Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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The Dream Sequence.

There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

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MANOOS/ADMI aka Life is for the Living (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1939, India)

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Manoos (1939) opens with a deftly staged pre-Bressonian like shot of the camera tracking a pair of naked feet as it enters a brothel/gambling den, surveying the men illicitly playing cards on the floor. But this is a shot that pre-dates Bresson and also the opening shot to Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train, and points to the filaments of innovation that characterised classical studio filmmaking in India during the 1930s and beyond. Directed by Shantaram, one of the early pioneers of Indian cinema, Manoos is a striking example of the Hindi social melodrama and was made by the technically accomplished Prahbat Film Company. The film was shot largely on sets in a studio and Rupali Shukla (2014) writes that Shantaram visited red light districts in Mumbai to help with authentically recreating the milieu, which is starkly claustrophobic and Kammerspiel in its look.

At the core of this melodrama is a love story between Ganpat (Shahu Modak), a straight-laced police officer, and Maina (Shanta Hublikar), a prostitute. The opening police raid on the brothel is cloaked in expressionism – canted shots, chiaroscuro and deep shadows. Maina’s noir filled entrance with the light from Ganpat’s torch illuminating her beguiling face is the first of many memorable stylistic touches that runs throughout Shantaram’s creative experiments with lighting and editing. Ganpat takes pity on Maina and gradually falls in love with her. The rescuing of the prostitute and attempts to reform her is certainly a conservative aspect of the film and makes their relationship problematic and perhaps to some extent unpalatable for audiences today. Moreover, the prostitute is the one who is framed as the victim since her job as a sex worker is largely viewed as abhorrent and a social problem. One could argue Maina was relatively content with her life before Ganpat came along and decided to reform her!

Nonetheless, the conservative gender politics are also subverted by the agency of Maina’s character who is not only more sympathetic as a character but gives us a painful insight into the social degradation of women in a pre-partition urbanized India. Hublikar is startling as Maina; self deprecating and whimsical in equal measures. But what really sets her apart from Ganpat is her street-smart nature. Maina continually offers Ganpat with sharp insights into loneliness and social alienation. In this respect, Shantaram’s reformist social melodrama was a progressive work. Returning to the question of stylistic touches, Shantaram stages many transitions between scenes with ingenuity, using whip pans, wipes and dolly shots.

Idiosyncrasies litter the film. In one sequence, Ganpat and Maina escape to a rural setting where they stumble into a film shoot that sees two lovers performing for the camera. Ganpat and Maina mock the hyperbolic romanticism that is being replicated for the film camera, a reflexive commentary on the representation of love in popular culture. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen argue this sequence is a ‘spoof on the Bombay Talkie style of cinema’ (1994: 261), referencing Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya (1936). Later, Ganpat and Maina’s song ironically becomes the focus of the film crew who are mesmerised by their real love as opposed to the artifice of what they are trying to conjure.

In another sequence, Ganpat takes Maina to see his mother so that they can get her blessings. Before the mother agrees to consent to their marriage and approve of her daughter in law, she asks the statue of goddess ambe to drop the flower to the right. When Ganpat realises this may not happen, he intervenes, blowing on the flower, ensuring it falls. Their intervention ridicules the superstitious ritual and exposes the limits of religion. All of this takes place in a heightened style with sharp Eisensteinian like edits, disorientating dutch angle framing and lucid high contrast lighting. There is fatalism at work, which gradually turns the narrative into a full on tragedy when Maina murders her degenerate uncle in an act of violent rage and is subsequently imprisoned for life. Strangely enough, the film’s final moments, encapsulated in the upbeat image of Ganpat marching seems like a betrayal of Maina’s ostracism from society.

GURGAON (Dir. Shanker Raman, 2017, India) – The Horrors of Economic Liberalization

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Gurgaon is a vicious, nihilistic denunciation of India’s on going project of economic liberalization. I didn’t know much about Gurgaon but I soon discovered it is an emerging place for business and technology. This may not be important to our viewing pleasure but this film is very much about what Gurgaon symbolises in India right now – the question of economic progress. This vexing socio-economic question is articulated through the story of the landowner who is seduced by and concedes to capitalist overtures. In many ways, the story is a flipside to Bimal Roy’s pathbreaking Do Bigha Zamin, the definitive tale of capitalism vs. the worker, in which the peasant farmers go to extraordinary lengths to protect and hold on to land they have helped to cultivate over generations. The ending to Do Bigha Zamin sees the defeat of the farmer in the face of the inevitability of modernization, progress and capitalism. Whereas Bimal Roy suggested that resistance to industrialization was futile, the economic liberalization that we witness in Gurgaon is a corrosive phenomenon. The gambit of real estate development and exploitation has led to the creation of a new Indian elite that seems to be completely lost and vacant, unable to function at all other than as sociopaths.

Director Shanker Raman brings a chilling touch to the staging of the family scenes – a deadening paralysis, a result of infanticide and new elitist arrogance, conjures a family of sleepwalkers, notably the cruel men. Is this the new India that had been promised to the farmers, peasants and workers? Morally bankrupt, violent and bleak. The neo noir aesthetic and non-linear narrative of Gurgaon recalls recent films like Peddlers, Titli, Mantra, Moh Maya Money and The Hungry. But these are not the only tentative similarities shared by this cycle of films. Perhaps more significant is the ugly face of economic liberalization juxtaposed against the milieu of a new urban elite in which a betrayal of ancestry and the nation has led to the sadistic implosion of the family unit. There is also a grotesque quality to these films; the lecherous face of masculinity and wanton sadism is manifested in exhibitions of misogyny. Arguably, in Gurgaon, the only fully alive people are the women, although the mother and daughter are also unsurprising victims. And it is up to the mother to restore a grudging social order at the end as if to redress the fatalism of economic liberalization. In doing so, the ending to Gurgaon recalls Mother India (1957) but with a vehemently self-destructive twist.

Raman’s film has strong overtures of the horror genre, a satirical horror on capitalism perhaps. I have tried impressionistically to note a few of the more obvious characteristics of this loose cycle of films. But how do we label such films? The tropes of melodrama still prevail no matter how deftly Gurgaon fuses noir and horror. In some respects, this is why so much of Indian cinema has never been delineated along strict genre lines. It is a magnificently porous cinema that throws up a plethora of genre anomalies and delights. There is one overarching theme though. This is to do with the youth, expressly disenchantment with politics, family and society. But since this is largely a middle and upper class representation, sympathy for such youthful anxieties is partial. One fascinating sub-plot that lingered in my mind involves the character of Jonty (Yogi Singha), a destitute man from the slums, who is hired to kidnap the only daughter of Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). What this sub-plot points to is the static reality of socio-economic exploitation in which the people from the slums are instrumentalized to keep in check their own oppression. We come to discover real estate development, a corrupt enterprise, has meant the disappearance of the poorest people, their land swallowed up in the name of progress. The analogy between capitalism and the horror genre is not new – both Marx and Lenin made the equivocation. And it is a socio-political equation that marks the insidious ways, in which capitalism is a self-devouring force in Gurgaon, clearing a path in which greed, corruption and entitlement are vestiges of a new nation.

The spectre of classic Indian cinema resurfaces in one of the penultimate shots of a pathetic plaque that is erected to memorialize the death of Preeto (Ragini Khaana), the adopted daughter of Kheri Singh. But this is not a sacrifice for the good of the nation that is alluded to at the end of Mehboob’s Mother India when Radha is present for the opening of a new dam. After all, the imagery of blood at the end of Mother India remains a tangible afterthought in the name of progress. Just as the price of blood remains as fresh and vivid as the one spilt on the land and witnessed by Radha in Mother India, the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who helped to erect the new metropolises of India are invisible, there is no plague to memorialize their spirit and contribution. The land that once spoke of sacrifice, toil and labour, now reeks of an unchecked violence, corruption and murder. But capitalism, economic liberalization, hedonism, all seem to have forgotten about one thing which they are unable to corrupt or defile, which is the mother. Whereas Sukhilala’s defeat, the parasitic moneylender in Mother India, has won out over the course of time, as evidenced in the narrative of economic liberalization, the mother in Indian cinema remains indubitably visible and embedded as a symbol of resistance on many different fronts. Is it not safe to say then Radha’s gunshot that slays Birju still reverberates and finds a distant yet eerie echo in the contemporary imaginings of the nation in Indian cinema.

It is worth mentioning that Gurgaon is the directorial debut of award winning cinematographer Shanker Raman (Harud, Frozen, Peepli Live). Sadly, the film did not get a UK cinema release but is now on Netflix. I haven’t seen an amazing amount of Indian films of late but Gurgaon really stands out in terms of its terrifying political discourse.

Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 3: The Transitional Years (1978 – 1979)

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Smita Patil in Gaman (1978).

This Third phase marked the transitioning of Parallel Cinema into perhaps the high point of creativity. During the Emergency, the FFC criteria was re-written in 1976, whereby avant-garde pursuits were discouraged and ‘Indianness’ promoted. Perhaps it would be absurd to say this was the beginning of the end but risk, adventure and experimentation would be curtailed. Some of this about turn was at the behest of Satyajit Ray and the apparent failure of films in the developmental phase to turn a profit, which in fact was not the case at all. The real failure had been with the FFC to invest in a viable distribution and exhibition network to fully support the access of Parallel Cinema for a specialist film audience. By the time we reach the end of the 1970s, popular Hindi cinema was on the ascendancy again with the multi starrer. Although many of the newly established filmmakers of the early years of Parallel Cinema continued to make films, the time frame of 1978 to 1979, hardly two years, is the shortest of the phases that I have mapped since it was a period of transition structurally for the FFC. However, since the centre had been smashed, it was the South that seemed to take up the aesthetic and thematic challenges.

Notable also in this period is the continuing emergence of Malayalam Parallel Cinema predominately in the form of John Abraham and Govindan Aravindan. We also start to see a second cycle of Naxalite films that begin to look back at this polarizing historical moment from a critical distance, if not romantic, including a contribution from K. A. Abbas in 1979 with The Naxalites, a work that only seems to exist in a poor VHS transfer on YouTube. More importantly, one can also begin to see the impact of Shyam Benegal on films like Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1979). Indeed, Benegal and Shashi Kapoor’s collaboration seemed to consolidate the path forged by Middle Cinema, pointing to the varied attempts to incorporate and fuse the socio-political aspects of Parallel Cinema with more palatable, mainstream narrative storytelling idioms – as evidenced in Junoon (1978). Relatedly, the ensemble of actors who had first worked with Benegal on his early films, notably Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil begin to branch outwards, appearing in more mainstream projects. It is Smita Patil who arguably becomes the ‘face’ of Parallel Cinema, a major discovery, working prolifically and starring in half a dozen new films. Quite telling also is that in this period Sen turns his back on earlier agit-prop political experiments and begins to find a totally new style, leading to perhaps his first truly accomplished work – Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and the first in Sen’s Absence trilogy. The other filmmaker to mention is Saeed Akhtar Mirza who debuted in 1976 with Arvind Desai, his first full length feature, and who would go on to make some of the most important Parallel Cinema films of the 1980s.

Third Phase: Transitional Years (78-79)

79. Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan/The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1978, Hindi
80. Dooratwa/Distance, dir. Buddadhev Dasgupta, 1978, Bengali
81. Gaman/Going, dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1978, Hindi
82. Grahana/The Eclipse, dir. T.S. Nagabharana, 1978, Kannada
83. Junoon/The Obsession, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1978, Hindi
84. Ondanondu Kaladalli, dir. Girish Karnad, 1978, Kannada
85. Parashuram/The Man with the Axe, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1978, Bengali
86. Pranam Khareedu, dir. Vasu, 1978, Telugu
87. Prisoners of Conscience, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1978, English/Hindi
88. Sarvasakshi/The Omniscient, dir. Ramdas Phutane, 1978, Marathi
89. Thampu/The Circus Tent, dir. G. Aravindan, 1978, Malayalam
90. Avalude Ravukal, dir. V. Sasi, 1978, Malayalam
91. Yaro Oral/Someone Unknown, dir. V.K. Pavithran, 1978, Malayalam
92. Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal, dir. John Abraham, 1979, Malayalam
93. Ek Din Pratidin/And Quiet Rolls the Day, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1979, Bengali
94. Estheppan/Stephen, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
95. Kummatty/The Bogeyman, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
96. Maabhoomi/Our Land, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1979, Telugu
97. The Naxalities, dir. K.A. Abbas, 1979, Hindi
98. Neem Annapurna/Bitter Morsel, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, Bengali
99. Sinhasan/The Throne, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1979, Marathi
100. Sparsh/The Touch, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1979, Hindi