Culture in the Times of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi

Writers and artistes can no longer afford to stay away from political issues.

A still from the Oscar-nominated Iraniam film Salesman. Credit: Youtube

A still from the Oscar-nominated Iranian film Salesman. Credit: Youtube

The Iranian film Salesman, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is running to full houses in New York. Can’t get tickets, wrote a journalist friend based there. This despite it being in dozens of theatres in the US. Salesman has been nominated for the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category but Farhadi has already said he will not attend the ceremony in protest against the new executive order by Donald Trump barring passport holders from seven countries (including Iran) from entering the US.

In contrast, in Mumbai, another new acclaimed Iranian film Daughter drew not too many people though at the inaugural screening on January 20 at the Seventh Yashwant International Film Festival at the Chavan Centre. A commercial release is obviously out of question in such a scenario. The film had won the best film award at the International Film Festival of India in Goa two months ago and earlier the Grand Prix in Moscow .

The response to other films shown during the Chavan festival, many of them quite good and relevant, such as the anti-war Thank You for Bombing, too was disappointing. This is such a shame because we need more mobilisation than ever to get exposure to liberating ideas at a time when liberal values are under attack and we are told that ignorance is strength.

It is also more the pity because the venue, Chavan Centre, is quite conveniently located, not far from Marine Drive and the suburban train terminus Churchgate. And a large number of senior bureaucrats, ministers, high court judges, MLAs  live within a range of five to six buildings from the venue. Plus there are the MLAs’ hostels and the State legislature. Good films can sensitise our bureaucrats, judges and politicians and should be on their refresher courses. Yet, in the last several years while regularly attending cultural events at this Centre, I have seldom noticed the presence of these dignitaries. Also, there are some top colleges nearby. What does it take to fill an auditorium and when some rich, rare cultural fare is being offered?

The fee for the entire festival of seven days with 82 films on offer was just Rs 500, even less, just Rs 250 for students and senior citizens. A ticket for a single ordinary, commercial Bollywood film can cost quite a lot and a single screening of a music or dance performance at the nearby NCPA, National Centre for the Performing Arts at Nariman Point, can set one back nearly Rs 750 per ticket.

The Chavan Centre was founded 30 years ago by Sharad Pawar in memory of his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan and the director of its film festivals is the well known film and theatre director Jabbar Patel. Pawar has taken a keen interest in cultural activities. He supported Vijay Tendulkar’s famous play Ghashiram Kotwal, directed by Jabbar, and helped the troupe to go abroad in the teeth of opposition from Shiv Sainiks in the 1980s. The the cause for fomenting trouble was the usual excuse that history had been distorted. As film critic Ganesh Matkari has observed, it would be difficult to write a play like Ghashiram now. Such are the times we are living in.

The Centre is also a venue for various cultural activities including the film club Prabhat Chitra Mandal, one of the oldest and also one of the fewest surviving film clubs in Mumbai. It is strange that in the city of Bollywood, film appreciation clubs and film festivals should draw such an inadequate response. Perhaps Bollywood itself is responsible for such an ethos. At the same time there is a sudden and huge growth in stand up comedies in new venues that have come up with new money grabbing more and more land.

Both Trump and Narendra Modi would like to keep out some people from their countries. Given how Hollywood has reacted, the US experience suggests that it has a much more socially aware culture and the people there are better equipped to take on Trump than we are in the case of Modi.

We owe a lot to different people from different lands coming together and forging a common culture and cross connections in the past and even in present times.  While looking at the title of the opening film Daughter, I found it very interesting that the original Iranian title Dokhtar is so similar. So many English names about family relationships owe their origin to Persian, like mother (madar), father (padar), brother (baradar). And the word name is nam in Persian. Trump wants to keep out Iranians among others.

Daughter is a moving story about a family in which love between father and daughter gets the better of the father’s initial attempt to treat her very repressively after she defies his order not to travel to another town to be at a party with girls from her college.

The great thing about Iranian films is that usually there are no ‘villains’; societal norms are targeted and this is done with subtlety and with great sensitivity. The college girls in this film with their traditional attire are exceedingly charming and they have their own way of expressing their candour and their attraction to men. In one scene the girls in a restaurant point to a handsome man sitting at a distance and ask the waiter if he is married and are disappointed to know he is! And when they reach late for a flight, they try to win over the man at the airline counter telling him that he is ‘so good looking’.

There is also now a most encouraging resurgence of very socially conscious talent emerging in Marathi films from rural areas and families with first generation learners from poor and socially ‘backward’ backgrounds.

Ghuma, a 2016 film directed by Mahesh Raosaheb Kale from Ahmednagar district, showed the plight of a family which cannot afford to pay for the fee of their son to an English medium school. Funnily, the lone lavani dance in the film is about the dancer’s craving to learn English so she can communicate with a man who talks in English. At the end, the tragedy becomes more poignant with the rendering of the 13th century saint Sant Dnyaneshwara’s invocation of Pasayadan to the almighty to give happiness to all. Several middle class cultural events conclude with this popular song. But basically it is a wishful hope that everyone should be happy. The invocation was sung in such a way that it brought out the irony. Wishful thinking cannot be a substitute for corrective action.

Lathe Joshi, another new Marathi film, is the tragedy of a middle-class worker who loves his lathe machine so much he wants to buy it when the unit closes down. He works on it so creatively that the owner calls him an artiste. Quite a different take, away from the deeply alienating, monotonous effect produced by the conveyor belt kind of modern technology.

Salesman, the Oscar-nominated Iranian film, is inspired by Arthur Miller’s path-breaking play Death of a Salesman (1949) which depicted the tragedy of the hard-working common man’s American dream turning into a nightmare. Miller is very relevant in the era of Trump because he and many other progressive writers, actors of his time were hounded by the right wing American establishment for their outspoken views about politics and social life. Trump and his supporters are now resorting to the same McCarthy era kind of reckless accusations, demagogic attacks on the character of political adversaries and questioning their patriotism. And Modi’s supporters are doing something similar in India.

Miller was asked to testify against other left wingers by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and he refused point blank. This was just eight days before his much publicised wedding with Marilyn Monroe. He was sentenced to pay a fine of $500 or face 30 days in jail and loss of his passport.

His 1953 play Crucible showed through the witch trials of 1690s how religious hysteria breeds repression. It was seen as a metaphor of the Red Scare when hundreds of creative minds in the US were subjected to a witch hunt and FBI investigation. Civil rights groups and democratic organisations were seen as fronts for the Soviet Union. In the forefront of the vicious campaign were Senator McCarthy and Richard Nixon. That era may now once again be dawning upon us.

So good films, theatre and other works of art give us fresh insights, a better understanding of the world. Writers, film-makers and artistes now can no longer afford to stay away from political issues. Trump and Modi are seriously impacting the cultural world as was seen from the proceedings at the Jaipur literary festival where the Trump phenomenon was attacked by American poet Anne Waldman and two RSS leaders were given a forum. We seriously need good cultural activity, apart from political activity, to sustain us in these times.

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  • Abhishek Nilamber

    As a friend of mine once said, “only dictators know the real value of art.”