A cold front has swept across the city of Calcutta, bringing it to a near stand still. But it’s not just the weather too blame for the prejudices harboured by a middle class family residing in Calcutta. One day an impoverished father, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta), comes to their home with a proposition; will the family take on his young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) as a child servant? At first, the family are reluctant. They criticise the last child servant who only remained with them for a few months before absconding. Eventually they agree and Hari tells them he will return at the end of each month to collect the wages for his son. As the cold snap continues, one morning Pupai is found dead on the kitchen floor. The death comes as a shock to the family. A police investigation is opened into the death of the boy and the family are scrutinised for failing to properly care for the child servant. As the investigation progresses it becomes evident Pupai died from carbon monoxide poisoning and slept in the kitchen because he was cold. Mrinal Sen uses the death of the child servant as a searing political symbol, examining the politics of class and the wider monstrous void that exists between the lower and middle classes of Calcutta. In one particular revealing exchange, the father Anjan (Anjan Dutt) goes with his friend to seek legal advice if the case was taken to court. When Anjan exclaims that Pupai was a member of the family and treated the same, his disingenuous words are rebutted by the lawyer. The lawyer states quite bluntly that Pupai was not treated the same as he was made to sleep under the stairs, given little money, and ultimately regarded as inferior; any positive interaction was minimal from the family and so they had a role to play in his death.
It’s very tricky to deal with class and particularly the exploitation of servants without descending into either ideological rhetoric or wild sentiments but by keeping the narrative within the context of the melodramatic form Sen fixes his gaze within the moral sanctity of the Bengali family. Whilst Anjan begins the process of coming to terms with his class prejudices, his wife Mamata (Mamata Shankar) is clearly ridden with guilt but is unable to even acknowledge her seemingly unnerving lack of empathy for both Pupai and Hari. Whilst the impact of Pupai’s death should have affected Mamata to recognise the entrenchment of her class prejudices, she actually views the death as a familial disgrace. In many ways, Mamata’s ignorance is contrasted with the emotional outpouring of Hari who at the end transforms his anger into a dignified closure. Hari’s actions might be dignified but there is a moment that Sen conjures up at the end, pointing to a potentially incendiary conflict that might come about one day if such destructive prejudices were challenged head on. Ideologically, the relative invisibility of Pupai as a symbol of the lower class is contrasted sharply with the privileged and protected son of Anjan and Mamata. When Hari comes to claim the body of his dead son and considering he is grieving, Anjan and Mamata feel obligated to let him stay. However, their middle class guilt is horrifyingly manifested when they hastily attempt to compensate their negligence by offering Hari the living room as a place to sleep. Hari rejects their conciliatory and premature offering, choosing instead to settle for the kitchen in which his son died and elucidating the falseness of Anjan and Mamata’s reactionary gesture. Kharij is one of Mrinal Sen’s most accessible works and like many of the films he directed in the 1980s it was the family that became a key political thematic. Kharij was awarded the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1983 and nominated for the Palme d’Or.
Prior to the first of many 1970s collaborations with under stated comic actor Amol Palekar, Basu Chatterjee’s directorial debut in 1969 Sara Akash was positioned along side Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (Mani Kaul) as part of the New Indian Cinema movement. However, the unexpected commercial success of Chatterjee’s 1974 female melodrama Rajanigandha helped to open up a new space which would subsequently be referred to as middle cinema. It is significant that Willemen and Rajadhyaksha label it distinctly as a low budget art house film yet the presence of Amol Palekar and Basu Chatterjee both attract a contradictory categorisation. Similarly like Ankur, released a year before in 1973 and also made on a low budget, continues to be argued over in terms of its status – is it an art film or an example of middle cinema? Born in Rajasthan, Basu Chatterjee like Shyam Benegal and many other film makers of his generation came to film making through the non educational route. Chatterjee’s early career was as a cartoonist for a tabloid newspaper but like his contemporaries he was a reverent cine-phile, helping to establish the Film Forum Society in 1959. Prior to his directorial debut, Chatterjee assisted Basu Bhattacharya on the box office failure that was Teesri Kasam (1966). Directors Chatterjee, Bhattacharya and Mukherjee in the 1970s would come to be regarded as a potent triptych, defining the identity of the Indian middle class. Admittedly, the only reason mainstream Hindi cinema, namely the Bombay film industry, was attracted to the triptych lay in the profit motive of low budget films at the box office.
Based on a short story Yahi Sach Hai by Indian writer Manu Bhandari, the title of the film Rajanigandha takes its name from the tuberose flower/plant used in perfumes. The love triangle is one of the most common narrative situations featured in Hindi melodramas and whilst it is difficult to label Rajanigandha as strictly melodrama the emphasis on feminine anxieties is concretely dealt with in the figure of the ideologically conflicted Deepa Kapoor (Vidya Sinha) torn between her affections for the two men in her life. Whilst Palekar’s sympathetic and laid back Sanjay offers security and a sense of compassion, Deepa’s former lover Navin (Dinesh Thakur) whom she spurned for political reasons resurfaces, reigniting a longing which she thought she had long overcome. It is hard to imagine that so many romantic Hindi films still use this formulaic narrative set up but of course the disparity in terms of formalism between the triptych of middle cinema and the many contemporary imitators is vast. The complexity of emotional states Deepa passes through gets to the heart of an important ideological truth – the politics of dissent are easy to ignore when dealing with the politics of love. The two seem to be incompatible in contemporary melodramas yet it is their co existence in Rajanigandha is what gives Deepa’s struggle to decide whom she loves the most an altogether more truthful periphery.
It was refreshing to come across what is clearly one of the stronger mainstream Indian releases of the year. I have never really been a big fan of Rishi Kapoor – I thought the sweaters he wore in so many of the terrible films he made in the eighties were simply inexcusable and unflattering to his sizable and noticeable paunch. Unlike Shashi Kapoor and Raj Kapoor who will be remembered for their choice of films, though Shashi has also done his fair share of stinkers, Rishi Kapoor’s cinematic status as a film star could be narrowed down to the way in which Bobby and Karz have been immortalised by mainstream Indian cinema today. One could argue that the real problem faced by aging Indian film stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and Dharmendra is that you either continue in the regressive action mode or try to sustain a career as a romantic lead. Of course, in reality, the mainstream cannot simply accommodate such a dispiriting acting philosophy and the dearth of roles written for aging film stars means either an early retirement or the suicidal option of playing out a star persona that has lost it’s so called charm with audiences.
It was around about 2000 when Rishi Kapoor announced what was effectively his retirement from mainstream Indian cinema as a main lead – a wise move considering how awkward he appeared paired up against the likes of his much younger female co stars including Madhuri Dixit. Now, I don’t want to trash the acting reputation of Rishi Kapoor because what a film like Do Dooni Chaar in which Rishi Kapoor plays a down and out maths teacher Mr. Duggal proves is that casting is everything when pleading with audiences to suspend disbelief. Whilst he is not allowed to dominate the film, his star presence is important to the warmth with which director Habib Faisal depicts middle class India. I guess I was never convinced of Rishi Kapoor as an actor because he was probably miscast for most of his life; he never had the looks or the physique to be a leading man, nor did have great charisma. Another point to note is that Rishi Kapoor’s career in the nineties really came undone by the emergence of the Khan’s and similarly like Amitabh Bachchan he saw himself become overshadowed and also struggled to compete successfully at the box office. I’m not sure if he really had any significant box office and one could even argue that his presence in the industry was sustained largely through nepotism.
Over the last few years, Rishi Kapoor has re-emerged, reinventing himself as a supporting actor and his performance as the run down Mr Duggal, a patriarchal symbol of middle class aspirations, is the best I have seen from him. Do Dooni Chaar continues a trend of recent films including Khosla Ka Ghosla and Rocket Singh that use comedy as a vehicle to deal with the often forgotten lives of a frustrated Indian middle class. In this case, whilst weddings, education and adolescence are painfully explored, it is the ubiquitous symbol of the car that is used predominately to critique the crippling middle class anxieties brought to bear upon what is an apparently normal yet wholly dysfunctional family. Very much a family melodrama that takes its comical linage from the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee in which eccentricities feel both habitual and normal, the under stated direction that Habib Faisal’s debut takes proves somewhat oppositional to the script work he has done for Yash Raj on such unmemorable films as Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Ideologically, the central argument of middle class India attempting to sustain itself economically and socially is convincingly articulated through the under valued position of the teacher. Impressively performed, the film does remarkably well to steer clear off song and dance cliques whilst benefiting enormously from the real life husband and wife sparing of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh. A minor criticism would be the ending to the film which smacks a little too much of wish fulfilment but still this is a minor quibble for a film that should have done so much better at the box office.