Filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen only ever directed three full length feature films in what was a significant but short-lived filmmaking career (although Krishen has directed numerous short films) that came to an end in the early 1990s. Krishen wrote one of the finest essays on Parallel Cinema, titled ‘Knocking at the doors of public culture: India’s Parallel Cinema’ (1991) taking stock of the inadequacies and accomplishments of the film movement through the 1970s and 1980s. His directorial debut Massey Sahib, supported by the NFDC, and released in 1986 is a key work in the second phase of Parallel Cinema. But it is a work that has largely been forgotten.
Set in colonial India in the 1930s, the story follows the exploits of Francis Massey (Raghubir Yadav), a petty Indian clerk, who works in the Deputy Commissioners office in Central India. Krishen’s work, partly inspired by Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, has been noted by some as a political satire, which in some respects it is, ridiculing the servile and subjugated Massey who is brainwashed and enchanted by Empire. There are some notable parallels with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and the character of the infatuated, complacent middle class.
All of this rings true but Krishen’s film is one of the starkest and perhaps nuanced critiques of British colonialism, demonstrating in particular the insidious, manipulative ways in which colonialism exploits and discards those who prove to be useful at a certain moment in time – as is the fate bestowed upon poor Massey. Massey’s repeated derision and elision by the Deputy Commissioner Charles Adam (Barry John) gets to the very heart of Empire’s tryst with India, the contemptible rancour of civilizing the supposed native in the fruits of religious enlightenment while expanding the imperial infrastructure through a process of coercion.
Charles Adam’s desire to build a road through a jungle leads to a confrontation with local tribes who are steadily coerced by Massey to help with the imperial project. Massey does get the job done but when later he decides to cunningly ask for a tax from people who want to use the road, Adam ostracizes Massey, damning his near state of poverty as completely unrelated to the way Massey has been duly oppressed economically by Empire. Massey’s infatuation with Empire inoculates ugly traits of self-aggrandizement and pathetic imitations of British customs. And Massey’s duplicitous treatment by Adam, that function as a barometer of hegemony, later emerges and records a posture of arrogance and ultimately hypocrisy, offset by guilt, that all but defines imperialism.
Krishen’s is a vicious indictment of colonialism, articulating what Empire did to the Indian psyche, engineering an inferiority that was psychologically wounding, and traumatising self-identity. A work like Massey Sahib also reiterates the interventionist role Parallel Cinema was continuing to play in the cultural public sphere well into the late 1980s and beyond, and how many films were still defiantly political. Arundhati Roy appears in a small role as Massey’s wife and her relative silence throughout registers an indescribable witnessing of the umbrages of Empire, turning away from the cruelty of a world that Massey tries but fails to introduce her to. Raghubir Yadav is exceptional in the lead role.