GEETHANJALI RAJMOHAN | 22 JUNE, 2020
Can Art be Separated from the Artist? ‘Party’ by Govind Nihalani (1984)
A grim reminder of the cost of dissent
With the world going haywire trying to deal with a multifaceted global crisis, it is disheartening to wake up to news of the police arresting students for protesting against government policies.
Democratic institutions across the world have been undergoing a test for quite long, and if you are someone who has been following the news I don’t need to list the names of the many people unlawfully arrested for questioning the state.
And frankly, the size of most articles is too limited to fit their names in.
At this juncture, I am compelled to think about a 1984 film titled Party, directed by Govind Nihalani. Rich with an ensemble cast, the film shows the events of one evening at a gathering of artists and poets. Apart from being a strong critique of the South Bombay bourgeoisie’s culture that enjoys “superiority” through intellectual discussions, Party deals with the primary question of whether art is separable from politics.
Despite an array of characters trying to outshine one another at the party, one is particularly drawn to Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah), the hero-in-absentia who has left the extravagant intellectual party life to live and work with an Indigenous community. His rebellious poems and subsequently his anti-fascist politics are discussed by the rest of the group throughout the movie. These discussions serve to portray the banal works of the artists present at the party, their indifference towards the structural inequalities within society, and how despite their powerful social position their rebellion is merely restricted to paper.
A theatre actor among the group gets asked in the beginning if his ability to movingly perform on stage is because of his personal sentiments and empathy for his character, to which he casually replies that he is merely mimicking his character's pain, and it has nothing to do with his own feelings. This is complemented by a fantastic monologue delivered later by Om Puri’s character of a journalist, where he says, “If an artist is not politically committed, then his art remains irrelevant.”
What is the point of a work of art that cannot be put to use when one actually needs to speak up, but instead scrambles around for a stand?
Towards the end of the film, we come to know that the police have killed Amrit on grounds of being a “left-wing terrorist”. In the final scene, perhaps the most impactful one in the film, we see a staggering vision of Amrit: injured, with his tongue chopped off, blood oozing from his mouth.
There’s a line in the movie that goes: “Great art has been shaped by a sense of protest of some kind. To revolt against oppression is the artist’s most important duty.” But what is the cost of creating such art? Is art not meant to have an impact, create a difference? Or is it just monotonous work performed solely for monetary, aesthetic purposes?
Though it’s been thirty-six years since the release of Party, these questions remain relevant even today, where we see “celebrities” with a tremendous influence upon the general public, hiding behind fascist political agendas.
Teachers and students who vocally challenge the Union government’s decisions and failures are silenced with unconstitutional, immoral tactics by the state, and the people in power seemingly choose to turn a blind eye towards it all.
The fact that a film released almost four decades ago which could critique the system without any censorship was produced by the NFDC, a government-backed body, comes across as implausible in today’s circumstances.
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