MANOOS/ADMI aka Life is for the Living (Dir. V. Shantaram, 1939, India)

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Manoos (1939) opens with a deftly staged pre-Bressonian like shot of the camera tracking a pair of naked feet as it enters a brothel/gambling den, surveying the men illicitly playing cards on the floor. But this is a shot that pre-dates Bresson and also the opening shot to Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train, and points to the filaments of innovation that characterised classical studio filmmaking in India during the 1930s and beyond. Directed by Shantaram, one of the early pioneers of Indian cinema, Manoos is a striking example of the Hindi social melodrama and was made by the technically accomplished Prahbat Film Company. The film was shot largely on sets in a studio and Rupali Shukla (2014) writes that Shantaram visited red light districts in Mumbai to help with authentically recreating the milieu, which is starkly claustrophobic and Kammerspiel in its look.

At the core of this melodrama is a love story between Ganpat (Shahu Modak), a straight-laced police officer, and Maina (Shanta Hublikar), a prostitute. The opening police raid on the brothel is cloaked in expressionism – canted shots, chiaroscuro and deep shadows. Maina’s noir filled entrance with the light from Ganpat’s torch illuminating her beguiling face is the first of many memorable stylistic touches that runs throughout Shantaram’s creative experiments with lighting and editing. Ganpat takes pity on Maina and gradually falls in love with her. The rescuing of the prostitute and attempts to reform her is certainly a conservative aspect of the film and makes their relationship problematic and perhaps to some extent unpalatable for audiences today. Moreover, the prostitute is the one who is framed as the victim since her job as a sex worker is largely viewed as abhorrent and a social problem. One could argue Maina was relatively content with her life before Ganpat came along and decided to reform her!

Nonetheless, the conservative gender politics are also subverted by the agency of Maina’s character who is not only more sympathetic as a character but gives us a painful insight into the social degradation of women in a pre-partition urbanized India. Hublikar is startling as Maina; self deprecating and whimsical in equal measures. But what really sets her apart from Ganpat is her street-smart nature. Maina continually offers Ganpat with sharp insights into loneliness and social alienation. In this respect, Shantaram’s reformist social melodrama was a progressive work. Returning to the question of stylistic touches, Shantaram stages many transitions between scenes with ingenuity, using whip pans, wipes and dolly shots.

Idiosyncrasies litter the film. In one sequence, Ganpat and Maina escape to a rural setting where they stumble into a film shoot that sees two lovers performing for the camera. Ganpat and Maina mock the hyperbolic romanticism that is being replicated for the film camera, a reflexive commentary on the representation of love in popular culture. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen argue this sequence is a ‘spoof on the Bombay Talkie style of cinema’ (1994: 261), referencing Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya (1936). Later, Ganpat and Maina’s song ironically becomes the focus of the film crew who are mesmerised by their real love as opposed to the artifice of what they are trying to conjure.

In another sequence, Ganpat takes Maina to see his mother so that they can get her blessings. Before the mother agrees to consent to their marriage and approve of her daughter in law, she asks the statue of goddess ambe to drop the flower to the right. When Ganpat realises this may not happen, he intervenes, blowing on the flower, ensuring it falls. Their intervention ridicules the superstitious ritual and exposes the limits of religion. All of this takes place in a heightened style with sharp Eisensteinian like edits, disorientating dutch angle framing and lucid high contrast lighting. There is fatalism at work, which gradually turns the narrative into a full on tragedy when Maina murders her degenerate uncle in an act of violent rage and is subsequently imprisoned for life. Strangely enough, the film’s final moments, encapsulated in the upbeat image of Ganpat marching seems like a betrayal of Maina’s ostracism from society.

YAADEIN / MEMORIES (Dir. Sunil Dutt, 1964, India)

Set entirely in the confines of a house and featuring only one actor playing out a variety of roles, Yaadein is somewhat of a genuine oddity. Yaadein was the only film actor Sunil Dutt directed. The film adheres to a vivid expressionist style with numerous canted angles and low angle shots that literally imprison Anil’s (Sunil Dutt) figure within the tightly composed frame. Dispensing with plot, the film is an extended monologue delivered by Dutt as he wanders through the house reflecting on the breakdown of his marriage. Sunil Dutt was a terrific actor and his presence in virtually every scene was an exhausting and risky strategy to take but in many ways this is what makes Yaadein so distinct. It is evident that Sunil Dutt was openly interested in playing with his star image and Yaadein’s experimental vein pointed to a potentially interesting directorial career, which unfortunately never came to fruition. Yaadein is also problematic to categorise. While the film features a major actor/star in the lead role, the absence of plot and additional dominant mainstream characteristics pushes the film into the category of the art film. Nevertheless, Yaadein was a one off for the actor and whereas the film offers some fascinating expressionist moments, it has largely been forgotten because of a stylistic and ideological insignificance.

Navketan Films: Chetan, Vijay and Dev Anand

NEECHA NAGAR / Lowly City (Dir. Chetan Anand, 1946, India)

TAXI DRIVER
(Dir. Chetan Anand, 1954, India)

Dev Anand in one of his many publicity poses – one of the overlooked stars of 50s Hindi cinema.

Trapped amongst the ideological sincerities of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt was Dev Anand – the suave, sardonic and gentlest of screen heroes who came closest to perfecting the charismatic yet unpredictable persona of Hollywood noir film stars like John Garfield. It was in 1949 that the Anand brothers got together, establishing Navketan Films, an independent production company. Between the creatively enriching period beginning in 1952 with Afsar and reaching its artistic zenith in 1965 with Guide, Navketan helped ttransform Dev Anand into one of the most popular Indian film stars of the 1950s whilst offering a slew of great films which attempted to and largely succeeded on occasions to bridge the sacred gap between art and commerce. The Anand brothers were comprised of Chetan, Dev and Vijay. Chetan Anand, the eldest, was also the most political and his deep ideological involvement with IPTA during and after partition led to him directing one of the earliest examples of an emerging social realist style imported from theatre. The film in question was none other than Neecha Nagar, the first Indian film to be screened at Cannes and the first to win a prize. It’s not surprising that Chetan’s strong socialist beliefs would leave a lasting impact on both Dev and Vijay Anand.

Released in 1954, Taxi Driver, is perhaps their best known film of the 50s period and whilst it takes much of its aesthetic influences from film noir, the combination of all three brothers – Chetan as director, Vijay as writer and Dev as main lead produced a semi realist tale about the proletarian imprisoned in a new urban dystopia of broken dreams and class divisions. In principle the vision of the city as a hostile landscape in which the anti-hero (though romantically inclined) must struggle to preserve his moral integrity was shared amongst many of the major film makers of the era including Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Zia Sarhadi. The accents of the angry young man as personified by the Vijay persona of Amitabh can be traced directly back to films such as Awaara, Boot Polish and Taxi Driver in which the proletarian must come to terms with his lowly position within the grand scheme of things. In many ways, the repeated thematic pronunciations of the family coming under attack and the corruption of the innocent rural woman was common place in the narratives of melodramas, indicating strongly popular cinema’s subservience to the ordinary dilemmas that plagued the mainstream.

Dev Anand as the hero in Taxi Driver (1954) with comic actor Johnny Walker.


Here is one of the cabaret noir style song and dance numbers from the film, performed by the femme fatale:


Taxi Driver came about as an economic necessity rather than a committed political dictat. With Navketan under pressure to deliver a hit after two consecutive commercial disappointments, Taxi Driver was quickly put together and shot on a low budget almost entirely on the streets of Mumbai. Released in 1954, the film was a resounding success story with audiences and seemed to continue an interest in film noir first initiated with Baazi in 1951 which was directed by Guru Dutt, one of Dev Anand’s many exciting discoveries. Interestingly, the period between 1949 and 1965 is generally considered to be one of the richest creative periods in the history of Indian cinema, explaining why Navketan flourished in generating new cinematic ideas. Hailing from Punjab, Dev Anand started his career as an arts graduate at the University of Lahore before making the decisive journey to Bombay. Alternating between his own production company and the illustrious and commercially successful Bombay based Filmistan Studios, Dev Anand cultivated a gentler and more romantic persona than those of his contemporaries like Guru Dutt who embraced a vein of fatalism and tragedy. Mixing comedy with heroism and largely rejecting the Devdas complex, Dev Anand’s naturalistic approach can still be detected today in contemporary Indian film stars including Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan; in many ways along with Shammi Kapoor it has strangely become the dominant star persona, though few would like to admit so preferring to point unashamedly to both Amitabh and Dilip Kumar.

Chetan Anand’s directorial debut Neecha Nagar (Lowly City) was released in the same year as its counterpart Dharti Ke Lal, directed by K A Abbas, another advocate of the IPTA cause. It is important to bear in mind that Chetan Anand later broke away from Navketan citing creative differences only to re-emerge after an extended hiatus in 1965 with the seminal war film Haqeeqat. Whilst Dharti Ke Lal was an official IPTA production, Neecha Nagar aligned itself more with a Gandhian ideology of passive resistance. Director Chetan Anand had in fact left the IPTA before embarking on Neecha Nagar, criticising the organisation for exploiting its position to propagate leftist dogma. Film critic and journalist Rajiv Vijayakar offers a detailed overview of Chetan Anand’s career in his piece for Screen India. Inspired rather than based on Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Neecha Nagar represents an almost dystopian vision of Indian society in which rampant class divisions are extenuated by the clear geographical demarcations that exist between the wealthy, ruling elite who reside in the mountains and the poor, oppressed workers in the lowly city below. Such an acute political and economic dichotomy echoes that of Lang’s Metropolis. Similarly the figure of the corrupt industrialist despot attempts to placate the worker’s revolt, buying influence and openly breeding disunity. A thematic recurrence of the rural village as a place of utopian socialist ideals struggling to counter the corrupting weight of modernity would eventually become a defining ideological characteristic of the Hindi realist melodrama.

The despotic landowner is indifferent to the concerns of the poor villagers.

The leader of the village revolt and voice of the oppressed.

The story of Neecha Nagar sees the landowner, representing the forces of elitism, approve of and build a sewage system that cuts through the village of the poor oppressed farmers. Indifferent to their plight, the sewage corrupts the water supply, destroys the crops and spreads disease leading to a shallow attempt on behalf of the landowner to construct a hasty makeshift hospital offering free treatment to the sick. The politicised face of the villagers represented in a secular and transparent manner view the hospital as yet another extension of the landowner’s hegemonic grasp and openly instruct all of the villagers to resist by refusing free treatment. For the hard liners of the village, to get treatment and use the hospital would in fact be giving into the rule of the wealthy elite. It is a defiant stance and one that claims a number of emotional sacrifices but most significantly it develops into a resistance openly rejecting violence and relying on dissent. Whilst the film does feature some songs and dance sequences with music by Ravi Shankar, the raw aesthetics offer one of the most striking examples of early neo realism. Interestingly, Neecha Nagar’s achievements at Cannes were shared amongst a number of films including Rossellini’s Rome, Open City – both films were fashioned on similar humanist sensibilities.

(Click on image for full size version)

However, the cinematography of Neecha Nagar articulates expressionism imported from German cinema which is very much absent from Rossellini’s historically determined canvas. In a way the expressionistic vein jeopardises the validity of the realist agenda so emphatically stated through the overt political symbolism of the ideologically sentimental characterisation. Despite the criticisms concerning expressionism and realism invoked by Chetan Anand, a third and perhaps more pertinent stylistic tendency emerges in the form of documentary. This may in fact be the common link between Rome, Open City and Neecha Nagar as they both claim to be realist texts because there are sacred moments when both films blur the line between fiction and reality reminding us of an actuality being embraced. Take for example the moment in Neecha Nagar when the villagers realise the landowner has cut off the only clean water supply to the village. A montage is used, documenting the gaunt figures of the poor villagers – we know these are not actors but real people who are photographed without any sense of romanticism. Their existence in neo realism terms is declared by their perpetual gaze and marginal status – rendering them visible makes them doubly political. The ideologue of Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray were all formed in the spirit of such moments and it is not hard to see why Neecha Nagar continues to occupy such a privileged position in the realist trend that would only really come to fruition in the 1950s and beyond.

Here is a fantastic interview with Dev Anand who talks at length about his illustrious and at times brilliant career:

AMAR (Dir. Mehboob Khan, India, 1954) – Expressionist Idiosyncrasies


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film maker Mehboob Khan reached his artistic zenith with Mother India in 1957 whilst his body of work in the 1940s produced such classics as Aurat (Woman, 1940), Roti (The Bread, 1942), Humayun (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Andaz (1949). The considerable achievements of Mother India and its iconic cultural position in film history obscures many of the more adventurous and unconventional films Mehboob made during his two decade long domination of Hindi popular cinema. Unfortunately when compared to his peers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt, much of Mehboob’s work is still sadly unavailable. Whilst much of it probably does exist somewhere on VHS, the DVD market has been slow to respond to the cinephile demands to make accessible more of the films that have become lost in the melee of populist works from the studio era. Legend has it that Mehboob ran away to join the film industry, working his way through the ranks until he eventually broke through in 1936 as a director on the historical film, Judgement of Allah. Dilip Kumar, dubbed the tragedy king was one of the major Hindi film stars of the 1950s. He worked with Mehboob on a number of films and Amar which was the film made before Mother India cast Dilip Kumar against type as a dubious and unsympathetic lawyer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amarnath is engaged to Anju (the beautiful Madhubala) but a milk maid Sonia (played by actress Nimmi) who comes from the nearby village also attracts the eye of Amarnath. When Sonia is raped by Amarnath, both of them at first attempt to live with the terrible secret but when Shankar uncovers the truth he tries to kill Amarnath. In the struggle, Amarnath absconds and Shankar is killed whilst the blame is pinned on poor Sonia. Like many of the social melodramas of the 40s and 50s, matters are resolved in a courtroom in which civil institutions are permitted to restore social order and re establish the degrees of morality. At least ten songs are used in the film by Mehboob. The 50s is often referred to as the golden age of Hindi popular cinema and this largely exists because of the nostalgia the older generation harbours for the way in which songs were picturised and sung. However, one of the problems of such a form is that the content can rarely cope with such pauses and interruptions in the narrative. Amar seems to be a case in point as the songs add little to the ideological weight of any social enquiry and in many ways suggest such a genre necessity was dictated by wider institutional concerns over which Mehboob had little control.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of Mehboob’s most idiosyncratic films and though the melodramatic content is representative of the studio era and the 50s, it is the cinematography and editing that really saves Amar from being deemed as unmemorable and pedestrian. Cinematographer Faredoon A. Irani whom Mehboob first collaborated with on Judgement of Allah in 1935 would remain a regular contributor, working on many of Mehboob’s greatest works including Mother India. The same goes for Editor Shamsudin Kadri who makes some innovative and powerful uses of unconventional editing techniques including the triple jump cut in two key moments in the film’s narrative. Irani’s cinematography bears a visible expressionist style, producing a litany of gorgeous monochrome imagery in which shadows, glowing lanterns and rain manifest a pathetic fallacy.