Remembering Satyajit Ray's Hirok Rajar Deshe: On Edward Snowden, Resistance and Inverted Totalitarianism

"[H]istory has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the...commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man's moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization."

--Rabindranath Tagore, 1917

"[H]istory has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the...commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man's moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization."

--Rabindranath Tagore, 1917

We are being asked to choose: "Is Edward J. Snowden a hero or a criminal?" asks a Los Angeles Times poll; the Slate magazine asks, "Is Edward Snowden A Traitor?"; the U.S. News and World Report asks if he is a: "Traitor or Hero?"; and the Yahoo! News asks, "Is Edward Snowden a hero or traitor?" In The New Yorker one writer opines Snowden is a "Hero" while another charges he is a "No Hero." Blowing whistle against the United States government is not a spectacle.

The ongoing explosive expose of the American surveillance state brought back childhood memories. I was thirteen. It was a children's film, a musical comedy, I had watched in 1980--Satyajit Ray's Hirok Rajar Deshe ("The Kingdom of Diamonds" or a more literal translation would be "In the Land of the Diamond King").

On May 7, Andrew Robinson, eminent scholar on Ray wrote to me in an email: "Here in London, the National Film Theatre is going to show all of Satyajit Ray's films in August-October 2013--the first time since 2002." Ray created some of the most memorable films of world cinema: the Apu Trilogy, Charulata, Jalsaghar (The Music Room), Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), Satranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), and Agantuk (The Stranger), to name a few. "Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon," the great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa once remarked.

To us kids however, growing up in Bengal in the '70s and '80s, it wasn't all these "adult" films, but what Ray created for us that mattered the most--detective Feluda, professor Shonku, and Goopy and Bagha. He was the best friend a little kid could ever dream about. In 1961, he wrote and illustrated Bankubabur Bandhu ("Banku Babu's Friend"). In 1967, he turned the story into a screenplay that was widely circulated in Hollywood. After Steven Spielberg's E.T. appeared in 1982, Ray commented that E.T. "would not have been possible without my script on 'The Alien' being available throughout America in mimeographed copies," Andrew Robinson pointed out in a most handsome volume, Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, with text by Robinson, photographs by Nemai Ghosh and drawings by Ray. There were also the unforgettable detective series--first the books, then the films--with Feluda, Topshe, and Jatayu, and the musical two-part comedy--Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha), and a decade later the sequel, Hirok Rajar Deshe.

Critics had often charged that Ray didn't address difficult contemporary social concerns in his films, like his contemporary, Mrinal Sen, another great director. They were wrong. Hirok Rajar Deshe is one of the most important films on resistance and a critic of "inverted totalitarianism" (the term arrived more than a quarter century after the film).

Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin coined the term "inverted totalitarianism" (in his book, Democracy Inc.) to describe the current system of governance in the United States. Unlike standard totalitarian models, like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Soviet Union, an inverted totalitarian nation-state does not commit carnage and violence on its own citizens (no "concentration camps" or "gulags") but keeps the totalitarian engine running by keeping the population in a permanent state of political apathy (using brainwashing by the government's partner--the media) while the state becomes a servant to corporations (not the people). Wolin, I doubt ever saw Hirak Rajar Deshe, but if he does, he would agree with me that the evil Hirok Raja (Diamond King) had devised a brilliant system of inverted totalitarianism.

Hirok Rajar Deshe is unique among all of Ray's oeuvre. Instead of visually striking scenes, Ray opted for "more ideas" in the film. "[I]t's ingenuity and originality lie more in its dialogues and songs," Robinson wrote in the biography, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye. As a little kid I didn't understand the deeper political meaning of the rhymed dialogues, but they were so--delicious, I'd recite them all through the day, and even while falling asleep. "When Bangladesh television showed The Kingdom of Diamonds in 1981, the words of its main songs appeared all over the walls of Dhaka," Robinson wrote. Ray was a song-writer, composer, musician, in addition to being a writer and illustrator. They are "almost untranslatable," Ray commented about the dialogues and songs in Hirok Rajar Deshe. I'll try my best to share a few.

Hirok Raja was played by Utpal Dutta, the remarkable Marxist playwright, director and actor. In the film Hirok Raja says that he doesn't exercise violence:

Hirok Raja prane marena (Diamond King doesn't kill)

garoder dhar dharena (he doesn't need prisons)

shule choray na (doesn't put you on a spear)

jaynto poray na (doesn't burn you alive)

Hirok rajje sashti sudhu ektai (in the Diamond Kingdom there is only one punishment)

He keeps his kingdom non-violent by using only one type of punishment--"mogoj dholai" (brain washing), and by shutting down access to knowledge. When his gobeshok (scientist-wizard) announced that he has just discovered Jantarmantar--the machine that will perform brain washing, the Raja is thrilled:

Raja: Mogoj dholai? (brain washing?)

Gobeshok: Thik tai (indeed)

E emon kol (this machine)

Jate raj karjo hoye jai jol (will make governance a no brainer)

Raja: Eto obishassho! (It's unbelievable!)

The gobeshok told the Raja that all ideas and thoughts of protest ("biruddhho") will be completely cleaned out from the brain and replaced with chants of whatever the Raja wishes. The Poet Laureate soon came up with chants for--farmers, miners and educators.

When Hirok Raja ordered his Minister of Education to shut down the local school and burn all books, he gave the following justification:

era joto besi pore (more they read)

toto besi jane (more they learn)

toto kom mane (less they obey)

The Poet Laureate recites the chant he has written for educators in the scene in which the Minister of Education shuts down the school:

lekha pora kore je (he who studies)

onahara more se (dies of starvation)

janar kono sesh nai (there is no end to knowing)

janar chesta britha tai (desire to acquire knowledge is hence futile)

The scene has "as much bite in it as anything in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four," Andrew Robinson wrote in the biography.

There was resistance against Raja's tyranny however, and it came from two sources--a musician and a teacher. The folk singer Charan Das received "mogoj dholai" after he sang the following song in front of the Raja:

dekho bhalo jone (a good person)

roilo bhanga ghore (has to live in a shattered home)

mondo je se (while the cruel one)

singhasone chore (occupies the throne)

"A unique aspect of the film is that most of the dialogues exchanged by the protagonists of the film are rhyming. The only person who did not speak in rhyme, was the teacher, symbolizing that though the thoughts of everybody else is bound, the teacher was a free-thinker," the Wikipedia page on the film writes. Udayan, the teacher tells his students, "When the king becomes the enemy of the people then it becomes a serious problem." Unlike Charan Das, Udayan escapes "mogoj dholai" by fleeing and taking refuge in the mountains after the school is shut down, and Raja's army raids his house. With the help of Goopy and Bagha who have magical powers, Udayan launches a campaign to dethrone the king. The film looses its creative energy, becomes a bit of a bore, and finally we see--the brainwashed Raja joins the crowd to topple his own statue.

Ray's film has a utopian ending. The current political reality in the U.S. however, is not so rosy. But one thing is for sure--there will always be resistance. Udayan's students called him--gurumoshai, simply means teacher. We might do well, to think of Edward Snowden not as a "Hero", or a "No Hero", or a "Traitor", but like Udayan, simply as a teacher--who provided knowledge to expose yet another aspect of the inverted totalitarianism in the United States.

In 1917, Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in literature warned about the "commercial man." Things have gone much worse. But, Robert Scheer correctly pointed out on Truthdig that Edward Snowden "Isn't For Sale." Snowden, along with Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian, and The Washington Post are continuing to expose the secrets of something much larger than Hirok Raja's Jantarmantar, and for that we owe them our gratitude. And Snowden and Greenwald deserve our support and solidarity.

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