The story of Daasi takes place in 1925 colonial India when the region of Telengana was under the rule of the Nizam. The powerful and vicious landlord who reigns over the small village is Jayasimha Rao (Bhoopal Reddy). One of the significant aspects of Parallel Cinema was the resistance it brought to dominant narratives, disrupting traditional gender paradigms that had become established over time; carving out new spaces for women and female subaltern agency that Indian cinema had not seen before. Films like Maya Darpan (1972), Ankur (1973), Umbartha (1981) and Daasi (1988) constitute a kind of unconscious resistance that was working collectively to redress the gender disparity, although much of this has to be approached cautiously considering many of the films were directed by men and therefore one could argue these films tend to replicate a dominant point of view they are supposedly trying to disrupt.
Nonetheless, Telugu director B. Narsing Rao’s story about female enslavement feels like the flipside of Benegal’s Ankur since it takes an altogether oppositional aesthetic approach to the archetypal Parallel Cinema theme of feudalism, opting for a measured and sparse approach that is effectively a character study of Daasi (Archana), an impoverished, lower caste woman sold into bondage for twenty rupees when she was a young girl. Daasi is confined to the mansion and sexually exploited by the landlord. Rao seems particularly interested in exhibiting the drudgery of Daasi’s daily chores and which steadily take on a ritualised status. Apurba Kishore Bir’s camerawork that glides across the courtyard of the mansion not only extenuates the claustrophobia and imprisonment experienced by Daasi but also illuminates the spaces of the mansion with a wonderful texture through the shards of light, unusual reflections and doorways.
The terrifying scream that rings out at the end, that of Daasi who is being forced to abort the child of the landlord, is marked by emptiness and pain that seems to become swallowed up by history, remaining suppressed in the past, a scream that we would rather not confront. It is a scream of exploitation, bondage and the beleaguered masses that relates the inequities of power that Parallel Cinema was able to articulate consistently in many films. Released in 1988, Daasi won five national film awards and is considered to be one of Rao’s best films.
The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam Bombay. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.
Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.
But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.
Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were illustrious and varied collaborators and with a career spanning over 40 years it was one of the most substantial partnerships in modern cinema. I have yet to see a lot of their work but the more films I encounter the more appreciative I am of what they have achieved given the tight budgetary constraints they worked under. Whilst much has been made of their so called heritage films produced in the late 80s and early 90s, their critical reputation rests largely on this sustained creative period. The problem with such a contentious categorising of their work is that inevitably everything else becomes somewhat secondary and simply a precursor for greater things to come. Yet in many ways it is their early work and continuous interest with India that gives them a decidedly unique and emboldened body of work. Films such as Bombay Talkie, The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat & Dust and The Deceivers may offer idiosyncratic tales of unfulfilled relationships but the clash of cultures in many of the narratives points to a sustained attempt to repeatedly interrogate the relationship between the West and India. Merchant and Ivory were exceptionally lucky to have cast the emerging and talented Shashi Kapoor in their debut feature – The Householder (1963). As it turned out the experience became an on going and very creative collaboration with Shashi Kapoor returning continuously over three decades to take the main lead in many of their best films on an ever evolving Indian society. The final element and one not to be overlooked was the contribution of writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I do think it’s unfair that the title Merchant and Ivory remained consistent because its development into an international brand in the early 90s not only took the focus away from the contrasting ideological content of their films but obscured the contributions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the commercial and critical success of their finest films.
Released in 1970 Bombay Talkie continues to be dismissed by some critics as relatively insubstantial compared to their later work. Nevertheless, it is a well crafted piece of work with a very talented cast and crew who seem to really relish the opportunity of sending up the Bombay film industry. Utilising the typical Hindi melodrama situation of a love triangle in which we find two men with considerable egos – in this case a populist actor and a poet turned scriptwriter, vying for the affections of an English novelist (Jennifer Kendal – Shashi Kapoor’s off screen wife) who has come to India in search of an adventure, the film has in some ways become an influential work on western film makers approaching India from an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps this is most evident in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – a film that raids the enchanting and memorable musical scores of Satyajit Ray. Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) as the egocentric playboy actor neglects the concerns of his wife (Aparna Sen) whilst his irrational and commercially motivated approach to cinema articulates a blunt criticism of the Bombay film industry. Sumptuously shot by Subrata Mitra, Ray’s regular cinematographer, and with a memorable score by industry regulars Shankar-Jaikishan, the film’s gradual shift into a tragic melodrama may at first seem like a grotesque denouement but on closer reflection seems like the perfect way of ending a film about the Bombay film industry and all its excesses. The opening titles are a work of art:
The release of Sujata in 1959 marked the end of director Bimal Roy’s most prolific and creative period. Beginning with Do Bigha Zamin in 1953, Roy’s output in the fifties rivalled only that of Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor. However, the major difference between Roy and his contemporaries of the time was his relative status as an outsider. Whilst his cultural identity was firmly Bengali, his socialist sensibilities and response to growing commercial demands constructed an authorial position in which he was able to address the current social issues of the time through the populist mode of Hindi melodrama. Throughout the fifties Bimal Roy visited many of the social ills that continued to concern Indian society including poverty, capitalism, class, caste, marriage and of course, family. Cinematographer Kamal Bose who was largely responsible for the semi realist visual look of earlier films including Do Bigha Zamin and Devdas (1955), became a Roy regular and his aesthetic contribution to Sujata is readily apparent in many of the expressionist sequences. Ideologically, Roy’s cinema runs parallel with that of Rossellini and whilst De Sica’s work was both political and emotional, the stark humanism of Rossellini’s post war sentiments finds it fullest expression in the overtly symbolic figure of Sujata (played by Indian actress Nutan). Similarly like Do Bigha Zamin which debates the politics of poverty and rural exploitation through the wider metaphor of a family’s urban odyssey, Sujata scrutinizes the politics of caste and gender in the milieu of middle India.
My final point really comes out of the Keynote lecture given by British director Ken Loach at the London Film Festival in which he criticises the loss of craftsmanship in the British film industry. One of the major strengths of the Hollywood studio system was most of the writers, cinematographers and directors got regular work so they naturally developed their particular craft. Film makers like Bimal Roy got good at what they did because they were given the chance to develop their particular craft – this does not seem to be the case today as a lot of film makers attempting to come at film from a different angle struggle to find financing. In many cases, the second feature film can become allusive and for British film makers craftsmanship is no longer considered an aspiration or a realistic possibility in the current state of American screen monopolisation and British television’s descent into empty reality shows.