The very first thing that came into my mind, while writing this article, was the great yet controversial dinner scene from the 1974 film, “Le Fantome De La Liberte” or “The Phantom of Liberty” by the legendary film director Luis Bunuel. Like the other series of surreal and satirical scenes, this dinner scene was in the middle of the film. There is a dinner table inside a very well-to-do household room of a bourgeois family from France and six people are sitting, facing each other. Strangely they aren’t eating, all of them are sitting on their own separately designed western commodes as if it’s quiet normal. They talk about postmodern art, politics, economics, Marxism and what not. The next scene is more interesting, one guest politely comes out of the room and asks the maid where the lavatory is, he goes into a small room and in solitary he is enjoying his meal.
Yeah, it is a dream which Bunuel once had and gradually incorporated in his film. Well, it has a vibrant significance which is still entirely relevant in this social media hyped age! We better not get into details and just treat it like a true unconscious art idea, it is important to me in this respect that excrement and performing the most private act of defecation, became the most interesting experiment in art during modern and postmodern era.
As we consider the restroom is the most private place of an individual to spend time or quality time (often an artist says that their ideas spring up in toilet and some have mini library over there too) just like kissing and having sex is an extreme personal matter, in India; there was a time when art never wanted to portray them in public, except the Christian Biblical nude myths. Just after the impressionist movement which Manet, Monet, Cezanne, Gogh and the others took the responsibility of changing the rules of liberty of an artist over canvas, that’s when all the art forms took a deep breath and radicalised their own fields. The First World War just stopped and we had Dadaism, movement against all sorts of justification and reasoning. The first manifesto was written by Tristan Tzara and there was an image of a western toilet at the end of the manifesto. Why? Don’t ask the Dadaists “why!” They don’t love to answer but to create automatism and let you interpret the way you want to. But the truth behind it was decoded later by Andre Breton, he said Dadaism wanted to abolish all the elite class reasoning art expressions by replacing with greu, Cubism and collages with excellent designs coming fresh out of the subconscious. Breton continued this legacy and started surrealism with Dali, Bunuel, Man Ray, Aragon etc. Picasso and Braque were also into surrealism before they started cubism. So, the primary agenda of surrealists were to hit and shock the common people with their extraordinary creations which will depict something completely different from the actuality and reality and which cannot be decoded by any sort of justifications. Though some of them emphasized on their dreams, and dreams then were already interpreted by Freud. Not much time passed when absurdity and existentialism crept into prominence, Camus and Sartre were celebrated. All these things are explained again just to realize that day to day normal happenings, reality and some acts of natural human life which were being continuously neglected by classical art were brought into spotlight.
Previously, in films and literature, there were no importance of toilets or we couldn’t imagine a protagonist defecating and smoking a cigarette and thinking. But these earlier mentioned artistic movements broke all the hypocrite tropes, thus art became more true to life.
Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom the novel itself was highly hated at it’s time, written by Sade, but later on after the drastic portrayal of Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’or or The Golden Age by Dali and Bunuel partly inspired by Sadism, Pasolini, a radical poet and the most controversial intellectual of Italy directed Salo after many years in 1975. He plotted his premise of story telling in 1943 just after the fall of Benito Mussolini’s regime showed their libertine acts broadly in front of the whole world audience. In this film the use of Excreta and Toilets served an incessantly horrifying and deadly experience. The brutal desires of these four Fascist Libertines made the audiences vomit in the cinema halls, when they experience that on the big screen an innocent girl of fourteen is forced to eat excreta of one of the four rich men, others undergo the similar types of physical and mental harassments throughout the film. In the end they were all killed by these bourgeois people. After that day cinema completely acquired a new definition.
Now let us come to the Indian scenario, here yes we still argue about this silly subject of using slangs in cinema and writings, and laugh out loud when we see a sequence in Rest room or a protagonist masturbating or throwing slangs, as if we don’t experience these in our lives. We still want to differentiate actuality and art, we think art is something which bear sophistication. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghosh they fought and still fighting against these stupid notions. Nabarun Bhattacharya shouted saying “Art does not mean always calendar photography; art can be shaky, blurry, raw and yes blank if needed.” Speaking of Nabarun I remembered one of his quote “Classroom=Urine area.” This was his bow directed towards the establishments and institutions. Or his other quote “After my death I will not become a headline/ So, I shall break law by urinating on the walls palaces.”
Dali once painted a male figure whose ass was full of feces, the Paris Art Gallery rejected it as an art then Aragon wrote on behalf of Dali and it was later accepted – the liberty of an artistic mind was rescued once again. Artistic liberty which does not exist in real life within all, it remains like phantom. And thus Bunuel titled his film “The Phantom of Liberty.” Godard’s Masculin Feminin film also has a very spectacular scene in the bathroom of an office where a boy (Jean Pierre Leaud) and a girl (Chantal Goya) meets and the boy asks the girl out. Here the bathroom acts like the place of perfect awkward romance.
As time passed art became more and more comfortable and frank. And according to me the portrayal of toilets in literature made it easy to symbolize many meanings and to execute certain radical experiments through allegory, absurdity, just reality. It defines an inner self of a character.
No more words. Like I started describing the Bunuel scene, I now will flush all I said and Ah! That’s going to be quite a flush!
Sadeep Bhattacharjee is a filmmaker, writer, partner of an event and film production house named Woodmark Entertainment.