GULABI TALKIES: Politics of Image, Image of Politics at 2008 Kolkata Film Festival

BY SUDDHASATYA GHOSH. 2008 KOLKATA FILM FESTIVAL, INDIA (CINEMA MINIMA) — I must start with an incident inside the movie theatre. This theatre is an old one, named Basushree. Our good filmmakers often had opened their movies here in the past. Now, like all other theatres it is in a form of decadence. Cine Central has to cope up with odds every time for this festival. But that’s the way it is.

Let’s get back to the incident. An old gentleman was seating by my side. He had his spouse with him. In the end part of GULABI TALKIES, Gulabi was showing her strength and independence even against religiously motivated and male-dominated fisher folks. At that time I heard that gentleman was asking his wife to leave, because she had to cook at night. She — an elderly woman too — was refusing. It went till the last shot and — by being refused — that gentleman took offence and had left the theatre before his wife. She sat there till the last shot. I was engrossed in thoughts — Is she another Gulabi in another class? Does she has that serious strength to laugh at all odds and go for a ride through bitterest span of life?

Director Girish Kasaravalli has weaved a narrative that is centred on a middle-aged character of Muslim lineage, and that Gulabi has become strong enough to fight against all odds. She takes things positively. At the beginning we find her as a regular movie goer who passes her time in a make-belief world to forget her own shattered life. This is the case with every ordinary folk in this part of the world and I think this has a universal character too. Therefore movies have become a powerful tool in the hands of oppressors around the world.

In return to her skilful midwife work she receives a colour television with a cable connection from another woman, Kalyani. Kalyani is a flesh-trader in that part of Kannada fisher folk village. Gulabi — with the power of this new weapon — connects her life with those of other villagers. Earlier she was left by her husband and villagers, who are mostly dominant Hindus, did think her untouchable. Now she gets into their woman folks proximity. Some become close enough to share there dreams and sorrows. She gradually leaves her obsession with song and dance movie sequence to join television serials and in her characteristic way she takes a positive lead from that too. She advices other woman to combat her mother in-law like the fictional character of a serial and she too shoes away her husband who came to her house after many years to see the television and commits adultery again in her absence.

Musa Kakka, her husband — who on being Muslim does not dither away to marry more than once — is a scum indeed. But that has nothing to do with his religion. He serves under a Suleman master, who has petrodollar finance and good boats and a factory for fish even. Musa lures labours with money and gradually buys administration to get a grab in the local market. Most Hindu fisher merchants like Vasanna have to suffer from the attack of Suleman’s big money and therefore they rise into opposition with the help of a religiously fundamental fascist political party.

In the meantime, in the time-space of this movie that is set in the period of Bharatiya Janata Party‘s rule in the centre Kargil War breaks free. A war for a few metres of ice-clad land with shadow fighters of Kashmir independence and who are supposedly backed by India’s neighbour Pakistan and this war have left many a questions than proper answers. But on the basis of that war this political party tries to drum up a fanaticism of so-called patriotism that even targets our Gulabi.

She is walking through a road when some boys ask her to contribute in Kargil war fund to help the soldiers. She does not bother to know anything of that sort and she is used to switch-off her cable connected television at the time of News. So she avoids them. A man from the other side of the road who is Hindu donates and comments that Muslims are not ever bothered to help India as norms. This is a real belief in our general Hindu domain that every Muslims are opposed to India in any form of combat, may it be cricket (that is very popular here) or in the real battlefield.

Girish scores here absolutely. He handles the tension of business to its logical conclusion of political rivalry and then has dealt a master stroke. At the height of tension he lets us know that Indian government has approved Germany and Japan to fish into its deep shores. He sublimely puts a question on this political party’s nationalist agenda and at the end through a subtitle announces that at that point of time government of Karnataka had made a policy to give at least one television to each village. That means the propaganda machinery needs reception and by that only it assures itself of a fanatic following. Presently in India we see that each and every Tele network has a political bias and that is not just coincidental.

Girish knows the politics of image and therefore he deals it carefully. Gulabi, who is engrossed in make-believe world of television, enters her tinny hut after she shoos away her adulterous husband. She switches off that television which sometime ago was entertaining her husband and now she slumps to seat. We see it through the television screen in reflection. It goes on for long to understand that how captive we are in that idiot box and how shallow it is as it never depicts any Gulabi at all. Even at the end when Gulabi on being accused of woman trafficking is being evicted from that Hindu-dominated village forcefully, Girish rises to the occasion. He sets Gulabi to seat leg folded like an idol that Hindus are used to worship and finally the one who is familiar with this iconic value will understand that this is the time of immersion. As she sits in the boat alone, a boy — who is the elder child of Vasanna the conspirator — goes to her. He asks her to come again. This also resembles that goddess immersion process, where the ritual is to ask her to come again. Girish slaps the heinous fascist at the face from the rest of concerned India that is not Hindu or Muslim predominantly, that is human at the very base.

Well, I told you earlier that Girish is an interesting Indian face in moviedom. He is not much touted and yet he is powerful in his talks and silences. He is powerful in imageries too.

But here I must add something. He has made this film a bit long to handle this individual and political space. Somewhere down the line it urges for a finer blending. I fear that he has ten movies in one and that has become its problem. Again, this is quite logical in the present worldwide political scenario where giant corporations and monopolies are out to kill serious movies with the aid of state power and policies. Nowadays a good filmmaker does not know when exactly one can get another chance to make another movie. So that maker intends to share all with viewers in one go. That’s the most pathetic part of movie business now; and Girish Kasaravalli — as a committed filmmaker — I think has not escaped that feeling at all.

But at the end, GULABI TALKIES has become a true image of Indian politics. I think these thoughts of mine have a sharer in that elderly, yet strong lady and that is the most remarkable success of Girish’s GULABI TALKIES.

Buy the book at Amazon.com: Gulabi Talkies and Other Stories by a short story by Vaidehi (Janaki Srinivasa Murthy), translated into English from the Kannada-language original. Your purchase through this link supports Cinema Minima.