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:

PAAR / THE CROSSING (Dir. Goutam Ghose, 1984, India) – The River as Life and Death

Bengali cinema has produced so many brilliant film makers over the years that it is easy to determine it is predominately auteur led as opposed to the preponderance of genre often associated with the Mumbai film industry. Born in Calcutta, Bengali director Goutam Ghose (also known as Gautam Ghosh) has produced work including documentaries and feature films whilst also being credited as a cinematographer, writer and composer on a number of Indian art films. He is obviously multi talented and somewhat prolific but nevertheless his absence from the discussions of Bengali cinema and Indian art cinema yet again stresses a pertinent need to catalogue with some trepidation key directors and films that construct a strong argument for parallel cinema’s sustained political engagement with the social. Writer Subhajit Ghosh offers one of the best overviews of the director’s work, emphasising his ‘strident political activism’ which of course is more than well represented in his 1984 film Paar (The Crossing). The IMBD entry for Ghose underlines a filmography made up of a string of documentaries, emphasising a concern with realism and political issues. It might be the case that his documentaries are probably far more political and radical than his feature films.

His first Hindi film Paar is a tough watch in many respects. Featuring a towering central performance from Naseeruddin Shah and supported by Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Anil Chatterjee. I guess, Shah, Azmi and Puri was the perfect cast for a parallel film from the 70s or 80s – all three continue to work tirelessly and remain hugely influential. With the success of Ankur and Benegal’s focus on rural exploitation, parallel cinema made this into a virtual trademark. Paar also explores feudalism and exploitation of the untouchables in Bihar but unlike Ankur which hints at the potential for peasant revolt, Paar sees a worker, Naurangia (Shah), retaliate against the oppressive system by avenging the murder of the local schoolteacher who initially helps the workers to unite and resist. However, Naurangia and his wife, Rama (Shabana Azmi) are forced to flee when the villagers are massacred in a night of carnage. A despondent Naurangia and pregnant Rama end up in Calcutta and this is where the film becomes much darker and visceral in its impact.

Survival becomes the only aim for both the impoverished husband and wife and soon they are faced with a life and death ultimatum. Homeless, destitute and starving, Naurangia’s only chance of making some money comes in the form of an absurd proposition; to take a herd of pigs across a river crossing. A Herculean task and the centrepiece of the film’s narrative, the desperate image of Naurangia and his pregnant wife Rama trying to stay afloat whilst directing the pigs across a wide river crossing morphs into a symbol of human struggle. Admittedly, this is a film of two halves and whilst the first half tends to offer some kind of sociological explanation why Naurangia is forced to flee the village, the second half dispenses with narrative concerns and depicts with great intensity an odyssey of pain and determination. Ghose seems unconcerned exactly where Naurangia and Rama are headed as it is their physical exhaustion which he captures so vividly through the hard edged cinematography and frantic performances. Paar is another key work of parallel cinema and Ghose is an auteur who seems equally impressive as Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen or even someone as radical as Mrinal Sen. It will be interesting to see how the rest of his work stands up to the beauty of Paar. I’m not sure but I think Paar was also funded by the NFDC.