SONCHIRIYA (2019, India, dir. Abhishek Chaubey)

son

The Dacoit Western is a transnational film genre forged out of a synthesis between the Dacoit film and the Italian Western in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dacoit in popular culture has undeniably been represented with ambivalence, chiefly as a romantic figure, existing outside mainstream society. Yet the rebellious nature of the dacoit, disregarding law and order has often made the dacoit an oppositional entity, a symbol of counter culture, dissent and even protest. Sonchiriya is a Dacoit Western but it seems so much more political given the age of Modi, with overtures to do with caste and gender that seem altogether absent from the genre in the past. Apart from the songs that are incorporated seamlessly into the narrative, this is very much an exquisitely mounted art film pitched as moderately mainstream. Since genres like horror, science fiction and the Western are perfect vehicles for ideological subversion, allowing filmmakers to smuggle in all kinds of social and political dissent, filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey and scriptwriter Sudip Sharma succeed in delivering a high end genre film, navigating the terrain and conventions of the Dacoit Western with a creative zeal.

Sonchiriya takes place in the valleys of Chambal in the 1970s when the notorious dacoit Man Singh and his band of rebels reigned supreme. A point of real curiosity for film buffs is that actor Manoj Bajpayee had previously played a dacoit in Shekar Kapur’s Bandit Queen who also goes by the name of Man Singh. I’m still not sure if he is playing the same character since the historical timeframes in the two films suggest otherwise. A folklore and mythology has emerged around the dacoits of Chambal in the 1970s and the film is careful not to strip away this mystique. In fact, the film enhances the haunted nature of the dacoit with metaphysical aspects that also connect with the desolate topography. A tactile work, conjuring a sharp sense of the milieu with the camera constantly pushed up against the face of the actors while also going as wide as it can when filming the rugged vistas of Chambal makes you almost taste the dirt and feel the sweat. For instance, the film opens with the sound of buzzing flies on the rotting cadaver of a snake. Such a wretched image of death recalls the cinema of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in the way in which Chaubey chooses to magnify this particular detail whereby it takes on a larger than life symbolism and acts as a foreboding precursor of things to come, much of it twisted and violent.

In the first major set piece, the gang’s entry into Brahmpuri village is juxtaposed to a radio announcement of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency of 1975. The ambush by the police in Brahmpuri leads to a shootout and which the machinations of violent state repression unleashed by the Emergency are realised in the political impunity with which the police act towards the dacoits, massacring them. Later Man Singh’s dead body is paraded through the village, a grotesque spectacle of power and ugly expression of vengeance. It is also worth pointing out the gang see themselves as rebels whereas the police demonize them as dacoits. This is an important distinction since it is only later that we discover that Man Singh is not merely a rebel but has a conscience and lives by a stringent moral code. Thematically, redemption for the dacoit is woven through the episodic narrative structure anchored in the fortuitous device of trying to get a wounded Dalit girl who has been raped to a hospital. While the episodic structure works to mirror the nomadic and exilic state of the dacoit, suggesting how they are doomed to wander, the use of key flashbacks that narrates a past drenched in prodigious horrors and from which no one can really escape returns to Chaubey’s genre preoccupations expressly noir that he deftly mined in Ishqiya (2010).

Nearly all of the characters that populate the film aside from the women are loathsome scoundrels. But that is to be expected, after all this is a Dacoit Western. Lakhna (Sushant Singh Rajput), a mediating figure, often openly questioning their marauding nature, while Man Singh exudes a magnetism that is articulated brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, still one of Indian cinema’s most complete actors. The most startling performance comes from Ranvir Shorey as Vakil Singh, the most temperamental of the gang. Shorey has been busily working since the late 1990s but I feel he doesn’t gets the credit he deserves as an actor, especially someone who has nurtured a considerable range. The symbolism of the dacoit is interchangeable and situated on the margins it comes to stand in for many oppositional ideologies. However, I would reason the apolitical nature of the dacoit, erasing the concept of the social bandit in favour of something more mythical shows a reluctance to frame the dacoit as ideological. But the caste dimension does at time negate such apolitical reasoning. Nevertheless, Chaubey and Sharma show little in terms of taking sides in this immoral universe, choosing to enunciate a perverse social order that exists including hierarchal power struggles and an on-going contestation to do with bridari that reduces pretty much everyone to animals. And in the final shot, a twisted coda, it is vehemence and fatalism that prevails, the lifeblood of film noir.

MAYA (Dir. Vikas Chandra, 2018, India)

Screenshot 2019-02-28 at 00.20.01.png

Maya, a tightly scripted short film directed by the talented Vikas Chandra, opens with the face of a child. The palpable image of the child establishes a mark of innocence and youth, positing the broader themes of growing old, death and companionship. Maya, played by Kirti Kulhari, is a modern-day middle class woman who cares for her mother (Alka Amin in fine form). Having met Raunak (Naveen Kasturia) through a matrimonial site, Maya invites Raunak’s parents to her house where they both express their wish to be married. Chandra’s sensitive handling of this dinner table sequence is measured through the ways in which the mother-daughter relationship is the focal point. Exploring Maya’s refusal to negotiate where her mother belongs, pronounces the supposed norms of modern day relationships while effectively arguing for the creation of a new familial and matrimonial space that defies traditions. But when Maya announces that her mother will remain with her after their marriage Raunak’s parents are somewhat bemused by this decision, and so is Raunak, arguably demarcating her proto-feminist ideals. The sequence discloses another taboo, that of bodily degeneration that comes with growing old. Indeed, Raunak’s parents show no sympathy whatsoever for the mum’s incontinence and apathetically walk away from the dinner table when she can’t control her bladder, a gesture that conveys a coldness indicative of lofty and fixed conservative middle class apprehensions. The mother also feels she is a burden on her daughter, another social anxiety director Vikas Chandra explores with a degree of complexity, notably through Maya’s spasms of impatience. The crux of this two hander is when the mother goes missing which triggers a frantic search that finds Maya canvassing the city with the reluctant help of Raunak. A great sense of loss washes over Maya in this particular instance and her eventual reunion with her mother, staged perfectly on a stairway, returns to a perennial theme of our times – how to respond to both old age and death with dignity and empathy in a society that has shrunken into an extended malady of individualism.

CANONIZING INDIAN PARALLEL CINEMA – PART 5: THE DEMISE (1990 – 1995)

naseem
Saeed Mirza’s Naseem, the final film in Parallel Cinema.

It might seem a little difficult to fathom that Parallel Cinema lasted for such a long time, covering four decades. That’s why it might be more appropriate in the respect of this lengthy time frame to posit Parallel Cinema as a certain approach to making films and not a film movement. This fifth and final phase pools together the least number of films and lasts for five years, although many of the major Parallel Cinema filmmakers were still active, albeit many had diversified into television, collaborating with Doordarshan to also make TV series. The cataclysmic events of Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this historical and political rupture set in motion the ascension of Hindutva into the mainstream, legitimising the BJP’s political hegemony and altering the secularist cultural parameters of India.

In this perspective perhaps it is unsurprising that Parallel Cinema was to meet its demise especially when we recognise Parallel Cinema was predominately forged in both a secularist and radical Leftist context that was duly extinguished by a disturbing neo-nationalism that still prevails. Films like Mammo (94) and Naseem (95), counter representations of the Muslim family, were humanised rejoinders to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had started to proliferate in the mainstream media. While Mammo would become the first of four films Benegal would direct that attempted to re-imagine Muslims in a three dimensional light, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem would effectively become his last film before his semi retirement and a work that seemed to mourn the loss of secularism in the iconic image of the ailing patriarch on his death bed.

This may have been the final phase of Parallel Cinema but with films like Shahani’s Kasba (90), Mishra’s Dharavi (91), Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam (92), Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (92) and Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (95) there certainly wasn’t a lack of creativity. But with the push for economic liberalization and the rise of a NRI oriented cinema, popular Hindi cinema re-formulated itself in the ubiquitous post millennial image of Bollywood, the emptiest signifier of them all; global, excessive, standardised, mechanical, apolitical. However, the NFDC has remained, plodding along, massaging the lost vestiges of state patronage. On the horizon, beyond Bollywood, a new independent cinema would soon be born, forged precariously out of the ashes of Parallel Cinema, obfuscating a glorious cinematic past for a neoliberal magniloquence.

A Film Canon: Parallel Cinema

Fifth and Final Phase (1990 – 1995) 

  • Disha / The Uprooted Ones (Dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1990, Hindi)
  • Drishti / Vision (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Kasba (Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Vasthuhara / The Dispossessed (Dir. G. Aravindan, 1990, Malayalam)
  • Agantuk / The Stranger (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1991, Bengali)
  • Dharavi / Quicksand (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1991, Hindi)
  • Idiot (Dir. Mani Kaul, 1991, Hindi)
  • Something Like A War (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1991, English)
  • Apathbandhavudu / The Saviour (Dir. K. Vishwanath, 1992, Telugu)
  • Cheluvi / The Flowering Tree (Dir. Girish Karnad, 1992, Hindi)
  • Maya Memsaab / The Enchanting Illusion (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1992, Hindi)
  • Padma Nadir Majhi / Boatman of the River Padma (Dir. Gautam Ghose, 1992, Bengali)
  • Ram Ke Naam / In the Name of God (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1992, Hindi)
  • Rudaali / The Mourner (Dir. Kalpana Lajmi, 1992, Hindi)
  • Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda / The Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, Hindi)
  • Antareen (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1993, Bengali)
  • Indradhanura Chhai / The Shadows of the Rainbows (Dir. Sushant Misra, 1993, Oriya)
  • Sardar (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1993, Hindi)
  • Sunya Theke Suru / A Return to Zero (Dir. Ashoke Vishwanathan, 1993, Bengali)
  • Vidheyan / The Servile (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1993, Malayalam/Kannada)
  • Amodini (Dir. Chidananda Das Gupta, 1994, Bengali)
  • Aranyaka (Dir. Bhavdeep Jaipurwale, 1994, Hindi)
  • Drohkaal (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1994, Hindi)
  • Hkhgoroloi Bohu Door / It’s a long way to the Sea (Dir. Jahnu Barua, 1994, Assamese)
  • Mammo (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, Hindi)
  • Nirbachana (Dir. Biplab Roy Choudhury, 1994, Oriya)
  • Prasab / The Deliverance (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1994, Bengali)
  • Sopan (Dir. Ajay Bannerjee, 1994, Bengali)
  • Tarpan (Dir. K. Bikram Singh, 1994, Hindi)
  • Tunnu Ki Tina (Dir. Paresh Kamdar, 1994, Hindi)
  • Wheelchair (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1994, Bengali)
  • Bangarwadi (Dir. Amol Palekar, 1995, Marathi)
  • Doghi (Dir. Sumitra Bhave, 1995, Marathi)
  • Kahini (Dir. Malay Bhattacharya, 1995, Bengali)
  • Kathapurushan (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1995, Malayalam)
  • Limited Manuski (Dir. Nachiket/Jayoo Patwardhan, 1995, Marathi)
  • Naseem (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, Hindi)

MULK (Anubhav Sinha, 2018, India) – Us and Them

Mulk - end shot.png

The final shot of Mulk is an unexpected one, a freeze frame of a young Muslim boy leaping in the air. He is wearing a white topi cap and the No 7 shirt of Dhoni, an icon of Indian cricket. There is a pluralism at work, the co-existence of multiple identities, that seems under threat right now in India. This parting shot is from the perspective of Danish Javed (Rajat Kapoor), a self-hating Muslim and Head of an anti-terrorist unit. As we are shown in the opening, Danish executes with impunity a young Muslim man, a religious extremist, who has bombed and murdered a bus full of innocent people. Although Danish acts out of a similarly extremist view that brands all Muslims as terrorists, his murderous actions also enact both a genocidal impulse that point to past and present examples of ethnic cleansing that have become wrapped up in a dangerous bombast of neo-nationalism. The casting of Rishi Kapoor in the main lead of Murad Ali Mohammed, the Muslim patriarch, is what certainly raises the mainstream significance of this work, delivering in my estimation his best performance in years and one that he embodies with a surprising elaboration.

Any film that presents Muslims as a problem is problematic. Director Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk goes about posing an endless array of questions to do with the present day social and political position of the Muslim community including citizenship, the nation state, radicalisation and marginalisation, all of which are presented in seemingly simplistic ways. However, Mulk is a mainstream film so there are limitations both aesthetically and ideologically what the film can say about Muslims in India. Why, one may ask, when Muslims are represented in contemporary Indian cinema, are they rarely ever depicted as normal citizens? To be sure, the othering of the Muslim is perhaps to be expected. But Mulk wants to do something different though which is to deconstruct, critique and interrogate the very process that leads to the framing of the Muslim as the Other.

On the other hand, I don’t think Sinha handles such a critique with finesse. Thus, much of the film plays out in the confines of the courtroom, blighted by the trope of the Hindi melodrama that could have been avoided given what was as a stake ideologically. In one respect, the milieu of the courtroom, a symbol of civil rule and justice makes perfect sense considering the significance of communalism, co-existence and terrorism are in a perpetual process of negotiation and contestation amongst the various religious and political factions. Moreover, Sinha takes a sledgehammer to the important political dialogue he is trying to develop. However, to be fair, a sledgehammer is probably what the Left needs right now to be heard amongst the conformist din and neo-fascist propaganda. Indeed, the recourse to signposting moments of political weight comes across as heavy-handed. Nonetheless, Sinha didn’t have to make this film and his cultural intervention at a time when dissent is increasingly dangerous should be applauded in trying to reimagine relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The 2006 Sachar Committee Report on the status of Indian Muslims points to Muslims living in India as one of the poorest and deprived communities along with the Dalit underclass. Much of this has been made significantly worse ever since the ascendancy of the BJP and popularisation of Hindutva in the 1990s that has sought to demonise Muslims as the enemy, labelled as a proxy for Pakistan. In the past, Indian Parallel Cinema sought to intervene culturally with films like Garam Hawa, Mammo and Naseem, exploring the lives of Muslims with a political complexity. Contemporary Indian cinema, talking here about both independent and mainstream films have skirted around the political questions yet have codified Muslims in specific ways that play into wider cultural imaginings. Moreover, Mulk fails to map the broader economic paradigm of deprivation and poverty faced by Muslims who have become ghettoised and live in slums while also facing the problem of high unemployment. Instead, we are given a Muslim family that is arguably middle class, and that skews the reality of an important socio-economic dimension; neoliberalism masking over a narrative about class that is rarely ever discussed by filmmakers in Indian cinema.

One could reason the systemic lynching of Muslims and Dalits that have increased under Modi’s reign is the story that should have framed the narrative. However, the worrying deportment of Hindu nationalism finds rabid expression in the character of Santosh (Ashutosh Rana), the prosecuting lawyer, who behaves with a hyperbolic zeal and which is amplified by the anti-national sentiments directed against the Muslim family. This is initially hinted at in the opening when a young Hindu boy tells his father to stop consorting with the Muslim family who he brands as traitors. Interestingly, the fanaticism of Santosh becomes equated with that of Shahid, the Muslim terrorist but I would argue this is problematized because we never really see the extremist actions of Hindu fundamentalism – such crimes remain concealed and perhaps cannot be broached in the face of censorship.

Albeit the film explores the semantics of terrorism as a category appropriated for political rhetoric and how the term can come to mark an entire community, the script still falls back on dealing with Muslims through the prism of religion and expressly religious fundamentalism. Indeed, there is no normal Indian Muslim male in the entire film except for the secularist patriarch. Even when Aftab (Aarti’s husband) arrives towards the end of the film, his silence is troubling to say the least. The same goes for the Muslim women. If this is a comment on the relative powerlessness of Muslims in India today, then Aarti’s (Taapsee Pannu as the defending lawyer) dissenting voice, becomes altogether courageous, emerging from an integrationist Indian identity, a celebration of religious co-existence but one that also harbours a precious secularist refrain.