Art and the Obstinate Expectations of Avant-Gardism
Cinema, like literature, should be judged on absolute terms and not relatively; every work of art breathing a life of its own does not bear the burden of living up to expectations which are subconsciously institutionalized and impressed upon the minds of connoisseurs as some measure of merit, defeating the purpose of art being the complete opposite of confinement and scrutiny.
“Platonic minds expect life to be like film, with defined terminal endings; a-Platonic ones expect film to be like life and, except for a few irreversible conditions such as death, distrust the terminal nature of all human-declared endings.”
– Naseem Nicholas Taleb, “The Bed of Procrustes”.
For the mouths of cinema lovers who have stretched out their tongues to taste everything from Swedish to Iranian and African to Japanese cinema, Mukkabaaz turned out to be placid, lacking a tenacity which could grip your heart and land a punch right where it would hurt, fleeting in its narrative like a regular unnoticeable co-passenger on your everyday local train, like the elevator symphony (which you cannot distinguish from Beethoven but would label mediocre for the sake of it), unadventurous, devoid of metaphors and dialogues that can fit as the postscripts of sincere love letters, too ordinary, too realistic, not typical of Anurag Kashyap like Wild Strawberries was not typical of Ingmar Bergman and The Elephant Man was not typical of David Lynch.
Susan Sontag writes in her essay Against Interpretation,“ None of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did. From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art.” The prejudice of the elite obstructs the very establishment that modern cinema wanted to overthrow; standardization, constructs, restrictive definitions of what qualifies for “good enough”, a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work and a wish to replace it by something else. Mukkabaaz was reduced to the linearity of its content, while what makes it stand alone as a piece of art was totally missed, that is, the form rather than the content. A portrait of ordinary human life where politics, culture, and relationships intertwine and find themselves entangled in an irresolvable, unyielding knot.
The love story of Sunaina and Shravan is a wordless one that does not fit into the conventional expectations from an “affair”; in it all that is understood is in the language of sacrifice and promises, where the seams of trust(well-knit with assuring reciprocation and inexhaustible love to pour into one another’s hearts) bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless minds. But their fates are not equally spotless. The battle begins every time Shravan steps out of the boxing arena, and life knocks him out as many times as he gathers the courage to tighten his gloves- once when he resists to accept apprenticeship is synonymous to slavery, again, when he mistakes a wedding for a happy ending, again, with the hard-hitting realization that government jobs are more about tolerance and hierarchy than discipline and honour, and for the final time when he realizes that some battles are won not by obstinacy but by compromise. That ambition is but a small trade-off if on the other side of the table, there is stability, love, security and comfort. That at some points of life you must have your tea, even if it means to abandon the hyped worldly pursuits of passion and success(or as one of the songs puts it, “Bahut hua samaan, tumhari aisi taisi”).
In a world where there is plenty of Samuel Beckett, Thomas Hardy, Faulkner and Proust, there is still a lot of space left for Jack Kerouac, Saunders and Salinger. In the Indian context, read this film like a book by Aravind Adiga or Jeet Thayil or Rohinton Mistry. “The old style of interpretation was insistent but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one.”, Sontag continues. “The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.””
Andrei Tarkovsky proves my point in a much clearer way, talking about art as a spiritual journey rather than a conclusive debate: “Artistic creation, after all, is not subject to absolute laws, valid from age to age; since it is related to the more general aim of mastery of the world, it has an infinite number of facets, the vincula that connect man with his vital activity; and even if the path towards knowledge is unending, no step that takes man nearer to a full understanding of the meaning of his existence can be too small to count. Art must carry man’s craving for the ideal, must be an expression of his reaching out towards it; that art must give man hope and faith. And the more hopeless the world in the artist’s version, the more clearly perhaps must we see the ideal that stands in opposition – otherwise, life becomes impossible! Art symbolizes the meaning of our existence.”