My male cousin, two years older to me, the only filmmaker in my mother’s dynasty, died of a massive cerebral attack recently. Pam called me up this morning to say that he, this cousin, is no more. He leaves behind his ageing parents, his married siblings, and wife and adolescent children. I have not seen him for the past thirty years, never knew when he married and who he married; never knew what films he made and where they were being exhibited. It seems that he did make a feature film or two which were shown in “Delhi” as yet a very distant place for me some forty years back. Later, I inferred that he must have got a Prasar Bharati grant to make some children’s films. But he did make some promotional films for the Government of West Bengal, visited some important directors of his time like Satyajit Ray, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and much later, Mrinal Sen.
Yet, these were small successes that broke the prolonged struggle. He was neither a bad photographer, nor a bad composer of the misc-en-scen and he was annoyingly subservient to the Master Director, Ray himself. Despite these cousin never made it; in short, he never arrived. Slowly he went down, came to depend on his father, stretched the family resources, left huge unpaid bills, quarreled and fought with his family, withdrew from society, angry and depressed and finally succumbed to a fatal cerebral stroke.
I was reconstructing his life backwards in my memory. He was a fairly good student, expressive and creative. He would have made a great student of literature, or of fine art. But he was a good student, oldest of his three siblings and fortunate enough to be admitted in a school that has Satyajit Ray as its alumnus and hence science, he was to study. Clearly he plotted for his release from the boring routine of his curriculum and one way he tried to get away from all of this was to walk to Ray. In the Ray household he tried dabble as a sub-editor in a children’s magazine that the family edited and published and in fact, also got one of my writings that I did for a classwork in school published in the same magazine. That was my first peer reviewed publication. I was livid with rage after seeing it appear in Sandesh, the name of the magazine in discussion, because my cousin took away all the zing and instead, recasted it in a boring prosaic language. I immediately knew that he did not have the creativity required to be a copy writer, or a film maker.
But this cousin insisted on being a film maker. In the 1970’s that was what men yearned to do in order to gain acknowledgment and acceptance in the respected society. It was in the late 1960’s that Amitabh Bachchan, who was in Kolkata’s corporate world, also decided to join films; something was in the air that made people imagine that in order to move up to the creamiest layers of the society, one had to have something to do with films. Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Buddhadeb Dasgupta were role models for the Bong boy, because they were filmmakers and intellectuals too. The commercial formula film that revolved on Uttam Kumar was not respectable enough for one to be in and thank God for that because such films needed heavy investors and big time infrastructure including elaborate marketing networks. My cousin strategically chose the path of the parallel cinema or of the art film maker.
It appeared easy enough because the master directors all were apparently self taught. So cousin, being a good student, also could teach himself. He therefore, jumped immediately to being an assistant director to Ray and of course, Ray only allowed him to hang around, devoting neither the time nor patience to teach him the tricks of trade. What my cousin did not know was that there was so much to know about the trade. Ideally, one had to be trained, then one had to start really low below, and one had to know that one needed the right kind of contacts in the right kind of places, for which one either had to have money or political clout or belong to the right kind of family circles. Political ideology propagated of a free society, free democracy, film heroes could take charge of their own lives and solve their own problems, but such was not the reality. In reality, a space that ensured you social respectability was reserved for those who had various kinds of entitlements, economic, financial, social and political. My cousin, the aspiring filmmaker had none of the above.
Slowly cousin fell along the income curve; in the earlier days of the Left Front rule, when the party was recruiting new young persons, they did throw in some cookies to cousin. But cousin seemingly hailing from a different background remained aloof. Also, he never believed in using his art for political propaganda and therefore, in a scenario where the civil society was merging with the political society, cousin remained out of its bounds. Towards the end, he did polish his craft, he became sharper, mastered the art of light and shade, but he was only defending his position as a middle class and not critiquing it, and he never quite developed a point of view. That finally did him in, his never knowing what to stand against. I never really met him except fleetingly once as he was running to board the Rajdhani Express, but were I to do so, I could have at least told him that I have chanced upon a secret of artists, they create art by standing against something and not for something.
Cousin did not know what he had to stand against. He came from a social milieu where boys and girls were appearing for competitive examinations, IITs, IIMs which meant that they were playing by the rules of the game and not challenging them. Politically, the Left Rule made it an incentive to hunt with the foxes; soon, the Bengali cinema collapsed because popular art, public art, invariably stands against something rather than for it; theories of ideological propaganda read so contrived and conscious failing instead of succeeding to explain the popularity of such low brow, mechanically produced and mass distributed art. Everything in Bengal in those days only stood for the Left Rule.
As he failed repeatedly, he wanted to learn the art of making cinema professionally. He had little idea about the prospects, the Internet not being available and one really never knew where and how to get forms for the FTII. In any case, it was never easy to get forms that were issued over the counters in Pune from Kolkata; the office was never honest, they misled and even waylaid wannabe film directors who came from cities beyond Mumbai and Pune. It is strange that if one goes through the list of alumni of film direction in the 1970’s one finds such little representations from southern, eastern and northern states. Cousin now wanted to go abroad, his father was a middle class, salaried bank employee; so he relented. Cousin wanted money for his own production house, sometimes to pay a distributor upfront a sum of guarantee money; father was again a middle class middle income, salaried person employed in a nationalized bank. Filmmakers never say that they have rich fathers to back them up, rich families to cover their risks in business and so cousin did not know of this. He became very angry with his father.
As he fell off his income mark he was forced to move in with his father in the same house. A Bengali middle class is westernized where adult children usually do not stay on with parents. While novelists like Ashapurna Devi has acknowledged and ruefully articulated a parents’ agony when children wish to move away, little has been spoken about the parents’ agony when adult children insist on staying in the same establishment. Cousin’s parents were about to enjoy a little luxury off their measly pension when cousin descended upon them. Wife neither worked nor brought money from her parents; working women are seen to reduce the macho power of husbands and money from family is definitely the outlawed dowry. Cousin’s parents were hugely threatened because their savings depleted alarmingly and cousin started misbehaving with the very same parents who fantasized that he would be the great Director one day. His father repeatedly kept calling my mother up seeking protection against this exploitative son; he even thought of going to court to stop his son from further claiming his dwindling bank balance.
So it was nice that cousin died much sooner than have the court oust him, or the police book him on charges of harassing parents. His was a story of naivety by which millions of middle class believe that the world is full of opportunities for them. It is never so, it has been never so; family wealth, political contacts, alumni power, in short, social networks or gangs of supportive friends in right places dictate one’s chances in life. Cousin’s siblings are doing well; they never aspired to be anything more than school teachers and in their chosen profession they have reached the top.