“The medium is the message” – Marshall McLuhan
Within media design and development cultures, the pursuit of ultimate, noise-free channels and supposed highest levels of ‘reality’ has tended to be the unattainable Holy Grail. Nevertheless, innovation still continues to point towards finding an interface that is as non-interfering as possible, enabling the audience to forget about the presence of the medium and believe in the immediacy.
In contrast, experimental art has seen work towards pushing the limits of the medium, often with the motive of exposing its presence. Industrial and glitch aesthetics in music crept in, and have come to be widely appreciated in popular culture over the last decade. Video game glitches have transcended from being a source of thrills to an integral part of its mechanics and objectives today. Examples of this in the motion picture world will have to include not only the hip-hop style cuts in Pi by Darren Aronofsky, but also the haunting montages in the opening sequences of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, or more abstract but equally stunning and perhaps more fundamental, A Color Box by Len Lye.
The story of Tasher Desh, at its core, is a story of liberation. The level of abstraction in its writing is perhaps very instrumental in rendering its relevance as flexible and timeless. Each storyline in the movie explores this theme differently – be it a young prince exiling from his destiny driven home, a nation’s liberation from protocol or the storyteller freeing himself from his own tale.
But there is another story of liberation that Q has subtly embedded into his film – the freeing of medium from the message. Two narratives drive Tasher Desh – one about a storyteller and the other being his story. The storyteller is lost in a relentless world, aptly shown in black and white, circularly failing to attract any attention towards his idea, while his fantastic protagonist breaks free, hacking away into a chaos of colours, textures and surreal symbols. Often the two worlds are juxtaposed to reveal the commonalities, suggesting bridges between the creator and his creation. Q has made sure that the audience is very conscious of this behavior in his medium, and trains you to switch between two seemingly disjoint narratives.
This is, however, not uncommon – after all, black-and-white imagery has been used as an aesthetic to aid non-linear narratives for a very long time. What Q has achieved in his work is the moderated use of colour to mean very specific things over the course of the film. Most memorable scenes include the ones featuring The Messenger, who strikes angelic poses draped in bright red robes, which provides stark contrast to the gritty white atmosphere in the namesake Land of Cards.
The initial stages of the film, where the prince is leads a clockwork life in the midst of a dysfunctional family, emphasizes on the lack of events with recurring landscapes of dark rooms and servants draped in white standing by claustrophobic brick walls. His exile from home to distant lands is obscured beyond narration, behind layers of music, overlaying video and poetic glitch art. The title card appears at this point without warning, cutting the film into two halves, and finally giving the audience a sense of form.
In the Land Of Cards lives a civilization of people deeply driven by protocol. Machine-like card soldiers have their faces painted white and a tiny logo, of the suit they belong to, on their lips. They do not speak, but chirp broken syllables in staccato. For instance, “Progress?” is translated to Bengali as “égobo?” but screamed “É!”, “Go!” and “Bo!” Quite often a series of alternating black and red flags is shown, tacitly claiming the world inside the film.
With this new change in the story’s world, Q takes other kinds of liberties with his storytelling. The subtitles are stylized in high contrast black boxes and written all in capital letters, emphasizing on the lack of subtlety or dynamics in the Land of Cards. There are moments when a single Bengali phrase is chanted in repetition, but is accompanied by different English translations captioning the scene, working against its own reliability but also adding a poetic flavor in the process. Often the camera tilts and entire scenes are sideways, with the subtitles showing upright.
The prince and his companion are soon captured and interrogated by the card soldiers, followed by a dramatic sequence of a nation undergoing severe cultural crisis. From the card soldiers’ perspective, the outsiders seem to have defied reason to exist. They have no definition, no purpose, and no protocol – yet there they are, completely real and questioning the ways of the card people: a glitch in the Land of Cards.
Rosa Menkman, in her book The Glitch Moment(um) observes that the first encounter with a glitch comes hand in hand with a feeling of shock, with being lost and in awe. The glitch, she notes, is a powerful interruption that shifts an object away from its flow and ordinary discourse, towards the ruins of destructed meaning. Nearly all the characters in Tasher Desh experience this shock of reason at various points in the film, some being more pronounced than the others. The feeling of disruption is further accentuated by departing from conventions of cinematic storytelling.
Within the constructed ruins of glitch, new possibilities and new meanings arise. There is something more than just destruction: new understandings lie just beyond the tipping point. The choice to accept the glitch means to accept a new critical dialectic that makes room for error within the histories of ‘progress’.
A hidden sense of analogy exists between the discretized behaviors of the card soldiers and the role of technology in modern digital media, where the audience is frequently caught up in an flow of contents – human eyes perceive motion at 24 frames per second, for instance. The process of this flow seems natural, but is in fact strictly guided by specific powers.
In Tasher Desh, what seems like a perfectly organized and sufficient nation suddenly opens up to reveal a number of undertones briefly explored in heated poetic conversations. The precariously set up flow inevitably breaks down with the failure of underlying machinic functions that were conventionally relied upon. In one sequence, a card soldier is shown sneaking out of camp and to the shore, where she spends an entire evening just laughing. Interruptions of this kind are often perceived as disastrous, threatening and uncanny. However, these terrifying voids also create a form of counter-experience, a negative pleasure that is not so different from the proto-modern, aesthetic conception of the sublime.
The complexities and sense of stupor associated with liberation has always been the leading motif of the 1932 play by Rabindranath Tagore. Q, with his cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, has made sure to fully utilize the additional agency provided by modern filmmaking as a technically sophisticated medium over live drama to provide center-stage to the underlying themes of fantastic liberation that Tasher Desh is all about.