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MAMMO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, India)

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When Khalid Mohamed, editor of Filmfare and journalist, wrote a piece on his great aunt in the Times of India he had no idea that Benegal would eventually convince Mohamed to write a screenplay based on the idea. This was made altogether unusual since Mohamed was not the greatest fan of Benegal’s cinema. Mammo (1994) would be the first of three films, all written by Khalid Mohamed, in which Benegal explored the fractured lives of three women from Muslim families. The story of Mammo revolves around the character of Mehmooda Begum (Farida Jalal) – a displaced Muslim woman who doesn’t quite know where she belongs anymore, a victim of partition and someone searching for an identity in an uncertain Bombay in which secularism has started to fade. Thrown out by her relatives in Pakistan, Mammo comes to Bombay, staying with her widowed sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her 13yr old nephew Riyaz (Amit Phalke) from whose point of the view the story is narrated.

There was no plan for a trilogy but along with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, Benegal’s ‘Muslim Trilogy’ is unique to Indian cinema but perhaps less so in the context of Parallel Cinema which had since its birth in the late 1960s at least attempted to make more films on the subject of partition while also re-presenting the lives of Indian Muslims in an altogether convincing and sympathetic way – Garam Hawa the most notable example. The first film in the trilogy, Mammo, was made in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay Riots of 1992. The post-Ayodhya context of Mammo gives the film a particularly significant ideological resonance. Benegal and Mohamed’s depiction of the oppressed Muslim minority is one that contravenes the often stereotyped representations found in popular Hindi cinema; the overly marked presence of the token Muslim character. Instead, Mammo and other Muslim characters are psychologically complex, have an inner life that we get to see and are often shown in the process of negotiating, contesting their Muslim identity.

Benegal’s output is staggering, comparable to Satyajit Ray in many respects, although I would argue Benegal took on many more controversial and difficult topics and stories over his career, and constantly adapted his style and themes to account for social and political changes in society. Moreover, I can’t think of any other Indian filmmaker over the past 40 years who has constantly engaged with the stories of Indian women, offering a voice to subaltern lives which are continually blotted out in the mainstream. Mammo comes very late in the history of Parallel Cinema and in some respects is a film representative of both Middle Cinema Benegal was often associated with and the Hindi melodrama, returning to classic films such as Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Indeed, Mammo is one of Benegal’s least seen works, a poignantly crafted tale about belonging, borders and identity.

VIDEO ESSAY: THE POETICS OF ARAVINDAN

A Video Essay in 3 Chapters on Govindan Aravindan’s 1979 film Kumatty (The Bogeyman, India)  – Nature | Topography | Magic

This new video essay looks at a few of the aesthetic and thematic ideas in the work of Aravindan’s Kumatty (1979). There seems to be a lot of Indian films which are being restored, occasionally playing at film festivals or selected film events. Yet there still seems to be no viable means of distributing marginal, alternative or forgotten Indian films whereby a wider audience can get access to them. I’ve been quite surprised by Netflix, which has a healthy list of contemporary Indian titles from the independent scene, a welcoming shift in terms of making streaming more accessible for new and alternate Indian cinema. What we really could do with now is some kind of distribution model, perhaps an Indian streaming version of Mubi, that can curate, provide a platform for critique and engage with Indian cinephile culture in a more democratic way. For instance, John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan and Aravindan’s Kumatty are circulating on the internet in newly restored prints, which makes the job of the Indian cinephile somewhat worrying, especially since these two films in particular deserve a legitimate DVD/Blu-Ray/Online release.

It is noble and right that preservation has started to become a significant issue in Indian cinema today and much work is being done to protect and preserve the legacy of Indian film history. But what is the point of this exercise in film preservation if ultimately only an elite actually get to see the newly restored Indian film classics? The initiative becomes counter productive to the field of Indian film studies if it does not aid the process of revising the history of Indian cinema, scholarly research and cinephile culture. By all means let us preserve, restore, exhibit Indian Cinema but we must also remember the significance of distribution – this is where an understanding, appreciation and love of Indian cinema is likely to have the greatest impact. But this change can only come about through investment in new, innovative and alternative distribution models.

ARDH SATYA / HALF TRUTH (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India)

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Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut in 1980 with the award winning Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded) was inevitable. As an ace cinematographer, Nihalani collaborated closely with Shyam Benegal on many formative semi-realist critiques including Ankur, Nishant, Junoon and Bhumika. Benegal’s scepticism of social institutions and his sensitive representations of women, often victims of patriarchal oppression, would determine the equivalently leftist ideological machinations of Nihalani’s films as a director in the 1980s. Benegal tended to work with the same cast and crew for many of his early films including Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri and Amrish Puri, many of whom would be shared across with Nihalani in his own films.

Ardh Satya was only Nihalani’s third feature as a director and probably the one that he is best remembered for. It is also another key film from the second wave of Parallel Cinema. In some respects the use of melodrama which Benegal and Nihalani both relied on as a means of narrative storytelling raises the continuing question of the relatively undecided status of films like Ardh Satya; were they Middle Cinema or Parallel Cinema, or were they in fact both. Or was Middle Cinema a completely separate mode of categorisation and approach to filmmaking. Furthermore, the police/crime thriller moniker only adds to the complicated genre status of Ardh Satya. Because of this, Ardh Satya occupies a dubious status as an example of Parallel Cinema since the film has been claimed as critical to the development of the Bombay police/crime thriller. Though Ardh Satya marked a change in location for Nihalani with much of the film shot on location in and around the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), thematically, the focus on the police as both a public institution and the officers who struggle to retain a sense of moral integrity in the face of corruption was a continuation of Aakrosh and would also signal a preoccupation with the police; Drohkaal and Dev would act as further evidence of Nihalani’s claim as an auteur of some considerable distinction.

The story of Ardh Satya, which means ‘Half Truth’, follows a young police officer, Anant Velankar (Om Puri in one of his most memorable roles), in the Bombay police department. Perceived as someone who is both upright and fair in his approach, Velankar discovers there are those who exist outside the law and have the political reach to manipulate the police for their own ends. One such person that Velankar tries but fails to arrest is Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a notorious local crime lord who reigns with a terrifying impunity while continuing to rule over the slum dwellers. Shetty uses his electoral support with the Bombay police and the slums to run for city council in the local elections. Velankar becomes increasingly disillusioned with the police as a potent institution for justice and his relationship with Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil), a lecturer, offers respite from his doomed trajectory. Flashbacks recall Velankar growing up in a rural village in which his harsh, orthodox father, (Amrish Puri), also a police officer, humiliates his beleaguered mother. At the same time, Velankar is prevented from pursuing an ambition to become a professor, reasoning why he finds an emotional connection with Jyotsna’s intellectualism. Any attempts at Velankar confronting the lawlessness of Rama Shetty are undermined by the inherent corruption of his superiors, apathetic to the concerns of the ordinary slum dweller and more responsive to the demands of the middle class elite. Nihalani’s representation of a corrupt and complacent Bombay police acts as a wider condemnation of Indira Gandhi’s leadership and government.

Another significant element to the nightmarish tone is the substantial ideological contribution of Marathi playwright turned Indian art house scriptwriter, Vijay Tendulkar. Tendulkar was a regular collaborator with Shyam Benagal, having written the screenplays for Nishant and Manthan. The contempt for feudalism Tendulkar brought to the screenplay of Nishant is mirrored in the angry temperament of Ardh Satya. In the generational divide that opens up between the traditional values of the father (Amrish Puri) and the secular politics of the son (Om Puri), Velenkar’s rejection of his father’s marriage proposal extenuates his criticism of the way in which rural village life and its traditions simply perpetuate a status quo that aids those in positions of power, namely the ruling elite. Velankar finds it problematic to escape the shadow of his domineering father. But by taking the law into his own hands Velankar inadvertently shatters the social order, censuring his father for failing to question his own frailties as both an inadequate father and a benign police officer.

While the second wave of Parallel Cinema under the auspice of the NFDC was somewhat less angry, political and iconoclastic then the foundational years, many of the later films continued to adopt endings with a striking degree of disillusionment and fatalism, an idea of non-closure that was unconventional for Indian Cinema. Indeed what remains germane about Ardh Satya today is the urban topography of Bombay, an aesthetic motif that would leave its imprint on the Indian crime genre including Parinda, Satya and Black Friday.

Ardh Satya will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 20 Aug 10pm

GANDHI (Dir. Richard Attenborough, 1982, India/UK) – ‘Hey Ram!’

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David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of my favourite films. It is a sprawling biopic in which the film’s grasp of history and politics is problematic to say the least. But Lean gives us some of the most poetic images committed to celluloid; a rousing spectacle that compensates for what is a dubious account of T.E. Lawrence’s exotic exploits. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was long in gestation, coming to fruition in the early 1980s, an Indo-British co-production which involved the NFDC at the behest of PM Indira Gandhi. Gandhi was an unusual project since the remit the NFDC had cultivated over the years was exclusively indigenous but this meant for the first time the NFDC worked in tandem with an external international body, GoldCrest Films, a British production company with ties to Channel Four. The film is populated by a plethora of Parallel Cinema faces while Govind Nihalani directed the second unit. It is certainly true that Gandhi would probably never have been made without the endorsement of the Indian government but one can only wonder what a filmmaker like Shyam Benegal or Mrinal Sen would have done with the project. Although Richard Attenborough had long pursued the dream of making a film on Gandhi, the final film was a resounding international success story, garnering many Oscars and a favourable critical response.

While the figure of Gandhi has been immortalised in many films, it has now become a revisionist task for film historians since the story of Gandhi continues to remain tentative. Attenborough’s Gandhi has become a significant point of reference for those who may be unfamiliar with the man. There is no denying Attenborough’s view of British colonialism is an accessible, populist representation of Gandhi’s achievements made palatable for a broad audience. However, the film is both inert in terms of its cinematic storytelling and simplistic historicising. Attenborough is so enamoured by the mythology of Gandhi, his view of history is disconcertingly linear in which equally influential political leaders like Nehru and Jinnah come away as ineffectual caricatures. Also amiss is the lack of focus on the ordinary people of the Quit India movement, the millions who were part of a seismic passive movement and the many who also gave their lives to the cause. Attenborough’s is an abridged history of modern India, cataloguing Swadeshi, Gandhi’s ascension, the end of British rule, the holocaust of Partition, to name a few. The calamity of trying to film history is the burden of history itself, which in this case is too much for Attenborough and his writers to studiously traverse.

While the defining gestalt is Ben Kingsley’s legendary performance, the film’s overblown critical reputation, much like Attenborough’s directorial career, can partly be attributed to the ambivalent critical halo of Oscardom. If anything Gandhi was the film that helped to revive the commercial fortunes of the NFDC that in turn led to a production and distribution surge in Indian Parallel Cinema. Although the term epic is often used to describe Attenborough’s film, it lacks both an emotional intimacy and cinematic zeal that Lean conjures so superbly for Lawrence of Arabia. It is not Attenborough’s linear view of history that is the problem, potentially a charge that can be levied at most films dealing with historical events, but a boring, inert and flat style of filmmaking that leads to a parochial, if not preachy, biographical tone. There probably never will be a definitive film on Gandhi and we do not need one as his legacy and story is one that is continually being fought over by historians, a site of ideological contestation so to speak. Contemporary films have been made on the topic of Gandhi notably Shyam Benegal’s The Making of a Mahatma (1996) and Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram (2000), both brilliant films in their own way while a populist film like Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) evokes the ubiquity of Gandhi to great satirical effect.