Notes on ‘Third Cinema as
guardian of popular memory’:
an Indian context

by Manas K Ghosh

From amnesia to active remembrance

Third Cinema emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The three major manifestoes which formulated Third Cinema in the 1960s were ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ written by Julio Garcia Espinosa of Cuba, ‘Aesthetics of Hunger’ by Glauber Rocha of Brazil, and ‘Towards a Third Cinema’ by Argentina’s Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjines' 'Problems of Form and Content in Revolutionary Cinema' (1976) was also considered another major contribution to theorizing Third Cinema in Latin America.[1]

Though the primary focus of each of these filmmakers rests on national cinema, he seeks the liberation of Latin American culture from neo-colonial influences. They suggest that only through a conscious process/method of decolonization can people be liberated from the structures perpetuating neo-colonial exploitation and cultural undernourishment. In both theory and practice, Third Cinema filmmakers oppose Hollywood cinema as imperialist cinema and criticize European art cinema as elitist cinema. Instead, they speak in favor of a popular cinema that makes a revolutionary departure from Hollywood cinema, European art cinema and populist mass cinema. They propose filmmaking where the film and its audience share a common reality. Third Cinema, in theory and practice, responds to ordinary people's everyday lives; it investigates the reasons for the exploitation of the masses and upholds popular struggles and resistances.

Teshome Gabriel in his writings from the 1980s onwards elaborated on Third Cinema's historiographic propositions by exploring some salient features of Third Cinema praxis. For him, Third Cinema is not a so-called film movement bound by a bunch of formal agendas set by a singular manifesto. Rather, Third Cinema is a set of propositions for making ‘popular cinema’ as laid out earlier. The Latin American experience of Third Cinema praxis supplies viable templates for a young filmmaker making cinema of liberation in any part of the world. Filmmakers formulate ideas for making Third Cinema on the foundation of their own local and national experiences. That cinema focuses on “collective social space” and explores popular memory to yield a deeper historical understanding of the culture and daily existence of ordinary people. State-dominated, elitist and commercial culture generally ignores folkloric and oral traditions and forces them into oblivion. Teshome Gabriel argues that one major task of Third Cinema is to “resuscitate them”

“[F]olkloric traditions of popular memory have a rescue mission. They wage a battle against false consciousness and against the official versions of history that legitimate and glorify it.”[2]

Gabriel begins his article ‘Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory’ by mentioning an anecdote narrated by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier. [3] It is the story of a village poet who has fallen silent. The people of the small fishing village (in Venezuela) miss the poet's articulation. One day he breaks the silence and comes out to recite for the people. He tells the story of Charlemagne in an epic that sounds like the ‘Song of Roland’. Carpentier remarks,

“I understood perhaps for the first time that in our America, wrongly named Latin, an illiterate man, descendant of the [slaves], recreated the ‘Song of Roland’ in a language richer than Spanish, full of distinctive inflections, accents, expressions and syntax.”[4]

The poet's articulation is documented neither in the history written by rulers nor in institutional records created by academicians. Folk culture is the repository that stores the memory of these neglected traditions.

Fables, myths, folk songs, and folk theatre bear the impression of this undocumented reality. Thus, Glauber Rocha’s Black God White Devil (1964) uses Heitor Villa-Lobos’s ‘Bachianas Brasileiras’[5] and the songs in the film narrate the unsung heroes of the Battle of Canudos.[6] Similarly in the film Rio, Northern Zone (1957) Nelson Pereira dos Santos explores the origin of Samba in Rio’s slums. ‘Guantanamera’ in Tomas G Alea’s films serves a similar purpose. Ancient and modern myths intertwine to respond to a current political context in Jorge Sanjines’ Blood of the Condor (1969). Gabriel explains that these instances “remind us of the causes of difference between popular memory and 'official' versions of history.”[7] The task of the Third Cinema is to engage positively with such cultural articulations of popular memory generally ignored by conventional literature, theatre, art, and cinema.

Rio, North Zone – Samba, the popular cultural form of Rio slums. Rio, North Zone – Samba composer Espirito da Luz Cardoso (Grande Otelo) who lives in a Rio slum.

To make a parallel with events in India, I draw an example from a recent event that took place in Kolkata. Supriyo Chowdhury, a Bengali writer, and social activist, recently authored Martyrs Memorial Altars 1970s: Memory and Amnesia (Smriti Bismritir Shahid Bedi Sottor Sottor).[8] The book, divided into several brief chapters, maps the locations of the martyrs’ memorial altars in and around Kolkata. These altars were established in memory of the unsung Naxalite revolutionaries who fought and embraced martyrdom. Most of the men had been foot soldiers of the 1970s’ Naxalite urban guerilla movements; even their celebrity compatriots over time forgot them. While traveling to collect information about the altars, which exist in neglected and dilapidated condition, the author excavates the popular memory of the 1970s. He speaks extensively with people in different localities and recreates the biography of each forgotten martyr based on popular remembrance. In contrast, official narratives, histories, city maps, mass media, and run-of-the-mill public discourses scarcely mention these people or the altars to them.

On May Day, 2022 – An altar was inaugurated at Mohan Bagan Lane in memory of Prateep Ghosh and four other Naxalite revolutionaries who were killed by police in Howrah Jail on 3 May 1975. Supriyo Chowdhury, the writer of Smriti Bismritir Shahid Bedi Sottor, at the inauguration of the martyr altar of Prateep Ghosh and others

In current times, Chowdhury and his friends associated with the Naxalite movement of the 1970s and 1980s have formed a group. This group has taken on a project to restore the neglected martyrs’ memorial altars and statues. They have already restored the altar on Bhavani Dutta Lane near College Street, Kolkata. The altar still stood there but the names inscribed on the plaque over time had become illegible. [9] Grounded on the popular memory of the 1970s, the members of the group have recovered the names of the nine martyrs and finally restored the plaque. The nine martyrs were Bidhu Sarkar, Anup Bhons, Keshto Sanyal, Shanku Dutta, Sukumar Bhattacharya, Gobinda Chakraborty, Sekhar Guha, Shankar Das, and Samir Bhowmik. Most of these names are scarcely remembered till rescued by Chowdhury from the amnesia of official history. He now offers the reader an active remembrance of the 1970s. He creates a counter-archive of the 1970s revolutionary political movement of Kolkata from the oral narratives he has collected.

Chowdhury’s work can be read in connection with Mrinal Sen’s film Calcutta 71. The film's final sequence shows a Naxalite revolutionary's death in a “fake encounter.”[1a] These were regular incidents in the 1970s in Kolkata. Often bodies were not returned to their families; sometimes terrified families did not claim the bodies fearing further police atrocity against the survivors. Official records barely acknowledged those killings. Nobody wrote the protestors’ obituary; nobody held a public memorial meeting. Sen’s film is conscious of the distinction between factual history (where ‘factuality’ itself depends on the politics of documentation) and a history recreated using popular memory as a source.

The film starts with first-person narration. A young man says, ‘I am just twenty, but I have been walking down the burning track of history for the last one thousand years.’ Calcutta 71 is not an autobiographical film but the film chooses a narrative strategy where the story explicates the personal experience of the twenty-year-old narrator who in the end is shot dead by the police. Teshome Gabriel says that Third Cinema often uses an "autobiographical narrative" but in a different way and for a different purpose.  Third Cinema, he says, emphasizes

“[A] multi-generational and trans-individual autobiography, i.e., a symbolic autobiography where the collective subject is the focus. Critical scrutiny of this extended sense of autobiography (perhaps hetero-biography) is more than an expression of shared experience; it is a mark of solidarity with people's lives and struggles.”[10]

We can read Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta 71 in the light of Teshome Gabriel’s argument.

Popular memory and historiography

Gabriel illustrates how Third Cinema is not limited to the sphere of films alone. Here the entire context of imagining and producing Third Cinema enters into the discourse. It includes politics, literature, theatre, photography, and critical thinking that interact with popular memory and often work beyond institutional frameworks. Third Cinema’s theoretical enrichment also needs alternative historiography. Glauber Rocha in 1965 argued that colonial and neo-colonial exploitations not only have produced hunger but also “philosophical undernourishment” that has blocked our independent critical ability to question the official history. [11] Consequently, we lack a proper philosophical and political understanding of our underdevelopment.

Blood of the Condor (1969)—Paulina (Benedicta Mendoza Huanca), an indigenous woman who upholds the spirit of popular resistance. Blood of the Condor (1969) – a village cultural festival.

Historiography is important not merely for understanding our past but it also shapes our present actions by which we intend to arrive at a new future. I explicate my point with the alternative historiography proposed by Ranajit Guha in the 1970s and 1980s. The centenarian historian, the founder of subaltern studies in India, in the 1970s established a new method of studying historical documents and archives. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, he took a position that was different from orthodox Marxist historiography as well as liberal historiographical rationales.

Guha’s key essay—“The Prose of Counter-Insurgency”—examines the alarm in the prose of the letters written by administrators and the orders issued by the colonial government officials and magistrates while encountering the  peasant revolt of Barasat of 1831 and the 1855 tribal revolt of Bengal-Bihar province.[12] Guha observes, as he consults a series of reports of the incidents published in The Calcutta Review, that even the native elites are found using words very similar to those of the colonial officers while reporting the revolts. Having been inspired by Roland Barthes’ work and Mao Tse-tung’s understanding (the statement ‘It’s terrible!’ may be read by someone as ‘It’s fine!’), Guha reinterprets the institutional language of governmentality to arrive at a subaltern point of view and proposes a method of reading the archive with an alternative approach. For example, an official government document found in the archive mentions the phrase ‘the insurgents’; Guha reinterprets it as ‘the peasants’. They said, ‘defying the authority of the state’; Guha reads it as ‘the revolt against zamindari [landlord’s rule]’. They said, ‘disturbing the public tranquility’; Guha reads it as ‘the struggle for a better order’. Similarly, ‘intention to attack’, may be interpreted as ‘intention to punish the oppressors’.[13] So, ‘the insurgency’ from the elites’ and ruling classes’ point of view may appear as 'counter-insurgency' from the subaltern point of view.  This is an example of building a counter-archive by using the general archive itself.

Guha further claims that the revolts in subaltern consciousness are not always guided by a structured idea and clear understanding of the reasons for marginalization. "The specificity of a rural insurrection is expressed in terms of many other [local] contradictions as well.”[14] By observing the tribal and peasant revolts in colonial India, he concludes, following Gramscian logic, that peasant/ tribal consciousness (related to revolt and resistance) is often intertwined with religious consciousness. It is neither superstition nor a mere tactical move. On the contrary, people live that consciousness. The official and elite historiographies either do not see them or deliberately ignore the nuances. Guha hints that the history of the subaltern consciousness should be understood by decoding the myths, folklores, folk songs, and folk performances. This is because they are the living documents of the community's existence and her negotiation with the system. The acts of telling and retelling the folk narratives convey messages which are often veiled with pathos, metaphor, metonymy, and allegory. A historian’s task is to decrypt them.

Renowned Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s novels observed the tribal revolt in a similar line. These include Aranyer Adhikar (Rights of the Forest, 1977), Chotti Munda o Tar Teer (Chotti Munda and His Arrow, 1980), and stories like ‘Draupadi’ and ‘Operation? Bashai Tudu’, 1978. Devi (1926-2016) was a writer who explored an alternative space in Bengali literary creations. Her novels, short stories, and journalistic writings analyze the social, anthropological, and political ostracizing of tribal people, lower caste groups, and marginal political communities in eastern India. She traveled widely and lived among the people whom she depicted in her works. She also took part in social works and pro-Naxalite political activism. [15] In her writings, she often transgressed the literary boundary of a familiar realism and thus offered her readers an alternative discursive rationale. By using myths, legends, and folktales in many of her writings, she liberated the history of tribal revolts and the Naxalite movement from mere factuality and institutional entitlements.[16]

Because of its intriguing form and electrifying content, ‘Operation? Bashai Tudu’ is considered by Bengali readers and critics as one of Mahasweta Devi’s most important works. Alakananda Bagchi explains,

“Mahasweta in Bashai Tudu [and her other important works] tries to ‘write in’ the history of the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the displaced adivasis or tribals who have been almost 'written out of Indian history.”[17]

Bashai Tudu was a tribal peasant who led a revolt in the 1970s against the rural system of oppression perpetrated by the landlords and their accomplices. He was chased by the police and goons hired by the landlord. Reports came in that he had died. The reports would then even be confirmed. Yet he would resurface in another village. From 1970 to 1976 he was 'killed' four times but he returned from the dead every time. Is this a fantastic mystery? Or does this remind us of Alejo Carpentier’s ‘lo real maravilloso’? [18]

In the prologue to his Kingdom of this World (1949) Carpentier refers to the incident of Francois Mackandal who was a legendary leader of the eighteenth-century Haitian slave revolt. This slave revolt leader is captured by the colonial police and the authority orders his public execution. He is hanged from a tree with a rope and finally burnt to death. The moment the flame touches his feet, the people who gather around to watch the execution of their leader applaud and celebrate. The colonial masters interpret it as a gesture of savagery. However, the people are rejoicing because they perceive that the moment their beloved leader’s feet touched the fire, his spirit flew up and splintered into thousands of pieces. The pieces blend with the trees, rivers, mountains, and animal world and thus he becomes immortal. Carpentier explains,

“I was in a land where thousands of men, anxious for freedom, believed in Mackandal’s lycanthropic powers to the extent that their collective faith produced a miracle on the day of his execution. […] Mackandal lived and was endowed with the same powers by the faith of his contemporaries, who with his magic fomented one of the strangest and most dramatic uprisings in history.”[19]