Where We Rats Lurk
Author: Ram Krishna Ranjan
Published: June 2023
A descriptive transcript can be accessed here.
The Bengal Famine of 1943, which resulted in nearly five million deaths, is considered one of the most catastrophic and murderous instances of British colonial rule in India (Sen 1981; Sengupta 2016). While the Famine has been studied extensively from an anti-colonial perspective (Mukerjee 2010; Tharoor 2017), adequate attention has not been paid to the subaltern questions, even more so in literary and visual representations of the Famine (Kaur 2014). In this context, my doctoral research in artistic practice asks – how can the film practice, both as a method and an outcome of the inquiry, be mobilised to explore epistemological and ontological understandings of the Bengal Famine from a subaltern perspective. Also, how can the film practice be moved closer to subaltern epistemologies and ontologies?
Since my doctoral research is practice-based research in film, practice is both a mode of inquiry and an outcome. My research involves creating ‘new’ filmic work based on fieldwork research and/or studio experiments, but an integral part of my research also is to engage with existing films on the Bengal Famine critically. In the early stages of my PhD, instead of simply reviewing and writing about the films, which in a conventional sense will be called mapping the field, I wanted to cast a critical subaltern eye on the existing films by way of reflective intervention in and through the craft and practice of film itself. Moreover, these interventions were also exercises in understanding my research better and rehearsing the dilemmas, paradoxes, and imaginaries of my own efforts to make films on the Bengal Famine. The video work Where We Rats Lurk has emerged in this context and can be seen as an intervention in Mrinal Sen’s film Akaler Sandhane, one of the most prominent films on the Bengal Famine.
What are the limits of self-reflexivity and auto-critique in Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane and can they be unsettled without undermining their critical potential in filmmaking practices? Is it possible to pursue this unsettlement through inflecting Sen’s film with a fable, that emanates from a space of subalternity? Moreover, can this unsettlement be enacted in and through the practice of film itself?
Using the strategy of a film within a film, Akaler Sandhane deals with both the famine and an urban filmmaker’s efforts to make a film about the famine, using as their location a village that the famine had seriously affected. Long influenced by Brechtian and reflexive filmmakers from Europe such as Godard and Fellini, Sen’s self-reflexivity and critique in this film is aimed not only at revealing the filmic process but also at interrogating the capacities and incapacities of an urban filmmaker’s attempt to ‘authentically’ represent the rural and the (im)possibility of such a film (Pathiraja & Hanan 2006). Akaler Sandhane contains:
his most profound meditations on issues that have preoccupied him all his life: the nature of film; realism in film; the problematic nature of film; the political and moral function of the filmmaker; the question of commitment; and the crisis of conscience faced by the bourgeois left-wing filmmaker. (Ganguly 2000, p. 56).
This is best captured in one of the scenes where the prices of essential commodities in the village have soared because of the film crew and a local man observes, ‘‘They came to film a famine and sparked off another one’’ (Akaler Sandhane, 1981).
While establishing the connection between colonial rule and the Famine, the search is as much within for Sen. Using interpenetration – letting the film being made in the film to interpenetrate his film – Sen, on several occasions, blurs the line between past and present. We are not certain whether we are watching Sen’s film or viewing takes from the film about 1943 famine being shot by the crew. This, then, becomes a device a to make sure that the event of Bengal Famine is not relegated to a distant past. Sen is interested in implicating the post-independence Indian state and society for failing to obliterate starvation and poverty. Akaler Sandhane’s radical political imaginaries come from the film’s consistent focus on working against the far-too-common impulse of “invest(ing) in the past since it makes fewer demands on one’s conscience” (ibid, pp. 56-57) in the present. The scene which brings out this the most is toward the end of the film when there is a complete breakdown in relations between the villagers and the film crew. With regards to a village girl playing a prostitute, a schoolteacher from the area points out that the villagers are objecting to it not because the film crew has roped in a local girl to play the role of a prostitute but because the film exposes the exploitative behaviour of landowners in the village at the time of the famine. By the end, the relations between the film crew and the villagers have worsened to the extent that the film within the film cannot be finished there, and the only solution for Sen’s director is to recreate the famine in the confined studios of Calcutta. Sen gives the same name to both his film and the film being made in his film and therefore, what we watch is Sen’s finished film, and yet at the same time, there is a sense of incompletion. In a way, Akaler Sandhane, “suggests that the only way such a film can be made is by pointing out how it cannot be made” (Ganguly 2000, p. 58).
The scene which exemplifies the self-reflexivity and auto-critique in Akaler Sandhane the most involves a guessing game on a rainy day when the director and actors within Sen’s film look at images of famine and try to guess the year they were taken. This explicates the problematics of lens reducing the famine to a mere photographed reality. Sen underlines the dissonance and dissatisfaction emerging out of the film medium itself. However, the question that I was most intrigued by – if Akaler Sandhane was Sen’s attempt at self-reflexivity and auto-critique then is it possible to submit this “critique to examination in a way that might either allow us to strengthen its methods and rhetoric, or to find new modes of (…) work that might be blind spots of critique’s style of thinking” (Selisker 2016)? Modernist self-reflexive cinema, which Akaler Sandhane is known for, is, in a way, an extension of internalist critique tradition where unmasking the self-narrative of incapacities is an integral part of its project, but the problem is that it still operates with ‘self’ as the centre of the narrative. Sen is moving between stories that he has created; the filmmaker is in a dialogue with himself. What happens when this dialogue is inflected by or is in conversation with subaltern narratives? Is it possible to subject Sen’s film to the same scrutiny he subjects his fictional filmmaker and crew to? This was an interesting proposition that served as a motivation for my intervention in Sen’s film.
I first encountered the fable Rat in Kahankar : Ahankar (Story Maker : Story Taker), a film by K. P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro. This film juxtaposes outsiders’ accounts of the Warli community (an indigenous community from western India) with accounts of how the community views outsiders. For instance, in one of the stories the community has for the outsiders, a rat with a thorn in his tail shows up in a village asking for help. Without realising his intentions, an Adivasi (indigenous) woman decides to help him. Through a series of manipulative tricks, the rat with a thorn in his tail becomes the rat with a few baskets, the rat with many pots, the rat with lots of vegetables, the rat with a big bullock and eventually, the rat with the Adivasi’s wife. This fable operates in and as a repository of collective memory that responds to their views of outsiders – it works as an allegory of exploitation by outsiders.
By reappropriating Sen’s film and combining that with the fable and footage from my fieldwork-filming in Midnapore, Bengal, I am striving to inflect filmmakers’ (both Sen and I) consciousness with subaltern consciousness. In the first draft of this video work, I had not included myself, but after I came back from the fieldwork-filming, it became clear to me that I had to implicate myself in this intervention as it would be disingenuous on my part to stay outside of the ethical, political and creative dilemmas. Also, it became obvious to me during the fieldwork-filming that irrespective of the intentions of the ‘outsider’ filmmaker to bridge the power differential or to be critically reflective about it, the distinction between the filmmaker’s consciousness and subaltern consciousness can’t be collapsed. The same is true of Sen’s film – while it highlights the incapacities of films and filmmakers and renumerates the exploitative nature of filmmaking, it’s not quite the same as subaltern consciousness. Subaltern consciousness is about awareness, on the part of subalterns, of ideologies and structures that make and keep them on the margins and exercising agency against those structures to imagine and enact a better future, even if it’s partial or fragmentary (Sircar, 2016). While it might seem on the surface that the subaltern consciousness and consciousness shown by Sen are the same, I would argue that it is not. For instance, in its enunciation of exploitation, the fable Rat operates at a different register than how it is constructed and presented in Akaler Sandhane.
After Spivak’s (1988) emphatic pronouncement that the subalterns cannot speak, the idea that every expression by elites on subalterns is necessarily a version of self-expression gained currency (Sabin 2008). The best they can do is render visible the workings of power (ibid). In her later lectures and essays, Spivak clarifies that her critique of subaltern school was based on the inability of the elites to either learn or speak the register of the subaltern. Her later deliberations indicate that the silencing she invoked in her essay is neither absolute nor permanent. In the wake of these formulations, subaltern scholars, in recent years, have reoriented their work towards questions of mishearing – as opposed to the question of whether subalterns can speak or not, the more pressing question is whether the elites can remedy their deliberate mishearing and learn to listen attentively (de Jong & Muscat 2016; Byrd & Rothburg 2011). In very concrete terms, the shift from speaking to listening means paying close attention to subaltern epistemologies and ontologies and developing a better understanding of subaltern consciousness and resistance. The video work Where We Rats Lurk captures my attempt to enact this shift. In its essence, my intervention is geared towards engaging with the complex question of exchange between the subaltern and a film practitioner like Sen (or I) when there is such inescapable socio-cultural-economic incommensurability. The video work is not animated by the theoretical skepticism that every subaltern work is doomed to fail or produce subalternities in the process of engaging with the ‘other’. I am not interested in dismissing the subaltern work completely. Even if it fails, it’s worthy of pursuing because it produces an analysis of power and foregrounds the ambition of radical change. In fact, I started from an admiration for Sen’s imaginative capacity to question the problematic nature of filmmaking practice and a filmmaker’s moral and ethical function. Only upon a close reading of the film I realised that something interesting might emerge if I complicate the self-reflexivity and auto-critique in Sen’s film by way of critical intervention in and through the medium of the film itself. The fable Rat became a narrative device for me to anchor my intervention as I found the fable to operate in and as a repository of collective memory that responds to their views of outsiders. Moreover, the fable and inherent resistance in it are also indicative of subaltern consciousness.
Self-reflexivity and auto-critique in filmmaking practices have come to mean displaying self-awareness in terms of power relations. Through my intervention, I am trying to argue that by letting subaltern narratives inflect our own ‘self-reflexive’ positions and methods of critique, we can submit these positions and methods to examination in a way that it strengthens its rhetoric and method. But more than that, it opens a search for the limits of internalist auto-critique; it contaminates and unsettles the determinant indeterminacy of self-reflexivity.
Trinh T. Minh-ha’s (1991, p. 194) formulation “to create is to understand and to understand is to re-create” has influenced the methodological underpinning of this work substantially. As stated earlier, I see this work as a critical intervention in an existing film. In other words, offering and expressing reflection by reworking-recreating the film as source material. I also drew from the tradition of moving-image appropriation, which has had a long history in avant-grade and experimental traditions (Baron 2014; Wees 1993). In my reworking-recreating of Akaler Sandhane, I have appropriated the content, put it in conversation with another work and experimented with the form to understand and unsettle ethical, definitional, methodological and aesthetic assumptions about reflexivity, auto-critique, subalternity and film practice. While this work is an intervention in an existing work, I wanted to make it a self-contained filmic work in its own right; a special emphasis was put on constructing the intervention to allow the work to stand on its own outside of the original film/context.
This work is part of the larger body of my practice-based doctoral research. This submission is the first dissemination of this work outside the University of Gothenburg, where I am currently doing my PhD. I teach a week-long intensive titled Critical Interventions in and through Film in the MA film program, and I have shown this work as an example in the intensive. I intend to submit this work for festivals and conferences dedicated to research-based film practices.
Baron, J. (2014) The archive effect: Found footage and the audiovisual experience of history. New York: Routledge.
Byrd, J. A., & Rothberg, M. (2011) ‘Between Subalternity and Indigeneity’. Interventions. 13(1), pp. 1–12.
de Jong, S., & Mascat, J. M. H. (2016) ‘Relocating subalternity: scattered speculations on the conundrum of a concept’. Cultural Studies. 30(5), pp. 717–729.
Ganguly, S. (2000) ‘A Cinema on Red Alert: Mrinal Sen’s Interview and In Search of Famine’. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 35(1), pp. 55–70.
Goldsmith, L. (2017) ‘A MOVIE BY . . . Appropriation, authorship, and the ecologies of the moving image’. First Monday. Available from: https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7265 [accessed 25 May 2022]
Kaur, R. (2014) ’The Vexed Question of Peasant Passivity: Nationalist Discourse and the Debate on Peasant Resistance in Literary Representations of the Bengal Famine of 1943’. Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 50(3), pp. 269–281.
Minh-ha, T.T. (1991) When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. London: Routledge.
Mukerjee, M. (2010) Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II. Boulder: Basic Books.
Mukherjee J. (2015) Hungry Bengal: War, Famine and the End of Empire. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pathiraja, D. & Hanan, D. (2006) ‘Center, periphery, and famine in Distant Thunder and In Search of Famine’. In C. Fowler and G. Helfield., eds, Representing the rural: Space, place, and identity in films about the land. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 104-118.
Sabin, M. (2008). ‘In Search of Subaltern Consciousness’. Prose Studies. 30(2), pp. 177–200.
Sen, A. (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press.
Sengupta, D. (2016). ‘A metropolis of hunger: Calcutta’s poetry of the famine’. Coldnoon: International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures. 5(1). Available from: http://coldnoon.com/a-metropolis- of-hunger-cal- cuttas-poetry-of-the-famine-1943/ [accessed 25 May 2018]
Sircar, S. (2016). Between the Highway and the Red Dirt Track Subaltern Urbanization and Census Towns in India, PhD thesis, Lund University. Available from: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/17057823/Srilata_Sircar_Between_the_Highway_and_the_Red_Dirt_Track_electronic_copy.pdf [accessed 10 April 2022]
Spivak, G. (2013) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ In P. Williams & L. Chrisman., eds, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Routledge, pp. 66-111.
Tharoor, S. (2017) Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India. London: Hurst.
Wees, W.C. (1993) Recycled images: The art and politics of found footage films. New York: Anthology Film Archives.
Akaler Sandhane (Mrinal Sen, 1981, D.K. Films, India).
Kahankar : Ahankar (Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, 1996, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India).
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
Where We Rats Lurk is a story that moves between three narratives. Satyajit Ray’s film Ashani Sanket (1973), Mrinal Sen’s film Akaler Sandhane (1981) and an indigenous Warli fable, Rats. The situation explored is the Bengal famine and the telling of this history through film.
What is unique about this work is that in employing the Adivasi fable alongside and in conversation with the self-critique of filmmaking offered through the other two films, the work includes a subaltern perspective on the filmmaker as the outsider. What is less obvious but critically significant in the examination of the limits and subjectivities of storytelling through the medium of filmmaking, is the fourth narrative – Where We Rats Lurk. The filmmaker includes and implicates himself in this narrative in his commitment to investigate self-reflexivity and auto-critique through his own positionality as a filmmaker and outsider to the story of the famine. Not placing himself centrally in the narrative and having not focussed on this aspect while shooting on the field is what makes the work effective. The visual language of his inclusion in the film is not as considered, and though possibly inadvertent, makes it effective as a visual strategy that reveals itself in an honest yet non self-deprecating way. It offers his positionality through a lens that is not visually refined and perhaps therefore more convincing as a position from which to be seen – as a work in progress and as reflective in its reflexivity offering itself as ‘unsettled’.
The statement and the theoretical context provided by the author is sound and offers a nuanced reading into the context and inquiries of the work. In listening to the subaltern it seeks out and submits to traditional storytelling forms residing in subaltern visual cultures in which these perspectives reside. The inclusion is sensitive and avoids opening up the dialogue beyond the intended inquiry keeping it succinct and poignant. It is the inclusion of the fable, a concession to the value it holds and in listening to it, it inverts the gaze of who is being looked at, the subject of the story, towards who is conventionally doing the looking, the filmmaker. Herein lies it’s power.
Review 2: Accept submission for publication with no amendments.
Where We Rats Lurk presents an innovative and rigorous practice-based methodology used to explore subaltern representations of famine. The film within a film structure serves to unsettle, disrupt and reposition narratives of the famine. The attempt to place the self-reflective filmmaking techniques of Mrinal Sen in reflective conversation with subaltern narratives is complex and revealing. I would recommend publication without changes. However, I have included some reflections on the screenwork and statement below. The “film within a film” technique within the screenwork itself lacks some clarity for viewers not familiar with the two films themselves. It is not immediately apparent as to which clips come from which films or exactly what clips are from the author themselves. Whilst this could be clearer, this doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall impact of the film.
The method section could be expanded upon. The author takes as a starting point Trinh T. Minh-ha’s (1991, p. 194) formulation “to create is to understand and to understand is to re-create”. As it stands, this statement is somewhat reductive. I would be intrigued to read a more fully developed interpretation of Minh-ha’s work as filmmaking method. This work would fall outside of the scope of this submission, but it is something worthy of a more thorough investigation.
One key component is missing from the reflective statement, and that is a reflection upon or an acknowledgment of the author’s own political, cultural and class position in relation to the subjects they are engaging with. It is unclear as to whether the author is a member of the communities they are filming or if they are working from an outside position. This piece of information would have an impact on the reading of the film. It would also have an impact on the self-reflective methodological approach to the film-practice. Some more explicit references to Godard and Fellini’s work would be welcomed, as the author states that these filmmakers have influenced the work. Fellini and Godard are very different filmmakers, and Godard in particular has worked across a wide variety of genres, forms and political orientations.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.