The OSTRICH and the EMU
Reading Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Star’: Purandar’s failures keep him from being co-opted into the bourgeois world of businessmen and the kitsch of popular cinema
Manash Bhattacharjee Delhi
The appearance of a strange bird in Dibakar Banerjee’s informally titled ‘Star’—a brilliant adaptation of a Satyajit Ray short story in the anthology film, Bombay Talkies—evokes the recollection of the dreamlike scene of the ostrich in Luis Buñuel’sThe Phantom of Liberty. The bird in Banerjee’s film, however, after the women of the neighbourhood play with the pronunciation of its name, suggesting its alienness, turns out to be an emu, as clarified by its owner, Purandar.
The women also make fun of Purandar’s pipe dream: his failed calculations of selling the emu’s eggs for profit. While leaving to find work, Purandar promises his ailing daughter, who is cross with him for rehashing old film stories, a new story on his return. Little does he know that his life that day will transform into cinema. First, as a bystander, he lands a fleeting role in a film. Then, in a daydream, he meets his late thespian guru.
In the dream, the emu again makes its strange appearance, with renewed significance. This cinematic shift that transports the emu from its symbolic (and real) presence in his household to its surreal presence in Purandar’s daydream connects to a similar technique used by Buñuel, where the ostrich also plays a role across dream and reality.
Buñuel’s source is psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s famous seminar essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter. In the story, where a stolen letter circulates among a chain of characters, Lacan probes three different aspects of delusion through the law of the three ostriches: i) the first ostrich is deluded about being invisible after burying its head in the sand, ii) the second is deluded that its knowledge of having buried its head makes it invulnerable, and iii) the third thinks it can pluck the rear of the second to prove the second’s vulnerability. As the letter changes hands, each character possessing the letter experiences the intimate connection between power and self-deception.
Purandar goes to rehearse his dialogue in the middle of a housing complex and mouths famous lines from Anand, Deewar, Sholay and Agneepath. Then he jogs and gurgles, showing frantic excitement about the role that has miraculously fallen into his lap. Purandar displays a spell of absurd theatrics, where his nostalgia for grandiosity spills over into the reality of playing a minuscule role. There is a strong element of Freudian ‘wish fulfilment’ (wunscherfüllung) that takes over Purandar.
He is finally disappointed to see only a single word written on the page. At that moment his guru appears before him to mock him for everything he lacks for becoming an actor. The guru and the housing complex are surreally juxtaposed: a thespian’s ghost on an eerily empty stage, perhaps symbolising the abandoned backstage of history. The appearance of the emu, a lost bird trapped in a surreal world not of its making, further complicates the scene. The emu, like the ostrich haunting Henri’s dream in The Phantom of Liberty, symbolizes the destabilizing aspect of the protagonist’s life.
Through the unfolding of this exchange, enacted with refined discipline by Nawazuddin and Sadashiv, a quasi-Kafkaesque anxiety comes to light behind the failure of Purandar’s acting career: the looming figure of the vituperative guru. The guru asks his disciple for the dialogue paper. The paper is also a letter in some ways — it has an addressee, Purandar, and it contains letters making up the word “Aye!”, which he has to speak. Purandar hesitates before deciding not to give it to his guru, showing the significance of possessing its contents as an imagined symbol of power. The guru, however, reveals he is aware of the dialogue on the paper, and mouths the word, using various bodily intonations, trying to prove to his disciple the range and superiority of his acting skills. This omniscient panoptic gaze of the guru signifies the reach of the law.
Purandar’s guru accuses him of being too laidback and finicky, and of wanting success to land in his lap. He also accuses him of having too many distractions, suggesting it was the lack of passion that ruined Purandar’s career in theatre. The disciple counters the guru with the fact that the mills closed down and his father lost his job, a reason the guru dismisses by saying that others whose fathers met the same fate did not waver in their passion. He compares the risk of choosing art with someone possessing a “safe deposit” and “pension”.
Purandar, however, hints at his guru’s jealousy after he hogged the limelight by playing the lead role in Kusumāgraj’s famous Marathi play Natsamrat, when the guru was unwell. That information opens up the dream’s plot. The ghostly guru assumes the role of Ganpatrao ‘Appa’ Bewalkar, Kusumagraj’s Lear, who, abandoned by his children, bore the tragic and hallucinatory consequences of devalued fame. Guru and disciple face each other like two ostrich-like figures, shadowed by an emu.
Purandar, like the first ostrich, believes his habits of skirting reality are invisible, while his guru still holds the delusion of being invulnerable, like the second ostrich. Both also take turns to imitate the third ostrich by picking at each other’s shortcomings. Is the guru’s idea of art as sacrosanct pursuit mere bourgeois idealism? Is the disciple’s vacillation between theatre and livelihood an artist’s shallow compromise? Should artistic labour lie outside the overall economy of life?
Banerjee revealed in an interview that two documentary filmmakers put the idea of the emu into his head. In 1996, the first contingent of this flightless bird from Australia made its way to India. By 2000, many regions, including Maharashtra, started commercial farming of the emu. After an initial period of roaring business, greed for quick profit backfired, resulting in heavy losses for the investors. The farm owners abandoned the emus, and the starving birds were forced to feed on each other.
If Purandar’s is a ‘wasted life’, then such wasted lives alone can perhaps show us what is wrong with our times
According to Dibakar, the tale of ruined families involved in emu farming makes the emu a symbol of Purandar’s wasted life. But emus cannot be faulted for being forced out of their habitat and having their lives and habits wrecked due to human manipulation.The emu, even though trapped by the camera, haunts with its uncanny presence, defying human intentions.
To see Purandar’s character by endorsing the prejudices behind his representation is doing violence to both — the signifiers as well as to Purandar himself. The ostrich syndrome is a myth and the emu syndrome is an unfair representation of so-called unproductive livestock. They are useful symbolic tools only in their ‘subversive capacities’; to challenge how people understand power, reason and use-value. Purandar’s self-delusional ideas hold the key to the residual romanticism of his hard life. His failures keep him from being co-opted into the bourgeois world of businessmen and the kitsch of popular cinema.
This does not grant Purandar an ‘authentic’ life. The space available to Purandar is determined not by him but by a larger apparatus at work. This apparatus has been called ‘the capitalist machine’ that produces schizophrenia by subverting older forms of social bonds and encouraging newer ones, to smoothen the flow of capital. Purandar exemplifies this schizophrenia, trying to manoeuvre his desires between the shaky patterns and demands of both his domestic and professional lives.
When Purandar leaves without taking his fee and, despite his guru’s certitude, plays the role, in two strokes he rejects the material and psychological claims over him. He returns to his ailing daughter and performs before her, like a domestic ‘natsamrat’, a fabricated story of his breakthrough into the world of cinema. By doing so, Purandar fashions the theatre of the unconscious.
If Purandar’s is a “wasted life”, then such wasted lives alone can perhaps show us what is wrong with our times.