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

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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.

SIR (Dir. Rohena Gera, 2018, India-France)

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Set in contemporary Mumbai Sir is a sharply crafted romantic melodrama, full of warmth, about a benign architect, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and a migrant servant, Ratna (Tillotama Shome). The script is sharply written and brings to life the complexities of Ratna and Ashwin who are are bound by class and caste. Although they are two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the emotional connection that is forged becomes a tentative bond and gradually emerges as a painful longing that reaches a memorable conclusion. The narrative unfolds from the perspective of Ratna and for much of the film remains with her character, which is significant because a romantic melodrama of this type could easily have capitulated to a male point of view. The script is wonderfully underplayed and Tillotama Shome in superb form brings to life the nuances of Ratna, a widow who works in the city to support her family back home and has aspirations of becoming a tailor. Writer and director Rohena Gera treats Sir as an urban fairytale and thankfully channels much of the emotional interplay through subtle gestures and precise framing. If marketed with vigour and picked up internationally Sir has the potential to crossover and reach the critical and commercial heights of a recent Hindie breakout like The Lunchbox.

JAGO HUA SAVERA / THE DAY SHALL DAWN (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, 1959, Dir. A. J. Kardar) – The Cosmopolitan Intersections of South Asian Neorealism

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“This is the path of the spirit paved with thorns and stones. This is man’s shadow. This is night. But morning will come…” – Khalil Gibran

Gibran’s poetic words point to a cycle of endurance, a battle to survive. This quote from Gibran is juxtaposed over the image of fishing boats at night, navigating the dark waters so to eek out a living, to sustain a village in which fishing is the lifeblood. The recently unearthed Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn, 1959) seems to be yet another reason why South Asian cinema’s intersections with neorealism remain somewhat irresolute. Most conversations regarding Indian neorealism tend to centre on two films – Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). Both of these films, directed by Bengali filmmakers, show a debt to Italian neorealism and De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). Although Ghatak’s work could be tentatively argued in terms of a neorealist aesthetic, his style was more eclectic, hybridised and fragmented. Arguably, Nagarik (1952) is possibly the film with the most salient neorealist dimensions of Ghatak’s work, following in the burst of realism initiated by the IPTA in the late 1940s.

If we bring A. J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera into this group of Indian neorealist films, it is important to note that most of these films came from the East of India, many from Bengal. Jago Hua Savera was a co-production between Pakistan and India, and what also makes it unusual are the contributions of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz for script, dialogue and lyrics (unfortunately none of the songs have subtitles) and the cinematography by esteemed DOP Walter Lassally. In fact, Jago Hua Savera was one of Lassally’s first credits as a DOP as a full-length feature, and evidences the fresh realist style that he had developed as part of The British Free Cinema movement with Lindsay Anderson, Karl Reisz and later new wave cinema of the 60s with Tony Richardson. I am  very intrigued by how Lassally got involved with the project. It is worth noting the sound recordist John Fletcher was also part of Free Cinema, having worked on experimental shorts like Nice Time (1957) with directors Alain Tanner and Claude Goretta. Moreover, the editor, Bill Bouvet, was also British. In this respect, the international make up of the crew certainly demonstrates a cross-cultural and cosmopolitan collaboration that was perhaps unusual for the time in India-Pakistan.

The film is simply about the lives of fishermen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The opening title reads:

‘Filmed on location at Saitnol, on the banks of the river Meghna – 30 miles south, as the crow flies, from Dacca, in East Pakistan’.

Mian (Zurain) is a fisherman with a growing family, as the titles tell us. His wife, Fatima (Shamsun Nihar), is physically impaired. Mian’s close friend is Kasim (Anees), an orphan who is in love with Mala (Tripti Mitra), the sister in law of Mian, and who comes to stay and help after Fatima gives birth. Kasim is impetuous but loyal to Mian. A principal character is Ganju (Latif) who is obsessed with the dream to own a boat, a threadbare goal that seems to characterise all of the fishermen including Mian. Ganju is a symbol of destitution. When Ganju’s boat arrives, he is too ill to enjoy the fruits of his labour and later dies. This is what awaits the fisherman in Saitnol; a painful ending to a miserable existence, which is dictated by the terms of Lal Mian, a slimy moneylender (Kazi Khaliq) who owns the fishing rights to the territory. Lal Mian also has his eye on Mala and hopes that he can convince Mian to let him marry her.

In one sequence, when the fishing rights of Saitnol are auctioned, Lal Mian outbids everyone and retains control. While the fishermen want to see an end to Lal Mian’s rule, they do not have the economic resources to outbid him. After Lal Mian retains the fishing rights, he has a monopoly over the village, and goes about charging extra from the fishermen. Kardar uses a record book of anonymous thumbprints as a symbol of bondage and enslavement that stretches back generations. What Kardar captures so effortlessly is the minuet of the fishing village, charging his narrative with pseudo-poetic neorealist imagery – the boats swaying on the river, the disparate joys of a local mela. Such affection is punctuated by moments of anguish, destitution and fortitude like when Mian attempts to buy a fishing boat but only to realise he does not have enough money or a dying Ganju caressing his newly built boat which he will never sail. Indeed, melodrama often seems to be the element that complicates the neorealist tendencies of films like Do Bigha Zamin but Kardar manages to steer clear off such trapping, perhaps until the final moments as Ganju’s boat is taken away, a rare instance of sentimentality creeping into the film.

However, Jago Hua Savera, made in 1959, seems to have been the culmination of the neorealist moment in South Asian cinema, intersecting along a cross-border creative exchange. Moreover, the international cast and crew, drawing on artists from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Europe, also situate the film in the realms of international art cinema that was emerging more fully in the late 1950s. Ghatak would return to a similar milieu in his opus Titas Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), exploring the lives of fisherman in Bangladesh and perhaps is indebted to Kardar’s film, notably the stark compositions of landscapes. The pared down, observational approach Kardar takes to the fishing village makes it at times feel as if we are watching a documentary, an ethnographic study but one that is enthralling nonetheless. If Ghatak’s film seems indebted to Kardar then we can also reason Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), a classic Italian neorealist work that documents the tribulations of fisherman in a remote Sicilian village, was an influence on both of these films, and returns to the question of exchange that occurred between South Asian filmmakers and Italian neorealism in this period.

Kardar’s brother was Abdur Rashid Kardar, a famous and influential filmmaker and producer who started in the silent era as a producer and then later directed mainstream films like Shahjahan (1946), Dillagi (1949) and Dulari (1949). There is an excellent article by writer and curator Ali Nobil Ahmad published in The Guardian (2016) which drills down into the production history of the film. 

 

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.