Bhavni Bhavai / A Folk Tale – ‘Our blood is shed day after day…’

(1980, Dir. Ketan Mehta, India)

The story of political modernism in the history of Parallel Cinema had a partial Brechtian impulse to it that resonated sporadically through a handful of films. It would be completely absurd to isolate the trace the origins of cinematic reflexivity to this particular movement but Sen’s Interview in 1971 set in motion a remarkable precedent in which aesthetic hybridity came to the fore more prominently in Parallel Cinema films that came after it. While reflexivity is limited to arguably one major sequence in Sen’s Interview, Sen would return to such a modernist device with totalizing zeal in his self-reflexive masterpiece In Search of Famine (1981), which was made around the same time as Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai (1980). Based on Dhiruben Patel’s play, what makes Mehta’s exploration of caste decisive is the Brechtian approach that fuses history and politics into a rich, scathing parody.

The film opens with the imagery of Partition, exile and displacement as a group of Harijans (untouchables) are silhouetted against a fiery sunset. Journeying from the village, they are migrating to the city. Victims of caste discrimination and displaced from their homes, a little boy wants to return to the village but Ujam (Smita Patil) exclaims they have nothing to go back since their homes were burnt down in an act of upper caste thuggery. Malo (Om Puri), the self-designated patriarch of the group, begins to sing and narrate a story about a king who had two wives but could not have an heir. As we come to realise, Malo’s central presence acts as a kind of social and political pendulum, instigating revolt but at the same time functioning as the archetypal lynchpin who narrates the story of caste oppression. Malo’s larger than life representation is carried brilliantly by Om Puri who resorts to musicality to narrate caste politics.

King Chakrasen played with great comic wisdom by Naseeruddin Shah in one of his most overlooked performances is a splendid parody of the ruling elite and is ridiculed for his constant buffoonery by a counsel of treacherous political advisers. Mehta segues audaciously from historical tableau to satirical commentary, imitating the Bhavai form, a popular form of theatre that originated from the 14th century in India. Chakrasen’s ostentatious introduction, showering in milk, is drolly undermined when he is informed the palace smells of shit because the sweepers (lower caste Harijans) are absent due to a wedding. Outraged by what Chakrasen reasons to be insolence, the sweepers are rounded up and whipped. This is the first of many satirical enactments of subjugation in which the Harijans are dehumanized and defiled, remaining completely powerless to retaliate in the face of unchanging historical forces.

When news comes through the eldest Queen is pregnant Chakrasen is delighted. However, the youngest Queen (Suhasini Mulay) enraged by the news plots with Chakrasen’s close political adviser to bribe the Brahmin priest to falsely prophesise the unborn child represents a threat to the kingdom and will bring death to the King. Misled by the priest’s astrological musings Chakrasen orders the disposal of his newly born son. Unable to kill the child, the King’s men put the baby in a wooden box and place it into the river. Malo finds the box and upon seeing the helpless baby claims the child as his own but does not disclose the secret to anyone. The child grows up to Jeevo (Mohan Gokhale).

Wanting to give his son clean water, Malo is caught red handed and lambasted when he tries to use water from the well reserved for the upper caste goons. The upper caste retaliates, resorting to violence and burning the huts of Malo and his friends to the ground. Devastated, Malo and the Harijans are forced to leave their homes. The flashbacks shared by Malo are borne out of the Harijans contemporary situation of exile, migrating to the city through inhospitable conditions. In one of many instances of breaking the fourth wall, Jeevo turns to face the audience and fires of a contemptuous diatribe at those ‘who stare at us from their cocooned darkness’, accusing the apathetic audience of complicity in caste oppression:

‘Our homes are burnt!

Our women are raped.

We are treated like animals.

Our blood is shed day after day.

And you don’t feel anything?

Nothing?’

The dark satirical playfulness that characterises Mehta’s approach to the material was arguably an extension of the first phase of Parallel Cinema expressly Mrinal Sen’s Interview, a reflexivity that continued to resurface in formalist experiments like Ghashiram Kotwal (1976). Another key sequence is when Jeevo and Ujam perform a beggar’s opera for the King, concocting a tale of mockery that Chakrasen lacks the intellect to fully understand the two-edged meanings of their social and political innuendos. The Brahmin priest declares that to please the planets a sacrifice is needed, a very special individual – the perfect man who is similar to the King. This, of course, is no other than Jivo, who bargains with Chakrasen through another performative spectacle, asking their demands as Harijans be fulfilled and magnifying the dehumanization they face. Jeevo’s spectacle of revolt irks Chakrasen but he reluctantly agrees to the demands based on the advice from his wretched counsel who remind him that power can be regained in other ways namely through the machinations of state repression.

On the day of the execution, with Jeevo’s head literally on the chopping board, it is announced with great narrative timing that Jeevo is the King’s long-lost son, and we are offered a shamelessly exultant ending in which everyone rejoices and the status quo remains very much intact. Such a contrived, escapist ending critiques the ideological closure inherent in the very DNA of mainstream Indian cinema, limiting what can be said politically, but gives Mehta the ideal opportunity with which to underline such incongruity in showcasing a stauncher ending keeping in spirit with the ways in which caste oppression is unequivocally brutal and monolithic. After Jeevo is executed, his severed head unceremoniously tumbles down the steps of the royal well. Incensed by Chakrasen’s callous actions and the traumatic execution, Malo reacts, grabbing a sword from one of the guards and jumping down into the well in a terrifying act of self-destruction with his horrific, impotent scream echoing into the doom ladened walls of a well that he slaved over to build. Malo’s scream is followed with him cursing the King which results in the well overflowing and unleashing a biblical style flood that metaphorically seems to sweep away the ruling elite.

Malo’s traumatic rage was part of a deeper anger that flowed right through the late 1960s and well into the 1980s and beyond, caste intersecting with gender. The choice to intercut Chakrasen’s drowning with documentary footage of ‘caste riots in Ahmedabad and the severe drought in Northern Gujarat’ (Willemen & Rajadhyaksha) replicates an equivalent revolutionary political analogy of journalistic reportage deployed at the end of Sen’s Interview. However, the final ELS shot of planet earth with the following words: ‘Seeing the earth at a distance. Boundaries all merge. Differences disappear’ says otherwise, explicating the possibility of co-existence with the hope of overcoming centuries of caste tyranny.  

PEHLA ADHYAY / THE FIRST CHAPTER (Dir. Vishnu Mathur, 1981, India) – The Bombay Flâneur

When something is anomalous it often means a deviation from what we consider to be habitual, natural or conventional. The filmic entirety of director Vishnu Mathur’s 1981 debut feature Pehla Adhyay is uncontroversial in its anomalous status. And when situated in the indexical parameters of the avant-garde strand of filmmaking from the foundational years of Indian Parallel Cinema one can recognise an aesthetic solidarity. Pehla Adhyay was forged in a recurrent stylistic pattern in which tableau, ellipsis, long takes and the open frame are deployed with a recumbent reflexivity that complement the story of Ravi (Dinesh Shakul), a student and researcher at the University of Bombay, who is gradually weighed down by the unbearable alienation of a new city.

What Mathur details with painstaking agony is the sense of displacement, ennui and disconnect that alienation produces. In some respects, Ravi carries with him all the classic tropes that conjure the image of the modern day flâneur – weaving his way through the campus corridors and occupying empty cafes while observing life around him with an indiscriminate like gaze. There is a purity to Mathur’s open symmetrical framing and many of the sequences are staged with an academic like rigour in which the rhythms of urban alienation unfold and take place with a disconcerting ordinariness. Mathur assisted both Mrinal Sen and Mani Kaul (Duvidha, 73). And the guiding hand of Kaul is prevalent and identifiable in the formalist avant-garde approach which in turn is articulated through the cinematographic precision of DOP Navroze Contractor’s scrupulous camerawork and elegant tableau framing. Whoever Ravi seems to meet, be it distant relatives, fellow students or university professors, there is an emotional detachment representative of a much greater residual emptiness that lingers like a festering wound and that ultimately boils over into misplaced irritation.

In a key sequence and as a way of extrapolating Ravi’s urban discombobulation Mathur magnifies the irregular tempos of Bombay city life when Ravi sits in a café drinking tea as he looks on at the peculiar recesses in the traffic on the streets – in an instance the transient city spaces of Bombay are transformed into something ghostlike, deserted and completely silent. The juxtaposition is jarring to the say least and signifies the stark bewilderment Ravi experiences in trying but failing to situate himself within the city as a grounded being. You could argue Ravi belongs in the company of disobediently chaotic figures like Ranjit in Interview (71) or Siddhartha in Pratidwandi (70). However, whereas Ravi and Ranjit are connected to a broader leftist political agitation that was borne out of the late 1960s, Ravi’s alienation seems symptomatic of a neo-modernity in which the emergence of an apolitical identity in the public sphere was gaining traction. Perhaps what Mathur seems to capture so effortlessly is the existential quality of the urban migrant who has failed to make the transition into adulthood, and fortuitously takes up the persona of the flâneur, the Bombay flâneur to be more specific, a riposte to the Tapori, and which projects masculinity in crisis as unremarkably faux.

Mathur’s under-seen debut feature reiterates once again the avant-garde experiments were a significant part of the evolution of Parallel Cinema and which remains in a perpetual cycle of revisionism, reclamation and rediscovery while underlining the urgency to examine film style and aesthetics as central to the way we write and think about the history of alternative cinema in India and beyond.

STRAIGHT TIME (1978, Ulu Grosbard, US) – Mann before Mann

Michael Mann worked on the script for Straight Time (based on Eddie Bunker’s novel) before his departure from the project in the late 1970s. A year later Mann would go on to make Jericho Mile, and which would see him port over some of the original ideas from Straight Time expressly the thread of the ex-con/criminal and the metaphysical relationship with time. It seems almost impossible to discuss Mann’s development without acknowledging and appreciating the multitude of connections and early authorial preoccupations that are evident in Straight Time. Eddie Bunker, who also worked on the script (released from prison in 1975), spent time in Folsom State Prison, a direct geographical link to Mann’s Jericho Mile and later crime films, and who was undoubtedly a major influence on Mann’s methodical realist approach to the subject of the ex-con and what makes them tick.

In Straight Time Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman in probably his best role) is a precursor to many of the classical Mann ex-con protagonists who are painted as existential, transient and lonely urban mavericks. Max, released from prison after six years, is out of sync with society and the loss of time is a self-destructive force that bears down on him. There is also resentment, rejection and a deep sense of displacement that finds Max like an alien drifting through the analogous tributaries of Los Angeles. Beneath the cool, charming yet robotic like exterior of Max is a cataclysmic socio-pathic tendency that cannot be repressed no matter how hard he tries to express obedience and compliance; crime is innately natural and instinctive since he doesn’t know anything else. The unbearable system that bears down on Max is distilled into the malicious, creepy and dehumanizing tactics deployed by the parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmett Walsh).

A major difference is that unlike Mann’s ex-con protagonists who are consummate, regimented professionals and seem to operate on a level that makes them somewhat anonymous and disconnected from everyday society, Max’s behaviour is unpredictable, erratic and desperate. Nonetheless, Max also abides by a strict moral code including an institutional defiance that echoes later Mann protagonists like Frank in Thief and Neil McCauley in Heat. Another thematic link to Heat and specifically Michael Cheritto‘s (Tom Sizemore) adrenalin fuelled pleasures is in the equivalent character of Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton) who is coerced back into crime from his dreary suburban reality with the lure of momentary kicks that are tangible, mortal and depravedly pleasurable. A final link to the Mann universe, and Thief, is when Jenny (Theresa Russell) visits Max in county. The glass, the phone-call, and the void that is apparent, even if the two of them have forged a tenuous, incomplete connection, recalls the moment when Frank visits Okla (Willie Nelson) in prison as a kind of sombre adieu to the ways in which time fractures, erases and prolongs communal bonds.

One could argue the struggle against time and not having enough of it is a perpetual recurring force that many ex-cons are up against in many American crime narratives but Mann would go on to distil, refine and magnify time as harbouring a piercing duality in his work; as something poetically transformative and politically repressive.

Rebellious Poets and Radical Spirits: Indian Parallel Cinema – Il Cinema Ritrovato

(20 – 27 July 2021, Bologna, Italy)

The new strand on Indian Parallel Cinema that I have co-curated with Cecilia Cenciarelli and Shivendra Dungarpur showcases some of the best examples of the early years of Parallel Cinema, which we have titled ‘The Foundational Years’ (69 – 76). This eclectic strand with a strong regional slant looks back at the significance of Parallel Cinema in the broader historical context of alternative Indian Cinema but more importantly attempts to reclaim and reassert the rich creative achievements in the wider cine-geography of the late sixties and early seventies of global film where we saw a concerted shift in terms of aesthetics, form and style. The last ten years has seen an increasing number of Parallel Cinema films being made available for the first time in restored prints; a boon for film preservation and research. However, just as many films still remain out of reach whereby the process of recovery and restoration is likely to be a gradual one and will continue to be dictated by various economic and political factors.

In the past the public screening of Parallel Cinema was achieved through television such as Doordarshan, film societies/collectives and also film studies/educational courses. And in the 1980s, there were major retrospectives of Parallel Cinema that toured internationally, with two prominent programmes at MoMa in New York and the National Theatre in London. Sadly, after the decline of Parallel Cinema in the mid 1990s, many of these films were simply forgotten about and the original prints either disappeared, languished or were lost. We have arguably been playing catch up ever since. The absence of Parallel Cinema from the narrow, Anglo-centric discourse in which film history is taught and discussed in wider film circles is not simply about cultural and historical ignorance but can also be attributed to the ways in which so many of these films have never been programmed publicly outside of India in retrospectives or seasons. Some of this is down to the role of film programmers and curators but some of it is also because of the lack of access, logistics and expensive costs involved in trying to programme or curate alternative Indian cinema particularly outside of India, something that I have witnessed at a distance co-curating the Parallel Cinema season for Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is rare that Parallel Cinema films are screened publicly in their original physical prints which makes this retrospective altogether unique and special for film audiences.

This strand at Bologna is one of the first of its kind in Europe for a long time, and will help to play a part in the on-going process of reclaiming Parallel Cinema and making many of the films accessible to film audiences around the world. The painstaking 4K restoration of Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty which has been completed in conjunction with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Film Heritage Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna is a deeply encouraging sign of the progress Parallel Cinema is making in terms of garnering the recognition it deserves. It is highly likely that Kummatty will be the first Parallel Cinema film to make the leap to Criterion, and if that does happen, it will be another significant step for the canonisation of Parallel Cinema into the realms of film culture and history, and that could potentially act as a gateway for film audiences who have never come across Parallel Cinema before. The eight films we have curated is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the remarkable thirty-year output of Parallel Cinema which constituted in excess of two hundred and fifty films stretching across many regions and languages.