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.