First there was Greek civilisation. Then there was the Renaissance.
Now we’re entering the Age of the Ass – Jean-Luc Godard, Pierrot le Fou
The worst kind of power unleashes a macabre present upon people it governs, a present for which there is no past to help them understand or challenge it. There will be instances from history that can be summoned from other places and other times, and warnings remembered of those who faced such scenes in historical time. But still there will be an excess to the new experience, a style, a motive, that will bewilder the victims. That is when newness is born — in thinking, protesting, articulating and fighting for justice.
The ongoing struggle of the students at the Film and Television Institute of India seems to have entered that macabre phase. The Godardian jump cut is right here, being edited by power, and forced upon the narrative of protest. When the FTII students raised placards that upheld the dignity of their institution, they were simply making a demand based on historical precedent — Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Saeed Mirza were filmmakers who raised questions on social and political reality.
The making of a film comes from the desire to ask. The best films pose questions on the way we live and die, and sometimes on the way we are forced to live and die. Students fondly remember Ritwik Ghatak among others, for he encouraged and inspired people to raise questions, be it regarding Partition or the contradictions of revolutionary life. That is what some of his illustrious students from John Abraham and Mani Kaul to Mirza and Adoor, did – raise new questions on the nature of our social and political reality. The students must have sensed a threat to their culture of raising questions by the appointment of the new chairman.
There is a perception that the culture of questions will be replaced by a culture of eulogies. If a film institute is governed by directives that throttle its questioning capacity and encourage it to manufacture nationalist eulogies, it will die. There is a clear difference between filmmaking and propaganda. No critical follower of the Left will give credence to films that were part of Stalinist propaganda. It is easy to distinguish between films produced by independent minds and those which are not. The former will question power while the latter will serve it. Propaganda films of all ideologies may have a political role to play but no historical role. For history is no longer understood as an idea endorsing the divine right of kings or even the secular right of governments. History is what the historian, the artist, the writer, the filmmaker thinks of power. These people have to be allowed to create what they think serves cinema and not power.
The new establishment in the FTII isn’t showing any signs of listening to the questions posed by students. In fact, the recent development where students have been arrested at midnight for gheraoing the director indicate that questions will not only receive no hearing but instead will occasion punishment for crossing the line. Questions are nothing if they don’t cross the line. Questions are vigils against the arresting of the night.
The midnight episode gives credence to the spirit of the protest—which was triggered by fears that the new establishment is unwilling to allow the culture of questions to thrive on campus. Walter Benjamin had said in his final thesis on the concept of history that “the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” The emergency situation is one where the relationship of the present with the past and future, collapses. The present which is cut off from the past and the future is the macabre present. It is a present without sight, without insight. Under such a condition it is a brave act to keep questions alive.
Godard’s jump cuts were often a matter of enigma. Slowly people understood their violent induction in a film was a technique that provided a glimpse into the sudden, violent repression of the psyche that power is capable of. Godard’s ‘Age of the Ass’ is of course the age of capitalism that dictates the logic of filmmaking. Such a condition becomes even more acute when a culturally retrogressive ideology works its way into the heart of capitalism and starts dictating terms. Capitalism isn’t inherently interested in serious art—art which thrives despite the market undermining its making and distribution. But a retrogressive ideology can take interest in that art for prohibitory reasons.
Benjamin’s ‘emergency situation’ comes to light at that precise moment when even the everyday constraints of artistic creativity are subjected to an absolute takeover. This takeover is never without an element of the farcical; in the case of the FTII, this takeover comes in the form of a bizarre articulation of power that does not make sense yet is in no mood to listen, or stop talking. It is this deaf, monologic braying that characterises Godard’s ‘Age of the Ass’. Such an ass of the Age doesn’t laugh, but produces laughter. Yet its powers are real and threatening.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi