The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 22, 2002

Journey as a symbol and metaphor
M. L. Raina

An Ambiguous Journey to the City: The Village and the Other Odd Ruins of the Self in Indian Imagination
by Ashish Nandy Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Pages XIII+146. Rs 345.

POPULAR film, as opposed to art film, is a democratic medium since it appeals to a large section of the masses and makes little pretense of intellectual refinement. It lends itself to an infinite number of approaches. The sociologist or cultural anthropologist uses it to study the nature of society. The Freudian psychologist considers the element of wish-fulfilment rippling under the social plot.

Ashish Nandy illuminatingly joins the methods of a cultural anthropologist and a Freudian psychologist to illustrate the ‘function’ of the popular film in representing social mores. He reminds me of the literary critic Leslie Fiedler who too projects the society’s cultural myths to grasp its collective character. Like Fiedler, Nandy reads the Indian social mores by focussing on some defining myths and symbols that underwrite it, especially in the film medium.

For him the myth of the journey, yatra, is central. "The journey as a trope for growth, learning, the unfolding of collective experience, and for life itself, has been a favourite of philosophers, scholars and mystics in South Asia for centuries," says Nandy, in the introductory statement. Not simply spiritual, as the word yatra would imply, it is also a territorial journey, particularly from the country to the city and back.

The journey symbolism is not unique to India. European literature and mythology make extensive use of pilgrimages and journeys while major structural devices in the European and American narratives involve a journey plot, ranging from the providential plots of Fielding to the picaresque movements in Cervantes and the wanderings of Ahab and Natty Bumpo. This journey is also laden with moral and spiritual meanings as in the Indian journey pattern.

In the Indian context, particularly with the colonial metropolis, the city has been regarded as the place where self-definition can be achieved and the country as a non-self, denying total fulfilment. "Colonial ethnography…has turned the village into a summation of the feared untamed fragmentation of one’s self…"

In imagination, however, believes the author, "the village becomes a serene, pastoral paradise." In Indian popular cinema this dichotomy is extensively played out in quite a few Bachchan and Jeetindra films of the seventies, as it is in Raj Kaoor’s Jagte Raho.


Though there is no dearth of sociological exegesis explaining this phenomenon (The author has written persuasively on the subject), Nandy traces this symbolism in films as well as in the careers of some well-known directors such as Mrinal Sen, Pramathesh Barua and others. Relating the films to the trajectories of the directors’ careers, he confirms the advantages of Freudian and cultural anthropological approaches.

In charting the journeys of the directors, he also relates them to the ritual passage from purity to sinfulness and vice versa of mythic characters such as Karan in Mahabharat whom he aptly describes as a "self-made person" not attuned to the wily individualism of the corrupt city.

The careers of Barua and Sen parallel the ubiquity of the cultural myths that their films incorporate. In Savage Freud, an Indian psychologist’s career mediates between Freud and the Indian tradition. The present book rings changes on the basic city—country divide through the lives and films of these outstanding Bengali auteurs. In the process Nandy reveals what can be called the Political Unconscious of the Indian cinematic history.

Ramathesh Barua was raised as a prince but died in utter seediness. In films like Ruplekha (1934), Devdas (1935) and Mukti (1937), he created a cult of the passive hero that has since become integral to the folklore of the Indian cinema. I remember seeing Devdas as a child (with Sehgal and Jamuna) and can connect the decline of the hero from pastoral Innocence into Calcutta’s corruption with the graph of the director’s career.

In Mrinal Sen, Nandy traces a reverse journey—from the city to the village. As a filmmaker with a firm ideological commitment, Sen is respected by the elite minority with a similar commitment. But in his Hindi film "Khandar," the village to which the protagonist returns is part fantasy and part its critique. The whimsical exploration in "Bhuvan Shome" gives place to a questioning of the city-country divide in "Khandar." The journeys of the protagonists result in their distinctive transformations not always in conformity with the mythic pattern.

The later part of the book widens the scope of the journey symbolism to incorporate the actual traumatic journeys of the victims of Partition. Here again Nandy vivifies historical events through personal stories without losing sight of the myth.