Watching Ghashiram Kotwal is equivalent to a punch in the face, cinematically speaking of course, since here is a film, a belligerent work in terms of parallel cinema, antithetical to Indian Cinema. It was a film all but forgotten, salvaged from the Berlin film archive, and restored. Yet again preservation intervened in the historiography of Indian Cinema, revising the past. Ghashiram Kotwal seems like a seminal work now, a crossroads in terms of ideological and aesthetic experimentation, arriving at the peak of the parallel cinema art film movement in 1976. Although the FFC had nothing to do with Ghashiram Kotwal in terms of funding, a natural project to support really, they did help to put in place the necessary conditions for such an experimental film to be realized by a group of emboldened, agit-prop filmmakers coming out of the film institute in Pune. In many ways, Ghashiram Kotwal may not have been possible without Bhuvan Shome or more significantly Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti. The critical success of both films, part of the New Cinema Movement (NCM), and the work of the Film Divisions of India, commissioning experimental shorts facilitated an age of iconoclastic esotericism. The rules of Indian Cinema were being broken, re-written and assimilated with the influences of European cinema, chiefly the long take cinema of Hungarian Miklos Jancso, into a counter cinema that for a brief moment proposed conventions could be subverted to enunciate existing social and political torments.
Ghashiram Kotwal is a difficult film to position and would in some respects fall into the parallel cinema category. However, it is more evidently a radical work that has no ambitions to occupy a middle ground. Experiments in formalism came most boldly from Kaul in the 1970s and his involvement with Ghashiram Kotwal was critical for the film finding both financing and an aesthetic unity. The Yukt film cooperative only made two films; Ghashiram Kotwal and later Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (although this is clearly a parallel cinema film), Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s directorial debut, released in 1978. Yukt (which means strength) was merely an isolated group and the cooperative, made up of 16 members including co-director K. Hariharan and actor Om Puri, rose financing for the project through a bank manager contact of Kaul. Such creative freedom instinctively meant as a collective they could take risks. Hariharan says that Kaul was very much the creative senior, someone they greatly admired, an established filmmaker, who helped to guide and shape the project. Equally participatory was the role played by Kamal Swaroop and Saeed Mirza in developing ideas central to the film.
The collective also drew directly from the events of the time in India. The Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, lasting between 75 and 77, violated the constitution, leading to an outcry from the cultural community. Ghashiram Kotwal was originally ‘a play chronicling the Peshwa regime in western India’, featuring a plot in which the Prime Minister Nana Phadnavis appoints Ghashiram ‘as a senior police official cum espionage agent’ in an attempt to hold on to power in a territory being challenged by the arrival of the British. The parallels with Indira Gandhi’s tyrannical rule were striking; a hegemonic impulse articulated by the use of the police as a means of manifest repression found a metonymic parallel in the way Nana used Ghashiram to enforce terror amongst the Brahmins. Such timely and considered ideological engagement avoids polemicizing, instead relying on a self reflexive approach, combining some of the dance traditions of Indian culture with Brechtian devices (the omniscient narrator, title cards, direct camera address to name a few) to fuse together a postcolonial non-linear dialogue of history and politics that is both diachronic and synchronic. Just like the impact of the IPTA in the 1950s led to a more concerted ideological and aesthetic engagement with cinema, producing some affecting neorealist work, a similar precedent was clearly in work with the 1970s Indian Experimental Theatre of Badal Sircar, a major creative influence on the film.
There are instances in the film that spuriously communicate Kaul’s repeated authorial interests with temporal and spatial disjuncture, evident most strikingly in the moment when Nana (Mohan Agashe) and Ghashiram (Om Puri) meet for the first time. In a classic Kaul move, a very trivial and ordinary action, the meeting between two characters, is disrupted in terms of time and space, making us look at the meeting through a new spectatorial gaze. Thematically, Nana and Ghashiram emerge as a mirror image, morphing into one. Kaul frames this first meeting in such thematic terms, obscuring our view of both characters, denying us the predictable reaction shots used to fill in the traditional dramatic narrative space. At one point in the sequence, Ghashiram is completely obscured by Nana’s symmetrical position in the frame, producing a spatial ellipsis that creates a momentary disjuncture, instructing us of their ideological synchronicity.
Yet by choosing to film from the back of Nana is also significant, it is the master, the one who rules, that seems to literally swallow up Ghashiram into his treachery. In many ways, this sequence violates conventional framing but its experimentational tone is very much implemented at the service of key themes: the contestation of power, and the ostensibly eternal master and slave dichotomy. Even more audacious is the final shot of the film, lasting for an uninterrupted, continuous ten minutes, and directly inspired by the cinema of Miklos Jancso, and which in the opinion of K. Hariharan is unique in film history since it ‘must remain the world’s longest shot on a standard reel of 1,000 feet to be shot by four camera operators’. In this final shot, the camera completes a 360-degree movement at least four times, capturing the way history unfolds disruptively, and also witnessing a subdued transference of power, the British coming to the fore.
Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, based in Berlin, has over 8,000 films in its archives. To date, Arsenal has restored two significant Indian films, Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? (1986) and Ghashiram Kotwal. Both of these films have been released by Arsenal on DVD (region free luckily) after receiving retrospective screenings at the Berlin film festival.
Accompanying DVD Booklet by Arsenal; featuring an interview with K. Hariharan conducted by Shai Heredia, filmmaker and curator.