EK DOCTOR KI MAUT / The Death of a Doctor (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1990, India)

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In 2009 Bengali director Tapan Sinha passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains somewhat unrecognised. One could blame the critical reverence afforded to the holy trinity of Bengali Cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. While Sinha’s work may have been partially accepted as part of the Bengali film canon, the scholarly analysis of his films remains a tentative point of enquiry for Indian film studies. Sinha regarded himself as an apolitical filmmaker. He did not believe cinema should be hijacked or instrumentalised as a platform with which to disseminate political polemicizing – a naïve objection indeed but one to be admired. The contribution of Sinha to the genesis of Parallel Cinema has never really been fully considered. And in many ways Apanjan (1968), a film Sinha made just as the Naxalite movement was about to splinter the political landscape of West Bengal forever, is a work as ideologically significant as Bhuvan Shome or Uski Roti. Sinha may never have worn his political affiliations on his sleeve but social and political protestation runs deep through his work. If anything, Apanjan points to disillusionment with the state, a theme Sinha would often return to in his career.

Sinha’s career pre-dates Parallel Cinema by many years and although he did not play a major role in the development of Parallel Cinema, he predominately chose to express political discontent through melodrama, and benignly so. In some ways, Sinha belongs to the generation of Satyajit Ray, who invested in a classical style of cinema that believed in simplicity, and professed a dislike for the portentous late 1960s Bengali cinema that was increasingly in awe of a modernist avant-garde. Nonetheless, the work of Sinha shows staggering cinematic sensibilities in which he worked across many genres, collaborated with both Parallel Cinema actors and major film stars, and was able to make films in many regions of India. Yet given all that Tapan Sinha accomplished, also winning many awards along the way, his critical reputation does not so much remain in doubt but lacks the visibility or prominence given to his contemporaries. This can only change by revising the canon of major Indian film auteurs so that Sinha’s work is celebrated more often and looked at more closely. Having said all of this, one must recognise that Tapan Sinha is a colossus in Bengal cinema.

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Ek Doctor Ki Maut, made in the final phase of Sinha’s directorial career and based loosely on the true story of Indian physician Subhash Mukhopadhyay, is intriguingly one of Sinha’s most overtly political works, a contradictory statement given his notoriously apolitical status. The film stars an ensemble cast made up of Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor in the main lead and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), this semi-realist melodrama critiques the medical, health and science institutions of India, posing an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy. Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummately brilliant Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with neglect. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie.

What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism plaguing the orthodoxy of a collective middle class that stand in the way of genius, preferring instead to vilify than endorse his progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research. The state intervenes, exiling him to a remote village, and making it impossible to complete the publication of his research notes. Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment, the failure of the state to celebrate individual achievement, which is communicated in Dr. Roy and his wife’s outrage at the unjust and shameful censure.

Ideologically, Sinha’s film works to elucidate state machinations, an essential theme of Parallel Cinema’s dissenting political voice. But look more closely and the melodrama guise is used to extrapolate a study of marital relations, which gives the film a notable emotive threshold. Ek Doctor Ki Maut is late Parallel Cinema, arriving just as the movement was starting to fade away, a defiantly angry work from a defiantly intransigent filmmaker.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 6 Aug 10pm

JAYA GANGA (Vijay Singh, 1996, India/France)

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Jaya Ganga is a tale articulated as if it was part of a wider mythical narrative while having roots in something metaphysically profound. The film draws on the mysticism of the Ganges, conjuring two female characters, extending from the same soul. In both instances, the two female apparitions could just as easily be fictitious imaginings of the writer Nishant who journeys down the Ganges in search of a confounding truth. This film’s strength resides very much in its tragic narrative trajectory, a wounding one, finding a sacred beauty in the most fatalistic of endings. Zehra, a gentle courtesan, appears as discordantly as the memory of Jaya and Nishant falls in love with her. Helping her to escape from the brothel in which she has been incarcerated recalls the conventions of courtesan films such as Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan. Unlike Nishant, a professional writer, Zehra has no place in society and thus in a way her outsider status simply adds to her mystique.

Like Scottie in Vertigo who becomes fixated with the impossible and misogynist notion of the ideal woman, Nishant supplements what he cannot attain with Zehra leading to a tragic outcome. By trying to rescue Zehra Nishant is also playing out romantic imaginings as a means of testing his masculinity which craves for excess. Jaya and Zehra are not mirror images though; they represent different male fantasies and desires. Jaya fulfills an intellectualism which Nishant associates with modernity whereas Zehra is an image of sensuality recalling an ancient tradition. For both ideas of womanhood to exist side by side, tradition and modernity, is in fact impossible since it is not right for a man to lay claim to such infinite desire as it harbours a mutual destruction of both. Jaya Ganga is a haunting melody of a film based on Vijay Singh’s novel of the same name which he adapted as his directorial debut.

Jaya Ganga has been released on DVD by NFDC’s Cinemas of India Label. However, the film is not a new transfer and is formatted incorrectly.

KASBA (Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1990, India) – Chekovian Decadence

A graduate of the FTII, avant-garde director Kumar Shahani’s political outlook may have largely been shaped by the Naxalite movement but his aesthetic sensibilities were forged in France whilst assisting Robert Bresson on Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969). Additionally, Shahani was also taught by Bengali iconoclast Ritwik Ghatak in his brief spell at the FTII and the unconventional, personal approach to making films has led to a career in art cinema which seems to have gone unacknowledged in his country of origin. His directorial debut Maya Darpan (1972) is recognised by many as India’s first formalist film but subsequently he struggled to find funding to develop his interests in the avant-garde. Both Tarang (1984) and Kasba (1990) were financed by the NFDC and are two of Shahani’s most accessible films. Neither of them are what we would consider to be mainstream but the melodrama trappings elucidates a concern with feudal systems in which power relations are contested amongst the family. I do know that Shahani’s work has been screened in retrospectives in the west and that a lot of the prints to his major works have been restored. Nevertheless, I saw Kasba on a VCD copy and it was surprisingly good but I could see how Shahani’s film would benefit from a new print given the creative use of colour cinematography seems intrinsic to the seasonal landscapes.

Released in 1990 Kasba is one of the slowest and most compelling Indian films I have come across in a while. It is unlike anything I have encountered before in Indian cinema and whilst Ghatak was a direct influence on Shahani, two films in particular from the work of Satyajit Ray come to mind – Charulata and Kanchenjunga. Adapted from a short story by Chekov titled ‘In The Ravine’, Kasba was shot in the Kangra Valley – a picturesque tourist spot that is framed by the snow capped Himalayan mountains. The story itself is complicated to the say the least and Shahani’s repeated use of narrative ellipsis means one has to do a lot of detective work, piecing together and inferring from the behaviour of the many characters as to what has occurred in the development of the storyline. Thematically, Shahani’s interest is with the passing of a feudal system in which patriarchy is represented as inadequate to deal with and respond to modernity. Ideologically, the notion of change is manifested in the character of Tejo (Mita Vasisht) who runs the family business in the absence of two ‘fallen’ brothers unable to come to terms with their hereditary obligations.

One of the most impressive aesthetic elements of Kasba is the positioning of the camera, moving only to parallel the psychological and emotional mood of the characters, whilst windows and doorways are used repeatedly throughout to frame the actions of characters so that the exterior landscapes merge seamlessly with the interiors creating a feeling of social inertia and even rural decadence. At times, Shahani’s emphasis on the rituals and traditions tied up in the history of the family recalls a philosophical approach characteristic of anthropologists. Shahani’s observation of life in the Kangra Valley is measured in the vivid use of natural sounds to which the ambitious and ruthless Tejo becomes impervious. Of course, it the naturalism of the soundtrack that is used in opposition to the destruction of the family and Tejo’s desire to inherit the ancestral wealth including the land leads to the ostracizing of Tara (sister in law) and the death of her child. In terms of visual composition, Shahani relies greatly on the master shot and much of the narrative action unfolds an organic pace in keeping with the ruralism whilst the interiors are dominated by miniature art representative of Kangra valley culture. In many ways, the characters aside from Tejo seem trapped in the past, paralysed by tradition and their sense of inertia is personified by such antiquated tapestry. Released when parallel cinema was reaching its epoch of creativity, Kasba is a major achievement and in the words of Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, ‘the film’s main generic achievement is to recall to the melodrama its original function, of integrating marginalised people and their languages into a mainstream culture’.

Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda / Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) – The Unreliable Narrator

The first of Benegal’s films to receive state funding (NFDC), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’s resonance comes from a sophisticated use of narrative subjectivity. Comparable to Kurosawa’s Rashomon in its gradual and shifting points of view, this is a moving examination of the storytelling process and one of the rare occasions that Benegal has explored cinema as a construct. The narrator, Manek (Rajit Kapur), is not only unreliable but his perception of the truth concerning the three beguiling female centred stories he relays to his friends is questioned throughout, culminating in a genuinely cryptic ending that seems to unravel the entire film making process. Though Rashomon may serve as a direct inspiration, the cinema of Kiarostami seems closer if one was to contextualise Benegal’s masterpiece as it poses fundamental questions that concerns film making and cinema – whose truth is being represented, how is it constructed and how should we respond as a spectator? This is what academic Sangetta Datta has to say about the film in her accomplished appreciation:

‘The title is also a clue to the film. The seventh horse of the sun is the youngest; he moves perpetually towards the future, towards light. The title itself signifies the concept of time with the Hindu myth of the sun god riding in his chariot driven by seven white horses. Man will constantly be drawn towards love and imagination; lives will always be lived and stories will always be told.’

BFI World Directors: Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, 2002: 199