{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ousmane Sembene's Xala

Ousmane Sembene's Xala (pronounced as "Ha-la") is the perfect example that a film can be preachy and profound at the same time. A funny and ultimately bitter satire on the socio-political state of his country marries the best of symbolism and directness, but all time remains connected to the land it comes from. Xala starts as a bunch of businessmen, shouting socialistic and nationalistic slogans, take over the power in Senegal. The next shot sets the contrast (previously they were wearing ethnic dresses, now they are in suits) when briefcases of money are handed over to all of them by a foreigner and they all nod in approval. The switch of power, a social change is satired with amazing narrative brevity. In the meeting, one of those businessmen, El Hadji (working in Food Industry), extends the invitation to all for his third marriage. This is no coincidence that Sembene aligns a social/political change in Senegal to El Hadji's third marriage. Both the symbolic and the comical power of the film lie in charting the similarity of their destinies.

After the meeting, El Hadji return to his first wife where his free-thinking daughter have an argument with him and says nasty things about the polygamists, which El Hadji, the vanguard of African tradition, finds detestable and slaps her tightly. Obviously it is his day today; he is getting a new virgin wife. El Hadji's wedding is an opulent affair (later we come to know where the funds are coming from) with who's who is Senegalese bourgeois attending it along with his two wives, who obviously feel out of place. Till now things go fine but on the wedding night, El Hadji was unable to have an erection and thus realizes that he is suffering from Xala - a curse that turns its victim impotent. Rebuked by his third mother-in-law, ashamed and humiliated, poor Hadji runs from one witch doctor to other but to no avail. One of the witch doctor advises him to "attack" the girl on four legs with a magic claw-like object between his teeth (may be like a tiger or something), and so does El Hadji which horrifies the young girl so much that she cries out of horror which is mistaken for the cry of ecstasy by her caring mother. Later, to the caring mother's disappointment, doubts are cleared that Xala is not gone.

El Hadji is Sembene's prototype of a man with no qualities. He is appropriating his country's wealth in the hands of foreigners and getting superficially westernized, and in the places he should really progress, he is using African culture and tradition as an alibi to keep the status quo. He is a man who selfishly tries to have best of both worlds - French imported water and a young African virgin third wife. The strongest character in the film is definitely El Hadji's daughter, Rama, with her first wife. A university educated, free thinking girl she is only one who confronts her father (she is also Sembene's didactic vehicle to the women), replies (to El Hadji's irritation) in native Wolof to her father's French questions, refuses to drink imported water, asks her mother to divorce her father and causes all sorts of free thinking trouble to a patriarch. As a testimony to the fakeness of El Hadji, Ousmane Sembene does something quite brilliant. When he was charged with corruption and was rebuked by the council, El Hadji, in a defensive mode, says that he will speak in Wolof. It is a classic case of prostitution of language for personal protection in the name of country and culture. This scene becomes so powerful because we know he is the same El Hadji who disliked when his daughter spoke in Wolof (it is to say he has no love or respect for any of the languages or culture but for what serves his ends). A character can not be stripped off in a better way than this. The downfall of El Hadji is not a symbol of his country becoming free from corruption and post-colonial malaise and quagmire, El Hadji is just one corrupt person in the whole game, and we are given the hint that the people following him are equally corrupt.

Allegorical to the core - as one of the fakir says "what one hand removes, another can put back" - Xala's power lies in its understanding of a post-occupation colony in which the power is transferred but the status remains the same. The last scene of Xala, which is partly a sign of role reversal (a sort of people's revolution against the corrupt bourgeois) and partly an allegorical punishment for his morally rotten countrymen, is so powerful, angry and humiliating that Bunuel would have been proud of it.

No comments: