Rangula Kala / Colourful Dreams (Dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1983, India / TelUgu) – ‘I’m an artist not a trader’

Rangula Kala, released in 1983, was the directorial debut of Rao and is an accomplished work, exploring the role of the artist in society. It would make a brilliant triple bill alongside Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool since all three deal with the value of the artist in the marketplace which is in turn contested through differing perspectives on the significance of art and its relationship with the broader social, economic and political landscape of India.

Rao essays the leading role of Ravi, a bearded beatnik painter, who is tormented by the ‘emotional conflict inside him’ and trying desperately to make a living while developing his distinctive style as a painter. Although Ravi is not concerned that his work is derivative of existing forms, what really matters to him is the connection he continually tries to forge with the real world, an existential search that is manifested in a series of tangible dream sequences that finds Ravi lost in a consciousness clouded by guilt, doubt and truth. Many of Ravi’s closest friends including a Marxist journalist (Narayana Rao) and Ramesh, a successful painter (Saichand), actively encourage Ravi to pander to the whims of the audience and the market but he defies this way of making art because it is based on compromise, a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ravi values the work for what it is and represents not what it is worth in the marketplace and what price it will fetch for the pontificating and pretentious upper classes. An exhibition of his work (much of it resembling a modern style) fails to strike a chord with art promoters and is labelled a flop, leaving him in despair both emotionally and economically. As a result, in one sequence, Ravi is forced to visit Mrs Ramarnath, a faux high society figure, and sell one of his paintings simply because he needs the money to survive. Later, Ravi tells Sarala, his girlfriend, that people like Mrs Ramarnath have very little regard for artists and treat art as a commodity that sits alongside their other possessions as part of a twisted capitalist logic.

Rao is also critical of the hypocrisy that circulates amongst fellow artists and Ramesh, the hypocritical snob, who has literally sold out to the marketplace, misleads Ravi and goes to great lengths to mask over his precarious position as a social climber: ‘I’m an artist not a trader’, he exclaims in a radio interview. Ravi’s search for his role as an artist comes to fruition when Suraya, a trade union leader, invites him to attend May Day celebrations for workers. Here Rao uses the first of two political songs of working class resistance by Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet and Naxal activist, that articulates a rising tide of anger in Ravi’s shifting mindset. Later, Suraya, instructs Ravi that he can use his art for a far greater ideological cause, to serve the people and be part of a political mobilisation, an idea that he responds to immediately and eventually embraces. What follows after Ravi’s realisation is the remarkable insert of another resolutely angry protest song by Gaddar, this time criticising the tyranny of the capitalist system and how it has enslaved the poor. The link between a cultural front and political movements has often been a significant one in helping to narrate and express an unofficial story, that of the workers on the front line. Exhibiting his work on the streets forges an authentic connection with the people and his paintings come closer to capturing a reality that he has been searching for. Critical acclaim follows and his journalist friend extols Ravi for finally developing a distinctive style, academic praises that Ravi humbly accepts.

While Ravi continually experiments with the aesthetics of painting, Suraya’s murder at the hands of the state at a peaceful demonstration, galvanises Ravi’s political awakening. Sympathising with the plight of the workers, Ravi finally pushes himself to make the transition to a state of alertness and ideological mobilisation. Imposing upon himself a state of imprisonment, Ravi re-thinks his role as an artist, his monochrome and starkly abstract paintings now embodying the figurative images of the workers and the repressive state apparatus expressly the police. In the closing moments, the extreme zoom in on Ravi’s eyes seething with rage followed by a fade to red unmasks a violence yet to come, and extenuates a revolutionary fervour that echoes films like Padatik and Ankur.

Amar Lenin / My Lenin (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1970, India)

‘The river and fields reverberate with the sounds of the hammer and chisel’ go the lyrics for what appears to be a popular folk song venerating the cultural significance of Lenin on the psyche of Bengal’s socialist conceptualization. Ritwik Ghatak was expelled from The Communist Party of India in 1955 largely for questioning the absence of a co-ordinated cultural front, a critique he takes up diligently in his film Komal Gandhar. Ghatak’s ideological connection and commitments to socialism remained a constant source of tension in his work. Amar Lenin, long unavailable, was made in a final period after the completion of Subarnarekha (1965), the final part of his ground-breaking Partition trilogy. This late period saw Ghatak direct a number of short documentaries with many projects left incomplete. This was also a time taken up by his stint at the FTII. Made at the behest of the Government of West Bengal in the centenary year of Lenin, Amar Lenin was made during the first phase of Parallel Cinema and like many films released in the late 1960s, the impact of political uncertainty and revolution was felt in the immediacy of a street reportage style, all of which is clearly evident in Ghatak’s approach to the documentary mode. The opening shows a peasant farmer going to a play about Lenin performed at night; all of this is juxtaposed to a song that eulogises the socialist sentiments of Lenin. The next sequence uses a harvest song cut to women milling flour, celebrating the rural and village life as a utopian space of union and solidarity. Ghatak structures the documentary around a benign peasant farmer who goes to Calcutta to join in the celebrations of Lenin which includes the inauguration of a statue to Lenin, street processions and political speeches by Abdul Razzak Khan and Dharani Goswami. As the young farmer journeys through the city he observes a rally in the which the ‘Lenin Youth Festival’ has drawn people from all corners of India.

Amar Lenin was made at a time when political activism was at its peak in Calcutta particularly with the ways in which Naxalism had galvanised a younger generation including students to take up arms and join the call for a broader cultural and social revolution in doing away with a system indebted to the old colonial traditions. The presence of both Russian and Indian delegates at the inauguration ceremony also captures the ideological alignment and sympathies expressed by socialist parties in both countries, a rare moment of broader mobilization and consent that took place before the violent repression of the Naxalite movement in 1971, fracturing the Communist Party further still in West Bengal. When the peasant farmer returns to his village, he has been galvanised with new socialist ideas, which he implements at the grassroots level, mobilizing his brothers and sisters to challenge the feudal order and overturn the tyranny of the landlords through direct action. The taking up of arms and the peasant revolt that Ghatak stages and re-enacts is a direct political reference to the Naxalbari uprising of the time and is intercut with communist leaders in Calcutta delivering empty speeches, a juxtaposition that delineated the increasing divisions and factions within the Communist Party of India at the time, with Ghatak broadly sympathising with Charu Mazumdar’s Marxist-Leninist approach of militancy. Is it any wonder Ghatak’s Naxal leaning and resolutely poetic documentary was banned in India.

THE TWO JAKES (Dir. Jack Nicholson, 1990, US)

The Two Jakes is less a sequel and more of a flamboyant continuation and expansion of the sun kissed noir universe of Los Angeles that Polanski brought to life in Chinatown. Everyone knows a project of this type had no chance of working without the creative involvement of Robert Towne, Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans, all of whom were reunited. Whereas Chinatown was a subversion of film genre, expressly the traditions of film noir, a resolutely anti-genre piece shot like a European art film, very much like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, The Two Jakes is unashamedly and resolutely a homage to the great riches of Hollywood film noir. It is well documented that Towne’s script for Chinatown went through numerous brutal changes, many of which Towne fought but ultimately could not prevent given Polanski’s authorial control. In many ways, The Two Jakes, is closer to Towne’s original vision of Los Angeles as a sprawling festering wound alluded to in interviews, mapping a broader nexus between oil, land and money, in which an underbelly of corruption and violence continually rises to the surface as a familiar subtext.

What makes The Two Jakes such a worthy successor to Chinatown is arguably the iconographic amplifications of noir and the endlessly pleasurable ways in which pastiche becomes a celebratory enterprise; a pulpy cinematic novel played out in classical film noir encounters. Towne draws the inevitable links back to Mulwray and Cross, framing Gittes as a broken, guilt ridden figure haunted by a murky past of incest and ownership, and who retains his self-righteous contempt for the police and big business. The startling LA art decor production design, dazzling costumes and widescreen cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond are the real stars along with a rich supporting cast made up of Harvey Kietel, Ruben Blades, Eli Wallach. Fatalism remains at the core as does the theme of flawed masculinity, although eclipsed by a perpetual sense of post war trauma. I wonder what Polanski would have made of it all?

KADAKH (Dir. RAJAT KAPOOR, 2019, India) [spoilers]

There is a dead body in your apartment but you have a plethora of guests arriving for a party to celebrate Diwali very shortly. So what exactly do you do? It is a sinister dilemma faced by somewhat ordinary people going through a tinderbox of emotions. In other words, the perfect Hitchcockian predicament since the extraordinary is often critical to the notion of building suspense, sustaining dramatic tension and reeling in your audience. The first thing that sprung to my mind when watching Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh, a devilishly scripted black comedy about middle class hypocrisy, was the visual design of the apartment including the costumes and décor, refracted and unified through differing shades of violet (sometimes symbolically associated with reincarnation in terms of Indian culture), infusing the film with an unconventional aesthetic tone. The use of violet also stretches to the autumnal colours which undoubtedly creates a muted colour scheme very much in line with the macabre undertones of Sunil’s (Ranvir Shorey) infidelities. With much of the narrative unfolding within one confined space, the piercing claustrophobic ambience amplifies the atrocious secret that Sunil and Maalti (Mansi Multani) have to conceal while the real time Diwali festivities which are organised around a series of impromptu short conversations between friends and family captures the banal small talk rituals of middle class India with their shallow, stunted aspirations.

As more people arrive at the Diwali party, tensions and rivalries come to the fore, culminating in the gut wrenching moment when the trunk holding the dead body (a certain nod to Hitchcock’s Rope) is dragged into the living room to act as a makeshift table for a game of cards, all of this juxtaposed to the aghast Sunil and Maalti. Both Shorey and Multani are excellent, conveying dread and unease as they precariously navigate the party, trying their best to placate the prickly house guests who in turn have brought their own complicated psychological baggage. When Sunil’s infidelity is finally unmasked by Maalti and openly scolded by his friends for such a betrayal, the admission of the dead body that has been with them the whole time provokes an outcry of revulsion. And although Sunil’s unforgivable crimes are roundly critiqued by his friends, the consensus forged at the end to essentially stage a conspiracy and save face amounts to a discordant analysis of middle class pretence; reputation, privilege and friendship are the values that take precedent. In a masterstroke at the end of the film Rajat succeeds in condensing and staging the emotional landscape of the wounded characters into an audacious single master shot, part tableaux, evoking the Epic cinema of Shahani.

Kadakh continues a consistent and richly diverse series of director-actor collaborations between Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey beginning with Mixed Doubles in 2006, and is a work that holds its own against brilliant films like Mithya (2008), arguably a key work in the development of Indian independent cinema, and which for some reason is never really talked about enough. In some respects, Rajat manages to get the best out of Shorey in many of the films they have worked on together, nurturing and coercing a darkly comedic vein that in turn demonstrates Rajat’s exceptional capacity to work in the comedy form with an understated elegance that tips into the grotesque with often surreal results.