Director: Premankur Atorthy; Writer: Jaladhar Chattopadhyay; Producer: Baijanath Ladia; Cinematographer: Charles Creed, Bibhuti Das, V.V. Dante; Editor: Sukumar Mukherjee, Sudhindra Pal; Cast: Devidas Bannerjee, Durgadas Bannerjee, Ahindra Choudhury, Aruna Das, Prafulla Das, Chitra Devi, Jyotsna Gupta, Nabadwip Halder, Kamala Jharia, Kanaklata, Tulsi Lahiri, Nitish Mukherjee, Satya Mukherjee, Prabhadevi, Panna Rani, Bhumen Roy, Renuka Roy, Utpal Sen, Shobha Debi, Santosh Singha
Duration: 01:53:40; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 88.335; Saturation: 0.018; Lightness: 0.239; Volume: 0.207; Cuts per Minute: 14.058; Words per Minute: 84.154
King of Kalpa Nagar, Indranath, once lost his kingdom to the evil conspiracies of his uncle. While Indranath, along with his wife Kalyani, son Gopal and daughter Karuna, lived in dire poverty in a ramshackle hut, his faith in God remained steadfast. But this also was shaken when his only son became critically ill, while he had no money to afford treatment. At this moment of despondence, Indranath listened to the suggestions of his only well-wisher and spiritual master Omkarananda and started to pray for the favours of goddess Lakshmi.
The sincere prayers of Indranath broke the peace of goddess Lakshmi's mind, and made her want to alleviate the sufferings of Indranath. Narayana asked her not to, since such suffering is essential to the development of true humanity. Narada, forever fond of strife, stoked the fire of difference of opinion between the divine couple further. Lakshmi did not listen to Narayana. She reinstated Indranath, now renamed as King Vastavesh, to his throne. To further help him, she enlisted the help of engineer god Viswakarma to her cause, and took human form as Rupasi, who was found and brought up as a daughter by Omkarananda.
In the meanwhile, Narayana consulted with Narada, and decided to take human form as well to teach a lesson to goddess Lakshmi. Vishwakarma also secretly agreed to help them. Narayana also had a desire in his heart: to teach the modern men and women on earth a thing or two about romance!
Soon, Lakshmi's boon started to change Indranath's life. Kalyani found her empty ceremonial box of Lakshmi suddenly brimming with gold guineas. Before they could fully take in the implications of this sudden reversal in fortune, the people of Kalpa Nagar came in with the prime minister of the state to anoint Indranath as the new king. Th moment Indranath became the king, his son Gopal passed away, which came as a severe blow to the couple. Then, on one hand came extraordinary riches, and on the other, terrible sadness. The son died,--soon the daughter passed away too. Kalayni went mad in grief. Following Lakshmi's plan, Vishwakarma came to Indranath in the alien form of the Master of Machines (Jantraraj) to modernize the state according to the standards of western technology. Vastavesh took him for a true friend and counselor. By the machinations of Jantraraj, Kalpanagar soon became the center of liberal education and industrial progress.
In the meanwhile, Narada took the form of Virodhananda Thakur on earth, and Narayana became his son, Trivangatham. They started to live at the place of the pious widow Vilasi. On one hand--according to their plans--the son and the father began the game of libertarian romance with the modern college-going kids of Kalpanagar, whose perversion could have put the free love of Vrindavan to shame. On the other, the machines of Jantraraj began to oppress the populace of the state to dire servitude. Good fortunes blinded Vastavesh of his true calling. The entire state began to rebel against the oppression of Jantraraj. Royal priest Omkarananda was insulted by Vastavesh, after which, he began to mobilize the people against Jantraraj. He was soon branded a traitor to the state, and was arrested. This compelled Rupasi to appear before the king to ask for mercy for her adoptive father, Omkarananda. Mesmerized by the beauty of Rupasi, Vastavesh lost all sense of propriety in his attempts to have her for himself. When Omkarananda reminded him of the taboo nature of getting attracted to the daughter of one's master, Vastavesh ignored him, and ordered Omkarananda to hand her over to him within three days. To save Rupasi from the lust of vastavesh, Omkarananda besought Virodhananda to give shelter to Rupasi; the idea was that Trivanga will be married to her. When Omkarananda returned to the king after three days, the king was beside himself at not finding Rupasi by the side of him. Omkarananda was thrown into the dungeon, and his house was burned down by Vastavesh's soldiers.
While queen Kalyani's insanity was getting worse day by day, Vastavesh was trying to drown his losses in liquor and in the seduction of court dancers. One day, the blind beggar Niranjan came to the royal palace to sing his songs with his daughter Shanti. Kalyani mistook Shanti to be her long lost daughter Karuna, and asked her attendants to bring her in. When one of her attendants, Nipunika, managed to bring Shanti in, Kalyani took her to be Karuna, and kept her captive to the palace. At the disappearance of Shanti, people of the state took it to be the result of the evil intentions of the Jantraraj, who was rumoured to have regularly sacrified children at a dam site. People invaded the royal palace to confront the king.
At this critical moment, Viswakarma kept his promise to Narayana and Narada, and disappeared, which left Vastavesh despondent. At this juncture, Lakshmi in the form of Rupasi voluntarily came and gave herself up to Vastavesh, escorted by Narayana-cum-Trivanga himself in the guise of a brahmin. This infuriated Omkarananda, who tried to choke her to death. After rewarding Trivanga handsomely, Vastavesh tried to make love to Rupasi. She reminded Vastavesh of social norms as well as her duties as a king and a disciple, all of which fell into deaf ears. Cornered, she gave a dire warning to Vastavesh to not touch her, since she is Goddess Lakshmi in human form, and cannot be touched by a mere human. When Vastavesh ignored this warning and touched her, she disappeared into thin air, leaving the king blind.
How the love and devotion of queen Kalyani and the instructions of Omkarananda brought vision, prosperity, and divine favour back to Vastavesh is to be seen to be believed."
[From the promotional booklet; loosely translated from the Bengali original]
"Many on this earth are granted the favor of goddess Lakshmi, but how many among them can transform that favor into a boon to the collective humanity? Those who do not possess the discipline and strength of character to be able to carry the favor of gods forward find divine boon to be a curse in their life.
Babulal Choukhani's Bharatlaxmi Pictures, established in 1934, was already under the pressure of the existence of New Theaters, so much so that its logo also had to have the ubiquitous 'elephant' of the New Theaters emblem! This was not simply a matter of duplication/repetition of an icon invested with brand-value. An entire discourse of Bengaliness was predicated upon the 'excellent stories' and superior technologies of New Theaters. To possess the elephant, in this sense, was not merely to be 'like' New Theaters, but an iconic a priori claim at being Bengali, where the term 'Bengali' comes to stand for a normative discourse of cinema and quality.
This first scene, typical of most mythologicals, is an exposition of divine intentions. We are introduced to the name of a human, Indranath, by goddess Lakshmi (here often alluded to as Kamala, as well as mother), who seems to have suffered extraordinary misfortunes despite being a devout believer. She is perturbed by his suffering, and asks her lord husband Narayana why such suffering is necessary. Narayana's answer to her clarifies the causal link between heaven and earth that would become the narrative force behind this movie. His answer--Indranath is not yet ready--reveals the earth and the tribulations of earthly subjects to be mere effects of divine and pre-ordained plans. Here, 'free will' is entirely divine, and the humans are caught in a 'history' of teleological becoming.
But the entry of the figure of Narada, the bard of chaos, establishes even these gods as character types...
The gods are here character types with fixed traits: Narayana is capricious, Narada is deliberately contrarian and sly etc. For audiences knowledgeable about these stock divinities, the effect is that of play (leela) whose rules are known to them. We shall see later that one effect of such play is to render the female divinity--in this case, Lakshmi--incapable of enjoying the playful self-reflexivity of the male gods.
In the next scene, we shift to earth to meet Indranath, his master (guru) Omkarananda, and his family. Indranath expresses his festering doubts about the necessity of devotion.
Strikingly, Omkarananda is framed in a deliberately iconic frame at the beginning of the scene, where Indranath, along with his daughter, touches his feet. Although not the center(s) of this narrative, this framing establishes Omkarananda with symbolic authority. As Madhava Prasad has recently noted in his book Cine-Politics (Orient Blackswan, 2014), early sound cinemas often display a disjunction beween narrative authority and symbolic one(s). We will discover in the course of the movie that Indranath, the protagonist, is almost comically anti-hero in his complete lack of authority, primarily over his desire and duty. On the other hand, Omkarananda, despite being a 'character role', is the least clueless of all on earth. Unlike Prasad's example, though, here the symbolic authority does not coincide with a star logic, but that of caste. It is the Brahmin, although lacking the playful 'foresight' of gods, is the moral authority on earth. More on this later.
In the meanwhile, Indranath's wife, Kalyani, comes in with bad news...
Indranath's son, Gopal, is on his death bed, while lack of money is preventing Indranath from enlisting proper medical help. Indranath beseeches the gods once more for better fortune, which allows us once more to shift to the heavens.
Narayana and Narada comes in search of Lakshmi. Lakshmi expresses her determination to favour Indranath. She desires to take human form on earth. (The name of the film, 'Abatar', is related to the word 'abatirna', which means 'to come down'. Abatars are not simply manifestation of gods in the mortal world, these are figures who have 'come down', which entails playful splitting of self, as we shall see later) Narayana explains the fecundity of humans who forget 'dharma' over material gains. Narada, the comic relief, stops Lakshmi from taking Narayana with her to earth, citing examples of the trials, sufferings, and insults she had to undergo in their previous 'abatar-s'. Laxmi leaves to enlist the help of Viswakarma, the god of technologies. [Note that Laxmi uses two names interchangeably--Indranath and Vastavesh--while talking about the protagonist. We will have occasion to talk about this peculiarity a little later.]
A certain amount of poking fun at gods (as well as rendering them more 'rounded' according to a humanist realist standard) has been a hallmark of Bengali modernity from very early on. While this partially stems from the colloquial trans-figurations of North Indian gods into more local entities evinced in medieval literature, the 'desire' for such humanizing, especially in the name of the 'woman's cause', is quite specifically national-modernist.
Note that the folkloric form of this film stems from the 'Mangal' texts of medieval Bengal, whose stock framing trope was the 'coming down' of gods on earth, either as a mode of punishment (and redemption) or to achieve designs that can inaugurate and establish the worship of a specific god.
Back on earth, we see Lakshmi's favours suddenly changing the lives of Indranath and his family, when they find their ceremonial box of Lakshmi full of gold guineas, and immediately after, when Indranath is reinstated to the throne as King Vastavesh.
There is something extremely jarring about how interchangeable the names Indranath and Vastavesh (king of the material world) are here. There is no attempt to establish Indranath as Vastavesh, as if that is pre-ordained and known to all already! While the easy way will be to tick this off as an example of particularly horrible script writing, that cannot explain the entirety of this situation, since, in our days, even the shoddiest of scripts would not dare to make such an elementary mistake. Does this point to a very different constellation of texts--booklets, lobby cards, publicity materials in film magazines etc--that surrounded the central filmic text during the studio era, where the expectation of the minimal establishment of plot points was already met even before the audience entered the hall? It is a question to ponder about.
Great misfortune follows great fortunes. Gopal dies, which does not seem to affect Indranath/Vastavesh much, as he tries to cheer Kalyani/Queen up by showing her his scepter of law. Kalyani (mis)recognizes it as the scepter of death. This presages her eventual loss of mind.
The visual composition of the end of this scene is striking. As Kalyani cries over the dead body of her son, the sceptre (of Vastavesh) enters the foreground of the frame from the upper left corner. Slowly it is lowered, till it hangs down in resignation. The phallic connotation of such a scene is unmistakable. The emasculation of Indranath-the-Father follows immediately after the coronation (as the Father of the People), which points at the extremely subordinate position the human protagonist occupies in this play-of-wiles of gods. The gods are here not simply the Name-of-the-Law, the superego figures of injunctions and prohibitions. They are totalitarian subjects who act 'directly for Other's Jouissance' (Slavoj Zizek; http://www.lacan.com/zizphilosophy1.htm
). There is no pleasure to be had once one attains subject-hood in defiance of the logic of pre-ordained destiny. Pleasure presupposes freedom, and eventual trajectory of the character of Indranath/Vastavesh will be defined by an obsession with both.
On the other hand, as we will see later, the acceptance of the 'abatar' of this film, Narayana, will vitally depend on his possession of this 'Jouissance', and his knowing 'playing' with roles as well as others' destinies will establish him as the single masculine symbolic center of the film.
In the meanwhile, Lakshmi has left heaven. As the conversation between the two males remaining in heaven clarifies, their concern is precisely freedom, specifically the freedom availed by women on earth in this time of modernity. The agency of a woman like Lakshmi cannot be allowed to flower without the explicit approval of Narayana. The crass misogyny of this film is equally endemic to Bengali culture, as the libertarianism of the 'modern youth' remains one of the most popular ideological bugbears of the Bengali middle class to this day.
On the other hand, Narayana expresses his wish to 'teach' the modern youth a lesson in romance. Narada is confident that Vishwakarma will work with them to destroy the plans of Lakshmi. Narada proposes to the father of Narayana on earth. The comic vein of the relationship between Narayana and Narada is becoming apparent. This scene abruptly cut into a scene at earth, where we are introduced to Narayana's 'abatar', Trivanga.
We meet the 'abatar' of Narayana, Trivanga, already as an adult. The 'sakhi's, the flute, and an allusion to the 'Kadamba' tree, all make it clear to us that this is 'vrindavan' on earth. The comedy that ensues showcases the star qualities of Durgadas Bandyopadhyay, by then a legendary stage actor and a major erstwhile New Theaters star. The metro-sexual qualities of his performance tallies well with the myth of his legendary physical beauty, which Kanan Debi, among others, attests to in her autobiography in ecstatic terms.
Note that the name Trivanga, while being one of the thousand names of Krishna, is a satire of the effeminacy of the male protagonist. Trivanga, meaning 'broken in three parts', refers to the sinuous pose of the Krishna playing a flute. 'Trivanga-murari' is a colloquial term in Bengali for effeminacy as well as profligacy. Brahmo reformism and movements like Gurusaday Dutt's 'Bratachari' foregrounded the 'straight-backed' ideal of masculinity quite prominently in Bengal. The dialectic of this straight-backed ideal and other, more sinuous, ideals of masculinity will be a fascinating thing to track in the cultural career of the iconic representations of Bengali cultural icons.
This song, put to tune by the legendary Surasagar Himanshu Dutta, takes its lyrics from the poetry of Kavi Ballava, a medieval Vaishnavite poet writing in the 'brajabuli' idiom. This idiom, often known as 'padavali literature', is deeply connected with the 'raganuga' bhakti philosophy of Sri Chaitanya. Although the poetry talks of romantic ecstasy only in highly abstract and philosophical terms, the audience would have associated the tune and the lyrics with standard tropes of Bengali Vaishnava tradition, and consequently, with Krishna.
As at once a source of spectatorial pleasure and comic distanciation, the semantics of the song are quite complex. On one hand, it is shot in a quite straight-forward manner, with Trivanga being shown to be always surrounded by the group of girls, which underlines the orgiastic nature of the scene. On the other hand, it is the women who are alone in their romantic longing. Trivanga, as modern Krishna, is a transcendent object-of-desire who is not beholden to answer the calls of any romantic beseeching. He smiles, notes, nods, and moves away, while playing the flute like the Pipe Piper of Hamlin. The lyrics of the song--"there comes one in a million who can satisfy--buttresses the pre-ordained and entirely anti-romantic nature of the possibility of finding reciprocation in this Krishna figure (obviously, the later history of cinema in India will see very different investment of desires on the Krishna figure). Pleasure here can be had, for all parties concerned including the audience, through the disavowal of this pre-ordainment, where the fatalist masochism of Vaishnava metaphysics finds its symbolic significance, by transforming the prohibition on reciprocation itself as a source of desire.
But at the level of cultural indexicality, things become even more fun. The young Tagore, more than anyone else, is associated with the Brajabuli idiom of romantic poetry in Bengali minds, whose one of first major poetic achievements was written in the form of padavali poetry under the pseudonym of Bhanu Singha. The visual enactment of the orgy somewhere brings Tagore's institution of a specific mode of modern culture in Shantiniketan in mind. At the level of the present (of the film), the orgy is what comedy distanciates the audience from by underlining the libertarian profligacy of the events. At another level of the mytho-poetic symbolisms of indological phantasies, this is precisely what would incite profound bhakti. Caught in this complex process of enjoyment is a cultural distanciation, as well as acknowledgment of, from the already-established forms of 'imagining' Bengali masculinity and romance. This is in alignment with the broader cultural trends in Bengal during the first four decades of the twentieth century, where the gradual loss of earlier predominance at the national scenario triggers a move towards the constitution of a more regional identity, without necessarily being antagonistic towards the earlier epoch. There is an energy to be witnessed in both high and popular culture of Bengal of this time which is distinctly different from that of the earlier, oft-studied nineteenth-century renaissance. This aspect of Bengali identity-formation remains extremely un-acknowledged to this day, let alone studied, perhaps due to the sheer gravitas the Bengali renaissance has in Bengal's cultural imagination to this day. Consequently, what looks like a reactionary take on female liberation and modernity of twentieth-century urban Bengal is also, in a complex manner, modern.
Trivanga's father, Virodhananda, whom we already know to be the 'abatar' of Narada on earth, is introduced here with his servant, Natai. This pair of master-servant provide us with stock comic pleasures associated with such pairings in most popular films of that time. Note that the accent of Virodhananda here does not imply an East Bengal (bangal) origin, as it would post-independence, but his provincial roots, which will be contrasted with the cosmopolitan 'modern'-ness of his son in the next section.
The comedy continues. Natai hides with Trivanga and his group of girls. Virodhananda questions him why he has missed college, which only exposes his lack of 'knowledge'. We come to know that king Vastavesh's coronation is taking place on that day.
Virodhananda is posited vis-a-vis the English-educated college-going youth as a country bumpkin, who does not know that 'ekadashi' is not a holiday in a college or what a coronation might mean. The incitement of moral authority of the father allows the film to underline the superficiality of such knowledge, since it can only imagine the figure of the father, whose moral authority must be a pre-given for a 'normal' familial order, as inferior. Any knowledge that destabilizes that order is necessarily external, as the film will keep reminding us again and again. The distanciation from the Tagorean model of gender cohabitation (more imagined by the fervent minds of the nation than actually practiced by Tagore) and conjugality, is again enacted, when the girls describe Trivanga as someone who is their 'friend' ('bandhu', a very crucial term in the oeuvre of Tagore. In his songs he keeps using the archaic form of the word, 'bo(n)dhu', which is close enough to be exchangeable with 'bodhu', the bride), who fetches their handkerchiefs etc. Trivanga's insistence, repeated throughout the film, that his father will not understand these things, manages to underline the 'modernity' of such relations, and thus their presumed dislocation from the past as well as the stable order of sociocultural meaning.
A traditional Vaishnavite kirtan. Its entry into the narrative for the longest time remains random; only towards the end we see king Vastavesh entering the temple, which loosely grafts the song into the body of the main narrative. Otherwise, it works as a stock 'attraction'. It continues this film's use of traditional Vaishnavite romantic theology to both propagate its deeply entrenched male chauvinism (a woman writing 'Radha' on the feet of a man with sandal paste, while the song talks of doing the same on the feet of the deity!) and its specific brand of desire, as we have discussed before.
The scene presages the entry of Viswakarma in the guise of the Master of Machines into the life of king Vastavesh, and the beginning of his fall. Omkarananda notes already here that the drive towards material progress disturbs the symbolic duties the king must maintain.
We meet the 'abatar' of Vishwakarma on earth, Yantraraj (Master of Machines) in his strange garb, speaking a cockney of Hindustani mixed with Bengali, strewn with English terms like 'gentleman'. He introduces himself as the 'gentleman king', and promises Vastavesh instant material progress in the form of railways, airplanes etc. The king, significantly, asks 'everything' from Master of Machines, in exchange of which demands the friendship of the king. Queen Kalyani comes in, begging them to return her son to her, which makes her a matter of ridicule for Master of Machines. He points out to the king that the women of the king's race are all slaves and lack the qualities to be a queen. Later on, this will incite the carnal desires of the king.
What is first of all striking here is the garb of the Master of Machines. He looks like a worker bee from a children's play that has tried to grow a wing over its head! However, does not matter how ingenuous this costume is, we can only stare and bemusedly appreciate this choice of costume, while its narrative significance eludes us.
On the other hand, the choice of the dialect for the Master of Machine, who is clearly a foreigner, is extremely significant, as it displays a collusion of the accents of the two supposed 'other's of the Bengali identity, the British and the Marwari. It is intriguing to ponder over how such blatant foregrounding of a stereotype becomes necessary in a film produced by a majorly Marwari concern.
At being introduced to the royal priest, Omkarananda, and the prime minister of the kingdom, Master of Machine rudely calls Omkarananda 'the naked fakir' and compels the king to dismiss the prime minister. The priest and the minister warn the king against the seduction of the 'interpreter of science', which fall into deaf ears.
We have earlier mentioned the symbolic authority the figure of Omkarananda enjoys in this narrative, which is tied to his caste status. Here, his authority receives another layer of legitimacy, which will have major repercussions later on in the film. Master of Machine's derogatory term for Omakarananda, the naked fakir, must have struck a note with contemporary audiences, since it is the exact term Churchill used to describe Gandhi. While this is obviously a covert nod towards the nationalist movements, what interest us here is the elevation of the priest into a Gandhi-like figure. Such elevation can tell us a lot about the popular imagining of such a figure, as we will have the occasion to discus in details later.
We are introduced to another character, Shakta Sen ("Man of Strength", signifying the Kshatriya caste role), who informs the Master of Machines of the rampant corruption of foodstuff going on in the state. Master of Machines refuses the usual feudal techniques of dealing with such a situation, and defines the situation as 'economic', whose intricacies seem to escape the native mind.
This is the beginning of a series of vignettes that introduce a series of 'ill effects' of modernization.
Here, the court is shown to have accepted a standard of justice which is tolerant of extra-marital relationships and is detrimental to the sanctity of the family. Such misogynist worry about the effects of modernity was widespread enough to be a source of common vicarious pleasure for the audiences.
Here we see one of the early performances of the well-known comedian of the later years, Nabadwip Haldar, in the role of the complainant.
Tapovan classroom philosophy
From court, we shift to college. Intriguingly, the blackboard in the class has a large question mark on it, which we later come to realize stands for the the subject being taught at class that day, namely, the philosophy of a certain sage Chihna (sage 'sign', or even 'sage under a question mark'). From the words of the professor we can gather that the said Sage Chihna was a follower of the materialist philosophy of Charbak, and prescribed any means to attain wealth, given it was not in contradiction with law. Trivanga is a part of the class. He puts a placard on the braid of the girl sitting in front of him, which another girl immediately picks up and shows to the professor. The placard says "I love you". The professor throws Trivanga out of the class. The girl on whose braid Trivanga placed the placard makes excuses and follows suit.
The invocation of Charbak, who is known to popular imagination as the philosopher of 'wrinam kritwah, ghritam pibet' (borrow and enjoy), works as a pointer towards the spread of a materialist world-view, which, in this film strewn with plotting gods, is connotated negatively.
Comedy ensues as Natai puts the word lists in Vidyasagar's primer to tune. We are also introduced to Vilasi Devi, the aunt of Trivanga. Virodhananda is informed that Trivanga has quit college and is trying to establish a co-ed college at their garden, which angers him a lot.
Birodhananda finds Trivanga in the garden surrounded by his group of girlfriends. When he asks the girls to back to their houses and get married, they are highly insulted by the suggestion of marriage. According to them, suggesting marriage is the height of barbarism. When the inflamed Birodhananda asks them to get out, they collect bamboo rods and physically threaten Birodhananda, at which he leaves them alone.
The hyperbolic representation of 'modern women' hides cultural anxieties, connected to emasculation, especially about the women's movements that stresses on physical improvement and self-defense of women. However, the comic character of the narrative warns us not to take all of this rhetoric very seriously. Rather than being a discourse in all seriousness, these misogynist vignettes work as 'attractions' within the film.
We are finally introduced to the 'abatar' of Lakshmi on earth, who is soon revealed to be the adopted daughter of Omkarananda. She is introduced brooding over her long separation from her husband, Narayana. Her mood is reflected through the song of a mendicant who sings a song about Radha-Krishna. Most part of the scene is used for exposition of back-stories. We learn that Omkarananda found her by the side of the road. We come to know that Vastavesh's behavior has set the entire state on the brink of unrest. When Omkarananda expresses the wish to move to another kingdom, his daughter chides him and reminds him that as the Master, it is his duty to 'show the right way', does not matter how astray the disciple has gone.
In this triptych of scenes, first we see an indignant Master of Machines asking Shakta Sen to take care of Omkarananda, who is inciting the people of the state against him. In a cut away, we see Omkarananda actually inciting people, telling them that the land is theirs and they are strong enough to hold onto it if they could come together. This scene cuts to Master of Machine asking the king to take action against Omkarananda. The scenes are briskly edited, which allows the film to pick up tempo.
Our Gandhi-figure, Omkarananda, is shown as a mobilizer of people. The sentiments that are used here are typical: land belongs to the farmer, the eternal bond between the land and its people, and the forgotten strength of the common people. On the other hand, the king seems entirely distracted by the little trinkets in Master of Machines' laboratory to pay much attention to the man's words.
We meet a woman who has lost her mind. She has lost her son when a dam, a pet project of Master of Machines, burst. Master of Machine's people are recruiting people for working at the dam, luring them with the easy bait of easy money and pleasurable life. Omkarananda cautions the people by using the mad woman as an example, and asks them to enumerate the true cost of leaving their hereditary professions, land and home behind. Officials arrest Omkarananda for obstructing government work. Crowds rush to Omkarananda's house and tell his daughter of what has happened to him. She leaves to save her father.
While the reference to the dam and its effect on the indigenous population might seem to many to have anticipated a criticism of Nehruvian State before its time, it is in all probability a reference to Tagore's play, Muktadhara (The Waterfall; 1922), and its depiction of the relation of science to nature as one of monstrous repression of freedom. We should note here that the political role of Omkarananda does not rely on being a simple voice of 'reason'. His primary role is to issue injunctions: he tells the king "thou shall rule according to traditions", he tells the people "thou shall not leave thy land". If the temporary forgetting of these 'ought to'-s allow our peasants to pleasurably dream of fresh fishes of the river, it is the 'job' of Omkarananda to remind them of the 'ought to'. Thus, when Omkarananda says that he is not obstructing the work of the government, he means it: he is doing what the State MUST do. Omkarananda's 'organic' relation with people--he knows most of common people and their troubles intimately--allows him to achieve this in a populist vein, where he can slip between a religious and a statist role effortlessly.
The way in which this film depicts the nature of rumor is quite striking. We see Omkarananda being escorted away, but without being handcuffed (he expressly warns the officials against touching him, which seems to point towards his strong identification with his caste status). But we see within few frames how the word of mouth immediately exaggerates this, so much so that when news reaches his daughter, he seems to have been beaten up and bound before he was taken away!
Omkarananda is taken to the king. Master of Machines wants to personally kill Omkarananda. Omkarananda tells the king that he still feels he is fulfilling his duties as a royal priest. Vastavesh reminds him that only the king can decide what is good of the state. It is his exclusive prerogative, and has nothing to with 'dharma' (religion/duty). While Omkarananda was about to be thrown into the dungeon, his daughter Rupasi intervenes. The king feels a lust for her immediately. He tells Omkarananda he desires her greatly, and he has three days to hand her over to the king.
What we discovered about Omkarananda in the previous note is further buttressed here. Omkarananda believes the legitimacy of his actions stems from him being the (caste-determined) source of dharmic injunctions, which the state must obey. Vastavesh, on the other hand, propounds a theory of absolute monarchy, where the will of the monarch is the dharma of the state. In effect we see a separation, a sundering of the mechanics of the state from the 'ought to' of the nation, which is essential for the modernity of the nation-state. Vastavesh's failure here does not lie in his refusal to see this separation, but his refusal to acknowledge his lack of a magical 'godliness' which can work for all the others and take hold of all of their desires. It is a role, in this narrative, only pre-ordained for the gods. His desires are stronger than his will-to-rule-all, and it will soon engulf him. An absolute ruler, not just ruler of men but their desires and destinies, cannot himself desire. It is contrary to the basic tenets of transcendence.
Vastavesh's desire for Rupasi is purely carnal, which he thinly veils as aesthetic. This invocation of the aesthetic is again a contemporary historical anxiety about an aestheticization of life that nullifies the sectors of public morality.
Another song, another stock use of an 'attraction' very popular at that time. This sudden entry of a beggar-singer with her daughter cannot be fully understood without taking into account the immense popularity another real-life blind singer, Krishna Chandra Dey, enjoyed as a screen actor-singer at the time. Dey was a regular artist at New Theaters. Bharatlaxmi's use of another actor dressed up as a blind singer seems a little desperate.
The song initiates a chain of events that will have major repercussions later on. Kalyani misrecognizes the daughter of the beggar as her own daughter [which implies she has lost her daughter too in the meanwhile, somewhere and somewhen off-screen]. Vastavesh's rude behavior with her further convinces us of the change his character has undergone, as was predicted by Narayana at the very beginning.
What follows is a very interesting scene in a comic vein.
When confronted by one his numerous girlfriends, Mamata, Trivanga confesses that it all has been a game for him. He tells her that their union cannot take place in this life. We come to realize that Trivanga retains his memories of being Narayana (later, we will see that such is the case with Lakshmi too, while the two lesser gods, Narada and Viswakarma, are not given a chance of such reflexivity). Much of the hilarity that ensues stems from Trivanga's covert allusions to him being Narayana, which the girl cannot obviously decipher.
It is very interesting to compare Trivanga vis-a-vis a figure like Omkarananda. Omkarananda is a figure of classic superego, of injunction, prohibitions and caste purity. The actor playing him talks as if every moment is potentially a 'last judgment'! Compared to this, Trivanga can strike us a rather playful figure, moving through instincts without achieving any depth. But that will miss the point by a mile. The key to Trivanga's character is his knowledge of all: the narrative is ultimately his plan all along. Even in human birth, he is aware of his divine status, which he successfully suspends to act like a human. He is truly the 'subject who knows'. He knows the eventual telos of the community and its time; he knows how to desire like a human while not falling for its various pathologies that can provide pain and dissatisfaction (and turn him into a tragic character). In one sense, his human abatar seems to function under the injunctions of a permissive superego: "if you may, you must" (enjoy) [Slavoj Zizek, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/articles/the-superego-and-the-act/
]. But that can only function as long he himself is supreme subject of a teleological historicism: in a country marked by its 'not-yet-ness' vis-a-vis modernity (as has been made clear in this narrative from the very beginning), he seems to know precisely his place and role. This, in alignment with the charisma of Durgadas, elevate him as another locus of symbolic authority. Although he is always working at a tangent with the main narrative, although his morality is the diametric opposite of Omkarananda, although his life does not in any sense share the 'bildung' of a Vastavesh, although he does not embody the cultural anxieties the way the female characters do in this film, he is still the supreme male ideal of the film in being the only one who escapes the blindness of fate.
If we read this film as an allegory to the structure of Indian modernity of its time--something I have been moving towards from the very beginning--then how does one read a character like Trivanga? I have already marked Omkarananda as a Gandhi-figure. Unlike him though, Trivanga seems to stand for an ideally imagined (albeit through a permissive comic vein) ruling class in complete possession of its modernity. The indirect mode of intervention that Trivanga/Narayana will practice throughout the film is indicative of the relation of this class with the fractured sovereignties of India under passive revolution. In that sense, this film does presage the confidence of the Nehruvian imagination by a decade.
Omkarananda hides Rupasi at Virodhananda's place. Rupasi is to be married to Trivanga. The comic track between the servant and the master continues.
Conversation between Vastavesh and Master of Machines. Vastavesh admits to his 'weakness' of not being able to give up on his chivalry when it comes to women, even if it looks effeminate to others. Master of Machine prescribes a new medicine to cure him of this weakness: alcohol.
We have already discussed the interesting dialectics between conventional masculinity and the typically Bengali cultural anxiety about effeminacy. The logic of chivalry becomes a regular gloss over such anxieties, while working in tandem with the prevalent ideology of ideal conjugality.
Omkarananda wants to introduce Rupasi to Vilasi. Vilasi's cupboard has been robbed. Trivanga comes in with a gramophone, among other purchases. It seems it was he who stole the money. Vilasi forgives him immediately. The playing of the gramophone produces hilarious reactions in Virodhananda and Natai.
Trivanga, whom we have described as the 'subject who knows' earlier, comes in with another valourized object of modernity: a gramophone. In a displaced celebration of it own origin-oriented myth, cinema here (re-)enacts the myth of primitive reactions (and relations) to modern technologies, similar to the way audiences are said to run out of screenings after watching the train approach, thinking it will crush them! Enactment of such phantasies about the 'primitive' further buttresses the position of Trivanga within this narrative.
Trivanga has bought western apparel for Vilasi, so that she can join the women's movement and give speeches! Another familiar jab at the woman's movement.
Virodhananda introduces Rupasi to Trivanga, but he refuses her as a non-modern woman. Trivanga and Rupasi meet alone, when it becomes clear that they remember their divinity. The conjugal bliss is broken with the coming of an unexpected guest.
When one of Trivanga's girlfriends, Maya, corners him, he agrees to marry her.
It seems, unlike the other girl, Mamata, Maya understands marital power-relations better, making her look 'intelligent' in the eyes of Vilasi and Trivanga.
Vastavesh watches a dance performance by the court dancer. He is terribly attracted to her, but the news of her husband being alive inflames him (perhaps because he cannot but identify with the males of his species).
The dance is entirely set to orchestral music. Here we must remember that the breakthrough of Bharatlaxmi into the Bengal film market was Madhu Bose's dance spectacular "Alibaba" (1936) which introduced Sadhana Bose to the audience. Bharatlaxmi followed it up with other attempts at dance spectaculars. In the light of these facts, this dance seems to have been a kind of studio signature, a distinguishing mark. The slight Javanese influence, the excessive use of the 'pataka' hand gesture, the sinuousness of the body, and the costume demonstrate influence of Sadhana Bose's style, which was at the height of its popularity at that point.
We meet our blind singer again, this time singing a lonely song of lamentation. It so transpires that his only daughter, Shanti, has gone missing, and he is singing in the hope that if she hears him, she will certainly come running back to him. His neighbors assure him that they will get her back to him.
Master of Machine complains of a rumour doing rounds that it was he who kidnapped Shanti, to sacrifice her at the site of the dam's foundation. He is sure Omkarananda is behind the rumour.
Vastavesh implores Shakta Sen to find Omkarananda. Coincidentally, Omkarananda shows up, fulfilling his promise to the king. Not finding Rupasi with Omkarananda infuriates Vastavesh. He throws Omkarananda to the dungeon, and gives orders to burn his house down.
The burning down of Omkarananda's house infuriates the people. They connect this with the disappearance of the daughter of the singer, who, they are sure, is kept hidden in the royal palace so that she can be sacrified at the dam. They concur that it is the evil influence of the Master of Machines that has occasioned the change in their king. They decide to go to the royal palace in numbers and demand justice.
Another dance number, in similar vein. Vastavesh again expresses his desire for the dancer, to which she responds eagerly. She informs the king that she has poisoned the husband so that there can be no obstacle in the path of their union. This horrifies Vastavesh, and he accuses her of grave crime. She retorts by saying that her only crime was her love for the king. She is given a death sentence, and is thrown into the dungeon.
This is another is a series of emasculations of Vastavesh. His desire for the dancer cannot be consummated once he bears the burden of the knowledge of the dancer's deeds, because he cannot but identify himself, be mirrored by, the dead husband of the dancer. As a consumer of the dancer's sexualized body, he is just another in a chain in the relation of desire. The transcendence logically prerequisite in a sovereign figure that can separate him from ordinary mortals is lost to Vastavesh due to his insistence on not sacrificing his base human 'instincts'. In other words, the logic of deification is still lost to Vastavesh. He does not wish to be the classic superego like Omkarananda; he is not a permissive 'subject-who-knows' like Trivanga; his wish to rule all 'and' have all remains bound and blind to its own contradictions.
A crowd shows up at the palace, demanding audience with the king. Vastavesh complies. He is accused of taking repressive measures, but he manages to explain himself. But when the blind singer's song brings his daughter running back to him, Vastavesh's dignity is tarnished, as it becomes clear to his subjects that the queen has lost her mind. The queen begs everyone to give back her lost daughter Karuna. The blind beggar asks her daughter to remain with her 'new mother', promising he will visit her whenever she wants him to.
In any staging of a narrative of sovereignty, an encounter/test in the eyes of the public/subject is essential. This film also obeys that logic and makes Vastavesh face the crowd. But interestingly, in the logic of this film, Vastavesh's fall does not lie in his lack of answerability to his public/subjects. Thus, he manages to convince the people quite easily that Omkarananda is accused of grave crimes. His subjects lose their rebellious demeanor the moment they face the gaze of their king and become subservient. In other words, the logic of sovereignty here has its monarchic trappings. Vastavesh on the other hand fails as a private individual and as a head of a family, although even that has to be staged in front of a public. He is not a father who has grieved enough for his lost children; he has effectively lost his wife to madness. As we saw earlier, Vastavesh's excesses of desire blinds him to the sacrifices (of jouissance) he must make to become a familial, and in turn, political sovereign. This enactment of the public concerns within the private, and vice versa, gives the film its melodramatic structure.
Trivanga/Narayana and Rupasi/Lakshmi take stock of the situation. He warns her that Vastavesh will not be able to control his destructive urge for material pleasures. She decides to go and give herself up to Vastavesh. Trivanga/Narayana agrees to escort her.
The Master of Machine has gone missing (presumably since Narayana's plan is coming to its closure), which greatly disturbs Vastavesh. Trivanga/Narayana and Rupasi/Lakshmi show up at the palace in the guise of a Brahmin couple. Trivanga/Narayana introduces himself as the husband of Rupasi/Lakshmi. He is ready to giver her up in exchange for the prize money. Vastavesh conveys his love for Rupasi. Rupasi asks to see her father. Vastavesh teases Omkarananda by claiming Rupasi has come to him of her own volition, which Omkarananda takes as signs of the king's delusions, and prophesizes that the king's comeuppance has finally come. But when Rupasi shows up, Omkarananda feels betrayed and disowns her.
Once again, the aspect of play in the character of Trivanga/Narayana is apparent here.
On the other hand, the classic superego figure of Omkarananda behaves expectedly by disowning Rupasi/Lakshmi (in a way vindicating Lakshmi's choice of him as her adoptive father).
IN the meanwhile, Virodhananda and Natai are looking desperately for Rupasi. Comedy ensues.
Omakarananda is found repenting in his jail cell his attachment to Rupasi, which he feels has been a perversion of his vows as a mendicant. Rupasi shows up, to whom Omkarananda declares that her betrayal has finally freed him of all obligations to the material world, and he is finally free. At this, Rupasi transforms into Lakshmi and gives 'darshana' to him, before vanishing into thin air.
Here the film begins to apply the generic tropes of narrative closure. It closely follows the generic structure of the 'Mangal' narratives, where such 'darshana' of divinity signals coming resolution.
Trivanga comes back home driving a brand new car. He explains to Vilasi and Virodhananda that he has given up Rupasi to Vastavesh in exchange of the one lakh rupee prize money. Virodhananda leaves home in disgust (like Master of Machines, presumably for the sake of narrative closure). Trivanga manages to convince Vilasi that the prize money is fair money, and she should keep it as a deposit for future (and as a token of appreciation for giving shelter to two 'abatar's from heaven, as the audience would know).
We find Vastavesh in a drunken state, when Rupasi/Lakshmi shows up to caution him against breaking social taboo by desiring the daughter of his master. She reminds him of his duties as the symbolic head of a (religious) community as a king. Vastavesh believes his love overrides all logic and duties. Failing to convince Vastavesh, Lakshmi reveals her identity and prohibits him from touching her. Disbelieving, Vastavesh makes fun of her and touches her wrist, at which she evaporates into thin air once more, triggering an earthquake-like bout of destruction.
Once again the logic working behind the fall of Vastavesh is rammed home. He is a sovereign who has transgressed the sacred, sacrificial bounds of its symbolic nature, which has brought divine wrath upon him. As an allegory, here Vastavesh, as the sovereign of a community, must make sacrifices to the ruling class, to the divine machinations of the 'subjects who know'. In a sense, his was not sufficiently a 'subject who believes'.
The earthquake completely destroys the royal palace, which leaves Vastavesh gravely injured and allows Omkarananda to come out of the dungeons. Omkarananda finds Vastavesh in a state of complete blindness, but he refuses to help him. He asks Kalyani to leave Vastavesh behind and come along with him. Kalyani does not listen to him. Vastavesh begs Kalyani to rescue him, by the grace of her piety, from the darkness of his own doing.
Now the logic of (post)colonial sovereignty is driven home by Narayana himself in a rather blunt way when he explains to Lakshmi that a harvest cannot be reaped if the soil is not prepared first, signifying, among other things that the relation between the divine class and the rest is one of exploitation. Lakshmi has lost all her affection for the humans, and wishes its destruction. Narayana once more dissuades her. Tellingly, he tells her that the gods exist in their valorized state because of the humans, expressing the logic of the power-structure of a country like India with some clarity.
In the meanwhile, Kalyani reminds Omkarananda of his own teaching about the supreme duty of a wife towards her husband. Vastavesh reminds him of the duty of guru (master). In short, a series of re-instatements of the symbolic order are announced, where everybody is bound by their pledges.
The final restitution of the Symbolic occurs when Narayana beseeches Lakshmi to now go and give impart her favours upon Vastavesh once more. This time, it is sure to succeed since here Lakshmi is a vassal of the wishes of her divine husband, while earlier, her machinations as an independent woman was sure to fail!
Omkarananda, Vastavesh and Kalyani pray together to Lakshmi and Narayana, at which point, Lakshmi comes and gives them 'darshana'. Significantly, Vastavesh offers to sacrifice his 'hand'--a phallic object of agency as well as aggression--that touched the goddess as a rite of passage into a renewed sovereignty, now complete under the divine symbolic order. And expectedly, it is the touch of the pious wife that reinstates the vision of Vastavesh.
Although not exactly a remarkable example of film craft, Abatar foregrounds the symbolic logic of post-colonial sovereignty in a manner that is quite striking.