SARA AKASH / THE WHOLE SKY (Dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1969, India) – Marital Bliss


How often has it been stated and reiterated that 1969 was a seminal year for film making in India as it signalled the emergence of New Indian Cinema. Whilst Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen more or less remained resolutely independent in both form and content throughout their later years the same cannot be said for Basu Chatterjee who debuted with Sara Akash in 1969. Kaul’s Uski Roti, Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Chatterjee’s Sara Akash may have had a transparent and lucid neo realist agenda, much more significant was the signature of cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who shot all three films in an unorthodox style. Unlike his contemporaries Chatterjee was an auteur whose impact on other film makers was less discernible yet the influence of a film like Sara Akash can be seen in both Ray’s Pratidwandi and also Benegal’s Ankur. Samar, a young college graduate with worldly ambitions and Prabha, a sensitive and intelligent matriculate, become husband and wife through an arranged marriage. It transpires that neither of them are prepared for such an arduous new life and the family inevitably victimise the new bride and slowly gang up on her in the house, making life difficult. Samar’s refusal to accept the cruelty of traditions which he cannot reject makes him bitter towards his wife. His silence and refusal to even touch her or make eye contact becomes a great source of marital animosity and Prabha is treated like a pariah. Samar’s thoughts of imprisonment and escape are expressed through dream sequences which would go on to influence Pratidwandi. However, unlike Ray’s politicised representations of Bengali youth Chatterjee’s urban adolescent is waking up to the stark realities of cultural traditions.

In many ways Chatterjee seemed to shift dramatically from such realist film making with some immediacy, thus Sara Akash really stands apart in his oeuvre when compared to the light comic touch he would bring to his films in the 1970s. Perhaps what makes Sara Akash unconventional as a film for Chatterjee is the rejection of song and dance. Such a rejection gives the text a greater artistic validity and imposes a sincerity that ties in with the manifesto of 1968 espousing realism. In many ways, the narrative mixes elements of the youth film with strong melodrama accents and the focus on family as a destructive guardian of tradition is a strong point of social criticism. The ending feels like a compromise though because Prabha who comes to the house still takes the abuse and reconciles with her husband Samar. Of course Chatterjee deals with another reality here – that it would be impossible for her to simply leave Samar as this would mean disgrace for her, so in a way she is forced to stay merely out of a dependency on tradition. I’m not so sure if Prabha should have been so unforgiving considering the vindictiveness of Samar’s rejection. For me, it is a problematic ending full of compromise. Sara Akash is not a particularly strong film nor is it a seminal one but what makes it alive and fresh today is K.K. Mahajan’s extraordinary eye. His cinematography gives the film a special look and at the time some of the bold, audacious camerawork was visually indicative of Indian cinema’s capacity to show signs of radical iconoclastic authorial expression. K.K. was central to the development of a realist, creative aesthetic in the late 60s and his work with Mrinal Sen in particular is simply brilliant. Like Pratidwandi, Padatik and other films during the New Indian Cinema phase, Sara Akash is a film about youthful ambitions and dreams that collide with the regressive traditions of Old India, leaving us with a painful resolution in which both parties are imprisoned for their cultural subservience.

Here is some useful reading on cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who passed away in 2007:

http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2415/stories/20070810509308700.htm

http://www.upperstall.com/people/kk-mahajan

http://www.mattersofart.net/colomnkkmahajan.html

RAJANIGANDHA / TUBEROSE (Dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1974, India) – Love and Truth

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.