Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (Dir. Saeed Mirza, India, 1984) – ‘So, who says there is no happiness here?’

A cursory search of the term ‘chawl’ offers a definition of ‘low quality housing’, which can’t be any further from the truth regarding the abject state of housing for the lower and underclass in India. What chawl actually equates to is poor sanitation, overcrowding, cramped living conditions and squalor. Saeed Mirza’s 1984 work Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is a didactic socio-political satire that was made around the same time as Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and which shares much of the crew including Mirza and Shah who collaborated on a series of projects through the 1980s. Mirza aims squarely at both the state of housing and rampant corruption in the judicial system, adopting a semi realist approach with use of on location shooting at Taher Manzil (Do Tanki) and Goregaonkar Chawl (Dadar) in Bombay, imbuing the narrative with an unembellished level of authenticity.

Anchored in Bhisham Sahni’s dignified performance as Mohan Joshi, an aging unyielding one-man activist who takes on a fraudulent landlord – Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan) may have been a risk since Sahni was a writer by trade and possessed little acting experience. Nonetheless, being the brother of Balraj Sahni certainly testified the acting gene was shared with Bhisham who exudes a pathos that is disarming. The gist of the narrative hinges on Mohan Joshi’s stop start attempts to sue Kapadia saab for his totalizing neglect and refusal to maintain the chawl in which Joshi inhabits along with his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mirza opens with a scornful montage of Bombay celebrating the city for its glaring contradictions and which are juxtaposed to the playful lyrics of a song that talks of pride, identity and despair. One of the first shots is of a wagon but as the camera begins to rotate, we slowly recognise the wagon is in fact on its side, a casualty of a vehicle accident, coming to symbolise the duplicitous, topsy turvy nature of events that will transpire but also illustrating the disorderly demeanour of Bombay. As the montage progresses images of people sleeping on the roads and pavements become more frequent and when juxtaposed to the piercing lyrics: ‘This is heaven…’, the idealistic tone gives way to something far more pessimistic.

Cue Joshi’s entry down a flight of wooden steps in the run down chawl, narrowly avoiding water cascading down from a burst pipe. Joshi’s low-key entry radiates an ordinariness but a refusal to back down, to resist, is tied up in Sahni’s real life history as a social activist who not only worked with the IPTA in the 1940s but was also a member of the Communist Party of India. As Joshi makes his way through the chawl, Mirza cuts to a series of establishing shots that are strikingly unfiltered, extenuating the rawness of an indigent milieu. Spurred on by an early morning conversation with a fellow resident in which the courts could help elevate their sense of social deprivation, Joshi is determined to take on the landlord as a matter of principle. As he walks back to the chawl, the inner monologue points to altruistic, socialist inclinations, with Joshi musing that resistance would benefit all of the tenants.

Nonetheless, Joshi’s political idealism is dismissed by his family who either don’t have the time to challenge the landlord or simply live in a state of subjugation. Joshi is joined by his wife and partner Rohini (Dina Pathak) from whom he draws a collective strength, and together they certainly seem to represent a bygone age of questioning the status quo and trying to make the system accountable for their crimes. In this respect, Joshi appears to be the exact opposite of Salim (Balraj Sahni) in Garam Hava (1973), although they both share an unwavering stoicism and self-respect. Joshi’s belief in collective action and community intervention is best captured when he visits the residents of the chawl, trying in vain to get names on a petition that can be used in court to evidence the landlord’s refusal to carry out repairs. Only one resident chooses to sign the petition, reiterating both a widespread disillusionment with civil institutions and a sense of dread that comes with going up against the treacherous landlord.

The figure of the zamindar has often been a popular source of on-screen villainy in popular Hindi cinema, and Kapadia is represented as a contemporary variation of this archetypal convention. Seeing a major star like Amjad Khan pop up in such a low budget independent film is clearly surprising but his imposing on-screen presence as the abhorrent Kapadia is a master stroke of casting and was a real coup given his significant star status. Kapadia’s constant pushback is largely programmed by two promoters (Pankaj Kapur and Salim Ghouse) who are cartoonish manifestations of an outrageously ruthless capitalist neoliberal India that was beginning to chomp through the Bombay landscape, displacing families, uprooting communities and trampling on the rights of the lower classes in order to make way for a wretched blood-soaked skyline of high-rise deluxe apartments. Mirza depicts a tainted system that empowers landlords while institutions like the repair board which are supposed to be providing a public service for the greater good are riddled with delay and effectively ruined.

Much of the narrative is played out in the confines of the courts with Mirza parodying a judicial process that puts up endless obstacles and ties itself up in a maze of bureaucratic red tape that only benefits those with infinite resources at their disposal. The farcical nature of intervention that never transpires to resolve the inhospitable and dangerous living conditions snowballs into an epic six-year court battle that culminates in an over egged visit by the judge proceeding over the case to the chawl to bear witness to the intolerable state of things. The defence and prosecution are inept as each other, using Joshi’s sincerity as a means of massaging their irrespective egos and wallowing in an unholy resignation. Advocate Malkani (Naseeruddin Shah) is the epitome of faux middle-class piousness, taking up Joshi’s cause so that he can revel in financial exploitation while pretending to empathise with the cause of the oppressed.

Upon recognising the gravitas of the judge’s impending visit Kapadia acts speedily to adorn the chawl with an impromptu lick of paint with the aim of hoodwinking the judge into thinking the chawl is not as bad as it has been made out by Joshi and the prosecuting advocates. Unsurprisingly, the judge’s visit descends into a charade with both parties exchanging a beat box parade of empty nothings. In the very end it falls upon the demoralised Joshi to ratify a final act of desperation, tearing down the wooden stilts propping up the chawl and triggering a partial collapse, his body engulfed by the rubble and fleetingly silencing the machinations of hegemonic structures and power.

With a screenplay co-written by Sudhir Mishra, dialogues by Ranjit Kapoor and Kundan Shah as consultant, Mohan Joshi… was a continuing collaboration between a close knit group of very talented artists who were central to the evolution of Parallel Cinema through the 1980s, a period where we saw the satire form used repeatedly as a vehicle for wider social and political dissent, and which subjectively in many ways was in spirit echoing the absurdist influences of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

Bhavni Bhavai / A Folk Tale – ‘Our blood is shed day after day…’

(1980, Dir. Ketan Mehta, India)

The story of political modernism in the history of Parallel Cinema had a partial Brechtian impulse to it that resonated sporadically through a handful of films. It would be completely absurd to isolate the trace the origins of cinematic reflexivity to this particular movement but Sen’s Interview in 1971 set in motion a remarkable precedent in which aesthetic hybridity came to the fore more prominently in Parallel Cinema films that came after it. While reflexivity is limited to arguably one major sequence in Sen’s Interview, Sen would return to such a modernist device with totalizing zeal in his self-reflexive masterpiece In Search of Famine (1981), which was made around the same time as Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai (1980). Based on Dhiruben Patel’s play, what makes Mehta’s exploration of caste decisive is the Brechtian approach that fuses history and politics into a rich, scathing parody.

The film opens with the imagery of Partition, exile and displacement as a group of Harijans (untouchables) are silhouetted against a fiery sunset. Journeying from the village, they are migrating to the city. Victims of caste discrimination and displaced from their homes, a little boy wants to return to the village but Ujam (Smita Patil) exclaims they have nothing to go back since their homes were burnt down in an act of upper caste thuggery. Malo (Om Puri), the self-designated patriarch of the group, begins to sing and narrate a story about a king who had two wives but could not have an heir. As we come to realise, Malo’s central presence acts as a kind of social and political pendulum, instigating revolt but at the same time functioning as the archetypal lynchpin who narrates the story of caste oppression. Malo’s larger than life representation is carried brilliantly by Om Puri who resorts to musicality to narrate caste politics.

King Chakrasen played with great comic wisdom by Naseeruddin Shah in one of his most overlooked performances is a splendid parody of the ruling elite and is ridiculed for his constant buffoonery by a counsel of treacherous political advisers. Mehta segues audaciously from historical tableau to satirical commentary, imitating the Bhavai form, a popular form of theatre that originated from the 14th century in India. Chakrasen’s ostentatious introduction, showering in milk, is drolly undermined when he is informed the palace smells of shit because the sweepers (lower caste Harijans) are absent due to a wedding. Outraged by what Chakrasen reasons to be insolence, the sweepers are rounded up and whipped. This is the first of many satirical enactments of subjugation in which the Harijans are dehumanized and defiled, remaining completely powerless to retaliate in the face of unchanging historical forces.

When news comes through the eldest Queen is pregnant Chakrasen is delighted. However, the youngest Queen (Suhasini Mulay) enraged by the news plots with Chakrasen’s close political adviser to bribe the Brahmin priest to falsely prophesise the unborn child represents a threat to the kingdom and will bring death to the King. Misled by the priest’s astrological musings Chakrasen orders the disposal of his newly born son. Unable to kill the child, the King’s men put the baby in a wooden box and place it into the river. Malo finds the box and upon seeing the helpless baby claims the child as his own but does not disclose the secret to anyone. The child grows up to Jeevo (Mohan Gokhale).

Wanting to give his son clean water, Malo is caught red handed and lambasted when he tries to use water from the well reserved for the upper caste goons. The upper caste retaliates, resorting to violence and burning the huts of Malo and his friends to the ground. Devastated, Malo and the Harijans are forced to leave their homes. The flashbacks shared by Malo are borne out of the Harijans contemporary situation of exile, migrating to the city through inhospitable conditions. In one of many instances of breaking the fourth wall, Jeevo turns to face the audience and fires of a contemptuous diatribe at those ‘who stare at us from their cocooned darkness’, accusing the apathetic audience of complicity in caste oppression:

‘Our homes are burnt!

Our women are raped.

We are treated like animals.

Our blood is shed day after day.

And you don’t feel anything?

Nothing?’

The dark satirical playfulness that characterises Mehta’s approach to the material was arguably an extension of the first phase of Parallel Cinema expressly Mrinal Sen’s Interview, a reflexivity that continued to resurface in formalist experiments like Ghashiram Kotwal (1976). Another key sequence is when Jeevo and Ujam perform a beggar’s opera for the King, concocting a tale of mockery that Chakrasen lacks the intellect to fully understand the two-edged meanings of their social and political innuendos. The Brahmin priest declares that to please the planets a sacrifice is needed, a very special individual – the perfect man who is similar to the King. This, of course, is no other than Jivo, who bargains with Chakrasen through another performative spectacle, asking their demands as Harijans be fulfilled and magnifying the dehumanization they face. Jeevo’s spectacle of revolt irks Chakrasen but he reluctantly agrees to the demands based on the advice from his wretched counsel who remind him that power can be regained in other ways namely through the machinations of state repression.

On the day of the execution, with Jeevo’s head literally on the chopping board, it is announced with great narrative timing that Jeevo is the King’s long-lost son, and we are offered a shamelessly exultant ending in which everyone rejoices and the status quo remains very much intact. Such a contrived, escapist ending critiques the ideological closure inherent in the very DNA of mainstream Indian cinema, limiting what can be said politically, but gives Mehta the ideal opportunity with which to underline such incongruity in showcasing a stauncher ending keeping in spirit with the ways in which caste oppression is unequivocally brutal and monolithic. After Jeevo is executed, his severed head unceremoniously tumbles down the steps of the royal well. Incensed by Chakrasen’s callous actions and the traumatic execution, Malo reacts, grabbing a sword from one of the guards and jumping down into the well in a terrifying act of self-destruction with his horrific, impotent scream echoing into the doom ladened walls of a well that he slaved over to build. Malo’s scream is followed with him cursing the King which results in the well overflowing and unleashing a biblical style flood that metaphorically seems to sweep away the ruling elite.

Malo’s traumatic rage was part of a deeper anger that flowed right through the late 1960s and well into the 1980s and beyond, caste intersecting with gender. The choice to intercut Chakrasen’s drowning with documentary footage of ‘caste riots in Ahmedabad and the severe drought in Northern Gujarat’ (Willemen & Rajadhyaksha) replicates an equivalent revolutionary political analogy of journalistic reportage deployed at the end of Sen’s Interview. However, the final ELS shot of planet earth with the following words: ‘Seeing the earth at a distance. Boundaries all merge. Differences disappear’ says otherwise, explicating the possibility of co-existence with the hope of overcoming centuries of caste tyranny.  

The contributions of B. K. Karanjia to the story of Indian Parallel Cinema

In my writings I have talked at length on the contributions of key figures like Mrinal Sen to the rupture that unfolded in the late 60s but one name that goes amiss is that of B. K. Karanjia (1920 – 2012). It is worth stating that not much has been written on Karanjia in general, although we have recollections from filmmakers and actors in the industry, many of whom speak fondly of him.

In his book ‘Counting My Blessings’ (2005) the fundamental and influential role of Karanjia to the story of Parallel Cinema becomes altogether exacting. Born in Quetta, now Pakistan, the Karanjia family moved to India after Partition. Karanjia would go on to become a film journalist, writer and editor, working on publications that included Filmfare, Screen, Cinevoice and Movie Times. Given his prestigious position within the film industry some would say it was inevitable he would one day become directly involved in the business of films. Karanjia was appointed in 1969 as the new chairman of the FFC, inheriting an organisation that effectively had no capital left, much of it wasted away through the FFC’s diabolical attempts to compete with mainstream filmmaking. It was Karanjia’s decision, along with the new board he assembled that included people like filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee, to focus on low budget films as a means of reviving the fortunes of the FFC. Karanjia argues this was essentially a second chance for the FFC in what had been a failed enterprise to implement a national film policy that was conducive to indigenous filmmaking.

Karanjia’s remarkable seven-year reign, lasting until 1976, would lead to great success, putting into practice the calls for a new cinema heralded by the likes of Sen and Kaul in their manifesto. Since Karanjia worked for the state and could simply be palmed off as a bureaucrat, his day-to-day involvement with the processes of script selection and liaising with filmmakers went beyond the limited promotional duties of the FFC that had plagued it in the past. Armed with a rich first hand understanding of the Indian film industry, Karanjia was well aware of the international kudos that Ray’s Pather Panchali had brought to the potential of an Indian arthouse cinema. Karanjia notes that even when Pather Panchali reached Cannes it was ignored until ‘French Critic Andre Bazin protested against this ‘scandal of the festival’ and his protest led to a re-screening of Pather Panchali’ (2005: 167). Karanjia knew what was at a stake when he took over at the FFC and the focus on low budget black and white films was a risk that paid off creatively and commercially with the immediate success of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, a work that Karanjia should be acknowledged for helping to get made.

The two critical aims that Karanjia put in place when he took over at the FFC was a new policy that embraced backing newcomers and adapting works of homegrown Indian writers from all national languages. Karanjia proudly notes that ‘thirty-six films were financed’ (2005: 197) under his seven-year reign of chairman of the FFC. In this respect, if we are to re-write the linear history of Parallel Cinema then including the contributions of Karanjia to this overarching narrative becomes altogether impossible to ignore. Karanjia and his board seemed to act with an unprecedented degree of autonomy and the lack of interference from government ministers certainly led to what was an unrestrained explosion of creative energy, which was never to be replicated in the coming phases of Parallel Cinema. A striking aspect was the vehement socio-political context that went unchecked by the Information and Broadcasting ministers, that is until the Emergency drastically transformed the cultural landscape of India.

In 1975, Karanjia was told by Vidya Shukla, the new I&B minister that both the FFC board and policy was going to be reconstituted, accusing Karanjia of financial mismanagement, a charge that held no ground whatsoever. Although this was far from the end of Parallel Cinema, Shukla’s intervention saw the premature end to the foundational years and at a time when the stock of the FFC was at its highest, imbued with a strident creative momentum and zeal. Karanjia would eventually resign but return later to take charge of the NFDC for a second term in 1987. In reflecting on his time at the FFC, Karanjia argued that Parallel Cinema never achieved the heights of a film movement like The French New Wave because of the FFC’s inability to sponsor new talent, instead backing the same filmmakers. More significantly, Karanjia notes the lack of an outlet for many of these films – the argument concerning the lack of an adequate distribution and exhibition infrastructure was initially outlined in the manifesto by Sen and Kaul as a critical factor that would need to be implemented if Parallel Cinema was to evolve and reach film audiences in cinema halls. Karanjia talks of an art cinema scheme toyed with by the FFC and that sadly never came to fruition: ‘a network of low cost, semi-permanent, 300–400-seater art cinemas (about 200) in the metropolitan cities where FFC films would be shown’ (2002: 233). What a boost that would have given to Parallel Cinema’s fortunes if such a plan had been implemented. One of the most immediate impacts of Parallel Cinema on the rest of Indian cinema writes Karanjia was the way many films adopted a fresh approach to storytelling, favouring original writing from Indian literature.

Karanjia is largely forgotten today but deserves recognition for his direct involvement with the development and evolution of Parallel Cinema, embracing the late 60s call for a new cinema that he could see similarities with earlier experiments with 1940s political realism and the IPTA.

[some trivia: in Sen’s BFI documentary on his take on the history of Indian Cinema titled ‘And the Story Goes On…’, the first interview is with B. K. Karanjia]

Thampu / The Circus Tent (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1978, India/Malayalam)

In the dialogue-less opening to Aravindan’s 1978 film Thampu, an open-air truck filled with seemingly ordinary people weaves it way languidly through the sunlit coastal roads of Thalassery, Kerala. This close-knit travelling circus, made up of a troupe of intrepid misfits and fantasists, have habitually made this journey before, living out a transient existence of boredom, service and entrapment. It would be wrong to deny Aravindan’s films are plotless but Thampu is probably the closest he came to making a documentary. The use of a non-narrative framework that favours episodic situations and a refusal to introduce characters or make them substantial in anyway turns the superfluous such as the assembly of the circus tent into self-contained spectacles of social performance. Aside from the presence of Gopi as the manager, many of the characters that populate the circus troupe are non-professionals, another notable feature of neorealism, a style and form that is stridently transparent in Aravindan’s semi observational approach. By the same token, the black and white cinematography (exceptional work again by the distinguished Shaji N. Karun) is an aesthetic choice that also augments the neorealist style. Accordingly, when the circus delivers their inaugural performance, Aravindan repeatedly cuts to shots of spectators, real faces of the villagers, training his eye on their mesmerising expressions who are completely hypnotised by the spectacle, and in turn drawing out the parallels between the circus and film as intrinsic forms of escape for the masses. Before the advent of travelling cinema shows, the arrival of a circus was a major event in the lives of people craving diversion and what Aravindan captures unequivocally is the fleeting delight and short lived excitement the circus brings to the local area. For the most part, it is the sense of identity and belonging the circus gives to such a disparate community of people that chiefly interests Aravindan, conjuring a melancholic portrait of an occurrence that is evanescently material and magical.