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A cultural polemic on visual aesthetics

  • Published at 07:45 am May 11th, 2019
Nibandha Chalachitra

Book review

This is a significant book of our time, both in form and content, dealing with issues of aesthetics. The author Iqbal Hasnu, an arts critic, is editor of Journal, a Bangla language literary journal published from Toronto, where he resides. Hasnu deals with cinema and its aesthetics as a form of cultural polemics and ultimately politics. Readers would do well to familiarize themselves with world cinema to appreciate it fully. 

Having said that, I believe anyone will enjoy reading this book. I did enjoy as a consumer of a new approach to aesthetics by a writer dealing with visuality. Irrespective of whether one agrees with the author or not, what’s most important is the discussion the book offers. Kudos to the writer for producing such a valuable book on different aspects of film.

Many senses, many lenses

Iqbal Hasnu in many ways belongs to the great “cosmopolitan” tradition of the liberal world. In this stream, various cultures blend in to produce a new one that is united by some universal standard of value and sense of aesthetics. What seems like an invisible bond is actually a fairly concrete structure. This is present more in world cinema than in literature where this “universal” value structure inevitably loses much of its character in translation into new vernacular languages of arts and politics. 

But cinema, which forms in the multi-cultural soul, was for long the great unifier of the “liberated and liberal souls. This was of newly constituted world spawned by colonialism’s non-marginalized citizens. For a few brief moments—perhaps a decade—the world was symbolically “Parisian”, which was an antidote to “Americanism”. It was the LL (Liberal Left) infantry that wanted to build a cultural barricade behind which they could rally against the “gross US-led” world.  However, it was a very internal struggle of the Western world, increasingly uncomfortable of the new economic world order. Into this joined many countries from the post-colonized world.   

That may have meant that one needed a few drops of cultural amnesia when dealing with this new “us and them”. A deity like Sartre vehemently opposed the Vietnam war even though his country stood firmly behind its colonial policies. It was against this backdrop of incongruence that free souls were born in the “East” and this book owes more than a lot of debt to that contradiction. These contradictions were what made the world greyer than it ever was, when evil was Washington and Moscow was Mecca.

The political semiotics of colonial Bengal 

In this polemic about the universal language of films, we hear many different names including our very own   Satyajit Ray.  The traditional heritage of the Liberal Left (LL) manifesto that he represented was rooted in colonial Bengal which was why he could swim in multiple seas.  The ultimate manifesto of the LL, in colonial Bengal, was to keep the unity of Bengal  under the cultural metropolis of Brahmo Samaj Kolkata. 

For example, for our and Hasnu’s generation, the Apu trilogy—based on Bibhutibhushan’s novels—were the most sought-after. It was the ultimate artistic expression in cinema to many. Yet two generations later, Gupi Gain and Bagha Bain became more popular. They were politically more relevant to the post-LL world. 

Which is where the transition even in film watching comes. The Bengalis of pre-1971 saw in Apu the reflection of Bibhutibhushan’s Bengal but the Bangladeshis of post-1971 found greater resonance with the comical and rather loudly sarcastic tones of Ray’s satire. 

Iqbal Hasnu has used a very novel format to write his thoughts and observations down on the topic. It is as much on cinema as it is on culture, but most importantly, it is on enjoyment of this art form. He is using the montage form to develop his storyline. Whether it’s on Truffaut, Ray, or our own Tarek Masud, he uses the film editing format which breaks down the conventional narrative pattern to create his own.

The author as an intellectual agitator 

I found this method fascinating because he has walked miles away from others in experimenting with literary methods and nuances which make his work so significant. His language is lucid even when he discusses film ideas, making the reading experience easy and pleasant.  

It also shows that Hasnu himself has morphed into a “new writer” and I think this is something that needs greater recognition than is given to such works. Just about anyone can write a tome on cinema if he is familiar with the topic but to originate and design such a book takes imagination. It is for this reason that the book should be read more by our fiction writers and essayists as they seem to be so resistant to experiments and innovation. 

But is a summing up of this book possible? I have been reading this book of and on for almost a year and the more I read the more engrossing it becomes as a cultural product. It triggers many debates including those about the construction of (post) colonial minds within colonized societies. It becomes far more important as a signifier of multiplicity of learning.

When form is part of the content 

What Hasnu has done is create a space through his insights which may draw thoughtful people into examining the idea of “de-colonizing” itself.  It carries more questions than it tries to answer. 

For thoughtful readers, this book on cinema’s encounter with its audience is an arsenal of thoughts. In dealing with the multiplicity of a cultural world located in the framework of connected global politics, Iqbal Hasnu may well have written one of the most engrossing and challenging books of the era.    

Afsan Chowdhury is a Bangladeshi liberation war researcher, fiction writer, columnist and journalist. He received the Bangla Academy Award in 2018 for Literature on Liberation War.  He has edited and co-authored Gram er Ekattor and a four-volume history of 1971, Bangladesh 1971.

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