Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Mando Meyer Upakhyan is a film that has many layers. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag deconstructs it from a post-modern perspective. Excerpts from a study published in Silhouette Vol 2, 2003.
Postmodernism and Critical theory often together mentioned as Culture Studies are broad rubrics for intellectual movements rather than specific theories. Though basically deriving from Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Modernism and Social Semiotic Analysis, Postmodernism and Jacques Derrida’s Deconstruction theory are of prime importance to students of Culture Studies and art theoreticians. Postmodernism is hard to define because it’s a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines and areas of study including art, technology, architecture, sociology, history, fashion and so on. Postmodernism inherits a lot from modernism viz. emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing, a blurring of distinction between genres, rejecting boundaries between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art, emphasizing irony, parody, etc., favouring self-consciousness, discontinuity, reflexivity, ambiguity, with special emphasis on destructured, decentred, dehumanised subject. However, Postmodernism differs from Modernism in its attitude towards a lot of these trends. Modernism tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history but presents the fragmentation as tragic. Post modernism, in contrast, doesn’t lament the idea of fragmentation and incoherence but celebrates it. To put it simply, the postmodernist finds it to be his duty to ‘deconstruct’ the existing network of all elementary assumptions in terms of which every aspect of our experience, knowledge and existence is interrelated and interpreted so that no one particular belief is more ‘true’ or important than any other. The concept of truth is thus relative to the individual.
Derrida’s concept of Deconstruction and Differance
Derrida, one of the proponents of the concept of Deconstruction as a Postmodernist theory observed that the Western philosophy has analysed the world from time immemorial in terms of binary opposites: good v/s evil, man v/s woman, mind v/s body and so on. Each pair is organised hierarchically –first term enjoying supremacy over the second one. These binary opposites, according to Derrida came from the concept of ‘centre’, which he discussed in his book ‘Of Grammatology’. A ‘centre’ is something that guarantees meaning for everything else and all Western thoughts according to Derrida are based on the concept of ‘centre’. But all ‘centres’ exclude and automatically marginalise others, e.g., male-centred culture marginalises woman, Brahmin-centred cultures marginalise Non-Brahmins and so on. Deconstruction unveils the techniques by which the ‘centre’ masquerades as the ‘centre’. Deconstruction subverts the traditional ‘centre’ by establishing the ‘Other’ as the ‘Centre’. This shows that there is another way to read/interpret things, i.e., there is no one cultural meaning of a text. A staircase can be seen from below of from above, a circle can be seen as a convex or a concave—neither alone, is the true picture and you can switch from one to other.
For Derrida, all texts exhibit ‘Differance’: they allow multiple interpretations. According to him, all language is constituted by ‘differance’ which means ‘to differ’ and ‘to defer’ – “words are to be deferred presences of the things they mean, and their meaning is grounded in difference”. For example, take the case of the binary opposites ‘good v/s evil’. Our concept of either depends on our understanding of how they differ and defer from the other. Any one means nothing without the comparison and contrast with the other. Part of one’s definition is embedded in the other. Thus, meaning depends on ‘differance’. A point to note here is that, while studying the concepts of binary opposites, Derrida revealed the fundamental binarism that privileges speech over writing (speech v/s writing) and he wanted to subvert that. ‘Differance’ in French is exactly the same in speech as ‘difference’. However, in writing there is a difference between these two terms (‘a’ and ‘e’). This proves writing is superior to speech and Derrida thus reversed the positions of speech and writing.
Through deconstruction and differance, Derrida allows for the text to be opened up to numerous meanings and interpretations.
Mando Meyer Upakhyan: a Deconstructive reading
I have taken up Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s film Mando Meyer Upakhyan (henceforth referred to as MMU) for my study.
What lies at the centre of MMU? Journey. Actually, there can be these three journeys:
All these coexist as the central theme of MMU. But is that all? Instead of a single being we can interpret the centre as an inherent plurality, of multiple possibilities. How is it if we can depict the central theme of MMU as the struggle between the good and the evil? And here again by ‘Differance’, the good and the evil interchange their place rapidly. The prostitute Rajani can be depicted as a ‘good’ mother when she sings a rhyme for her daughter to sleep and she, the same person, turns ‘evil’ when she tries to get a fixed ‘babu’ for her daughter disregarding her daughter’s penchant for studies and unwillingness to continue her mother’s profession. So, the character of Rajani opens up multiple possibilities for exploration, each different as the mood changes in the film.
Still another ‘centre’ maybe ‘Non-communication’. We can find a line of white ants who, it is told, can communicate among themselves. But we human beings have frozen from inside. There are stark and vivid renditions of the Non-communication theme. Large landscapes remain empty while a vehicle crosses the insurmountable gap from one end. The camera never finds any interacting object at the other end and the communication doesn’t start.
So, in essence, what is the ‘essence’ of the ‘centre’ of MMU? It basically is made up of all three and perhaps many more for its interpretation, analysis, and study. The structure of the ‘centre’ is split here into three and these possibilities open more centres.
Another point to note here is that we cannot, simply cannot, hierarchize these or other centres. As with ‘speech v/s writing’, Derrida forcefully proves that ‘speech’ is inferior to ‘writing’ (to prove at end that both are equal), this concept of ‘violent hierarchy’ can be attributed to any text and it forms a key component of Deconstruction theory. For example, a general perception in case of MMU maybe that ‘Journey’ is superior to ‘Non-communication’ while reading the film. By ‘violent hierarchy’, we can reverse this since ‘Non-communication’ is a theme which repeats in several Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s films. So, in this regard, we can hierarchize the different centres according to our own choice.
To carry on further with Derridean deconstruction if we forcibly hierarchize the structure of the centre we can have ‘Journey’/’Non-communication’ as one possibility. As a further practice, we must separately deconstruct both these terms. To deconstruct ‘Journey’ we must find out its centre(s) which can be the three journeys I mentioned at the start of this section as well as an insight into the socio-cultural standpoint of each of the three distinct entities. We can for example create a ‘violent hierarchy’ then as ‘evil’(Rajani)/ ‘good’ (Rajani’s daughter) or the other way round. We can form another hierarchy as ‘cat’/ ‘human’ and then deconstruct each structure again.
Similarly, we must deconstruct ‘Non-communication’ and must identify its centre(s). We must go through the cinematic language of Buddhadeb Dasgupta or that of cinema in general as well as look into the underlying text (the short story by Prafulla Roy and the poems of the director which have been used here as a narrative). We can hierarchize these centres, change their hierarchies and breakup individual centres into subsequent structures again following deconstructive ways.
So far, I have sought to find out centres in MMU. I proposed three centres with possibilities for many more. I have shown that each of these centres has centres within, which can be deconstructed into multiple centres again and so on. A point to be remembered here is that a single ‘centre’ can’t define the ‘total’ film, it’s only a part of the total. All centres sum up the total and after exploring several centres there remain a lot many waiting to be explored. This leads to the Derridean concept— “the centre is not the centre”. Derrida writes, “Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no centre, that the centre could not be thought in form of a present being, that the centre had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of non-locus in which an infinite number of sign substitutions came into play”. We have seen that MMU doesn’t have any single fixed centre. For analysis let’s take out a single centre, viz. ‘Journey’ and find as above that it had “no natural site” but a function where “an infinite number of sign substitutions came into play”. We can take the journey of the cat. Initially we see the cat as fearful of the human presence. Then we find it jumping from the top of the frame during the girl’s dream sequence with the moon – the cat’s journey from moon gets complete. We find the cat then at the top of a rugged tree reminiscent of the level it achieved after the journey. Finally, one can find it coming towards the camera – confidence oozing out of its stout exterior. With these sign substitutions, we get a clearer picture of the cat’s significance as well as the concept of ‘journey’ as one of the centres.
Another sequence can be cited here where the jeep driver first drives a prostitute near her destination. He asks her to get down from the jeep since he will not enter the ‘bad’ area. The prostitute doesn’t have the entire fare and offers her body in return. She starts undressing at the progress of the driver. A flying hawk came from nowhere and started circling above them indicating a bad omen and perhaps deciding the conscience of the driver. A number of signs got exhibited here—the red-light area treated by the driver as the ‘evil’ place, yet he instinctively wants to satisfy his sexual desires with the prostitute, the presence of the hawk, the driver moves back to his original mental standpoint.
There have been indications of the postmodern world and society in MMU—sex, violence and the “presentable of the unpresentable”. Violence is shown here with much restraint and as inevitable. The murder of one of the prostitute’s husband seemed preplanned. As if death was waiting in the wings for long, patiently, in the disguise of the murderer. Also, the overdose of sex and violence which the decadent, rich businessman watched (rather he slept in the hall) in the pornographic films were shown as a very casual event. As if it was natural that he continues his slumber in front of the erotic scenes—a motif indicating the human insensitivity in a postmodern world. Also important is the homosexual attitude of the three prostitutes before they embark into their new life. These images and signs depict the “presentable of the unpresentable” notion in a post-modern world.
(A more elaborate version of this article was published in Silhouette Vol 2, 2003)
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