MAYA (Dir. Vikas Chandra, 2018, India)

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Maya, a tightly scripted short film directed by the talented Vikas Chandra, opens with the face of a child. The palpable image of the child establishes a mark of innocence and youth, positing the broader themes of growing old, death and companionship. Maya, played by Kirti Kulhari, is a modern-day middle class woman who cares for her mother (Alka Amin in fine form). Having met Raunak (Naveen Kasturia) through a matrimonial site, Maya invites Raunak’s parents to her house where they both express their wish to be married. Chandra’s sensitive handling of this dinner table sequence is measured through the ways in which the mother-daughter relationship is the focal point. Exploring Maya’s refusal to negotiate where her mother belongs, pronounces the supposed norms of modern day relationships while effectively arguing for the creation of a new familial and matrimonial space that defies traditions. But when Maya announces that her mother will remain with her after their marriage Raunak’s parents are somewhat bemused by this decision, and so is Raunak, arguably demarcating her proto-feminist ideals. The sequence discloses another taboo, that of bodily degeneration that comes with growing old. Indeed, Raunak’s parents show no sympathy whatsoever for the mum’s incontinence and apathetically walk away from the dinner table when she can’t control her bladder, a gesture that conveys a coldness indicative of lofty and fixed conservative middle class apprehensions. The mother also feels she is a burden on her daughter, another social anxiety director Vikas Chandra explores with a degree of complexity, notably through Maya’s spasms of impatience. The crux of this two hander is when the mother goes missing which triggers a frantic search that finds Maya canvassing the city with the reluctant help of Raunak. A great sense of loss washes over Maya in this particular instance and her eventual reunion with her mother, staged perfectly on a stairway, returns to a perennial theme of our times – how to respond to both old age and death with dignity and empathy in a society that has shrunken into an extended malady of individualism.

CANONIZING INDIAN PARALLEL CINEMA – PART 5: THE DEMISE (1990 – 1995)

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Saeed Mirza’s Naseem, the final film in Parallel Cinema.

It might seem a little difficult to fathom that Parallel Cinema lasted for such a long time, covering four decades. That’s why it might be more appropriate in the respect of this lengthy time frame to posit Parallel Cinema as a certain approach to making films and not a film movement. This fifth and final phase pools together the least number of films and lasts for five years, although many of the major Parallel Cinema filmmakers were still active, albeit many had diversified into television, collaborating with Doordarshan to also make TV series. The cataclysmic events of Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this historical and political rupture set in motion the ascension of Hindutva into the mainstream, legitimising the BJP’s political hegemony and altering the secularist cultural parameters of India.

In this perspective perhaps it is unsurprising that Parallel Cinema was to meet its demise especially when we recognise Parallel Cinema was predominately forged in both a secularist and radical Leftist context that was duly extinguished by a disturbing neo-nationalism that still prevails. Films like Mammo (94) and Naseem (95), counter representations of the Muslim family, were humanised rejoinders to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had started to proliferate in the mainstream media. While Mammo would become the first of four films Benegal would direct that attempted to re-imagine Muslims in a three dimensional light, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem would effectively become his last film before his semi retirement and a work that seemed to mourn the loss of secularism in the iconic image of the ailing patriarch on his death bed.

This may have been the final phase of Parallel Cinema but with films like Shahani’s Kasba (90), Mishra’s Dharavi (91), Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam (92), Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (92) and Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (95) there certainly wasn’t a lack of creativity. But with the push for economic liberalization and the rise of a NRI oriented cinema, popular Hindi cinema re-formulated itself in the ubiquitous post millennial image of Bollywood, the emptiest signifier of them all; global, excessive, standardised, mechanical, apolitical. However, the NFDC has remained, plodding along, massaging the lost vestiges of state patronage. On the horizon, beyond Bollywood, a new independent cinema would soon be born, forged precariously out of the ashes of Parallel Cinema, obfuscating a glorious cinematic past for a neoliberal magniloquence.

A Film Canon: Parallel Cinema

Fifth and Final Phase (1990 – 1995) 

  • Disha / The Uprooted Ones (Dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1990, Hindi)
  • Drishti / Vision (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Kasba (Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Vasthuhara / The Dispossessed (Dir. G. Aravindan, 1990, Malayalam)
  • Agantuk / The Stranger (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1991, Bengali)
  • Dharavi / Quicksand (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1991, Hindi)
  • Idiot (Dir. Mani Kaul, 1991, Hindi)
  • Something Like A War (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1991, English)
  • Apathbandhavudu / The Saviour (Dir. K. Vishwanath, 1992, Telugu)
  • Cheluvi / The Flowering Tree (Dir. Girish Karnad, 1992, Hindi)
  • Maya Memsaab / The Enchanting Illusion (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1992, Hindi)
  • Padma Nadir Majhi / Boatman of the River Padma (Dir. Gautam Ghose, 1992, Bengali)
  • Ram Ke Naam / In the Name of God (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1992, Hindi)
  • Rudaali / The Mourner (Dir. Kalpana Lajmi, 1992, Hindi)
  • Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda / The Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, Hindi)
  • Antareen (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1993, Bengali)
  • Indradhanura Chhai / The Shadows of the Rainbows (Dir. Sushant Misra, 1993, Oriya)
  • Sardar (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1993, Hindi)
  • Sunya Theke Suru / A Return to Zero (Dir. Ashoke Vishwanathan, 1993, Bengali)
  • Vidheyan / The Servile (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1993, Malayalam/Kannada)
  • Amodini (Dir. Chidananda Das Gupta, 1994, Bengali)
  • Aranyaka (Dir. Bhavdeep Jaipurwale, 1994, Hindi)
  • Drohkaal (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1994, Hindi)
  • Hkhgoroloi Bohu Door / It’s a long way to the Sea (Dir. Jahnu Barua, 1994, Assamese)
  • Mammo (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, Hindi)
  • Nirbachana (Dir. Biplab Roy Choudhury, 1994, Oriya)
  • Prasab / The Deliverance (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1994, Bengali)
  • Sopan (Dir. Ajay Bannerjee, 1994, Bengali)
  • Tarpan (Dir. K. Bikram Singh, 1994, Hindi)
  • Tunnu Ki Tina (Dir. Paresh Kamdar, 1994, Hindi)
  • Wheelchair (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1994, Bengali)
  • Bangarwadi (Dir. Amol Palekar, 1995, Marathi)
  • Doghi (Dir. Sumitra Bhave, 1995, Marathi)
  • Kahini (Dir. Malay Bhattacharya, 1995, Bengali)
  • Kathapurushan (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1995, Malayalam)
  • Limited Manuski (Dir. Nachiket/Jayoo Patwardhan, 1995, Marathi)
  • Naseem (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, Hindi)

MULK (Anubhav Sinha, 2018, India) – Us and Them

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The final shot of Mulk is an unexpected one, a freeze frame of a young Muslim boy leaping in the air. He is wearing a white topi cap and the No 7 shirt of Dhoni, an icon of Indian cricket. There is a pluralism at work, the co-existence of multiple identities, that seems under threat right now in India. This parting shot is from the perspective of Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), a self-hating Muslim and Head of an anti-terrorist unit. As we are shown in the opening, Danish executes with impunity a young Muslim man, a religious extremist, who has bombed and murdered a bus full of innocent people. Although Danish acts out of a similarly extremist view that brands all Muslims as terrorists, his murderous actions also enact both a genocidal impulse that point to past and present examples of ethnic cleansing that have become wrapped up in a dangerous bombast of neo-nationalism. The casting of Rishi Kapoor in the main lead of Murad Ali Mohammed, the Muslim patriarch, is what certainly raises the mainstream significance of this work, delivering in my estimation his best performance in years and one that he embodies with a surprising elaboration.

Any film that presents Muslims as a problem is problematic. Director Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk goes about posing an endless array of questions to do with the present day social and political position of the Muslim community including citizenship, the nation state, radicalisation and marginalisation, all of which are presented in seemingly simplistic ways. However, Mulk is a mainstream film so there are limitations both aesthetically and ideologically what the film can say about Muslims in India. Why, one may ask, when Muslims are represented in contemporary Indian cinema, are they rarely ever depicted as normal citizens? To be sure, the othering of the Muslim is perhaps to be expected. But Mulk wants to do something different though which is to deconstruct, critique and interrogate the very process that leads to the framing of the Muslim as the Other.

On the other hand, I don’t think Sinha handles such a critique with finesse. Thus, much of the film plays out in the confines of the courtroom, blighted by the trope of the Hindi melodrama that could have been avoided given what was as a stake ideologically. In one respect, the milieu of the courtroom, a symbol of civil rule and justice makes perfect sense considering the significance of communalism, co-existence and terrorism are in a perpetual process of negotiation and contestation amongst the various religious and political factions. Moreover, Sinha takes a sledgehammer to the important political dialogue he is trying to develop. However, to be fair, a sledgehammer is probably what the Left needs right now to be heard amongst the conformist din and neo-fascist propaganda. Indeed, the recourse to signposting moments of political weight comes across as heavy-handed. Nonetheless, Sinha didn’t have to make this film and his cultural intervention at a time when dissent is increasingly dangerous should be applauded in trying to reimagine relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the status of Indian Muslims points to Muslims living in India as one of the poorest and deprived communities along with the Dalit underclass. Much of this has been made significantly worse ever since the ascendancy of the BJP and popularisation of Hindutva in the 1990s that has sought to demonise Muslims as the enemy, labelled as a proxy for Pakistan. In the past, Indian Parallel Cinema sought to intervene culturally with films like Garam Hawa, Mammo and Naseem, exploring the lives of Muslims with a political complexity. Contemporary Indian cinema, talking here about both independent and mainstream films have skirted around the political questions yet have codified Muslims in specific ways that play into wider cultural imaginings. Moreover, Mulk fails to map the broader economic paradigm of deprivation and poverty faced by Muslims who have become ghettoised and live in slums while also facing the problem of high unemployment. Instead, we are given a Muslim family that is arguably middle class, and that skews the reality of an important socio-economic dimension; neoliberalism masking over a narrative about class that is rarely ever discussed by filmmakers in Indian cinema.

One could reason the systemic lynching of Muslims and Dalits that have increased under Modi’s reign is the story that should have framed the narrative. However, the worrying deportment of Hindu nationalism finds rabid expression in the character of Santosh (Ashutosh Rana), the prosecuting lawyer, who behaves with a hyperbolic zeal and which is amplified by the anti-national sentiments directed against the Muslim family. This is initially hinted at in the opening when a young Hindu boy tells his father to stop consorting with the Muslim family who he brands as traitors. Interestingly, the fanaticism of Santosh becomes equated with that of Shahid, the Muslim terrorist but I would argue this is problematized because we never really see the extremist actions of Hindu fundamentalism – such crimes remain concealed and perhaps cannot be broached in the face of censorship.

Albeit the film explores the semantics of terrorism as a category appropriated for political rhetoric and how the term can come to mark an entire community, the script still falls back on dealing with Muslims through the prism of religion and expressly religious fundamentalism. Indeed, there is no normal Indian Muslim male in the entire film except for the secularist patriarch. Even when Aftab (Aarti’s husband) arrives towards the end of the film, his silence is troubling to say the least. The same goes for the Muslim women. If this is a comment on the relative powerlessness of Muslims in India today, then Aarti’s (Taapsee Pannu as the defending lawyer) dissenting voice, becomes altogether courageous, emerging from an integrationist Indian identity, a celebration of religious co-existence but one that also harbours a precious secularist refrain.

MIRZAPUR (2018) – A strange duality

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[This piece contains a shed load of spoilers so best to read after you have seen the TV series].

Mirzapur takes its time to come to life. In the final episode a wedding reception descends into a cornucopia of shootings. Reviews have remarked on how Mirzapur is derivative of the depraved noir soaked universe of Anurag Kashyap’s gangster films notably Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW). Naturally it is almost impossible not to draw that comparison considering the influence of GoW on the Indian gangster genre. However, take Mirzapur out of the wider cinephile context and read the series as a genre piece then the reversion to type becomes altogether understandable. The thing is Mirzapur strives to use a steely cinematic aesthetic but beneath the burdensome style is a judicious soap opera narrative that carries with it a transgressive socio-political subtext. Mirzapur maps a crime milieu that is fairly conventional to the gangster/crime genre – the heinous don, his emasculated son, the two brothers in over their heads, the don’s army of loyal foot soldiers, and of course, the power struggle over the city between rival gangs. But as it is often the case with genre cinema, the willingness to repeat the standard repertoire of elements is part of the audience pleasures of having our expectations fulfilled. Undeniably, a great genre work reinvents and innovates or adds something we may have not encountered before. Stacked up against the best of the Indian gangster genre Mirzapur falls short yet I stuck with it mainly because we’ve never really had a contemporary TV series from India on this scale that has the time to build a crime world that often gets a short shrift. Indeed, GoW succeeded in achieving this feat because it was split in two parts and interestingly was later broadcast as a TV series on Netflix.

Many gangster films can be read as a commentary on masculinity. But what makes Mirzapur seemingly different is the hierarchy of masculinity the film weaves is indicative of a wider contemporary social and political reality in which the character of Akhandanand Tripathi (Panjak Tripathi), popularly known as Kaleen Bhaiya, emerges as a symbol for Modi. It is important to note that Tripathi is a surname associated with upper caste Brahmins in India. Moreover, Mirzapur, which means ‘Place of the King’ has a notable Muslim past and history, one of many towns and cities in India that are having their names redacted as part of Hindutva historical engineering. Mirzapur is a microcosm of Modi’s India. Perhaps it is of little surprise that Kaleen Bhaiya rules despotically over the city with a reign of terror. And it is a rule that is contested intermittently and with which it brings violent repression. Since the line between business and politics in the world of the gangster has often been absent, the power Kaleen Bhaiya exerts over the city is overwhelming ubiquitous. The benign demeanour of Kaleen Bhaiya invokes the media friendly image cultivated by Modi whose impulse for genocide and murder remain repressed beneath the extravagantly tailored clothes, explicating an incomparable degree of self-aggrandizement.

Ideologically, the coding of the Brahmin gangster ruling over a Muslim named city holds a veritable denotation that ties in with the figure of Maqbool (Shaji Chaudhury), the loyal right hand man of Kaleen Bhaiya, a Muslim who has been brought into the fold of the family, yet another metaphor for political appeasement and tokenistic overtures of the BJP used to placate anti-Muslim sentiments. Maqbool’s presence, reduced to a narrative function, becomes a symbolic link to the one time Islamicate culture of the city, a history far removed. But there is a strange duality to the reading of Kaleen Bhaiya as a projection of Modi. The lawlessness of Mirzapur, a city over which the state does not have real power, and which is ruled over by the liminal figure of the gangster, is depicted in opposition to the state. The repeated attempts at trying to bring the city under the control of the police, a police force that is predictably bought off by the Tripathi clan, posits Kaleen Bhaiya as somebody who poses a threat to the prevailing social order. So when Kaleen Bhaiya antagonises both the Chief Minister of Mirzapur and the Police Chief sent to restore law and order, his attempts to hold onto some kind of autonomy directly challenges civil rule.

Over the course of the series it is masculinity that is toxic, entangled in a web of interrelated male anxieties from which everyone is suffering a symptomatic social malaise; misogyny. Guddu (Ali Fazal) is building the perfect body so that he can enter the Mr. Purvanchal competition, resorting to steroids that take their toil on his well being. Hard body hyper-masculinity, a current idiom of popular Hindi cinema, has become part of the iconography of male heroism, the gym-sculpted bodies amplifying Hindutva soft power and conjoined by the materialisation of the gun. Unlike mainstream imaginings of hyper-masculinity in which Salman and Ajay flex their muscles, Guddu’s body becomes an aberration over which he has little self-control. Anxieties to do with masculinity materialise profusely. For instance, Kaleen Bhaiya cannot satisfy the sexual appetites of his wife and Munna Tripathi (Divyendu Sharma), his over zealous son, is an emasculated toad who fails repeatedly to woe a girl he lusts after at college. Indeed, many of the imaginings of male anxieties rely on stereotyping and the overwhelming representation of masculinity is one of abject failure with the fear of emasculation a recurring psychological threat.

Ramakant Pandit (Rajesh Tailang), a symbol of the upstanding citizen, who defies the rule of Kaleen Bhaiya is a common feature of the gangster genre but Pandit’s morally righteous stance is undone by his own children. Pandit never capitulates to the demands of Kaleen Bhaiya’s despotic rule but his coercion into silence becomes yet another metaphor for the ways in which the left leaning secularist middle class has also lost its will and courage to speak out in the face of violent, corrupt rule. If Kaleen Bhaiya’s rule can be read as an allegory for Modi, the BJP & Hindutva then this particular paradigm or axis of neofascism is manifested even more clearly in the recruitment of Guddu and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), young disaffected men who are often recruited by right wing nationalist groups and instrumentalized as both an electoral device and extension of Hindutva violence. Guddu and Bablu argue they have no other choice other than to join Kaleen Bhaiya, a stark reminder of the degrees of conformity and coercion that exists when there is few other viable alternatives. It is important to recognise that Pandit never backs down but the price he pays for his defiance is self-exile and isolation from his family, an apt comment on the dire consequences of speaking out against the establishment.

Ideologically, and perhaps most elucidating, is the final episode, which is all about the violent reassertion of Hindutva masculinity that is threatened on many different levels notably by a sexual potency harboured by the lower caste. The vehemence of this reassertion finds a grotesque imagining in the sub plot of Beena Tripathi (Raskia Dugal), the matriarch of the Tripathi clan, who is carrying on with a lower caste servant. Bauji (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), her benign father in law and impaired patriarch of the family, soon discovers what has been going; only he doesn’t tell Kaleen but exploits the situation for his own sadistic pleasures. Bauji blackmails Beena into having sex with him then coerces her to dismember the servant’s penis, a horrific act of violence that not only equates the woman and lower caste servant as powerless in the face of a double bind of patriarchal-caste oppression but also offers a historical link to systemic caste discrimination. In the final episode, Mirzapur seems to say everything it wants to and fails to in earlier episodes, albeit the time it takes imagine a world of crime is full of narrative diversions and intermissions, a trajectory that really doesn’t add up to anything significant. Nonetheless, there is still much to savour here in terms of a prescient socio-political subtext which intermittently pushes to the surface with a strange duality and notable disaffection for the current state of things.