VAMSHA VRIKSHA / The Family Tree (1971, India, Dir. B. V. Karanth & Girish Karnad)

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In Parallel Cinema the co existence of creative streams accommodated divergent aesthetic reckonings. The initial films of the Kannada new wave spearheaded by the likes of Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth adopted a largely neo realist approach that was more in line with Ray’s cinema and which was later exemplified by Benegal. The realist tag is an unwelcoming label associated with Parallel Cinema but in some instances is justified and warrants exploring further. The regional flourishes expressly from Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka were aligned in a cinematic radicalism that mapped a frontal attack on all kinds of orthodoxies specifically caste and religion. Based on the novel by Kannada writer S. L. Bhyrappa, Vamsha Vriksha, a key work in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, uses the concept of the family tree as an extended metaphor, attacking head on the patriarchy and double standards of Brahminical culture that literally imprisons women. Perhaps the radicalism of Parallel Cinema films from the South wasn’t strictly aesthetic but far more visible in the confrontational and unconventional thematic tone.

The narrative of Vamsha Vriksha unfolds essentially from the perspective of the woman, a radical about turn in the ways in which Parallel Cinema was forging a new path for counter gender representations. Kathyayani (L. V. Sharada Rao) is widowed at an early age with a young son. She feels trapped, sitting idly at home, and like Charulata in Ray’s film, the opening captures her boredom and isolation as she is reduced to staring out of the windows at the lives of others. Kathyayani overturns tradition, re-marrying and eventually leaving her in-laws. But she does at the expense of being forced to leave her son with her in-laws who claim a hereditary right over the boy. This condition placed upon Kathyayani is cruel; severing a parental bond that becomes part of a deeper psychological struggle she must overcome. However, the radicalism of Vamsha Vriksha comes from the agency of Kathyayani who not only pursues an education, later becoming a teacher, but also continually exposes the tyranny of tradition and corresponding hypocrisies. ‘In our society, a man can marry ten times, but a woman has to suppress all her desires’, exclaims Kathyayani to her father in law.

As we come to discover, the family tree has many branches but they don’t all grow the same way. Moreover, assuming a lofty moral position based on religion is prone to derision particularly when the history of a family has been constructed on a lie, one that is unmasked by the patriarch of the story. While the coda is about reconciliation, Karanth and Karnad conclude that tradition has a way of imposing itself on the past and present, distorting attempts to create new and alternate histories.

THE SACRIFICE OF BABULAL BHUIYA (Dir. Manjira Datta, 1988, India/UK)

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Opening with a series of slow motion shots of a semi-naked labourer working in the punishing heat, the body blackened by the coal is visually conducive of the ways in which the capitalist system comes to possess and devour the labourer. Fragmenting the body of the labourer to the detached sound of a rifle firing imagines the execution of Babulal Bhuiya, a worker who was killed by Industrial Security Guards in Feb 1981. Director Manjira Datta weaves an empathetic narrative that is grounded in the perspectives of oppressed labourers who slave away in the coal washeries to eek out a living. Venturing into the make shift homes of those who knew Babulal, Datta uses direct to camera interviews that catalogues a workers socialist struggle resisting a system in which Babulal’s murder is just one of many labourers who have been slain over the years. As a historical document of the crimes perpetrated by the state, a woman vividly recounts her reaction upon seeing the dead body of Babulal: ‘His face was decomposed. It looked poisoned. It was completely black’. Resistance comes through organized protests and expressly folk music that critiques class, caste and the political status quo in general. What Datta captures so palpably is the deplorable living conditions. Living nearby the coal slurry, workers exist in a primitive state with no drinking water and face relentless intimidation from the bloodthirsty coal company, of which the police is a natural extension. Although Datta’s approach is observational, the sequences used to bridge interviews have a poetic characteristic that comes through the rhythmical editing. Produced by the Media Workshop (New Delhi) and in association with Channel Four, Manjira Datta’s observational documentary is a searing example of political activism that ties in with the urgent Marxist address of works like Jai Bhim Comrade and more recently Court.

ESTHEPPAN (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1979, India)

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Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.

SONCHIRIYA (2019, India, dir. Abhishek Chaubey)

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The Dacoit Western is a transnational film genre forged out of a synthesis between the Dacoit film and the Italian Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dacoit in popular culture has undeniably been represented with ambivalence, chiefly as a romantic figure, existing outside mainstream society. Yet the rebellious nature of the dacoit, disregarding law and order has often made the dacoit an oppositional entity, a symbol of counter culture, dissent and even protest. Sonchiriya is a Dacoit Western but it seems so much more political given the age of Modi, with overtures to do with caste and gender that seem altogether absent from the genre in the past. Apart from the songs that are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, this is very much an exquisitely mounted art film pitched as moderately mainstream. Since genres like horror, science fiction and the Western are perfect vehicles for ideological subversion, allowing filmmakers to smuggle in all kinds of social and political dissent, filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey and scriptwriter Sudip Sharma succeed in delivering a high end genre film, navigating the terrain and conventions of the Dacoit Western with a creative zeal.

Sonchiriya takes place in the valleys of Chambal in the 1970s when the notorious dacoit Man Singh and his band of rebels reigned supreme. A point of real curiosity for film buffs is that actor Manoj Bajpayee had previously played a dacoit in Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen who also goes by the name of Man Singh. I’m still not sure if he is playing the same character since the historical timeframes in the two films suggest otherwise. A folklore and mythology has emerged around the dacoits of Chambal in the 1970s and the film is careful not to strip away this mystique. In fact, the film enhances the haunted nature of the dacoit with metaphysical aspects that also connect with the desolate topography. A tactile work, conjuring a sharp sense of the milieu with the camera constantly pushed up against the face of the actors while also going as wide as it can when filming the rugged vistas of Chambal makes you almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat. For instance, the film opens with the sound of buzzing flies on the rotting cadaver of a snake. Such a wretched image of death recalls the cinema of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in the way in which Chaubey chooses to magnify this particular detail whereby it takes on a larger than life symbolism and acts as a foreboding precursor of things to come, much of it twisted and violent.

In the first major set piece, the gang’s entry into Brahmpuri village is juxtaposed to a radio announcement of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency of 1975. The ambush by the police in Brahmpuri leads to a shootout and which the machinations of violent state repression unleashed by the Emergency are realised in the political impunity with which the police act towards the dacoits, massacring them. Later Man Singh’s dead body is paraded through the village, a grotesque spectacle of power and ugly expression of vengeance. It is also worth pointing out the gang see themselves as rebels whereas the police demonize them as dacoits. This is an important distinction since it is only later that we discover that Man Singh is not merely a rebel but has a conscience and lives by a stringent moral code. Thematically, redemption for the dacoit is woven through the episodic narrative structure anchored in the fortuitous device of trying to get a wounded Dalit girl who has been raped to a hospital. While the episodic structure works to mirror the nomadic and exilic state of the dacoit, suggesting how they are doomed to wander, the use of key flashbacks that narrates a past drenched in prodigious horrors and from which no one can really escape returns to Chaubey’s genre preoccupations expressly noir that he deftly mined in Ishqiya (2010).

Nearly all of the characters that populate the film aside from the women are loathsome scoundrels. But that is to be expected, after all this is a Dacoit Western. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a mediating figure, often openly questioning their marauding nature, while Man Singh exudes a magnetism that is articulated brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, still one of Indian cinema’s most complete actors. The most startling performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as Vakil Singh, the most temperamental of the gang. Shorey has been busily working since the late 1990s but I feel he doesn’t gets the credit he deserves as an actor, especially someone who has nurtured a considerable range. The symbolism of the dacoit is interchangeable and situated on the margins it comes to stand in for many oppositional ideologies. However, I would reason the apolitical nature of the dacoit, erasing the concept of the social bandit in favour of something more mythical shows a reluctance to frame the dacoit as ideological. But the caste dimension does at time negate such apolitical reasoning. Nevertheless, Chaubey and Sharma show little in terms of taking sides in this immoral universe, choosing to enunciate a perverse social order that exists including hierarchal power struggles and an on-going contestation to do with bridari that reduces pretty much everyone to animals. And in the final shot, a twisted coda, it is vehemence and fatalism that prevails, the lifeblood of film noir.