Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978) lashes out at the bourgeoisie, pledges to mobilize the working class and rings a virtual death knell for the oppressors.
Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s debut film is a slow and steady one. There is no feeling of tension until the last ten or fifteen minutes. The film opens up with shots of mill-workers engaged in various types of handiwork. Arvind Desai (played by Dilip Dhawan), the son of a wealthy businessman, owns that handicrafts shop in proper Mumbai. However he is evidently seen to be strangled by his existence in his own class. He is portrayed as the bourgeois who has sought the other highways of life typical of his class, other than employing himself as another profit-making machine. He dates his secretary once in a while, and keeps his shop to his subordinates to take care of.
Interestingly enough, he has a Marxist friend, Rajan (played by Om Puri), whom he strikes upon after many years in the city. He visits Ramesh’s house twice or thrice, once intrigued by a painting and the rest of the times distracted by a company of other Marxists, who hold regular sessions discussing Leftist political philosophy.
We slowly trace a further gradual detachment from a present way of life when he is fixed to be married to a very rich woman. He [perhaps] breaks up with his secretary over a trifle, engaged in deep frustration. His business starts to go down; he suspends one of his subordinates on accusations of corruption.
Some of the consequent shots include a random man at night shattering his car’s glasses to pieces. Seeing him walking next day, the suspended worker accosts him in the street, deriding him by caustic remarks, smacking of class differences.
It seems Mirza had something to say of bourgeois alienation is this regard. Marx in The Holy Family writes:
The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence.
Various scenes in the film, although they show the amount of depression in the protagonist alongside his sparks of sympathy for the working class, proclaim this view of alienation, as was finally concluded in the last five minutes of the film.
Every article on this film available on the web completely skirts the issue and takes on a typical populist approach to what they call an ‘art’ film, or the parallel cinema. Mirza, according to me, was never befitting of any of those litanies. Mirza, as I shall conclude in a moment, would be the Pontecorvo of Indian cinema, if not the Eisenstein.
Towards the end of the film, we expect some kind of a hero to come about (like we always do in Bollywood films) like in Arvind turning against his class himself and mobilizing the workers to a revolt. But instead we see a huge example of artistic cunning. Arvind goes around the entire room until he gets his loaded revolver. He puts it to his temple and then withdraws after a thought. He takes it into his lap and rubs it with a piece of cloth, only to accidentally shoot a bullet right into his heart. We see him getting up, stumbling across the carpet, discretely coloured with red droplets now, and falling down.
The last five seconds drift to the people at his mill. Now they are not shown working. They are in groups and they are staring at the viewer. The faces look uncanny and powerful, enough to send a chill down the mill-owner’s spine.
The last couples of scenes feel heavily similar to the last scenes in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1969), about a French-British colony and the failed colonial revolt. In Burn! we see Marlon Brando, an agent of colonial contradictions playing on both sides, leaving hurriedly from the colony. A black man comes and offers to hold his luggage, in the mean time, stabbing him to death. The final scene shows sections of the colonized people, in various groups, staring at the viewer, with the same uncanny and powerful sight.
Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan is not a propaganda film. Mirza does not make propaganda films, although his political ideology seems clear after three of his parallel cinema films. ADKAD is a process in the conscience of a revolution. It does not seek to arouse the masses, as revolutionary theatre or propaganda films do, but it assumes that the masses will be aroused and will come to get you back. The blood spilling over Arvind’s white shirt depicts the accidental attack one-ten-hundreds-thousands-millions-billions of bourgeoisie will face from all directions in the near future. This film is not a call to arms. This film reminds the oppressors of their vulnerable positions and the hollow ground beneath their feet.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in one of his celebrated prefaces to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, writes on Europe on the verge of being retributed for its barbarism in the third world:
Thus the day of magicians and fetishes will end; you will have to fight, or rot in concentration camps. This is the end of the dialectic; you condemn this war but do not yet dare to declare yourselves to be on the side of the Algerian fighters; never fear, you can count on the settlers and the hired soldiers; they’ll make you take the plunge. Then, perhaps, when your back is to the wall, you will let loose at last that new violence which is raised up in you by old, oft-repeated crimes. But, as they say, that’s another story: the history of mankind. The time is drawing near, I am sure, when we will join the ranks of those who make it.
ADKAD is primarily aimed at the audience it is meant to, that is, the bourgeoisie. Every one should take a look at it, at least once, nevertheless. Although this throws revolution to the future and proffers abstract fear, this can no doubt do the job of threat. Films like these are in need today, when trash and Indian cinema exchange places through time and space.