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.  

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