An Ideological Reading of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi
‘The past is not dead. It isn’t even past’
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 1929
If the ideological direction of Hindi cinema of the nineteen-fifties and sixties reflected the socio-political trajectory of the Nehruvian era, it was essentially providing a link between cinema and the course of nation-building. Its uniqueness lay in its firm rooting in the prevailing socio-cultural context and ethos that reflected the hopes and aspirations of an emergent India free from the ravages of British colonialism. After the euphoria of Nehruvian socialism died, its creative search to develop and expand the horizons that not only fulfils the people’s aesthetic needs and aspirations but also reflects historical progress and development lost direction in the haze of immediate commercial concerns. It marked an era of moral confusion and political incoherence.
There always have been a dearth of Hindi films that take up sensitive political themes as their subject matter. What is sadly missing is the quality of historicity, of acquainting the people with the course of history. The existing lacunae primarily have to do with the lack of perspective on the part of many film makers to see things in their socio-historical context and to grasp the link between the past and present. This perhaps could explain the reason why significant events, whether it is the Naxalbari peasant uprising or the Emergency, of our post-independent political history have not been made into meaningful films. After more than two decades of silence, Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (Thousands of Such Wishes) comes to ‘reclaim the past’.
The film evokes the spirit of the heady days of the 60s and 70s, when revolution was in the air. The story is interwoven with the life-stories of three college friends – Siddharth, Geeta and Vikram who are drawn into the swirl of contradictions of the time, throwing them in different directions. The three friends represent three contesting ideologies but the momentous period of history offers them two paths – either be in the rat race for ‘success’ building up careers, serving the system or listen to the call of history, lending one’s voice to the voiceless thereby going against the system. While Siddharth plunges whole-heartedly into the movement, Geeta wavers and backs out, Vikram remains indifferent, untouched by the prevailing current. Even though ideologically poles apart, Siddharth and Vikram have one common interest – Geeta. They both are in love with the same woman. Geeta, on the other hand, loves Siddharth for all that he stands for.
Set in Delhi’s St. Stephen College, the film traces the rise of student radicalism in the wake of Naxalbari. The University becomes a hub of intense political discussions and debates. It is marked by not just a rejection of ruling ideology but also a thorough critique of all the established ideologies. Quite naturally students are attracted to the clarion call of Naxalbari, which symbolises a revolt against everything rotten within the communist movement. Charu Mazumdar, the architect of Naxalbari, became the youth icon.
Siddharth is a student activist, an ideologue and a torchbearer of revolution. He lays emphasis on the praxis of joining the toiling masses in their struggle. Siddharth is shown rushing to the barricades on the sides of the workers braving the police lathi-charge. It is the participation of Naxalite students in the workers’ struggle that has distinguished them from other student bodies. For Siddharth and his comrades are not just fighting on student issues but also making alliances with the working class.
The student revolutionaries have a firm belief that the state must be confronted directly with all diverse forms. They believe that violence has a liberating purpose – as a means to win revolution. Siddharth justifies the use of popular violence, ‘violence is just, oppressor violence is unjust and to hell with ethics’, in a letter to Geeta. It is wrong to say that in the revolutionary struggle there is no place for ethics. It is rather erected on the basis of Marxian dialectics – what class is directing violence against whom? Why it is being waged, in whose interest? It is these basic questions, which decided the justness and unjustness of the use of violence during the course of struggle.
Today, it is a fashion amongst the reactionaries to slander and malign the revolutionary movement as terrorist movement. The film by placing social violence in its concrete socio-political context and examining its root cause, challenges assumed beliefs created and constructed by state and their apologist. It humanises the movement and dehumanises the state.
Heeding the call of Naxalbari, Siddharth mobilises students to go to Bhojpur in Bihar in order to make a real connection with the oppressed masses. As he says to his father, a retired judge, before leaving for Bhojpur, that he is sick of those who do nothing but ‘pontificate’ about changing the system. Many so-called student revolutionaries develop cold feet when the real litmus test of proving their revolutionary credentials becomes all too imminent. Geeta fails to sustain her revolutionary tempo and backtracks expressing her inability to join Siddharth at the moment of reckoning. She is unwilling to stake her career for the cause and wants to get settled in life. Vikram just watches the event from the sidelines. He has an unmistakable disdain to those who claim to profess idealism which he thinks is an impossibility in the murky world of politics even as he has to carry the burden of being a son of a Gandhian father who still cherishes the old values and beliefs.
Back in Bhojpur, the theatre of class struggle, Siddharth and his band of revolutionaries try to come to grips with social reality. The appalling poverty and misery in which the peasantry is steeped comes as a revelation to them. It further hardens their resolve to fight the unjust system – that of fabulous wealth of an affluent few and utter destitution, hunger for many. They face all hardships but persist in the struggle to arouse the oppressed and in this process they ‘declass’ themselves. Indeed history bears testimony to the fact that hundreds of brilliant students joined the revolutionary peasant struggle and sacrificed their lives.
Siddharth continues to maintain correspondence with Geeta informing her of the developments taking place in Bhojpur. Geeta who got married to an IAS officer, is unable to forget her first love. She returns back to his arms rekindling once again their college romance. Siddharth goes to meet her secretly in a government circuit house. Their rendezvous continues till Vikram finds out. Vikram has turned into a high-profile fixer, who can get work done through his political connections. But despite all his successes he is still drawn to Geeta like a moth is drawn to a flame. Siddharth in many ways exposes his human failing when it comes to Geeta. He commits a gross mistake by spelling out the information that their squad is changing the location of their hideout in one letter. His visits to Geeta could have endangered not only his life but also the party members, in case his movements are tracked and followed by police. Siddharth does not seem to imbibe the iron discipline characteristic of member of underground party that operates in a secret manner involving a hierarchical set up.
The film throws light on one of the specific struggle led by the revolutionaries albeit in a satirical way. A landlord son rapes a ‘low’ caste woman, the angry village besiege landlord’s house with the revolutionaries taking the lead in organizing the protest. The dalits who would not have even dared to raise their finger earlier are now standing up and challenging landlord’s hegemony. This itself highlights the achievement of the Naxalite Movement in empowering the dalit masses. The denouement of this scene leads to an unusual twist. The moment the hated landlord suffers heart attack, the angry dalits experience a change of heart, and rush forward to save his life. Clearly the revolutionaries misevaluated the existing ground realities and hold of feudal ideology in the minds of the masses. They finally stand isolated, bewildered and confused. The implication – the revolutionaries come across as romantics who in their zeal over estimate the revolutionary potential of the subjective forces and thereby fail to grasp the specificities of a revolutionary situation.
The Naxalite movement not only spearheaded the struggle of the social rights of the oppressed (which the film highlights), self-respect, dignity of labour etc. but also political and economic rights. In the film there is no reference to the principal slogans of the movement ‘land to the tiller’ and ‘all power to village committees’ which clearly drew a line of demarcation between the revolutionary left and the establishment left.
The nature of inner party democracy and the working style of the party also comes into focus in the film. The revolutionary engages in criticism and self-criticism, debating on life and death questions. of revolution. Siddharth cautions a fellow comrade on the grave implication of launching a guerilla action in the face of the lack of organisational preparedness. ‘It could lead to decimation of our peasant supporters’, he argues. Though he is overruled as the final decision is taken from ‘above’, his criticism is accepted later.
The director often deploys voice over as a narrative device to convey the characters’ perspective to the viewers; this however restricts the nature and scope of debates around the issues being confronted by the protagonists. For example, Siddharth’s defence of revolutionary violence comes as an off screen voice mediated via a letter written to Geeta. A device marked by distancing (the distance between image and commentary) renders initiation of debate an uphill task.
The first half of the film reflects on the larger political discourse, the latter half shifts focus to explore the intricate tangled relationship of the three protagonists in the midst of the sharpening of social contradictions leading to the declaration of Emergency. For the struggling masses, it brought another round of repression and fascist terror. Through motifs and symbolism, the film exposes the sickening display of sycophancy around the ruling clique. The rise of a ruthless politician in Sanjay Gandhi, who turned the party in a ‘feudal oligarchy’ reflects the over-all degeneration of ‘democratic’ institutions. The socialist mask is conveniently dropped by the Socialist parties to make room for an unprincipled alliance with the ruling party in order to share the spoils of power. The right wing shift of the Indian state becomes all too evident. No dissent is tolerated, political opportunism and sycophancy of the highest order are rewarded. The coercive technique adopted by government to implement family planning schemes comes under criticism in the film. Emergency also marked the inauguration of the rise of powerbrokers whose pervasive stranglehold has acquired an aura of respectability in today’s politics. The emergence of Vikram as a power broker is symptomatic of the disease that has corrupted the body politic in our contemporary society. Having developed connections with a top leader of the ruling party Vikram now calls the shots. And it was he who goes all out to save Siddharth and Geeta in their hour of peril.
The turning point of the film comes when Siddharth comes to know that police is planning to kill him in a‘fake encounter’. With death staring him in the face, Siddharth cracks up, he pleads to the doctor to inform his father about his whereabouts. His fellow comrades finally rescue him. The strong spirit of middle-class self-preservation gets the better of him making him end up defeated and demoralised. He finally abandons the revolutionary path. Thus the prodigal son returns to the paternal embrace of class society.
The overall portrayal of revolutionaries in the film makes them appear a bunch of left adventurists who are incapable and helpless to resist state terror or to formulate a strategy to counter its onslaught. They are shown to be always on the run to escape state terror, they can neither seize the initiative nor lead the masses. Therefore the prospects of human emancipation through armed struggle in the face of an all-powerful enemy becomes unattainable in this context.
The film closes with a panoramic of the rural landscape evoking deep serenity, stillness, pathos and the return of order from disorder. A paralysed Vikram, who becomes an accidental victim of state terror, is shown, resting his head against the shoulder of Geeta looking towards an uncertain future. Geeta in many ways turns out to be the strongest character. The assault on her womanhood and the sexual degradation she suffered at the hands of the police does not break her spirit and courage. She goes back to Bhojpur to continue teaching the children of the marginalised class. However, her resilience and the fearlessness do not constitute a challenge to the system. This middle-class NGO-ised activism is no answer to the exploitation and oppression the majority of people face today.
Sudhir Mishra creates rich, multilayered and complex characters. Through the characters who are riven with dilemmas the film explores some questions of politics, philosophy and ideology. The film not only challenges the narrative convention, as it exist in mainstream cinema but also spins a narrative chain leading to a surprise resolution.
In the present milieu of a deeply commodified and fragmented society which worships a de-ideological conformist individual this film emanates the spirit of self-sacrifice and political anger of that time. In a way it fulfils the crying need of a political conscious cinema. It is a radical film in its ideological content and also in cinematic form. Its cinematic significance lies in its subject matter and the timing – of resurrecting those historical-dramatic elements that have long been denied space. The film has its own moments of triumph and setbacks. Even though film criticism itself lends multiple interpretations owing to differing perspectives to me the dominant mood of the film is one of defeatism. The hero who dares to fly in the search of truth gets his wings clipped before he could rise further by the sword-arm of the repressive state. It is true that revolution is not a bed of roses and one has to pass through the purifying flame of struggle. Nevertheless, what the film ultimately seems to suggest is that the emancipatory project in the face of an all-powerful state is an impossibility. The early revolutionary enthusiasm and optimism shown in the film is overtaken by a feeling of despondency and inertia, the empathy with the ideals of revolutionaries replaced by sympathy of the doomed souls who tried to make a difference. At a time when changing the world is urgently on the agenda what we need is an inspiring hero who can brave the harshest condition and illuminates the path of revolution and not a hero who ultimately joins the ranks of defeated heroes.
Click here to return to the September 2005 index.