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.