A political review of award winning Bengali film, Koni (1986) and how the Indian Left can learn important lessons from such a film is analysed by pragoti editorial member, Maidul Islam.
Koni (1986) is a quintessential film of the working class which despite its Bengali script and set in the urban streets of Kolkata has an international appeal. I would describe it as an internationalist film from which the political Left can learn a lot. Unfortunately, I have not found an English subtitle of this national award winning film. The online version of the film can be seen here:
At the onset, let me first give a humble caveat of my inability to comprehensively analyse the film within the editorial constraint of only a couple of thousand of words. Secondly, since I am not an expert on the technicalities of film making like editing, cinematography and the ‘cinematic language’ (Aumont: 1992, Chapter 4: Cinema and Language), I cannot comment upon those issues of the film. Rather as a part of the common audience, I would try to focus upon the thematic concerns and the dialogues/script of the film, while politically reading the film. Thus, let me touch upon such highlights of the film, from which, we on the side of the Left, can draw inspiration and learn important lessons. Koni is a film with an urban working class woman as the protagonist that seems to be lost in several urban Bengali films, preoccupied with middle class women protagonists like Aparna Sen’s "Paroma" (1984), "Juganto" (1995) and "Paromitar Ek Din" (2000), Rituparno Ghosh’s "Unishe April" (1994), "Dahan" (1997), "Ashukh" (1999), "Bariwali" (2000), "Titli" (2002), "Shubho Mahurat" (2003), "Dosar" (2006), "Sob Charitro Kalponik" (2009) and "Abohoman" (2010) or Subrata Sen’s "Ek Je Aache Kanya" (2001), "Nil Nirjane" (2003) and "Hotath Neerar Jonnyo" (2004). Sita’s character in the master craft of Ritwik Ghatak’s "Subarnarekha" (1962/1965) was however another telling story about a woman coming from the socio-economic strata of urban poor. In fact, Ghatak’s other classics: "Nagarik" (1952/1977), "Meghe Dhaka Tara" (1960), "Komal Gandhar" (1961), Satyajit Ray’s "Mahanagar" (1963) and Mrinal Sen’s bold film on the liberty and freedom of the woman: "Ek Din Pratidin" (1979) represents only lower middle-class women either as protagonists or some important/prominent characters. Legendary Ghatak’s "Titas Ekti Nadir Naam" (1973) and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s "Mondo Meyer Upakhyan" (2002) narrates the story of oppressed and exploited women in the countryside. Similarly, the light hearted woman protagonist in Tapan Sinha’s "Ajab Gayer Ajab Katha" (1999) is also based on a rural setting. Also, we know Satyajit Ray’s films featured many aspects of the lives of poor rural women like in "Pather Panchali" (1955), "Aparajito" (1956) and "Asani Sanket" (1973), women coming from traditional wealthy feudal families like in "Devi" (1960) and "Ghare Baire" (1984), women coming from English educated upper class families like in "Charulata" (1964), "Kanchenjungha" (1962) and "Aranyer Din Ratri" (1969), and urban upper middle-class women in "Kapurush" (1965), "Nayak" (1966), "Seemabadha" (1971), "Shakha Proshakha" (1990) and "Agantuk" (1991).
By contrast, Koni is a slum dweller, who comes from the urban working class background. The film is based on brilliant sports novelist—Moti Nandi’s hard hitting work: Koni. Directed by Saroj Dey and produced by the West Bengal Government, Koni is a motivational movie about the struggles of a swimming coach, Khitish Singha or Khitish-da, popularly known as ‘Khidda’ (role played by Soumitra Chatterjee) and his daredevil trainee, Kanakchapa Paul or Koni (role played by Sreeparna Banerjee). Khidda took up the challenge of picking up a poverty stricken but talented Koni from a slum of Kolkata to groom her so that she can become a swimmer of (inter)national repute. Extreme economic hardship of the informal sector labour force from which Koni belongs, social stigma regarding women in general, discrimination by petty sports politics of the opportunist and sycophants of the wealthy and powerful (sports) authorities—all of which could not beat the indomitable determination of “Khidda” and her protégé, Koni.
In the opening scene of the film, Khidda is visiting rural sites with his assistant: Jibon to get young swimming talents from very poor economic backgrounds, who according to Khidda struggles for everyday survival. Interestingly, all the young swimmers hail from informal/unorganised sector working class background. Khidda asks in a colloquial fashion: “Do you know Jibne, why am I interested in coaching swimmers? What do you want? Money, Honour—these are not for the coach, then (why do I coach)?” Jiban answers, “By coaching I enjoy. If they (the swimmers) win then I also win.” Khidda asks again, “But with whom you win? How is this happiness? How long this happiness stays?” He continues, “What is the best thing that a coach can do for the swimmer? He can only tell the correct path to the swimmer. Then throughout the path and to advance in that path, the swimmer needs strong determination, perseverance, hard work, desire—all that has to come from the swimmer. And this arousing the desire and to motivate the swimmer is the big and challenging task of the coach. And when you would do this, you would face poverty, superstition, illiteracy—all kinds of difficulty and blockages in every step. But Jibne, one cannot accept defeat. Fight, Fight, Fight!” Now, I would like to compare the particular reference and background of swimming sports in this film with ‘politics’ and the struggle attached with it. In this respect, Khidda can be regarded as a Leftwing political organiser giving political training to people coming from poor working class backgrounds (Koni and other swimmers).
One can also argue that the film actually follows the classic Leninist ‘vanguardist model’ with Khidda as a leading party organiser, imputing working class consciousness from ‘outside’ (Chaudhury: 1987). The film reminds us about Left’s basic goal of ensuring food, clothing and shelter for the 'people'—the underdogs, plebs and underprivileged instead of looking for glitzy and glamorous path of corporate capital led ‘development’. Instead of a class collaborationist/compromising approach, the film highlights some fascinating scenes of working class rage, arrogance and hatred towards the privileged. Also, the film tells the Left to create opportunity for the working class women activists to come to the forefront in taking up the charge of party affairs. At the same time, the film tells the Left not to ghettoize 'identity question' to specific identity groups. Thus, women's issues (organising women swimmers in the film) cannot be only championed by women but men are also equal partners in the struggle for women's liberation. In this respect, the film foregrounds the idea that women's struggle and gender equality are ineluctable part of the Leftwing struggle. Moreover, unlike the upper middle-class women in the film, Koni is not interested in cosmetics and beauty products and is devoid of any desire to be like the capitalist market construct of ‘fair, good looking-woman’. In this respect, the film is a bold statement against what Bell Hooks would call ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (2000).
Koni’s elder brother, Kamal Paul, who dropped out of school after his father’s accident, works in a motor car repairing garage. Kamal and Koni’s another brother died due to attempt of stealing high voltage train wires. Kamal, who also wanted to become a swimmer, ultimately died of tuberculosis. But as the only earning member of the family, he had to sacrifice his wish. Through Koni, he wanted to achieve what he had never achieved in his life. Through Koni, he wanted to give a new meaning to life, a life signifying success and optimism. On the other hand, dropped out of school, Koni tries hard to help her brother in running the family, comprised of a widowed mother and two younger brothers by her small but courageous initiatives. Reading the film as a text of activities of a communist party, we can argue that the swimming coach: Khidda is like a communist party organizer, who always believes in ‘discipline and hard work’, who lives like an ascetic, who practices austerity, while setting high standards by giving priority to merit than ‘connections’ or ‘source’ in recruiting (swimmers)—a metaphor of 'party activists'. After employing one younger brother in a local tea shack, Kamal wants to employ Koni as worker in a textile mill. Khidda by affection and with a motive to promote Koni as a champion swimmer (symbolising a leading party activist) gave her a job of a saleswoman in his wife’s (Lilavati played by Snigdha Banerjee) small sari shop to contribute a modest economic assistance to Koni. This petty job for Koni is almost like an apprenticeship, which can be read as a kind of wage for an ordinary party whole-timer of a Left organisation. The lesson for the Left in this context is that Khidda ignores his middle- class wife’s expectations for upward mobility and is mainly interested to recruit the swimmers (a metaphor of party activists) from poor unorganised working classes. Serious analysis of Marx’s Capital has recently focused upon the need to engage with the issue of unorganised working class for the revolutionary task of ensuring freedom and justice (Bose: 2011). The urban unorganised sector labour is a constituency, which was traditionally mobilized by the Left in Bengal till early 1990s and then subsequently it got disillusioned with overtly middle-class, capital friendly and statist excesses of the Left in power. Significant sections of the urban unorganised sector working class, particularly in the transport industry, where Koni’s brother is employed has limited direct contradiction and confrontation with big capital but has open conflict with statist agencies like police, municipality officials and elected representatives. If statist agencies even under a Left Front government harass and exploit these sections of the population, it is no wonder that it would desert the Left with hatred and contemptuous rage. In the context of current crisis of Leftwing mobilisation among this constituency, the Left can certainly learn from Khidda, symbolically representing an honest intelligent communist party leader engaged in self-introspection and the difficult task of declassing himself while organizing the unorganized working class. Since, the unorganised sector labour force is an overwhelming majority in India’s total working population, the lesson from Koni, a two and half decades old film is ever relevant for the Indian Left.
In the early part of the film, there is a poignant scene where a well wisher of Khidda tells him not to go to the club meeting as everybody in the club is involved in grouping and factionalism to expel him from the club. To such a friendly advice of avoiding the meeting, Khidda says “I know that they would definitely form factions to get rid off me. After all, with my stay, they are facing difficulty. The Club has become the place of opportunists and vested interests.” In the moment of extreme humiliating experience of getting kicked out from the swimming club, Khidda says, “I had come to the club 25 years ago not with any motive but with an ideal, not for a career but to build ideal swimmers. I also like the club and wanted that my club would be the best. But I am compelled to say that there is no place of principles in this club…there is only one respect in this world—the respect and honour for labour (which I value).” Interestingly, the executive committee of the club in this film is dominated by (upper caste middle class) Bengali Bhadrolok men. Despite, Khidda’s humiliating expulsion from the Club, he does not join the rival Club (a metaphor of rival political group). The organisational dynamics and petty factional politics within the club are also extended to state association. Here, is not the ‘club’ of Khidda and the state of ‘Bengal’ referred in the film represent some male dominated upper caste middle class parochial leadership in power, and the club meeting as party meeting, which has been often alleged of sidelining, marginalizing and expelling honest, dedicated and hardworking cadres and organisers, since they are not sycophants and are opposed to the corruption, favouritism and nepotism of some careerists, opportunists and vested interests in the party? Khidda tells Koni, “in sports, win and loss is not a big issue but sportsman spirit is important.” Is Khidda’s statement also not valid for politics and for the Left, which has sportingly accepted the politico-electoral defeat for the time being and engaged in self-introspection?
In the last scene of the film, Koni cried “(During the tough fight of the swimming race) Khidda, I was almost dying with pain.” Khidda consoles her, “(foolish girl, you do not understand) that pain is everything. This is not the end. You have so many struggles to fight ahead. You have to go a long way. Fight, Koni fight, fight, fight.” The pain of Koni through which she wins, through which her state: Bengal wins, and perhaps through which her working class wins is what Lacan would call 'jouissance', signifying both pain and pleasure, both enjoyment, happiness as well as suffering (Lacan, 1979: 281; 1998: 3; 2008: 227-228, 233, 237-239; Fink, 1995: 60). It is through pain and pleasure that one experiences the 'jouissance' of life, that one enjoys life, which is instructive for political life as well.
When scores of Left supporters, activists and leaders are under attack from the reactionary agents of the ruling classes, when the repressive apparatuses of the state is firing on the poor peasants—defending their democratic right to hold their piecemeal lands experiencing corporate media black-out like the case of Haroa in North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, when the onslaught of ‘capitalo-parliamentarianism’ to use Badiou’s term (2010) is targeting to abolish the fundamental right of the proletariat—namely the right to strike, when the Indian state is sending troops within its territory to crush various dissenting voices of the people, when the mainstream intelligentsia in its anti-communist euphoria is not interested to research on the unsung stories like Koni, perhaps, the Left needs to march forward for an all out counter-offensive struggle and aggressive militant movements by taking lessons from the attacking mentality and fighting spirit of Koni. In recent times, after successive politico-electoral debacles appended with demoralisation, Khidda’s encouraging words, “Fight Koni, Fight!” is perhaps the most relevant and encouraging words for the Indian Left, which has nothing to lose but to FIGHT.
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