Adapted from a story by Punjabi writer Sadat Hasan Manto, Mrinal Sen’s disjunctive Antareen is a study of two lost souls unable to make a concrete emotional connection. Compared to the political films Sen directed in the 60s and 70s, Antareen feels somewhat tame and at times apolitical. The premise sees a struggling writer confined to an old mansion in Calcutta in an attempt to find inspiration for a new novel. However, one night the writer (Anjan Dutt) receives an anonymous phone call from a woman (Dimple Kapadia) who simply wants to talk. The writer soon discovers through the telephone conversations that the woman seems trapped in her life and has in essence been cut off from society. Additionally, the relationship seems to trigger a new creative energy within the writer and he uses the intimacy of the woman’s experiences as a means of writing his new novel. The dilapidated mansion in which the writer stays is shown to have a life of its own – it is a colonial past that bears down upon those who inhabit it. In terms of characterisation, the mansion, which is effectively represented as a haunted house, acts as an appropriate psychological landscape for the loneliness of the writer and the woman. In terms of form, Sen employs various Brechtian devices including direct camera address to construct a narrative that is cleverly being imagined by the writer’s words. In a way, the momentary encounter on the train platform in the closing moments is reflexively manifested by the writer and the woman through an imaginary connection but their distance even when they are so close suggests such a deliberate encounter is purely an illusion as empty as their broken gaze. I’m not sure if I want to label Antareen as a minor work in the oeuvre of Sen as it certainly underlines a cinematic radicalism consistent with what has been a career of intellectualism. On a side note, Sen’s 1983 film Khandahar (The Ruins) starring Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi will be playing in a new print at the Glasgow Film Festival next week.
Mumbai is one of the great cities of the world, drawing in film makers so they can use the dense urban landscape as a canvas on to which they can endlessly inscribe dreams, nightmares and anxieties. A microcosm of cosmopolitan and secularist narratives, Mumbai is continually re-presented in the fantasies of Hindi cinema as the gateway to contemporary success or failure. Like New York, the Mumbai milieu was made for cinematic reinterpretation and performance – the geography of the city continues to be contested in the imagery of the media and whilst the urban slum has become a popular frame of reference, it celebrates a metropolis like pluralism that is dignified. Opening with an interior shot of a nondescript taxi making its way curiously through the rain swept streets of Mumbai; Kiran Rao’s directorial debut Dhobi Ghat immediately takes up the first person perspective of the first of four characters, this one is making a home video using a camcorder. As the taxi moves past the overcast Marine drive with the sea gazing back at us in the distance, the vehicle stops and for a brief moment the camera films the excited actions of a group of Mumbai street kids who begin performing for the car as though they were in an Indian film. It is a snapshot of urban reality and repeats a restless rhythm familiar to us, an elliptical momentum that just like the city of Mumbai fragments the new and entombs the old – but this snapshot is just one of many micro stories glimpsed in the episodic art film structure adopted by the film maker.
A sincere art house film Dhobi Ghat is typical of Aamir Khan as a producer – uncompromising in its aesthetic agenda, distinctively marketed, economically budgeted, sincerely directed and confidently performed. Inter relating the lives of four characters which deliberately represent the spectrum of contemporary Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is a discourse on the city and its inhabitants. Played by Aamir Khan, Arun is a reclusive painter who grudgingly appears at the exhibitions of his own work. Somewhat of a womaniser, Arun guards his loneliness as it is the one thing that allows him to be creative. He transforms his pain and the pain of those around him into his work, deconstructing the private video tapes of an unhappy married woman leads Arun to shift from one place to another. A symbol of anonymity, Arun’s identity is in transit, nomadically connected to his refusal to become emotionally involved with anyone who attempts to reach out. Shai (the beautiful Monica Dogra), an investment banker from America who is visiting Mumbai as part of a sabbatical, is also suffering from a similar psychosis of rupture but unlike Arun who is a member of the city, Shai’s outsider status makes her a jaded symbol of the Indian Diaspora. She too is searching for a space from which she can create but her elitist trappings opens a level of discontinuity that prevents her from bridging an all too familiar class divide. A symbol of the authentic Mumbai urban slum, Munna (Prateik Babbar) works as a dhobi washing laundry for the middle class whilst pursuing an outlandish cinematic dream of becoming an actor. Unlike Arun who is an emerging painter and Shai a budding photographer, Munna’s gaze is altogether fixed in a stark reality from which he cannot escape – ideologically both Arun and Shai’s perceptions of reality are filtered through a shared visual gaze that is privileged.
The final character, Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly married Muslim woman, is part of the past, present and future whilst her gaze is hauntingly ubiquitous. Yasmin’s story is conveyed through a series of intimate video diaries that Arun discovers in his apartment – the videos detail Mumbai as a place in which the pain and suffering of women like Yasmin are simply rendered invisible. In many ways, this is a film about conflicting gazes; privileged and unprivileged gazes determined by the economics of the urban city.
Prior to the first of many 1970s collaborations with under stated comic actor Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee’s directorial debut in 1969 Sara Akash was positioned along side Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (Mani Kaul) as part of the New Indian Cinema movement. However, the unexpected commercial success of Chatterjee’s 1974 female melodrama Rajanigandha helped to open up a new space which would subsequently be referred to as middle cinema. It is significant that Willemen and Rajadhyaksha label it distinctly as a low budget art house film yet the presence of Amol Palekar and Basu Chatterjee both attract a contradictory categorisation. Similarly like Ankur, released a year before in 1973 and also made on a low budget, continues to be argued over in terms of its status – is it an art film or an example of middle cinema? Born in Rajasthan, Basu Chatterjee like Shyam Benegal and many other film makers of his generation came to film making through the non educational route. Chatterjee’s early career was as a cartoonist for a tabloid newspaper but like his contemporaries he was a reverent cine-phile, helping to establish the Film Forum Society in 1959. Prior to his directorial debut, Chatterjee assisted Basu Bhattacharya on the box office failure that was Teesri Kasam (1966). Directors Chatterjee, Bhattacharya and Mukherjee in the 1970s would come to be regarded as a potent triptych, defining the identity of the Indian middle class. Admittedly, the only reason mainstream Hindi cinema, namely the Bombay film industry, was attracted to the triptych lay in the profit motive of low budget films at the box office.
Based on a short story Yahi Sach Hai by Indian writer Manu Bhandari, the title of the film Rajanigandha takes its name from the tuberose flower/plant used in perfumes. The love triangle is one of the most common narrative situations featured in Hindi melodramas and whilst it is difficult to label Rajanigandha as strictly melodrama the emphasis on feminine anxieties is concretely dealt with in the figure of the ideologically conflicted Deepa Kapoor (Vidya Sinha) torn between her affections for the two men in her life. Whilst Palekar’s sympathetic and laid back Sanjay offers security and a sense of compassion, Deepa’s former lover Navin (Dinesh Thakur) whom she spurned for political reasons resurfaces, reigniting a longing which she thought she had long overcome. It is hard to imagine that so many romantic Hindi films still use this formulaic narrative set up but of course the disparity in terms of formalism between the triptych of middle cinema and the many contemporary imitators is vast. The complexity of emotional states Deepa passes through gets to the heart of an important ideological truth – the politics of dissent are easy to ignore when dealing with the politics of love. The two seem to be incompatible in contemporary melodramas yet it is their co existence in Rajanigandha is what gives Deepa’s struggle to decide whom she loves the most an altogether more truthful periphery.