Bhaskar Sarkar uc santa Barbara



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Bhaskar Sarkar

UC Santa Barbara




Essay Draft: The National Mise en Abyme


I begin with a clip from Sudhir Mishra’s film Calcutta Mail (2004). The Bihari goon Lakhan Yadav’s attempt to acquire metropolitan polish by learning to waltz is derailed because of his menacing, if also comical, hyper-masculinity. His libidinal overdrive, ending in his gun-toting outburst, is presented in the film as indexical of a cultural recedivism—Lakhan’s recalcitrant subjectivity aspires to a cosmopolitan chic, but manages only a rather primitive priapism. The scene, which unfolds in what appears to be an Anglo-Indian dancing school in Calcutta, has a logic that brings to mind a common cinematographic trick: the rack-focus effect, in which the focus shifts, within the same frame, between objects placed at different distances from the camera. One is also reminded of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the duck/rabbit figure: a slight adjustment of our gaze produces an altogether different image, an other scene—now I see it, now I don’t. In the film scene under consideration, the immediate context can barely conceal the presence of, or contain, something else that is considered precisely antithetical to it, and that raises its unseemly head at the slightest provocation. Indeed, the lesson in social etiquette is also interrupted by a phone call that intimates the viciousness of gangster-life. Once again, we are in the presence of something that, following Derrida, maybe called “that dangerous supplement.” The supplement is dangerous because it “adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of…Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place.”1 The crass and unruly national supplement, the “subaltern instance” that threatens to take over, must be reformed and incorporated within a national citizenry. But subalternity is not simply a threat: it is also a link to authenticity, a collective fetish, a veritable cultural capital. It is this problematic position of the subaltern within an imputed modern national subjectivity that I want to capture in the figure of the national mise en abyme.


What is a mise en abyme? Russian Babushka dolls and Chinese boxes are examples that readily pop into mind—we open one to find a smaller replica inside. Within a narrative chain, it is a microstructure that effectively summarizes the entire chain: a story within a story, a film within a film. Thus the mise en abyme mirrors or reflects the entire chain within itself, potentially infinitely: this infinite regression opens up a sense of leading “into the abyss.” Now I see it, now I don’t: this preliminary confusion gives way to yet another--“it” is the same, and yet “it” is different. Playing on identity and difference, the mise en abyme folds in upon itself, producing a sense of textual implosion. Because of the endless iterability, precisely where the inner level ends is never quite clear: the boundaries become somewhat indeterminate and unstable. Sometimes the inner level is distributed throughout the plot, as so many related hermeneutic signposts: it only comes together retroactively, producing further complications for the limits between part and whole, between text and metatext. The mise en abyme, in so far as it presents its own unique version of the overall story, also introduces a diversion that interrupts linear, chronological plotline: it is, thus, an anachronistic device that complicates narrative temporality. To the extent that the narration enacts the coming into being of a narrator-reader and possibly multiple narrator-characters, the structure stages a crisis of subjectivity. Reflexivity, which is the most obvious index of the mise en abyme, is often taken to be a sign of critical consciousness about the very conditions of textual production. But such reflexivity need not be associated with authorial intentionality: in other words, it is possible to locate an unintentionally reflexive mise en abyme structure in a text through an attentive and interpretive strategy of “reading.”
Recent theories of mise en abyme have begun to stress its semiotic operations as a corrective to the earlier focus on its syntactic function. Mieke Bal has gone so far as to redefine the mise en abyme in terms of salient details: certain features of a particular scene “invest it with central importance, thus turning it into a mise en abyme.” Such a detail oversaturates the scene with significance, and provides directions for interpretation—“That detail blows up with meaning….invades the text by its status as ‘instruction for use,’ which makes it into a self-reflection, overdetermined and disfiguring.”2 I want to hold onto Lakhan Yadav’s priapic trangression as such a disfiguring detail, an “instruction for use,” whose semantic objective is—I will claim—nothing short of narrating the nation in the era of globalization. To do this, I first need to explicate what I mean by the national mise en abyme.
Defining a nationality is a matter of proposing fixity and flux simultaneously. Any national identity must retain some “essential” features to remain recognizable as such, in difference from other nationalities; yet, it must change—modernize—to keep up with shifting realities at home and elsewhere. “Indianness” appears as a series of nested identities, similar yet different: an onion approximates what I have in mind. The series can be mapped as roughly concentric circles (produced by a horizontal section through the onion), with the innermost circle constituting attributes and values that mark a “true” Indian. These markers are fantasized to be essential and immutable, i.e. they are turned into collective fetishes. As one moves away from this timeless, ahistorical core to the outer circles, one encounters increasingly cosmopolitan Indian selves: essentialized national identity now stands partially transcended, as modern, universalized values and ways of being become more dominant. A metonymic slide leads through a series of related but distinct binary oppositions: modern/traditional, cosmopolitan/parochial, global/national. The simultaneous fluidity and fixity produce an architectonics of identity--a national mise en abyme. The identities-in-difference set up a structuration of levels en abyme, with unstable boundaries between modular levels, and presents a horizon within which movement is possible. An Indian subject is capable of traversing these borders, negotiating the competing demands of the two poles: the authentic, parochial Indian and the more evolved modern cosmopolitan Indian. The reflexive and endless iterability of identities-in-difference blur the distinctions, generating apprehension about the management of change. There is still the possibility that a cosmopolitan Indian will remember his or her authentic roots at certain crucial moments and act accordingly, a possibility fondly expressed in the song-- and film title--“Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani” (And yet my heart is Indian); but it remains only a possibility, not a guarantee. This uncertainty leads to tremendous anxiety about cultural transformation and possible contagion: the challenge becomes one of retaining national anxiety in the face of modernization, a challenge that is intensified in our current conjuncture.
The national mise en abyme, then, is a semiotic figure centered on certain details of salient national characteristics; in its functioning, it is homologous to the narrative mise en abyme. Thus it encapsulates a process of subject formation, highlighting it for us within the text; in particular it becomes a figuration for the national/global dialectic. In its self-contained autonomy, the national mise en abyme disrupts the emergence of the national self along a linear, chronological trajectory, splitting the temporality of collective evolution and complicating narratives of national progress. If a timeless Indian identity remains intact in the heart of every Indian, to be revivified at crucial moments of moral dilemma and affective drama, how do we sustain the gradual but inexorable emergence of the modern-global-cosmopolitan Indian? A double-edged anxiety comes into view: the concern about retaining cultural moorings turns out to be the flipside of a worry that the archaic Indian will always undermine the process of modernization and impede a progressive consciousness. The national mise en abyme mediates this duality (now we see it, now we don’t): it allows for the consecration of the supplement, the “son of the soil” peasant or worker, as the “true” Indian self—a site of reproduction and renewal; at the same time, it marks that essentialized subaltern as parochial and recedivist—one that must be contained and reformed through culture and education. With the shift of focus, the desirable core begins to look like a dark abyss. Finally, the discovery of the national mise en abyme in particular films allow us to ascribe a certain reflexivity to them—a reflexivity that may or may not have been intended by the filmmakers, but which makes sense when the films are considered in relation to a broader cultural field. That is to say, one can intuit something like a political unconscious from the play of the mise en abyme in the realm of the popular.
What evidence can one furnish from Indian popular cinema? The anxious traversing across unstable and largely imperceptible boundaries--between different levels of authenticity and globality, between text and metatext—is operationalized in terms of the passage across more palpable lines that can be represented cinematically: between geographical locations (the city and the country); between classes (educated and illiterate); between taste cultures (sophisticated and uncouth); between value systems (enlightened and superstitious). In each of these cases, the second term, a Derridean supplement, is construed as the site of subalternity. Over time, these passages signify different transactions: right after independence, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the “real” India was supposed to reside in its villages, ambivalence about the forces of modernization was staged in terms of a confrontation between the rural and the urban. The term dehati --derived from the Persian words dehak, or small village, and dehakti, or villager--came to refer to the stereotypical figure of the country bumpkin. In this highly romanticized idealization, the dehati was always an honest, lovable simpleton who, nevertheless, was the moral center of the narrative, and who eventually triumphed over his urban adversaries and their corrupting ways. Two seminal instances: Raj Kapoor as the innocent Raju in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), and as the bullock-cart driver Hiraman in Teesri Kasam (1966).
In the 1970s and 1980s, as the pressures of large scale migration created a society of manual laborers living in slums or on the streets of metropolitan cities, the country bumpkin became a quickstudy in the ways of the treacherous city, and turned into a streetsmart figure who would cause disruption, even engage in illegal activities, only to emerge as the keeper of social order. Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man” persona, perfected in the seminal film Deewar (1975), seeped into his ghati or gawar roles in Don (1978) and Namakhalal (1982), producing a new sense of disquiet. The country bumpkin was still mostly a non-threatening, good-at-heart everyman: audiences loved to laugh at his crude and lumbering ways, and cheered him on, hoping for his eventual triumph. Nevertheless, a hint of unease marked both the films and their middle-class audiences as the figure turned more volatile, even violent: he could no longer be reduced to an object of well-meaning lampooning.
The jocularity stemming from the cultural subalternity of the gawar gives way to a palpable trepidation in Bombay films about the emergent political field. Madhav Prasad points to a new “aesthetics of mobilization” in 1970s’ popular cinema; Ashis Nandy locates a “slum’s eye view” of politics in the films since the 1980s; Ranjani Majumdar follows the shift to an eventual social psychosis in the 1990s.3 In terms of our present focus, we can say that visible fissures complicate the figure of the dehati, producing a range of differentiated representations. Variations on this stereotype are played by most of the prominent actors, most memorably Amir Khan (his taopori turn in Rangeela [1995] and Ghulam [1997]who can forget his innuendo-laden invitation, “Aati ka Khandala?”) and, most frequently, Govinda. But with Amir and Govinda, the threat is displaced onto desire, the somewhat menacing seduction of the lumpen lothario.
Over the years, as India’s project of nationhood responds to global realities, the foil for the dehati figure mutates from the urban Indian to the diasporic Indian, reflecting the evolution of national aspirations—and the very ideas of the nation-space and national population. In films coming out of the contemporary Bombay film industry (such as the recent films of Subhas Ghai—Pardes [1997], Taal [1999], and Yaadein [2001]) the archetypal dehati (played by actors like Alok Nath and Jackie Shroff) has to deal with the pressures of globalization. [CLIP]

Now the character is often a rich or middle-class farmer of the post-Green Revolution era, presiding over his khetibari (farming) and his family. He comes into conflict with his double, a diasporic or non-resident Indian typically from the USA or UK (the late Amrish Puri, in one of his iconic avatars, starting with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge [1995]). And in the 1997 film Virasaat (aka Inheritance), these poles are made to confront each other within the same figure: the young protagonist, educated in London, returns to the village and rediscovers his inner Indian. While the context has shifted, certain tropes remain recognizably constant over time: the dehati is still the repository of immutable cultural and social values that purportedly constitute a civilizational ethos, an entire heritage and way of being—in short, an essential Indian-ness. He is still marked by unquestioning loyalties, given to strong emotions, and upholds friendship and family ties at the cost of tremendous personal sacrifice. This authentic representative, a veritable paisan, enacts the confrontation of community and capital as he travels from the nested heartland to ever-widening and disorienting spheres of being and belonging.


Anxieties about the threatening aspects of the dehati’s cultural subalternity, and about the volatile nature of subaltern politics, engender new cinematic strategies of negotiation and vilification. A series of recent films feature stereotypical characters from the north Indian state of Bihar—characters who display a deep, inescapable recidivism, who think and act in ways that confound all the norms and expectations of civil society. I am referring to films like Shool (1999), Gangajaal (2003), and Calcutta Mail (2003). The last two were directed by Prakash Jha and Sudhir Mishra respectively, filmmakers who happen to hail from Bihar, and who enjoy the reputation of being socially engaged on the basis of their earlier films (e.g. Damul [1985] and Dharavi [1992]).
Both Shool and Gangajaal focus on conscientious police officers who are posted in the heart of Bihar: the narratives then track their struggle to come to grips with an absolute lawlessness, and their own dehumanization. Gangajaal in particular draws on the infamous Bhagalpur blindings—the real-life incident in which frustrated and besieged police officers disabused their powers and brutalized their prisoners. The title of the film Gangajaal, signifies the holy water—jaal-- from –the Ganges River, which is supposed to purify anything it touches. But here it is an ironic reference to the corrosive acid from automobile batteries which the police use to “purify” the hoodlums in custody. Soon, the masses follow suit, taking the law in their own hands, throwing acid on the local goons who have terrorized them for long. The film suggests that in the heartland of Bihar, law --or democratic mobilization—always mutates into sinister, violent and medieval forms.
In a now-famous issue of the Economist magazine from February 2004, a special section entitled “India’s Shining Hopes” claims that the country may be poised to finally achieve its tremendous economic potential. However, Bihar is portrayed as the most backward state, with “corrupt politicians indistinguishable from the mafia dons they patronize,” a crumbling infrastructure, education and health systems on the verge of collapse, and a per capita income that is a third of the national average. A well-known social scientist is quoted as saying that “satellite photos of India at night show Bihar at the center of an area of darkness.” In this report, as in the films I mentioned, Bihar is depicted as the national abyss—a veritable heart of darkness. This characterization of an entire region builds on a particular tendency in nationalist historiography to harp on the volatility of mass mobilization in Bihar since the outbreak of violence in Chauri Chaura during the Non-cooperation Movement of the early 1920s, an incident which prompted Gandhi to call off the entire national movement.4
The same Economist article reports that the dismal state of the province is largely attributed to the colorful and maverick politician Laloo Prasad Yadav, who ruled Bihar from1990 to 1997, when he was forced to leave office upon being convicted of rampant corruption. But Laloo Yadav showed the extent of his might and chutzpah when he installed his own spouse, until then a mere housewife, in power, and continued to rule Bihar by proxy. Yadav’s flagrant violation of political norms and juridical institutions has not diminished his popular appeal: if anything, he has gained in strength from his wayward politics, and has become an important member of Manmohan Singh’s union cabinet. He seems to relish his “outlaw” status, and projects himself as the champion of the oppressed. After all, he belongs to a lower caste community, and is a shining example of the new-found prominence of backward castes in Indian national politics.
It is telling that the dehati villains in Shool, Gangajaal and Calcutta Mail are called Bachcha Yadav, Sadhu Yadav, Bachchu Jadav and Lakhan Jadav: they share not only Laloo Yadav’s family name, but also his humble—possibly OBC--origins. These hyper-authentic sons of the soil, who speak local dialects, and have very little regard for cosmopolitan niceties or the structures and institutions of modern civil society, produce a deep anxiety among upper and middle class Indians. These are the subalterns who have found agency and power by operating at the fringes of mainstream politics and discourse. While they are frequently characterized as brazenly corrupt, corruption—a problem endemic to the postcolonial state and the ruling coalition—cannot be their defining feature. Rather, it is the uncontrollable violent streak of contemporary subaltern subjectivity that marks it out as a social “problem.” Subaltern volatility, when coupled with corruption, produces an explosive combination that is widely pathologized and feared. (There are also the subaltern groups who have joined the Hindu nationalist movement as a way of overcoming their marginalization. They are seen as less of a problem by the Hindu mainstream which has managed to channelize their anger and aggression to specific purposes, although secular politics and intellectual thought have hit something of a cul de sac in their confrontation of these groups.) Within an emergent popular discourse, people like the Yadavs constitute the incorrigibly retrograde national core that threatens the entire project of modern nationhood, that unravels the narrative of progress. In our present conjuncture, when India has finally “opened up” to the processes and networks of globalization, when the Indian elite classes have embraced the new world order under the hegemony of one superpower, the stereotype of the dehati is now deployed to demonize segments of the national population that produce disquieting kinks in the path of an emergent national-cosmopolitan consciousness and life.



1 Jacques Derrida, “…That Dangerous Supplement…,” Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998).

2 Mieke Bal, “The Gaze in the Closet,” in Teresa Brennan and Martin Jay, eds. Vision in Context (New York: Routledge, 1996) 151.

3 Madhava Prasad, Ideology of the Hindi Film (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001); Ashis Nandy, “Introduction: The Slum’s Eye View of Politics,” in Nandy, ed. The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema (London: Zed Books, 1999); Ranjani Mazumdar, “From Subjectification to Schizophrenia: The ‘Angry Man’ and the ‘Psychotic’ Hero of Bombay Cinema,” in Ravi Vasudevan, ed. Making Meaning in Indian Cinema (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001) 238-66.

4 Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-92 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Directory: subaltern

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