Looking back at 2020: Rhymes of resistance reverberated during the year and not just at protest sites
Poetry, music, popular culture and cinema came together during the year across the world to protest against injustice and authoritarianism, recalls Namrata Joshi while summing up the year
One of the last movies of 2020 for me— there is still a week to go and I surely will have many more to catch up on— has been Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof’s Golden Bear winner for the best film at Berlinale this year—Sheytan vojud nadarad (There Is No Evil).
The anthology film, with four shorts centred on the theme of capital punishment, lays out the distressing situation unambiguously, in all the painful details—a totalitarian state, inhuman laws, and innocent individuals caught in the impasse.
Some are resigned to obeying the strict orders, their impassive faces communicating the trauma of having been the unquestioning executioners at the behest of the State. There are others who have had the moral fibre and strength to resist “pulling the stool” on strangers whose “crimes” they have not even been informed of. They display a rare integrity and dignity and no regret or remorse in living with the unfortunate consequences of dissent.
In the throes of these stories of ordeal, bang in the middle of There Is No Evil, plays BellaCiao, a joyous song that, in the context of the film, underlines the belief in taking a strong stand on issues and looks forward, with a sense of optimism, to a future when people would be able to do their work in freedom than under duress. By sheer chance or call it fate, just a week back Poojan Sahil’s Punjabi rendition of the same song, along with the moving Karwaan-E-Mohabbat video, dropped on YouTube, calling for a revocation of the farm laws that the Indian farmers have been protesting against since early August. Saahil had also been the creator of one of the Hindi versions of the same song that ignited the anti-CAA/ NRC protests in the latter half of 2019 and early months of 2020. It is almost like coming back a full circle as we ring in 2021.
End of the year columns are often about finding an overarching theme for the 12 months gone by. 2020 with COVID 19 and the lockdown united humanity in a universality of experience. Yet, on looking back, I find that beyond the obvious issues of health, mortality, loss of jobs and poverty and life, longing and loneliness, 2020 has also been marked by a perceptible rise in protests.
Setting aside the long lockdown and rightful concerns about the virus, it has been a year bookended by demonstrations with people getting self-driven and energised and mobilising each other to take to the streets to demand justice. On a more personal note, it has also been marked by a wealth of films on the theme of resistance, mostly from the foreign shores, that came my way this year without quite actively seeking them out. They glided in online, on to the laptop, mobile or TV screen, as most of the movies have this year and put my viewing in perspective.
Song of the year: So, first things first, though we heard the initial wafts of it in late 2019, it became a full-blown anthem in 2020 and continues to be on top of the protest charts in 2020. Bella Ciao, would easily get my vote for the “Indian” song of the year. The Italian folk song that has its origins in the protests of the paddy field workers in North Italy in the late 19th century against the harsh working conditions, was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem and used by the Italian partisansduring the Italian Resistance.
Since then, many versions of it have sprung up, both on and off screen. The ones that played at the various protest grounds in India—from Jadavpur University and JNU in late 2019 to Gurugram and Occupy Gateway protests in Mumbai in January this year— took inspiration from the one seen in the Spanish Netflix series Money Heist. Much like the other versions, our Bella Ciaos have also spoken of courage and strength and of taking on authoritarianism and keeping the flames of revolution burning—Inquilabki mashaal jalao—but also have an inventive expression and unique turn of phrase of their own, rooted in the context yet unrestricted in creativity and imagination.
Music and lyrics have always lent a strong voice to protests. No surprise then that when in December 2019, lyricist, writer, comic Varun Grover wrote “Hum kaagaz nahin dikhayenge (We won’t show the NRC papers)” it quickly became the anthem at the protests all through this year.
The ‘Achche Din Blues’, “Main zulm se inkaar karta hoon (I protest against oppression)” and ‘Pehlu Khan’ balladeer Aamir Aziz’s fiery “Sab yaad rakha jaayega” found fans, not just in protest sites in India but even abroad, that too in a superstar like Roger Waters. The rock icon and Pink Floyd co-founder read out lines from it at a London protest in February.
There was a surge of new poets atthe many rallies across the country—Rahul Rajkhowa, Sumit Sapra, Iqra Khilji, Abhinav Nagar, Bollywood lyricist and writer Puneet Sharma and Husain Haidry. Older icons—Rahat Indori, Dushyant, Faiz Ahmad Faiz—and their popular work found a new relevance and meaning as the young marched on.
Bollywood joining in: If the youth took the lead, could their idols have stayed behind? The “Bollywood royalty” may not quite have been there but several other film personalities took a lead. Actors Sayani Gupta, Sushant Singh, Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub, Richa Chadha, Huma Qureshi, Swara Bhaskar, Dia Mirza, Konkona Sen Sharma, Taapsee Pannu and filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, recent times.
In such turbulent times on the streets some brave and probing films reached out with an added urgency. One of the last films we got to see in theatres, before the lockdown, Ladj Ly’s debut feature Les Miserables, is a searing account of the class wars in France.
Ly is critical of class, ethnicity and multiculturalism issues specific to France but what towers universally over all else is the flashpoints between a fascist State and the marginalised. The constant victimisation and the violence heaped on the disenfranchised leading to boundless rage and rebellion. Ly’s portrayal of the revenge of the oppressed is a cautionary tale for societies, nations and the world at large. Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian vision of social inequities and multi-Oscar winning Parasite found an even darker shade of black in Michel Franco’s Mexican film, New Order, that won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival this year. The violent uprising of the working class and the concomitant chaos becomes an occasion for even more despotic and dictatorial powers to exploit the situation and take over. It’s a continuum of brutality than a way out of it.
Lesotho’s Oscar entry this year, This is not a Burial, it’s a Resurrection, has an 80-year-old woman taking a break from preparing for her own funeral to protest against the building of a dam in her homeland, forcing the residents into resettlement. A quietly forceful indictment of the human and environmental toll of all that passes off as progressiveness and modernity.
Pakistan’s Oscar pick this year, Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha, is also about a protesting senior citizen, only the modes differ. An old man’s struggles—lonesome but resolute—against religious extremism and intolerance and seizes the day to be who he wants to be than what is expected of him.
Bolivian film The Names of the Flowers is a poetic, metaphorical ode to the spirit of resistance—how an old teacher in rural countryside battles silently but resiliently to stake a claim at her story about Che Guevara, in which she herself has a starring role. How when he had come calling in the village, she had brought him soup while he read out a poem on flowers to her. The disbelief of others around her, can’t have her give up on its veracity; rather she prefers to stay cussed in the trust in her own truth. The Syrian thriller The Translator that played at Tallinn Black Nights festival has a political refugee returning home in search of a missing brother with Arab Springs, the reign of Bashar al-Assad, the political turmoil and unrest and demand for human rights providing the backdrop to the mission.
The most powerful and pertinent of the lot is veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s Russian film Dear Comrades that won the special jury prize at Venice Film Festival and is the Russian entry for foreign language Oscars this year.
It’s set in a town where workers are striking against the denial of their basic rights. The State crackdown leads to violence, curfews and arrests. In the midst of it, a staunch Communist finds her own faith in the party and the country shaking when her own daughter takes to protests and demonstrations.
Will her political allegiance continue to make her overlook everything else? Or will she manage to get past her own indoctrination, resolve it to understand the human toll of the fascist policies? The answers are not easy and resolutions hard to find. Only certainty is the continuity of protests.
Namrata Joshi is a well-known journalist and film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019)