other day.

Sharmadip (Toy) Basu is completing his doctoral studies in Maxwell School, Social Science Program, Syracuse University.

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