Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 3: The Transitional Years (1978 – 1979)

smita patil
Smita Patil in Gaman (1978).

This Third phase marked the transitioning of Parallel Cinema into perhaps the high point of creativity. During the Emergency, the FFC criteria was re-written in 1976, whereby avant-garde pursuits were discouraged and ‘Indianness’ promoted. Perhaps it would be absurd to say this was the beginning of the end but risk, adventure and experimentation would be curtailed. Some of this about turn was at the behest of Satyajit Ray and the apparent failure of films in the developmental phase to turn a profit, which in fact was not the case at all. The real failure had been with the FFC to invest in a viable distribution and exhibition network to fully support the access of Parallel Cinema for a specialist film audience. By the time we reach the end of the 1970s, popular Hindi cinema was on the ascendancy again with the multi starrer. Although many of the newly established filmmakers of the early years of Parallel Cinema continued to make films, the time frame of 1978 to 1979, hardly two years, is the shortest of the phases that I have mapped since it was a period of transition structurally for the FFC. However, since the centre had been smashed, it was the South that seemed to take up the aesthetic and thematic challenges.

Notable also in this period is the continuing emergence of Malayalam Parallel Cinema predominately in the form of John Abraham and Govindan Aravindan. We also start to see a second cycle of Naxalite films that begin to look back at this polarizing historical moment from a critical distance, if not romantic, including a contribution from K. A. Abbas in 1979 with The Naxalites, a work that only seems to exist in a poor VHS transfer on YouTube. More importantly, one can also begin to see the impact of Shyam Benegal on films like Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1979). Indeed, Benegal and Shashi Kapoor’s collaboration seemed to consolidate the path forged by Middle Cinema, pointing to the varied attempts to incorporate and fuse the socio-political aspects of Parallel Cinema with more palatable, mainstream narrative storytelling idioms – as evidenced in Junoon (1978). Relatedly, the ensemble of actors who had first worked with Benegal on his early films, notably Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil begin to branch outwards, appearing in more mainstream projects. It is Smita Patil who arguably becomes the ‘face’ of Parallel Cinema, a major discovery, working prolifically and starring in half a dozen new films. Quite telling also is that in this period Sen turns his back on earlier agit-prop political experiments and begins to find a totally new style, leading to perhaps his first truly accomplished work – Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and the first in Sen’s Absence trilogy. The other filmmaker to mention is Saeed Akhtar Mirza who debuted in 1976 with Arvind Desai, his first full length feature, and who would go on to make some of the most important Parallel Cinema films of the 1980s.

Third Phase: Transitional Years (78-79)

79. Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan/The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1978, Hindi
80. Dooratwa/Distance, dir. Buddadhev Dasgupta, 1978, Bengali
81. Gaman/Going, dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1978, Hindi
82. Grahana/The Eclipse, dir. T.S. Nagabharana, 1978, Kannada
83. Junoon/The Obsession, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1978, Hindi
84. Ondanondu Kaladalli, dir. Girish Karnad, 1978, Kannada
85. Parashuram/The Man with the Axe, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1978, Bengali
86. Pranam Khareedu, dir. Vasu, 1978, Telugu
87. Prisoners of Conscience, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1978, English/Hindi
88. Sarvasakshi/The Omniscient, dir. Ramdas Phutane, 1978, Marathi
89. Thampu/The Circus Tent, dir. G. Aravindan, 1978, Malayalam
90. Avalude Ravukal, dir. V. Sasi, 1978, Malayalam
91. Yaro Oral/Someone Unknown, dir. V.K. Pavithran, 1978, Malayalam
92. Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal, dir. John Abraham, 1979, Malayalam
93. Ek Din Pratidin/And Quiet Rolls the Day, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1979, Bengali
94. Estheppan/Stephen, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
95. Kummatty/The Bogeyman, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
96. Maabhoomi/Our Land, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1979, Telugu
97. The Naxalities, dir. K.A. Abbas, 1979, Hindi
98. Neem Annapurna/Bitter Morsel, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, Bengali
99. Sinhasan/The Throne, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1979, Marathi
100. Sparsh/The Touch, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1979, Hindi

YATRA – (Dir. Goutam Ghose, 2006, India)


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yatra really took me by surprise. Made in 2006 but receiving a quick release in 2007, Bengali director Goutam Ghose has made one of the most layered, intricate and reflexive of Indian films. It is a film full of wonderful mysteries and really captivated my imagination unlike any other Indian film in a while. Like Benegal’s masterly Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda/Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) which uses the narrative conceit of the unreliable narrator to test the limits of filmic subjectivity, Ghose complicates matters by blurring the line between fact and fiction. Additionally, we are never quite sure who exactly is in charge of the narrative – is it the celebrated yet cynical novelist who appears to be at the end of his career or is this a story being singularly re-interpreted by the mind of the scriptwriter/director encountered on the train. For me Ghose has suddenly risen to the top in terms of contemporary Indian auteurs and I can’t believe I have simply sidelined such an exciting and magnificent director. I have succeeded in getting hold of both Kaalbela (2009) and Moner Manush (2010) on DVD and I am looking forward to testing the authorial powers of Ghose. What is notable taking a glance at his filmography to date is that Ghose has suddenly become quite prolific in terms of fictional feature films (3 features in a period of five years indicates Ghose is undergoing somewhat of a creative flourish) as his reputation is strong as a documentary film maker.

The story of Yatra concerns a famed novelist Dasrath Joglekar/Satish (Nana Patekar in a career defining performance) who travels to Delhi to receive an award for his latest novel – Jaanaza/Funeral. Dasrath is a humble man who criticises contemporary Indian life as nothing more than a bazaar/a market place in which ideas, people and products are exchanged but have no cultural or moral worth. It is a telling and instructive ideological perspective that touches all those he meets on his journey to collect the award. En route to Delhi, the train ride leads to an encounter with a film maker Mohan Bhardwaj who is adamant of adapting Janaaza into a screenplay for the big screen. We discover that Janaaza is a deeply personal and autobiographical work for Dasrath and the central character of the novel is based on what appears to be a real life courtesan titled Lajwanti/’Lajjo’ (Rekha). It is at this point in the narrative that Ghose segues into a series of flashbacks narrated by Dasrath that explores the story of Lajwanti but we are unsure how much of the construction is based on fact and how much is fiction; it opens up an intriguing cinematic space on the nature of truth. The image of the courtesan has largely been corrupted now and is continually being equated with prostitution. This is not the case with Lajwanti, deliberately echoing Umrao Jaan, (a role made famous by Rekha) who is a much maligned classical dancer and singer. The courtesan’s representation as the fallen woman takes its narrative accent from Pakeezah with Dasrath acting as an inadvertent saviour for Lajwanti after she is beaten and raped. All of this we discover appears in the literature of Dasrath and Lajwanti’s presence in his life becomes a source of conflict with his wife. After the award ceremony in Delhi at which Dasrath delivers an incredibly moving speech on the loss of direction and purpose in society he checks out of his hotel and tracks down Lajwanti living a marginalised life.

Ghose draws notable parallels between the figures of the writer and courtesan – both plead for acceptance and use their artistry as a platform of enquiry and interrogation but remain very much as misunderstood outsiders. Both Lajwanti and Dasrath appear as remnants of the past and who no longer seem to occupy a legitimate and valid place in what is an increasingly commoditised society. By choosing to finish with the young film maker on the train as he begins the process of finally adapting the novel into a script Ghose seems to bring closure to one journey but by opening up another one a suggestion is made that such closure is premature and is in fact a lie. What we are left with is the idea that Dasrath’s journey is yet to arrive at its final destination and that memories of the past remain perpetual, continuous and the subject of reinterpretation. Ghose has been compared to Satyajit Ray and whilst this comparison might be valid in some cases I would argue his grasp of narrative as a structure is both sophisticated and reflexive as Shyam Benegal with whom he also shares many directorial and thematic traits. In any case Yatra is a masterpiece.

Here is the first of twelve parts to the exhaustive documentary Ghose made on Satyajit Ray in 1999:

BOSE: THE FORGOTTEN HERO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 2005, India) – ‘Chalo Delhi!…’

Revolutionary, leader, politician, humanist, socialist, Marxist, communist; Subhas Chandra Bose was a remarkable figure in the struggle for India’s independence. Director Shyam Benegal’s exceptionally researched historical biopic has an undeniably epic sweep complemented by a towering central performance from the wonderfully talented Marathi actor Sachin Khedekar – it is a faultless and charismatic turn by Khedekar exuding a defiance constantly expressed through his impassioned voice. Had Benegal not been at the helms of this project it is more than likely casting would have been a point of conflict for any other director up against the cynical economics of the box office. In a way, casting is what ultimately compromises the sincerity of recent historical films including Jodha-Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey – both had the potential to be great films but the emotional and cinematic baggage brought by mainstream stars (who are weak actors) jeopardises audience engagement. If you are going to make a historical film that should be both didactic and entertaining then cast it properly even if this means turning to non professional actors. Of course the problem with this scenario for a producer is that the film may fail commercially but sometimes it is worth taking a risk so that the material does not lose its creative integrity.

However, the danger Benegal seems to have faced with dramatising the extraordinary intricacies of Bose’s learned life is a continuous deference to the performance of Khedekar who appears in virtually every scene. The film steers clear off providing a complete overview of Bose’s career, leaving some personal aspects including his childhood and the formative relationship with Gandhi in the background, and by focusing on what are the most controversial years of his life Benegal constructs a narrative dominated by the politics of revolutionary struggle. The emphasis on ideological debate makes this more of a political film than a conventional biopic and whilst the very nature of the subject matter cannot fail to adhere to some of the more crowd pleasing elements of the biopic genre, namely drawn out speeches and epic crowd scenes, the ideological significance of bringing the story of Bose to film and governing an authentic voice for him is immeasurably an achievement in itself.

Admittedly, much has written about Bose now and his position in the history of India’s fight for independence has become a point of celebration today. Benegal’s regular scriptwriter and collaborator Shama Zaidi approaches the narrative in three distinctly structured parts. The first part explores his escape from British house arrest in Bengal, entering Afghanistan and finally arriving in Kabul under the identity of a Pathan. Affectionately known as ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) by his friends, the first part also gives us an insight into his family life in Calcutta whilst the political threat he posed to the British establishment remained more volatile and revolutionary in its ideological stance than Gandhi’s passive position. Bose believed that India’s independence could only been achieved through violent uprising and an open call to arms; independence had to be absolute and not waged through protracted negotiation with the powers that be. In many ways, his hope of an intellectual awakening amongst those Indian soldiers subjugated by the British Empire fails to transpire. Instead, the Indian National Army that he attempts to build into a mighty military force with a strong ideological agenda falls apart and he duly acknowledges that perhaps Gandhi’s belief in civil disobedience was ultimately the most moral and just path to achieving an independence that could be regarded as dignified.

In Part Two, Bose finds political and military sympathy from the Germans, Italians and mostly notably the Japanese who encourage the expansion of an Indian National Army that could potentially be used as a force of liberation. In Nazi Germany, Bose meets with Adolf Hitler and though he denounces their racist policies he sees the liberation of India as the ultimate goal, thus in a way temporarily tolerating the Nazis to build a political platform for propagating the desperate need for a national army. His time in Europe also sees him falling in love with his personal secretary, the Austrian born Emilie Schenkl, whom he marries and has a daughter with. The endless meetings underline the lengthy negotiations and discussions that went on with both the Germans and Japanese in terms of granting political recognition to Bose’s make shift Indian government in exile. For me, Part Two is the most ideologically fascinating as it does not shy away from exploring the dubious political relationships Bose forms with both the Nazi Party and the Japanese, implying he was willing to forge uncertain political alliances so that the aims of achieving independence could be met at any cost.

With the escalation of World War II, the early promises of full military and political support never transpire and this forms the final part of the film, examining in detail the attempt to put together a formidable army and push through Burma to arrive in India. Whilst Bose’s dream of complete independence through military opposition ends sourly, it is the inspirational refusal to compromise both politically and personally that imprints itself on the conscience of the Indian people. It is still not clear how Bose exactly died. Whilst many argue he was killed in a plane crash due to a technical fault, some say he was assassinated and others contest he went into hiding. Benegal opts to reiterate the stance that Bose was killed in a plane crash but the film seems to hint at the possibility of a political assassination orchestrated by unnamed nation(s). Bose’s death is surrounded in mystery and deserves to examined in length in another film whilst on another point the life of Bose would arguably work well as a documentary.

I’m not so sure if this is one of Benegal’s greatest achievements but I do feel that Indian cinema as a whole needs to continue making films of such historical importance as it not only revisits the struggle for independence but constructs history through indigenous eyes. Benegal is supported by a cast and crew representing some of the finest talent in the industry, including stunning cinematography by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, editing by Sreekar Prasad, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, costumes by Pia Benegal, a solid supporting cast, and of course A. R. Rahman’s moving soundtrack made up of 19 tracks including instrumentals. The song that sores is ‘Azadi’ which is sung beautifully by Rahman and patriotically rendered by the pen of Javed Akhtar. Oddly enough for such a prestigious picture that received international acclaim, it is very difficult track down a copy of the film on DVD. However, it is regularly and encouragingly shown on some of the Asian TV channels. I do hope a distributor is brave enough to pick this one up one day and give it a proper 2 Disc release including a making of and interviews with the cast and crew as it deserves a much wider audience and appreciation from film academia.

Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda / Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) – The Unreliable Narrator

The first of Benegal’s films to receive state funding (NFDC), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’s resonance comes from a sophisticated use of narrative subjectivity. Comparable to Kurosawa’s Rashomon in its gradual and shifting points of view, this is a moving examination of the storytelling process and one of the rare occasions that Benegal has explored cinema as a construct. The narrator, Manek (Rajit Kapur), is not only unreliable but his perception of the truth concerning the three beguiling female centred stories he relays to his friends is questioned throughout, culminating in a genuinely cryptic ending that seems to unravel the entire film making process. Though Rashomon may serve as a direct inspiration, the cinema of Kiarostami seems closer if one was to contextualise Benegal’s masterpiece as it poses fundamental questions that concerns film making and cinema – whose truth is being represented, how is it constructed and how should we respond as a spectator? This is what academic Sangetta Datta has to say about the film in her accomplished appreciation:

‘The title is also a clue to the film. The seventh horse of the sun is the youngest; he moves perpetually towards the future, towards light. The title itself signifies the concept of time with the Hindu myth of the sun god riding in his chariot driven by seven white horses. Man will constantly be drawn towards love and imagination; lives will always be lived and stories will always be told.’

BFI World Directors: Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, 2002: 199