Last week, an unsuspecting group of people, including me, queued up in front of the Stein auditorium at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) in New Delhi for a show of Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu-Jo (1957). The audacious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth — transposed by Kurosawa from the medieval Scotland of the original to the medieval Japan of samurais — was initially described by the New York Times as “brutish and barbaric... fantastic and funny”. Since then, it has been accepted to be an autonomous work of art, replacing the Bard’s poetry with powerful cinematic imagery. I had seen the film 10 years before, as a student, but never on the big screen, and movies should always be watched in a cinema. Going to watch a movie in India, however, also means having patriotism forced down one’s throat. Till recently, a Supreme Court ruling made it compulsory for cinema owners to play “Jana Gana Mana” before every show. Such was the patriotic fervour of our movie-going public that reports of them beating up fellow cinema connoisseurs — even if they were differently abled — for failing to stand up during the song had become alarmingly frequent. Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that one does not need to stand up at a cinema to be perceived as patriotic. “Next thing will be that people should not wear t-shirts and shorts to movies because it will amount to disrespect to the National Anthem... where do we stop this moral policing?” said Justice D Y Chandrachud, who is part of a three-member Supreme Court Bench hearing an appeal on this issue. But who is going to remain sitting and provoke violence? An outraged woman sitting beside me told her companion: “This is a Japanese film, damn it!” She stood nevertheless, for the 52 seconds that Tagore’s song played on the screen. Of course, most of us had waited in the queue outside for 15-20 minutes. So why would we have a problem standing now, a nationalist might demand. Why indeed? Though no one can deny that being forced to stand in a darkened theatre, waiting eagerly for the anthem to end, a sullen silence engulfing the cloistered space, can be a rather lugubrious experience. Then, Kurosawa’s black-and-white fog rolled on screen and unforgettable first notes of the chorus started. The more accurate translation of the film’s title is “the cobweb castle”, referring to the maze-like forest surrounding the castle at the heart of the film’s narrative.
It is infested with piles of skeletons of hapless people who have lost their way and evil spirits that can corrupt even the most upright samurai.In his essay, “Lost in Translation”, Erin Suzuki writes: “In the context of Kurosawa’s position in the post-war, port-occupation Japan, Macbeth — with its portrayal of a weakened society open to infection by forces of chaos and change — had a distinct resonance with the historical moment.” He had already criticised Japan’s excessive militarism and nationalism of the Hirohito era, which had resulted in the country’s complete destruction, in Rashomon (1952). After World War II, Japan was occupied by American forces from 1945 to 1952; it ushered in an era of liberalism and democracy. But by the time Kurosawa started work on Kumonosu-Jo, he was deeply disillusioned by the western-style liberalism. Kurosawa had never felt comfortable in his skin in the new democracy. “The freedom... of the post-war era [was] not things I had fought for and won; they were granted to me by powers beyond my control.” This has a particular resonance for our country and our times. In the 70th euphoric year of our Independence, here is a sobering thought: The freedom and democracy we have inherited is not the result of anything we have done. Perhaps, that’s why we can afford to be so glib about our patriotism, wearing it like a fashionable coat. Perhaps, that’s why spokespersons of our national parties can challenge each other to sing the National Song on live TV, and then hilariously fumble on the lyrics. The anthem of a nation can be a powerful tool of protest. In the US, African-American athlete Colin Kaepernick and others began kneeling even as “The Star Spangled Banner” was played during the NFL games to protest against a recent spurt in police officers killing innocent black men and women. A part of the “Black Lives Matter” protests, this symbolic gesture managed to outrage fans, sports authorities and even President Donald Trump who tweeted against it. In our country, cricketers are labelled anti-national if they shake hands with their Pakistani counterparts. As many commentators have often pointed out, our patriotism is somewhat defined by cricket matches and films such as Border (1997). In Kumonosu-Jo, the reason for the eventual downfall of General Washizu — the Macbeth figure played by Kurosawa’s favourite Toshiro Mifune — is not a result of his unchecked ambition but because of his inability to understand when things have gone out of his control. With defeat imminent, his archers turn on him and kill him. (The scene, which drew startled gasps from the audience at IHC, was shot with real archers.) To interpret the moral degeneration of Japanese society, Kurosawa set up the “slow” Noh theatre’s formalism and split-second cinema editing’s kineticism as a compelling counterpoint to each other, to expose a chilling incongruity. But it is perhaps a little less uncanny than our current virulent jingoism that seems to have trapped our national consciousness like a fly in a spider’s web.