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

aakrosh

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

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h41m51s244

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).

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-16h18m12s227

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-16h19m07s17

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h41m40s147

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h38m28s9

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h40m11s9

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h41m00s247vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h40m53s167

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.

vlcsnap-2016-07-20-17h42m37s199

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.

ALBERT PINTO KO GUSSA KYON AATA HAI / WHAT MAKES ALBERT PINTO ANGRY (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1980, India) – Look Back In Anger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was only recently that I posted a lengthy entry on director Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1989 film Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry For Salim the Lame) which was one of his most personal works. A precursor and very much a template for Salim the Lame was Mirza’s 1980 satire Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai. Focusing on the Catholic community in Mumbai, the story focuses on a garage mechanic Albert Pinto (in one of Naseeruddin’s funniest performances) who spends much of his time arguing with his girlfriend Stella (Shabana Azmi) whilst at home he witnesses his father’s increasing politicisation due to a textile strike. With the secondary narrative of Pinto’s despairing father Mirza refers directly to the Great Bombay Textile Strike which was beginning to take shape as a result of mill closures in the area of Mumbai commonly known as Girangon, meaning ‘mill village’ in Marathi. Until the early eighties, textile workers were a sizable employment force in Mumbai and around 300,000 were employed at the peak of the industry. One of the longest strikes in the history of contemporary India, The Great Bombay Textile Strike lasted for around two years and though the government faced opposition in terms of civil unrest, the workers campaign of non protest did little to prevent the demise of the cotton mills. Today, the land on which the textile mills once operated is estimated to be worth at least 100 billion Rupees and much of it has been sold to various corporations whilst the impact on the surrounding community and level of unemployment has simply been brushed to one side.

Financed by the FFC (Film Finance Corporation), Mirza’s film outwardly displays the characteristics of classic parallel cinema including an art cinema aesthetic, low budget, state funding, a topical script shaped by political/social factors, graduates of Pune including editor Renu Saluja and scriptwriter Kundan Shah and perhaps most importantly the formidable and iconic acting quartet of Shah, Puri, Azmi and Patil. An episodic film, much of the narrative situations revolve around Albert Pinto’s inability to decide what exactly he wants to do with his life other than repair the expensive cars of his rich clients at the garage. A youthful figure with a sharp dress code and eccentric hairstyle, Pinto slowly comes to realise that it his girlfriend and friends at work are the only ones he can really depend on given his minority status. It is Pinto’s lack of understanding of the social and political dimensions of his reality and that of his family which sees him failing to prevent the imprisonment of his jobless younger brother whose vulnerability is inevitably exploited by local criminal elements. Pinto’s anger gradually transforms from a trait of selfishness, coming to symbolise a much wider discontentment that was about to be voiced by the real Mumbai textile workers as represented in the figure of the politically active yet defiant father.

By the end of the film and having witnessed his brother’s imprisonment, his father’s dignity destroyed and the company’s vile attempts to discredit the worker’s union and their right to strike, Pinto’s misplaced anger finally finds an appropriate target – the political and economic elite. This moment is crystallised in the cinema of all places with Pinto challenging the political address of the company management. Yelling out at the cinema screen, Pinto is shouted down by the disgruntled audience members and Mirza reverses the notion of political acquiescence by implicating the rest of society and empowering Pinto. Similarly like Salim The Lame, Mirza’s visual feel for the urban milieu of Mumbai is particularly striking and from what I have read about his career and films, the authenticity of shooting on location yet again points to his documentary roots. One of the great ideological achievements of parallel cinema was its relentless and fearless questioning of Indian cinema’s mainstream assumptions on the state of society – Mirza’s film not only questions power relations but is fully sympathetic to the cause of the workers. That in itself is a powerfully radical position to take up.

KHUDA KAY LIYE / IN THE NAME OF GOD (Dir. Shoaib Mansoor, Pakistan, 2007) – Awakenings

Dormant for a long time, the Pakistani film industry is going through a number of changes which may lead to some hope of economic and artistic resuscitation. The history of Pakistani cinema since partition has been a disappointing one and the crisis it has faced in terms of funding, distribution and exhibition seems to mirror that of the successive governments which have categorically failed to invest in arts and culture. Whilst a successful and progressive theatre tradition has been maintained in Karachi and many of the other major cities, cinema and most of the arts have been treated with suspicion and scorn by religious groups. The period lasting 1998 to 2002 has been referred to as the collapse of the Pakistani film industry, a statement that seems quite true given President Zia’s infamously regressive policies. Ironically, Musharraf’s notoriously pro American reign as President, lasting between 2001 and 2008, inadvertently opened the doors to privatisation and for a freer media with the emergence of new television networks including most notably GEO TV and ARY Digital, both of which are available in the UK and cater to the Pakistani Diaspora.

Yet again it might be too early to suggest that we are seeing the beginning of new dawn in Pakistani cinema. However, with the recent release of films such as Mehreen Jabbar’s critically acclaimed Ramchand Pakistani which I have talked about in a previous post, Pakistan’s first slacker film Slackistan and Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye, Pakistani cinema is attempting to reconstruct itself. A number of recent factors have helped emerging film makers to get funding and also engage with relevant political and social issues. Perhaps most importantly, television continues to provide a fertile training ground for new directors. Both Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar started out in the television drama series format before venturing into feature film making. Mehreen Jabaar is perhaps Pakistani television’s most distinct director and together with regular script collaborator Umaira Ahmed they have used the drama serial to address the concerns of Pakistani women from both the underclass and the middle classes. GEO TV, which is based in Karachi, not only helped to distribute Jabbar’s directorial debut but also directly financed Khuda Kay Liye. Similarly like in the UK in which the BBC and Channel Four are involved in supporting the British film industry, a similar pattern of funding and distribution seems to be emerging in Pakistan. Hopefully more of the Pakistani TV networks including ARY and HUM will also begin investing in films as it has also proved to be commercially lucrative as was the case with Khuda Kay Liye.

Another explanation for this shift in the industry might also be traced to the growing investment in training and courses for film makers in Pakistan. Film education is virtually non existent in Pakistan but the establishment of the country’s first film school in Karachi, the South Asian Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Television (SAAMPT), offering a range of film making courses points to a positive step in the right direction for elevating the cultural status of film as a whole. Additionally, some of the major universities in Pakistan also offer film making courses and director Shoaib Mansoor’s next film Bol which releases in January 2011 was completed with the help of students from Lahore’s National College of Arts which has its own film making department. Perhaps more importantly, the number of screens in Pakistan has always been on the decline but a programme is underway by Cinepax of investment into new multiplex cinemas in many of the major cities. This of course is going to be absolutely essential to nurturing a viable indigenous film industry, giving home grown films a chance to find an audience. The lifting of the ban on the exhibition of Indian films, the most idiotic and regressive of impositions by the Pakistani government meant a film like Khuda Kay Liye was able to be shown in India and Pakistan at the same time.

Released in 2007, Khuda Kay Liye is a post 9-11 film that focuses on three major narrative arcs. The first deals with the story of Mary, a British Pakistani girl, who is taken by her father under false pretences to Pakistan and forced to marry a young Pakistani man who turns out to be a religious fundamentalist. Mary hopes to marry Dave, a British student whom she has fallen in love but her father disapproves. The bitter irony is that Mary’s father is married to a British woman and yet cannot show any understanding for his own daughter as he feels they would be ostracised from the Pakistani community. This turns out to be a pretty feeble excuse for her father’s attempts to repress what emerge as regressive patriarchal attitudes.

Mary’s story is intertwined with that of Sarmad who lives in Pakistan, most probably Karachi or Lahore. Sarmad is in a band with his older brother Mansoor (Shaan) who forms the third narrative arc. Sarmad’s journey is perhaps the most interesting and political of the three as we witness his slow indoctrination into the ranks of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Blinded by his own religious beliefs, Sarmad is misled by a corrupting Mullah and leaves to fight in Afghanistan for the Taliban. By the end of his journey, Sarmad realises that his religious beliefs do not necessarily have to be translated in terms of a modern jihad and that his faith is purer than those fundamentalists around him who merely want to use Islam as a political platform for contesting power.

The final story focuses on Sarmad’s older brother Mansoor who leaves to study music in America. Mansoor, played by Pakistani superstar Shaan, falls in love with an American girl and as they grow intimate, the cataclysmic events of 9-11 throws a shadow of doubt over Mansoor’s presence in America. Accused of terrorism, Mansoor is illegally detained and tortured until he is left with brain damage. In the end, Mary takes her case of patriarchal and religious exploitation to the Pakistani courts and scores a victory for British Pakistani girls who are regularly made victims by tradition. In the final court sequences, Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah shows up in a minor yet significant role as a wise Islamic scholar who berates Pakistani society and especially those who misinterpret the Quran for altruistic ends.

Whilst director Shoaib Mansoor uses songs, they are effectively placed within the narrative. Most of the direction was surprisingly restrained for a Pakistani film and the virtual absence of histrionics made me appreciate the film’s honesty even more when dealing with such prescient issues such as terrorism, fundamentalism, women’s rights and the Diaspora. Technically, the film is well made with some strong cinematography throughout and the performances are excellent particularly from Pakistani actors Fawad Khan as Sarmad and Shaan as Mansoor. This is probably one of the best films I have seen to come out of Pakistan and compared to the atrocious and embarrassing bandit films that seemed to dominate Pakistani cinema for a long time, Khuda Kay Liye proves it is very possible and achievable for film makers in Pakistan to engage with the issues of their age and do so with some integrity. On its release, Mansoor’s film created a storm of controversy in Pakistan with many of the religious groups calling for an outright ban and deeming it blasphemous. However, this only seemed to help the film find a sizable audience, making it a commercial success in both India and Pakistan. On a final note, it is encouraging to see film makers from Pakistan like Shoaib Mansoor and Mehreen Jabbar taking on those issues like religious fundamentalism which are usually being misrepresented in western cinema especially Hollywood films. It is the only way in which the cinematic discourse on Islamic representations can be contested and perhaps challenged in many respects, reconstructing ideology from a South Asian perspective.

BAZAAR / MARKET (Dir. Sagar Sarhadi, 1982, India) – Buying and Selling

My initial and largely superficial perceptions of Bazaar led me to assume from the stellar New Indian cinema cast of Smita Patel, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Sheikh that this was going to be yet another film which would categorically fall under the auspices of Parallel cinema. However, a closer inspection suggests otherwise as the director behind the film, Sagar Sarhadi, a renowned scriptwriter, only directed one film in a career that started in the 70s. I’m not so sure why Sarhadi only ever made one feature film given his prominence but I wonder if Sarhadi having worked on so many commercially successful romantic melodramas felt he could almost do a better job. In many respects he does succeed if one compares Bazaar to hyperbolic musical fantasies like Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Chandni (1989). Both the dialogue for Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila were penned by Sarhadi but unlike a mainstream director like Yash Chopra and excellent one at that who tended to reject realism, Sarhadi with Bazaar attempts to merge certain aspects of parallel cinema with mainstream commercial cinema – the result is a largely uneven but still intriguing attempt at the female melodrama or woman’s film. I guess the difference is that when compared to the Yash Chopra films, the narrative was generally driven by the actions of the male lead and whilst many of these films also accommodated the point of view of the woman caught up in such fraught middle class relationships, it was the male figure of Amitabh who dominated.

With Bazaar, this is reversed to some extent by making Smita Patel central to the narrative action and the male characters more peripheral, recalling respectively both the female melodramas of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Whilst Shabana Azmi was a more intense actress, her nearest counterpart and rival Smita Patel’s repertoire was far greater and this made her a much stronger performer of the two. In addition, Smita Patel was more successful in alternating between the mainstream and independent cinema because her classical looks recalled the famous studio stars like Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari, allowing audiences to accept her more easily in conventional roles. Thematically, the film does have a strong socialist slant and most prominent is the issue of gender exploitation. The story follows Najma (Smita Patel), a Muslim girl who by eloping with a man much older than her has transgressed the laws of patriarchal religious culture. Najma effectively becomes a slave to Akhtar (Bharat Kapoor) who refuses to marry her until he has sought approval from his family. In essence, Akhtar turns Najma into a possession which he uses to fulfil his own personal ends.

The closing shots to Bazaar dissolves the fourth wall as Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah turn to gaze directly back at the audience.

Director Sarhadi is very critical of Muslim culture and interprets the tradition of arranged marriage merely as an economic one in which young girls are bought and sold in a symbolic marketplace governed by religious and social laws. The point is well illustrated in the story of two young lovers (played by Supriya Pathak and Farooq Sheikh) who cannot be together simply because poverty discriminates against them. Ironically, it is poverty which actually becomes a barrier to them being married, not religious dogma or social identity. Ideologically, Bazaar makes a fascinating and worthy companion piece to director Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), another film that features Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah and also deals with prostitution, femininity and women as a capitalist commodity. It is difficult to say if Bazaar would fall into the parallel cinema category but the use of Khayam’s music and Sarhadi’s overwrought direction does at times make it feel like a conventional Hindi melodrama. However, one could argue that the film’s claim to be considered as part of the parallel cinema collective would rest largely on the closing shots in which Sarhadi dissolves the fourth wall and implicates the viewer in the cycle of victimisation and exploitation – it is a chilling and bold moment, perhaps the most audacious in the entire film.