Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

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S.C (continues from Page 1) :Hindi language movies take the lion's share in Indian film industry. There are about three hundred movies made in Hindi in a year. There are also regional movies, made in the various regional languages of India. Most of these movies are out-and-out commercial. These movies are cheap and vulgar and other than making money there's no reason for them to be made. To that end, some of the producers of these movies wouldn't even hesitate to strip their mothers! This is the attitude prevailing in the movie industry of India. What effect a small play could possibly have on the masses in a cultural climate where millions of people in India are subjected to the vulgar cultural onslaught continued by the producers of commercial movies? How could we fight against such a climate?
However, this does not imply that the theatre movement should be abandoned. I am not saying that we must not accept the new ideas from the international theatre movements, that we should not experiment with the new forms of theatre, or that we should not continue to stage plays that are socially conscious. All I am saying is that we will not be able to fight against the onslaught dealt on our masses by this decadent culture. If we need to fight them, then we have to beat them in their own game. We have to fight them through the common mass media such as TV, newspapers, and magazines. If needed, we have to create a counter culture in order to fight this decadent culture. It should be a parallel movement. We don't have millions of rupees unlike them. But we can do it in a scaled down version. We can make films in 16mm, we can also make them in "Super 8" format, and show those films in the villages and the rural areas of India. We can try to involve our writers, artists, technicians and the graduates of the Pune Film Institute in making such films.
Although I do not mind the fact that the government of West Bengal has recently spent 10 million rupees to build a laboratory for processing and developing color films. My question is will it help this laboratory to boost the quality of Bengali movies, which has gone down remarkably in the recent times? I believe this laboratory will help spawn even worse kind of Bengali movies. Therefore, I believe that the government of West Bengal should first find out ways to sponsor good films. I agree with the fact that we could as well make colour movies in Bengali language that could compete with the colour movies made in Hindi. But to me it is more important to fight this decadent cultural climate with something positive and progressive than fighting colour movies with colour movies. It does not matter whether we make movies in black and white, or in colour. If we can make good movies in black and white, people will see them, and there surely will be an impact of those movies on them. Unfortunately we cannot do that yet. I wish we could instead start a people's cinema movement with the millions of rupees that were spent to build the colour laboratory. We need a movement of people's cinema today, not people's theatre, which could allow us to reach millions of people. I think we could have done something positive, if it had occurred to our government, or to our intellectuals who are the cultural advisors to the govt. I don't know if it will happen or not.

K.B: When IPTA became such a powerful organization in the 1940's, how much impact did it have?

S.C: It had a tremendous impact. The reason being as the content changed, the form changed as well. Form of our plays had to change along with the change in their content. So we saw that the forms of songs had changed, so had the forms of the theatre. Poster dramas were staged which could communicate directly with the people. IPTA drew a lot of writers and artists in its organization. In fact 80% of the greatest cultural icons of India are the product of IPTA movement. For example, there wouldn't be a Salil Chowdhury if it weren't for the IPTA. I am a product of that movement. This movement gave birth to many artists like myself of whom some are still alive and some are not. IPTA movement spawned and nurtured artists and actors of the stature of Balraj Sahani, Shambhu Mitra, and Utpal Dutt; filmmakers like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen; singers like Omar Sheik of Maharashtra. This movement shaped them all. Even in south India, in Andhra and Kerala, the top writers and filmmakers of those regions participated in this movement. So, we can see that there was an impact.

K.B: Now, the IPTA movement attracted mainly the elite class, the intellectuals. But what about the people for whom this movement was meant for, the lower class, dispossessed people? How much awareness IPTA was able to instill among those people?

S.C: It's difficult to gauge this issue now, how much we were successful doing that. But if you look at what reception our artists got among them, you would get some idea. It was quite a lot. For example when our troupe went to Kakdweep, in Sundarbans, to stage a play, there we met a farmer who used to act in Mukunda Das's folk plays ("Jatras"). In his lifetime he was awarded about a hundred medals in recognition for his acting talents. He gave us one of his medals in appreciation of our play. I have never received a greater honor in my life. The medal fetched us about four thousand rupees from an auction we held among the Peasant. I later regretted selling the medal. I had to do it for the benefits of the Peasant of that region. This was just an example of what kind of impact we had over the ordinary people. They realized that our songs and plays were truly meant for them. We had that kind of experience quite a few times. But then what happened? Our groups started splitting up as a result of growing hopelessness in our political lives as well as in the Left Front politics. People involved in the Left politics were targeted and heavily tortured by the police during the Congress rule, and also by the landowners. The Party failed to provide leadership during the crisis period. The United Front, which included other left leaning parties, started to show cracks. All those events generated widespread disappointment among us. But these days I am getting more hopeful.

K.B: Was IPTA directly a cultural wing of the leftists?

S.C: It was clearly led by the Communist Party.

K.B: Did the Communist Party lead all units of IPTA in India?

S.C: Yes, all units. Everything was under the leadership of the Communist Party. It was one undivided communist party at the time. P.C. Joshi, who was the General Secretary of the party, led this movement.

K.B: Were those who joined IPTA all communists?

S.C: No. That's what I am trying to say, that although the IPTA leadership consisted of the communists, its goal was to bring all progressive, left leaning writers and artists together on to single platform. Therefore IPTA was not made of the communists although the Communist Party gave the leadership. But there were many artists and singers in IPTA who didn't bother about politics. Sometimes a great actor would join the group, such as an actor like Manoranjan Bhattacharyya, whom we called "Maharshi". He didn't believe in politics in any direct way, but he still joined the IPTA movement. I can recall hundred such names that joined this movement without having any political affiliations to the communist party.

K.B: Did those people join knowing fully that it was an organization led by the leftists?

S.C: Yes, certainly.

K.B: Did it create an ideological conflict as a result?

S.C: Yes it did at times. Let me talk about my own situation. When the communist party began moving towards the ultra-left wing of the party led by Ranadive in a period marked by ultra leftist propensities, it created a split among the intellectuals in IPTA. I was against the split. I was told that unless the ‘Party Cell' approved my songs I would not be allowed to sing them publicly. I refused saying that it was unacceptable, first, because the issuers of such orders did not understand music. Secondly, it is patently wrong to think that just being a worker or a farmer or a student or a member of the communist party bestows one with the understanding and judgement regarding which songs I should be singing or composing. It was hard to believe that even a song like "G(n)aayer B(n)adhu" ["A Village Woman"] could be banned by the IPTA !
It bothered the IPTA leadership that the protagonist of the song [written by Salil Chowdhury himself], the village woman died without putting up a fight. She at least could have fought with some red chili powder against her tormentors! Somehow the theme of the song bred hopelessness instead of the promise of a revolution, they thought.
I have had such ideological conflicts, in fact quite a lot of them at times. But such conflicts arose mostly during the ultra left period. Then there were other cultural organizations, such as the one led by the Congress Party, and called "Sahitya Sangha" ['‘The Literary Group"]. Those groups tried to counteract against the IPTA movement in their own ways, but eventually failed. Such were the goings on.

K.B: Would you then say that IPTA broke up because its political base was not too strong?

S.C: No. As I said earlier, that the divisions in the international communist movement had an indirect effect on our cultural movement. Along with it came lack of direction and uncertainty, that we were not getting anywhere. Of course we felt disappointed that the movement did not last.

K.B: Were there any personal conflicts, besides other reasons?

S.C: There were some, at times personal and political conflicts overlapped on each other. Then there were purely personal conflicts. For example if I were perceived to have gained some fame, there would be other artists who would lament the fact that they were not as famous.

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