AAKROSH / Cry of the Wounded [Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1980, India] – ‘I burn from within…’

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In the dialogue-less opening to Aakrosh, Bhiku (Om Puri), the Adivasi labourer looks on in chains as the body of his dead wife (Smita Patil in a cameo) is cremated before he is led away by the police to jail. The pot marked face, protruding eyes, leathery skin of Bhiku amount to an image of the lower caste worker as a subjugated, exhausted figure which typified the alternative representations of the subaltern that became associated with Parallel Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. Bhiku’s interminable silence, arguably contradicting the attempts to articulate the subaltern as more authentic and visible, is used as a broader political metaphor anchored in the opening lyrics: ‘I am unable to endure the pain anymore…I burn from within’. Bhiku is charged with strangling his wife to death and defended by Bhaskar, an idealistic lawyer played deftly by Naseeruddin Shah. Bhaskar soon discovers that Bhiku’s case is more complex than he imagines, concealing a caste led conspiracy in which four upper caste men have raped and murdered Bhiku’s wife. Although director Govind Nihalani weaves together an effective thriller, grasping the nuances of genre, the tone of political outrage, much of which is exemplified in Bhaskar’s anger and paranoia, transforms the work into a somewhat didactic yet measured study of caste, middle class hypocrisy (a theme Nihalani returned to with great satirical accomplishment in Party) and power.

The caste politics are complicated by public prosecutor Dushane (Amrish Puri in fine form), a lower caste lawyer who is resigned to masking over his caste identity so to protect the very totalizing system into which he has been readily assimilated. Dushane is a self-hating figure, labelling Bhiku a savage tribesman who drinks alcohol and creates mayhem. However, Dushane is troubled by hostile late night phone calls that remind him of his lower caste status, tearing down the illusion of social mobility. At one point Dushane mocks Bhaskar for his apprehension, arguing the only reason Bhaskar doesn’t want to defend Bhiku is because a Brahmin sending an Adivasi tribesman to his death doesn’t look very good in today’s changing society. Having broken through the system, Dushane refuses to take up a revolutionary position, showing disdain for his fellow caste oppressed brothers like Bhiku, and choosing to endorse a corrupt, discriminatory system that continues to deny him a true sense of belonging. Dushane serves the law, nothing more. Whereas Bhaskar argues a wider ethical responsibility should take equal precedent. The machinations of a system aligned to protect the few, the privileged and upper caste is another aspect of society that writer Vijay Tendulkar delineates, conveying the ways in which the intricate cogs of an unjust system mesh together and are manifested in acts of state sanctioned violence.

If Dushane compels Bhiku to conform and serve nothing but the law, the activist and social worker working with the Adivasi in the village, is an obvious political metonym for Naxalism. The activist wants to help Bhaskar who is frustrated by his concerted attempts, all of them in vain, to gain the consensual support of Bhiku’s father and sister. In perhaps one of the most overtly didactic moments in the film, the activist, speaking like a true Naxal, tells Bhaskar the Adivasi do not need his sympathy nor pity; for anything to change there needs to be a complete uprooting of the system, the annihilation of the present, a revolutionary ideal which the middle class have kept at bay through their faux sympathies. But as we witness, any challenges or opposition to the system are swiftly snuffed out with a resounding legitimacy and contravention of the law. The attack on Bhaskar by goons working for the ruling elite is the logical conclusion of a lawlessness that permeates a claustrophobic milieu in which the Adivasi remain mute in fear of reprisals and sanctions, be it economic or social.

Where Aakrosh falters is in the abrupt ending. Having tried unsuccessfully to defend Bhiku, Bhaskar and Dushane have a final confrontation. In some respects, when Bhiku takes the life of his sister, hacking her to death at the funeral of his father, that is when the film should have finished; a bleak ending but one deserving of a such a cruel system. Instead, the exchange between Bhaskar and Dushane strives to privilege the worth of Brahmin intervention, thereby undermining the caste agenda, reducing subaltern agency to something insubstantial and underdeveloped. Dushane wants to protect the position of power he has carved out but it comes at the expense of closing the door behind him, leaving a lower caste status in the past as though it never existed. The ending implies the Brahminical saviour seems to be the only one who is incorruptible while it could be argued that Bikhu’s silence ultimately rings hollow, suppressing the momentum of political angst.

MIRCH MASALA / A TOUCH OF SPICE (1987, Dir. Ketan Mehta, India) – Tales of Resistance

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Mirch Masala, the third feature of director Ketan Mehta, opens with the choral refrain of doubt, the lyrics booming over a rustic, desolate and geometrical landscape of scorched brown, orangey earth; a Kiarostami image that possibly preludes the work of the Iranian master:

O Earth, man became your heart
Hence the world became bright
A spicy flavour added colour to the darkness

The tone of isolation segues into the opening titles unfolding against the glowing crimson red of a mirchi (red chilli), a benign symbol of colonialism brought to India by the Portuguese. The red chilli is also inherently indigenous and rural, accentuating Mehta’s repeated explorations of Indian folk culture and their associated rituals and customs, which Mehta first broached with his erudite 1980 debut film Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Tale).

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Mirch Masala is an impressive ensemble piece with a cast of familiar Parallel Cinema faces including Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval and Om Puri. Ensemble cinema in India was perhaps first prompted by director Shyam Benegal as a trend in Parallel Cinema, later a defining characteristic of Parallel Cinema and the open collaboration between the director and a pool of actors. It is important to note many of these actors were not specific to Parallel Cinema and worked across theatre, art cinema and popular Hindi cinema. And they had to be in order to making a living. Mehta’s use of colour in Mirch Masala is often overlooked, and it has a palpable register. In some respects, the experimentation with colour was a notable trait of Parallel Cinema filmmakers. One only has to study the work of Kumar Shahani to be able to see how colour can be deployed both expressionistically and psychologically to delineate themes and characters. And it is the colour red in Mirch Masala, a unifying aesthetic principle, which is admittedly ritualised to take on more than just a symbolic function.

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The first introduction to Sonbai (Smita Patil) and Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) occurs nearby a river. The fiery and beautiful Sonbai catches the eye of Subedar who approaches her for a drink of water. When Sonbai instructs Subedar to bend down and cup his hands for the water he does in a show of obedience that is suffused with eroticism as Subedar drinks sexually while looking up at Sonbai. While Mehta satirises this erotic encounter with archetypal images, the rustic belle meets the despotic colonialist tax collector, a fortuitous power relation establishes Sonbai as an unbridled force of feminist defiance. We know now that Sonbai will never give in to Subedar’s sexual advances, posing a threat to Subedar’s masculinity.

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Mirch Masala has often been interpreted as a colonial allegory and to some extent this may be true depending on how far you want to read into this perspective. Although the colonial interpretation can be restrictive, Mirch Masala works alternatively, perhaps more progressively as a tale about gender relations, specifically a feminist satire in which moments are deliberately heightened to the point of absurdity; notably the humiliation of the villagers by Subedar, played with an outright parody by Shah that sees him endlessly twirling his colonialist moustache. The totemic Subedar instructs his men to seize the land of those villagers who default on tax payments – even after Mukhiya (Suresh Oberoi), the indentured village chief has told Subedar about a poor harvest. And whatever Subedar desires he gets; he has women from the village brought to his tent so he can have sex with them but when Sonbai resists all hell breaks loose. Her protestations upset the equilibrium of power relations, an uncontested feudal sphere. As a source of patriarchal oppression, the characterisation of Subedar is grossly archetypal; difficult to take seriously, but as the film progresses Subedar’s despotism remains one facet of a much wider system of subjugation in which the village men are revealed to be an ineffectual melange of wretched patriarchy.

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This is a film that also details the oppression of women and the collective stance of female defiance at the end is a culmination of the cruelty catalogued along the way including the village chief Mukhiya who spends his nights with a mistress, ignoring his wife, Saraswati (Deepti Naval) and children, the beating a father gives to his daughter (Supriya Pathak) for desiring a young man, Mukhiya’s removal of his little daughter from school (enrolled as a progressive feminist choice by Sarswati) and Subedar’s sexual harassment of Sonbai.

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Two notable male exceptions exist though. Masterji (Benjamin Gilani), a disciple of Gandhi who is mocked for his Swadeshi beliefs, tries to rally the village, arguing they should partially resist the demands of Subedar but it is a failure predicated on Mukhiya’s resentment about Masterji’s intellectualism. In contrast to the non-violence of Masterji is the physical interventionism of Abu Miyan (Om Puri) the noble watchman heroically guarding the spice factory and women sheltering inside. In a lonely act of defiance Abu Miyan extols:

Not one of you is man enough to help this woman. ‘I’d rather die than take part in a criminal act. Go and tell Subedar there is still one man left in this village. He isn’t young; he’s an old man. But as long as he lives, tyranny will not win

Although Abu Miya’s martyrdom leads to an open revolt amongst the women in the courtyard of the spice factory, attacking Subedar with swathes of red chilli powder, there is an ideological suggestion that non-violence has its limitations when dealing with a system of patriarchy and colonialism that is so entrenched. And while the women at the end don’t directly resort to the physical violence of Abu Miya, the use of chilli powder to blind, impair and subdue Subedar is doubly ironic. Since red chillies were a colonial idea, ideological inversion explicates anti-colonial sentiments that fall in line with the Swadeshi beliefs of the Masterji.

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When Sonbai flees and takes shelter in the spice factory amongst the other female workers, she indirectly creates a collective, which is depicted tentatively since the solidarity amongst the women is undermined by internal bickering. Outside of the gates of the factory, Saraswati, plots against her husband, bringing together the women in the village to help Sonbai. And when Mukhiya with the men from the village marches to the spice factory with a final ultimatum from Subedar, they are stopped prematurely by a protest organised by Saraswati including other women. The protest is non-violent, the banging of pots and pans, instruments of domestic servitude, are inadvertently transformed into a chorus of female resistance, the din from the protest articulating an unheard rage of tyranny captured vividly in the figuration of Deepti Naval’s rebellious gaze.

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At the end when Subedar orders his men to break down the door and enter the factory by force, Abu Miyan is shown reading Namaz, and abruptly Mehta frames the struggle as essentialist, masking over a complicated ideological bind that may seem officious when simplifying the struggle as a battle between the forces of good (religious sentiments) and evil (colonial brutes). Nonetheless, Mehta does not allow this romantic ellipsis to distract from the final shot, an epic freeze frame of a defiant Sonbai, looking at us with an indescribable fury as a swathe of red chilli powder wafts through the air like some supernatural entity. This has now become an iconic moment in Indian Cinema, potently encapsulating a history of gender oppression.

Mirch Masala will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 23 July at 10pm

KANDAHAR / THE RUINS (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1983, India)


The gaze of the photographer Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is one that shows little compassion for the predicament of those imprisoned in the past. Whilst the initial reaction to marry Jamini (Shabana Azmi) is motivated by sentiment, it holds no actual validity or merit when the decisive moment arises. Subhash sees reality through the lens of his camera – it is a critical distance that stops him from becoming emotionally involved with the subject. The image of Jamini he captures frozen in the milieu of the feudal ruins transforms her plea for escape into a ghostly memory akin to the photos hanging grotesquely in the photo studio of Subhash. He is strictly an observer and preserver of reality which is an aspect of his flawed and troubling personality that Jamini is unable to comprehend. Additionally, Subhash views the feudal past through a tourist like perspective. Jamini is rendered a prisoner of the past by simplifying reality through his photographic lens which essentially cannibalizes rural India and re-presents it as a collection of palatable and stereotypical images. If Subhash is a likely authorial expression of Sen the film maker then he directly implicates himself in the criticism that films allow audiences to pass through historical narratives as casual tourists – such is the guilt free journey taken by Subhash. Subhash feels the disassociating gaze of the camera empowers him and lets him unassumingly think he sees everything but Sen juxtaposes the urban gaze of Subhash with the ancient and truthful gaze of the bed ridden blind widow/mother of Jamini. The mother, a symbol of feudal decay, may represent the past but her failed attempt to construct a link between the past and present cannot transpire given the distance between the urban and rural is simply too extreme. A number of films come to mind that offer interesting formal links including Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal (The Mansion, 1949), Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) and The Passenger (1975). Kandahar is one of Sen’s most ideologically and stylistically complex works whilst the final image of the helpless Jamini (Shabana Azmi) reduced to a photographic memory is a haunting one.

ISHQIYA (Dir. Abhishek Chaubey, 2010, India) – Rural Noir

It’s hard to believe that this is director Abhishek Chaubey’s debut given the confidence, maturity and assurance with which he handles the material. Chaubey’s emergence has been under the tutorage of Vishal Bhardwaj, a film maker who like his contemporary Anurag Kashyap is not afraid of blurring genres and mixing visual styles whilst grinning mischievously and rubbing his hands with glee. A lot of the energy and zeal generated by Ishqiya comes largely from the chance to send up many of the often redundant values and conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema. Firstly, our heroes played by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi are certainly not heroes as they fumble through life and rely foolishly on a streak of duplicity familiar from the universe of film noir. Secondly, the love interest is neither loving nor interested in dancing as a spectacle for the men around her. Instead Krishna played by vampishly by Vidya Balan is neither a femme fatale nor a symbol of innocence – she merely wants an explanation from her deceased husband. Thirdly, like all great femme fatales before her, Krishna’s sexuality is manipulation but in this case it leads to the formation of a love triangle in which affections are transferred into a friendship. Finally, by situating the story in the geographical context of the rural village, Chaubey explicitly draws on influences ranging from Shyam Benegal to Satyajit Ray. However, what makes this such a memorable and imaginative experience is the enduring nature of the characters which are imbued with a real affection – the three main leads deliver exceptional performances and whilst the denouement is a little predictable, the camaraderie forged between them clearly leaves it open for a sequel that for once might actually be justified. It is worth mentioning that Ishqiya also benefits immensely from a terrific soundtrack including one of the most melancholic Indian songs of recent years – the Gulzar penned ‘Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji’. In terms of narrative interruptions, it really works a treat. Everything else about the film including the editing, cinematography and sound design is spot on. I have no idea why I didn’t come to this one earlier but I know I will return to it again soon.