MANJHI – THE MOUNTAIN MAN (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 2015, India)

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Ketan Mehta is questionably one of the few remaining Parallel Cinema filmmakers still actively making films. One could probably include Shyam Benegal in this tryst. Many of the Parallel Cinema films declared an affinity for ‘Subaltern Voices’ (see Sangeeta Datta’s monograph on Shyam Benegal), which in turn became a recurring unofficial hallmark of institutional NFDC policy, and Mehta’s latest film ‘Manjhi – The Mountain Man’ spiritedly recalls the Parallel Cinema movement. Manjhi is a co-production between Viacom and NFDC, a collaboration between private and public funding, resulting in a film that is an uneven mix of politics, melodrama and history. One of the most confusing aspects of the film is the way Mehta structures the narrative, shifting back and forth without any real purpose other than to overstate the decorative idea of one man’s journey. Parallel Cinema intervened in the historical invisibilities of India, functioning as an instrument to decentre monolithic narratives that often marginalised subaltern groups especially the lower castes. Mehta was a central filmmaker in this project and his early work in this period is remarkable, if not, inconsistent.

The inherent contradiction of subaltern re-presentation was the complicated question of who was doing the representing; namely a privileged middle class body of filmmakers. While it would be wrong to dismiss the credibility of caste politics in Parallel Cinema, the issue of caste has a clearly variable record in contemporary popular Indian cinema. Mehta’s film is fundamentally about caste and one can certainly see evidence here of NFDC’s institutional involvement but unlike ‘the developmental aesthetic’ (Prasad, 1998) that emerged from Parallel Cinema in an attempt to break with the legacy of realism in Indian cinema, Manjhi operates in a universe of compromise, projecting a somewhat timid discussion of politics that is conflated to a stylised aesthetic which cannot help but advertise a patronising spectacle. Mehta tries to use the dulling allegory of the mountain to address caste politics but seems unable to keep at bay a hyperbolic attachment to stereotypical visions of conventional romantic imaginings.

The legacy of Parallel Cinema is unmistakably signposted in the film through the subplot of the despotic landlord and subjugated peasants in the village that forms a major backdrop to the film. This subplot is later inverted when the action shifts to the 1960s and the Naxalites sweep through the village, hanging the landlord in a moment of violent insurrection. Such an indescribably political moment that in fact ends in the massacre of all parties in a shootout is an authorial marker of Mehta. Naxalism is a thematic historical thread that runs through many of the political works of Parallel Cinema, and is a relatively unexplored one. While the casting of Nawazuddin seems all but obvious given his current indie status, justifiably so, Mehta is unsure what kind of film he wants this to be. I would have preferred it to remain a character study but Mehta is obligated take on the ‘extraordinariness’ of the true story of Manjhi by attempting comprehensiveness, a noble but self defeating position.

In terms of film style, Mehta’s has always shown an ability to draw in ideas from painting, theatre and mythology to create a complicated mode of address. Manjhi feels most like a broad example of magical realism, inconsistently so. Mehta finishes with acknowledgments to the real Manjhi and his family and although one is reminded of the ideological significance of the story, it also makes one realise that this project worked far more successfully as a documentary. Why? Because if this story about caste oppression, a perpetual one, then the metonymy of the mountain does explicate a troubled past and present, but it somewhat dislodges the authentic, real voices of the lower caste.

Mehta takes a more populist approach to the story of Manjhi as it seems to have been retold in many different ways now, so by approaching the story from a popular front perspective makes the politics palatable for a wider audience. Nonetheless, the theme of caste oppression does still come through, and while Mehta may not as be erudite as he once was, he continues to make films on relatively on his own terms. Conclusively, one could argue Mehta deliberately steered away from opting for despair and the celebratory tone the film strikes at the end is a little fantastical, perhaps unhelpfully reducing Manjhi to a symbol. Furthermore, the main reason why Manjhi carved a road out of the mountain is because he wanted to make it much easier for villagers to get access to medical assistance. Mehta obscures this fact, allegorising Manjhi’s herculean efforts, and also somewhat depoliticising the narrative. Mehta’s melodramatic re-telling of Manjhi’s almost legendary, mythical story is still worth seeking out.

AN AMERICAN IN MADRAS Dir. Karan Bali, 2013, India

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Karan Bali’s affectionate documentary An American in Madras, broadcast on Channel Four in October as part of a series of films about the Indian film industry, is an eye opener in many respects. It is a history that I had no knowledge of and makes one re-consider what we have been told and what has been historicised about Indian Cinema especially regional cinemas is tentative. This certainly ascertains the history of Indian cinema is still being written and that we need to contest historiographies, revising past historicising that relies on pedantic, monolithic, essentialist accounts. The story of American born Ellis R. Dungan who worked in the Tamil film industry for over fifteen years suggests South Indian Cinema was making substantial technical advances that ran parallel with and influenced the Bombay film industry.

Bali’s excavation and recognition of American director Ellis Dungan’s contribution to the technical, thematic and aesthetic development of Tamil Cinema is significant in three respects. Firstly, it points to a cultural exchange between Hollywood and the Indian film industry, a long lasting one, which creates a nonlinear disjuncture of cross pollination; a creative, cultural dialogue. Secondly, Bali rightly reclaims the work of Dungan, positioning him in the Tamil industry and emphasising his centrality in help promoting a new regional identity in the films he made while shaping the star image of popular singer/actress M. S. Subbulakshmi. Thirdly, Bali constructs a historical narrative based on past recollections, interviewing film historians, actors and friends who worked with Dungan, and contemporary Tamil film artists who also recognise Dungan’s considerable achievements.

Technical proficiency and professionalism are two themes that historians argue Dungan brought to the Tamil film industry at a time of growth. Bali’s approach narrates a tale about innovation, an increasingly popular way of looking at film histories. For instance, shooting on location and indoor tracking shots were stylistic innovations that Dungan helped to nurture in the several films he made. Perhaps most fascinating for me is Bali’s access to the Tamil films of the 1930s and 1940s, many of which appear to have been beautifully restored. If I am assuming many of these films have not officially been re-released to the film consumer on home media platforms then they should be as it is a rich cinematic past that should be accessible to all especially in an age of digital reincarnation and resurrection.

AMMA ARIYAN (Report to Mother) Dir. John Abraham, 1986, Malayalam

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You know me, Mother, don’t you.
You know everything about me.
I will keep you informed about everything that I come across,
until the end of the journey.
Just see for yourself,
my paths; the sights that have been waiting me on my way…
Lives have been sacrificed all through this deserted path of mine.

I am currently in the throes of research for my PhD project on Indian Parallel Cinema and have started to view films that I may potentially use for my thesis. Amma Ariyan holds somewhat of a Holy Grail status for me. I had always wanted to see this final film by Malayalam director John Abraham but whenever I stumbled upon copies they were always unwatchable. I really can’t believe I have waited such a long time to see Amma Ariyan, and what a film it is. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, Amma Ariyan is located amongst the second wave of Malayalam cinema and John Abraham’s emergence coincided with the international success of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a leading light of the movement. I am declaring it a masterpiece because I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the canon of regional parallel cinema, Indian art cinema or more broadly speaking in the field of Indian cinema.

While some contend Hindi cinema entered one of its worst periods in the 1980s, although I am not persuaded by such an argument especially when you reason Parallel Cinema was at its peak, in Malayalam Cinema there was a ‘qualitative growth’ brought on by ‘Film Cooperatives, the harbinger of which was the Chitralekha cooperative which commissioned a full fledged production complex for struggling filmmakers on the outskirts of Trivandrum’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). Furthermore, the collective reach of a new generation of filmmakers who opted for low budgets and location shooting helped Malayalam Cinema break away from the Madras film industry and ‘establish its own identity in Kerala’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). The more I look at Malayalam Cinema in the 1970s and beyond it is clear there was an ideological engagement with politics on a didactic level that led to some very polemical works. The willingness to engage with political themes of the day articulates the political literacy and politicization of life in Kerala itself.

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John Abraham only made four films before he suddenly passed away in 1987. He hailed from a middle class orthodox family, although his father ‘used to be associated with an underground political movement’, and he started watching films at the age of 15 which ignited an interest in cinema. Joining the Pune Film Institute in 1965 John Abraham worked as an assistant for Mani Kaul on Uski Roti, a film that he later admitted was a formalist exercise, accusing Kaul of having ‘drained out the sentimentalism’ from the story. Strangely enough the temporal-spatial disjuncture of Kaul is present in the elliptical frissions of Amma Ariyan. It was the Bengali triptych of Ray, Ghatak and Sen who had a major influence on his approach to cinema and one can witness such influences in Amma Ariyan’s hybridity, discordantly mixing tradition, radicalism and morality into a loose, episodic stream of consciousness. The international influences are just as discernable especially in the astonishing handheld, deep focus camerawork that recalls both Third Cinema (this could be regarded as a film about the process of decolonization) and Cuban Cinema including Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba/I am Cuba (1964). Abraham’s major achievement was not his films but the ‘Odessa Movies’ collective, which he helped to form in 1984 as a way of working in parallel to the mainstream and offering alternate distribution-exhibition provision. It also meant Odessa were able to screen alternate Indian films in schools and other public places in the context of film education: ‘Once we screened Potemkin in a bus stand. Around 1500 people came to watch it’, recollects John Abraham. In fact, financing for Amma Ariyan was raised through the 16mm films that Odessa distributed, collecting Rs 10 from viewers. This was grassroots cinema indeed and in some respects Amma Ariyan does feel close to Third Cinema especially in terms of its staunchly Marxist address. Here is John Abraham on the rationale behind making Amma Ariyan:

‘Despite all theories and philosophies, our culture teaches us that the destruction of the woman/the mother results in the destruction of humanity. This was the idea behind Amma Ariyan. I believe that mothers should be told about the problems that we face in our lives as men. Their responses to them might offer solutions to a lot of them. In other words, without awakening our mothers, it is impossible to achieve our goals. All our epics tell us the same. The materialistic world modern seems to have forgotten this’.

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The story of Amma Ariyan is set against the backdrop of Kerala in which the Naxalite movement had petered out and the cost of political extremism was being measured and reflected upon especially by a directionless youth. One such youth is Purushan (Joy Mathew), a bearded, introspective cipher. He is on his way to Delhi when he sees the dead body of Hari, a percussionist (tabla player) and political Naxalite activist. At first Purushan is unable to identify the body, as he is not entirely sure if it is Hari. As he begins his journey to inform Hari’s mother of her son’s death he calls upon Hari’s friends who not only confirm the dead body is that of Hari but also unite with him in marching to Cochin to deliver the news. John Abraham says the ‘the film is structured as chapters in the form of reports’, which are typically delivered from the perspective of a character that segues into a flashback detailing their own memories of political histories and of Hari. Abraham embues the film with mysticism, using elisions in the editing, through the flashbacks, inserts, juxtapositions of nature, digressions into monologues, creating an organic rhythm. Purushan’s determination to inform Hari’s mother raises a collective that works as a breathless political image: their animated presence punctuating the rural landscapes in what becomes a road movie narrative. The reports come together as a record of dissent, resistance and injustice, but it is always dissent that Abraham celebrates in many of the reports such as the recollection of workers taking back rice and sugar from the capitalist merchants and redistributing at a fair price.

In what is one of the great endings I have come across to an Indian film, the group of young men who have marched to Cochin to deliver the terrible news of Hari’s death, most probably at the hands of the police, culminates in Abraham’s realisation of ‘awakening’ matriarchy by having Hari’s mother turn to the camera with the men crowded behind her, metonymically speaking the sons of Mother India, removing her spectacles to wipe away the tears. As she does so, Abraham cuts to a cinema screen replaying the same moment to what appears to be an audience of spectators. Cinema, reality, politics, coalesce, shattering to reveal an empty void, a terrifying silence, but an illusion, far out of our grasp, and its like Abraham seems to be laughing at us, for having thought that any semblance of optimism might exist is simply obfuscated by drawing on the cruelty of a self reflexive gesture. Like Ghatak and Shahani before him, John Abraham most pertinently draws on the epic form. In fact, this is a cinema about ‘walking’, an action that Abraham embues with a blatant political value. I have merely touched the surface of what is an extraordinary work, a complex one that demands further analysis, distribution and canonization.

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AURAT / WOMAN (Dir. Mehboob Khan, 1940, India) – Lost & Found

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Sardar Akhtar as Radha

Aurat, a social melodrama, forms part of Mehboob’s period of filmmaking that saw him shift between the studio system of the 1930s and early 1940s before he went independent. He made a number of key films for National Studios including Roti. Mehboob was a studio bound filmmaker, working in many genres and often collaborating with the same technical crew including cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani. His post-independence work is what still garners attention amongst film fans and his colour period resulted in populist classics such as Aan & Mother India. His films also had a remarkably consistent presence at the box office and he had the flair to make even the most unappealing political films of his career such as Roti (1942) succeed with film audiences. So much of Mehboob’s early films has either simply been forgotten, lost to time or have been rendered inaccessible. This was certainly the case with Roti that only recently surfaced online and which I have argued is a key work in pre-independence Hindi cinema both in terms of its political content and appreciating fully Mehboob’s auteur status.

Aurat was recently reissued on DVD by Shemaroo and subsequently uploaded to their Vintage YouTube channel. I am not entirely sure who owns the rights to Roti or Aurat, maybe it is the Mehboob Khan estate, but since the copyright has lapsed on both of these films they have arguably entered the public domain, which seems somewhat sneaky of DVD labels to re-issue these films hoping to make a profit from them. Now, had the films been restored and then re-released in new prints including special features then it would make perfect sense and one would dually buy into such an enterprise. Alas, given the despairing state of DVD authoring and manufacturing in India, films like Aurat are likely to continue circulating in the realm of BitTorrents. What remains to be seen is, if and when, the work of Mehboob is likely to be restored and released in two separate retrospectives; pre and post independence.

Aurat is the story of Radha, a peasant woman of considerable fortitude, left to fend for her four children when her husband burdened with the weight of impoverishment leaves the village, abandoning his family. Through hunger Radha loses two of her children but still succeeds in raising her two remaining sons who grow up to become polar opposites; Birju, the outright rebel and bandit, and Ramu, the romantic, doting son. The narrative template of a mother, the interests in female narratives is a recurring theme in Mehboob’s films, and her two conflicting sons immeasurably influenced dozens of Hindi films. Imagining nationhood through the symbolic coding of the mother figure would reach a Nehruvian zenith with Nargis as Mother India. Sardar Akhtar is equally accomplished in her unassuming performance as Radha, a feminist portrait, growing to occupy a position of respect and autonomy in the village.

In Deewaar, the trade unionist father, ostracized from the village for selling out his fellow workers has its antecedents in Aurat when Shamu abandons his family, the crisis of masculinity insurmountably deathly in its discordant musings. In one of the boldest sequences in the film, Mehboob uses a series of bold superimpositions and deep focus photography, juxtaposing Shamu’s male despair to the quandary of poverty:

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Since the quality of the video I watched varied considerably, the photographic work of Irani still shone through, framing the village in pastoral landscapes of elemental riches, clouds, water and earth, reminiscent of Soviet cinema and the cinema of Dovzhenko that intersects with Raj Kapoor’s Awaara and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin. This nostalgic view of the village, complemented by the traditional folk music by Anil Biswas, is an aspect of Indian rural life that often appears in Mehboob’s work while his criticisms of modernity in terms of its impact on ordinary Indian culture predates Satyajit Ray and many other Indian directors. One can see Mehboob and his regular editor Shamsudin Kadri experimenting with editing devices such as the dissolve, used masterfully to mark the transition of Birju from boy to man:

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One of the noted parallels between Aurat and Mother India is the unruly, scheming figure of the moneylender Sukhilala (actor Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi would reprise his role) manipulating the despair of the villagers and trying his best to take advantage of Radha’s misfortunes. Sukhilala upsets the equilibrium of the village since his moneylending interpreted, as a capitalist critique, is a source of hostility that antagonises Birju, like it did his father, pointing to cyclical notions of wounded male pride and impotency that can only be resolved by a tragic mortality. Such a deep, eternal realisation is delineated by Mehboob’s dolly shot on Radha’s horrified face (see below) after she has shot Birju, a cataclysmic rupturing of rural laws and Oedipal complications.

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We have had a monograph on Mother India (BFI) by Gayatri Chatterjee and two publications on Mehboob as a director; one by Rauf Ahmed that is underwritten and very basic and also a biography by Bollywood insider Bunny Reuben. Neither of them provides a comprehensive analysis of Mehboob as an auteur since much of his work still remains inaccessible, suggesting a reclaiming of his earlier works as they slowly become available is likely to be a revisionist task.