CHOMANA DUDI / CHOMA’S DRUM (1975, India, B. V. Karanth)

cd

In Chomana Dudi the sound of the drumbeat never really stops. It is a sound at first made by Choma (Vasudeva Rao in a remarkable performance), the aging bonded labourer and untouchable, used to express the rage he feels about his oppression. But later it appears more frequently, punctuating the narrative, an incessant reminder of feudalism and casestism as perpetual to history. The sound of the drumbeat is one of political impotency; a pathetic cry of futile social conditions from which Choma and his family are unable to escape, no matter what they do. Chomana Dudi is based on a classic of Kannada literature, Choma’s Drum, written by acclaimed novelist K. S. Karanth. Choma’s dream of buying his own land, having toiled his entire life for a despotic, exploitative landlord, is a fatalistic death kneel, conjured from the debauched universe of noir.

Directed by B. V. Karanth (interestingly director Girish Kasaravalli is credited as assistant director) and released in 1975, Chomana Dudi, was part of a Parallel Cinema that transpired in Karnataka in the 1970s, a new wave that often gets lumped in with Indian Parallel Cinema as a troublesome monolithic entity. Of course, there are undeniable frissons and intersections between the regional Parallel Cinema that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. But the Kannada Parallel Cinema, much of it pioneered by Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth seemed to coincide with Benegal’s rural realism in the mid 1970s, forging a path that branched away from more initial avant-garde concerns to a notable ideological engagement with representations of the subaltern; a project that would come to life theoretically in the 1980s with Subaltern Studies.

In part, films like Ankur, Samskara and Chomana Dudi were a return to the questionable neo-realist experiments of the late 1940s and 1950s, notably Do Bigha Zamin and Dharti Ke Lal. However, a work like Chomana Dudi fuses melodrama with a pronounced Marxist address, whereby caste discrimination is brought to light in some impenitent, startling instances. For example, when one of Choma’s sons is drowning, an upper caste villager runs to the aid of the boy. While this is happening someone can be heard shouting that the boy is an untouchable and the villager should not intervene. Having reached the boy, the villager stops and simply lets the boy drown. Choma looks on despairingly. It is an extraordinary sequence, a blunt rejoinder to the horrors of the caste system, articulating a history that still bears a silence around it in Indian cinema.

Although Choma’s beating of the drum acts as a pulse in the film, a symbolic manifestation, his earthly connections to the land imagine the peasant farmer and untouchable as resolutely magical, transcendent and epic. Absent though is any attempt at political resistance, embracing fatalism and futility that is overwhelmingly bleak. Perhaps this best describes casteism but it also problematically situates the lower caste peasant farmer as a politically redundant, subjugated figure with no recourse to implementing social change. In this case, how should we read the final shot of Choma’s drum rolling into the frame: another defeatist aide-mémoire of the supremacy of caste politics that remains intact or the benign trace of an individual, dignified victory against the system?

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

manjhi

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.

CHAURANGA / FOUR COLOURS (Dir. Bikas Ranjan Mishra, 2014, India)

1418647414editor_four_colours_02

Synopsis: A fourteen year old dalit boy is growing up in an unnamed corner of India. His dream is to go to a town school like his elder brother and his reality is to look after the pig that his family owns. His only escape is to sit atop a Jamun tree and adore his beloved passing by on her scooter. His unspoken love is as true as his mother’s helplessness who cleans the cowsheds of the local strongman’s mansion, with whom she also has a secret liaison. When the boy’s elder brother comes on a vacation to the village, he soon finds out about his younger brother’s infatuation. The learned elder brother makes him realize the need to express his love and helps him write a love letter.

(http://www.anticlockfilms.com/films/chauranga)

I’ve been considering what to say about this film for a few weeks now but still cannot find the clearest way to express my thoughts. The film deals with feudal caste politics in an Indian village. What it is clearly trying to do is recall the films of parallel cinema which were interested in Subaltern ideology and representation. Chauranga is closest to the cinema of Shyam Benegal and particularly recalls Ankur. Similarly, the maid servant who is enslaved to the local Brahim family is readily exploited for sex while her two sons are mistreated by the upper caste Brahim boys who roam the village with pernicious impunity. Writer-Director Bikas Mishra does what Benegal did regularly in many of his early films that can be positioned within the sphere of subalternity, he humanises the powerful and the powerless but in a subtle twist on a familiar tale of rural caste oppression Mishra brings in a touch of providence that complicates the tragedy that befalls late in the film.

Rest assured Mishra aligns himself with the Dalits and is especially interested in the narrative perspective of the two boys and their differing personalities; one wants to study abroad while the other is an outright rebel who refuses to be subjugated like his mother. Mishra’s benign depiction of the Brahmin family in which an ancient brand of violent patriarchy breeds is especially disturbing since an unspoken nexus of oppression exists amongst the men that is never questioned; it is natural and normal for them. Since Dhaniya’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee dependable as ever) death is framed ambiguously makes it difficult for us an audience to pass a judgement on Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the Brahim patriarch but when Dhaval, by chance, intercepts the love letter which older brother (Riddhi Sen) writes in jest for his younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) who is in love with a Brahmin girl, it offers Dhaval the opportunity to annhilate his crimes by expunging the Dalit family from the village. Incensed by Santu’s innocent propositions to his daughter, Dhaval sanctions the violence enacted against Dhaniya’s children. What comes to the surface are caste tensions, exploding into brutality, recalling yet again the cinema of Benegal and his rural trilogy including Ankur, Nishant and Manthan. Another link to parallel cinema is the presence of Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee (Padatik, Pratidwandi, Akaler Sandhane) who plays a blind priest.

Something that Benegal refused to do in many of his films in which he brought to light subaltern exploitation was to never present Dalits as completely subjugated. Instead he often showed the subaltern as a political force resisting, fighting back and challenging the status quo. Perhaps this was a little idealistic and never truly depicted the cruel reality of caste politics, that they could not fight back, that they simply had to get on with things. Mishra advocates such a truism and it is a painful one but one that seems altogether appropriate for the poignant note on which he ends. Santu escapes, unlike his older brother, but as he looks back at the village on the train we get the sense he has never been any lonelier. It’s a parallel cinema ending, a homage of sorts that works as social protest while articulating an underplayed belief that Santu’s escape is almost necessary, that the best thing for him is to remove himself completely from the village as this will at least let him live without the fear of being persecuted. Nonetheless, Santu’s future’s is equally uncertain now and one thing is for sure, no matter where he goes he will always be invisible. This is a terrible truth that Mishra does brilliantly to expose.

AAKROSH (Dir. Priyadarshan, 2010, India) – Caste Politics

A remake of Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, Priyadarshan’s transfers the politics of race relations to that of caste in the ruralism of Bihar. Hailing from Kerala, Priyadarshan forged his career making a string of commercially successful comedies in Malayalam with actor Mohanlal. Including his extensive output from the eighties, Priyadarshan has to date directed over eighty films and is perhaps one of the most prolific directors working in the world today. I have not seen any of his films with Mohanlal, many of which he has remade since his shift into the Hindi film industry, but Virasat (The Inheritance) which he made in the nineties is one of my favourite Hindi films and might actually feature Anil Kapoor’s best performance. Aakrosh is a stylised attempt to bring to light to the continuing cancerous existence of caste politics and honour killings in rural India. Ideologically, the discriminatory and brutal caste divide encountered by the two officers, played by Akshay Khanna and Ajay Devgan, in Bihar uncovers predictably an insipid collusion between the police, religious elements and landowners in which law and order is dispensed independently and at will.

The politics of caste has been dealt with by most of the major Indian auteurs including notably Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal; Benegal’s work is particularly seminal in this context. Priyadarshan freely admits that whilst Aakrosh does deal with a serious yet largely invisible social problem, the demands of commercial cinema means the parameters of ideological engagement are somewhat constrained and defined by genre determinants. Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession, 2008) perhaps indicates Priyadarshan does have that capacity to move fluidly between mainstream and more personal, independent projects. For a detailed analysis of Kanchivaram, read Srikanth’s entry on his blog. Aakrosh should have found an audience given the film is a technical triumph and puts together some memorable fast paced action sequences. The ending is marred though by a terrible oversight of ideological fantasising.