Rangula Kala / Colourful Dreams (Dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1983, India / TelUgu) – ‘I’m an artist not a trader’

Rangula Kala, released in 1983, was the directorial debut of Rao and is an accomplished work, exploring the role of the artist in society. It would make a brilliant triple bill alongside Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool since all three deal with the value of the artist in the marketplace which is in turn contested through differing perspectives on the significance of art and its relationship with the broader social, economic and political landscape of India.

Rao essays the leading role of Ravi, a bearded beatnik painter, who is tormented by the ‘emotional conflict inside him’ and trying desperately to make a living while developing his distinctive style as a painter. Although Ravi is not concerned that his work is derivative of existing forms, what really matters to him is the connection he continually tries to forge with the real world, an existential search that is manifested in a series of tangible dream sequences that finds Ravi lost in a consciousness clouded by guilt, doubt and truth. Many of Ravi’s closest friends including a Marxist journalist (Narayana Rao) and Ramesh, a successful painter (Saichand), actively encourage Ravi to pander to the whims of the audience and the market but he defies this way of making art because it is based on compromise, a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ravi values the work for what it is and represents not what it is worth in the marketplace and what price it will fetch for the pontificating and pretentious upper classes. An exhibition of his work (much of it resembling a modern style) fails to strike a chord with art promoters and is labelled a flop, leaving him in despair both emotionally and economically. As a result, in one sequence, Ravi is forced to visit Mrs Ramarnath, a faux high society figure, and sell one of his paintings simply because he needs the money to survive. Later, Ravi tells Sarala, his girlfriend, that people like Mrs Ramarnath have very little regard for artists and treat art as a commodity that sits alongside their other possessions as part of a twisted capitalist logic.

Rao is also critical of the hypocrisy that circulates amongst fellow artists and Ramesh, the hypocritical snob, who has literally sold out to the marketplace, misleads Ravi and goes to great lengths to mask over his precarious position as a social climber: ‘I’m an artist not a trader’, he exclaims in a radio interview. Ravi’s search for his role as an artist comes to fruition when Suraya, a trade union leader, invites him to attend May Day celebrations for workers. Here Rao uses the first of two political songs of working class resistance by Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet and Naxal activist, that articulates a rising tide of anger in Ravi’s shifting mindset. Later, Suraya, instructs Ravi that he can use his art for a far greater ideological cause, to serve the people and be part of a political mobilisation, an idea that he responds to immediately and eventually embraces. What follows after Ravi’s realisation is the remarkable insert of another resolutely angry protest song by Gaddar, this time criticising the tyranny of the capitalist system and how it has enslaved the poor. The link between a cultural front and political movements has often been a significant one in helping to narrate and express an unofficial story, that of the workers on the front line. Exhibiting his work on the streets forges an authentic connection with the people and his paintings come closer to capturing a reality that he has been searching for. Critical acclaim follows and his journalist friend extols Ravi for finally developing a distinctive style, academic praises that Ravi humbly accepts.

While Ravi continually experiments with the aesthetics of painting, Suraya’s murder at the hands of the state at a peaceful demonstration, galvanises Ravi’s political awakening. Sympathising with the plight of the workers, Ravi finally pushes himself to make the transition to a state of alertness and ideological mobilisation. Imposing upon himself a state of imprisonment, Ravi re-thinks his role as an artist, his monochrome and starkly abstract paintings now embodying the figurative images of the workers and the repressive state apparatus expressly the police. In the closing moments, the extreme zoom in on Ravi’s eyes seething with rage followed by a fade to red unmasks a violence yet to come, and extenuates a revolutionary fervour that echoes films like Padatik and Ankur.

Amar Lenin / My Lenin (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1970, India)

‘The river and fields reverberate with the sounds of the hammer and chisel’ go the lyrics for what appears to be a popular folk song venerating the cultural significance of Lenin on the psyche of Bengal’s socialist conceptualization. Ritwik Ghatak was expelled from The Communist Party of India in 1955 largely for questioning the absence of a co-ordinated cultural front, a critique he takes up diligently in his film Komal Gandhar. Ghatak’s ideological connection and commitments to socialism remained a constant source of tension in his work. Amar Lenin, long unavailable, was made in a final period after the completion of Subarnarekha (1965), the final part of his ground-breaking Partition trilogy. This late period saw Ghatak direct a number of short documentaries with many projects left incomplete. This was also a time taken up by his stint at the FTII. Made at the behest of the Government of West Bengal in the centenary year of Lenin, Amar Lenin was made during the first phase of Parallel Cinema and like many films released in the late 1960s, the impact of political uncertainty and revolution was felt in the immediacy of a street reportage style, all of which is clearly evident in Ghatak’s approach to the documentary mode. The opening shows a peasant farmer going to a play about Lenin performed at night; all of this is juxtaposed to a song that eulogises the socialist sentiments of Lenin. The next sequence uses a harvest song cut to women milling flour, celebrating the rural and village life as a utopian space of union and solidarity. Ghatak structures the documentary around a benign peasant farmer who goes to Calcutta to join in the celebrations of Lenin which includes the inauguration of a statue to Lenin, street processions and political speeches by Abdul Razzak Khan and Dharani Goswami. As the young farmer journeys through the city he observes a rally in the which the ‘Lenin Youth Festival’ has drawn people from all corners of India.

Amar Lenin was made at a time when political activism was at its peak in Calcutta particularly with the ways in which Naxalism had galvanised a younger generation including students to take up arms and join the call for a broader cultural and social revolution in doing away with a system indebted to the old colonial traditions. The presence of both Russian and Indian delegates at the inauguration ceremony also captures the ideological alignment and sympathies expressed by socialist parties in both countries, a rare moment of broader mobilization and consent that took place before the violent repression of the Naxalite movement in 1971, fracturing the Communist Party further still in West Bengal. When the peasant farmer returns to his village, he has been galvanised with new socialist ideas, which he implements at the grassroots level, mobilizing his brothers and sisters to challenge the feudal order and overturn the tyranny of the landlords through direct action. The taking up of arms and the peasant revolt that Ghatak stages and re-enacts is a direct political reference to the Naxalbari uprising of the time and is intercut with communist leaders in Calcutta delivering empty speeches, a juxtaposition that delineated the increasing divisions and factions within the Communist Party of India at the time, with Ghatak broadly sympathising with Charu Mazumdar’s Marxist-Leninist approach of militancy. Is it any wonder Ghatak’s Naxal leaning and resolutely poetic documentary was banned in India.

GHATASHRADDHA / THE RITUAL (Dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1977, India [Kannada])

The opening titles of Ghatashraddha unfold over the bark of a tree in close up, an abstract image that has an unremitting primordial sentiment. Juxtaposed to this singular image is a rhythmic drum beat that is violently out of control, characterising the ways in which Girish Kasaravalli intends to disrupt with a rejoinder to religious orthodoxy expressly Brahminical hypocrisy and casteism. Released in 1977, and coming at the peak of Parallel Cinema, Kasaravalli’s seminal debut along with films like Samskara were an extension of the literary Navya Movement in Kannada in the 1970s critiquing the Brahmin elite. When Parallel Cinema first emerged in the late 1960s, it was a resolutely iconoclastic approach to making films, upending traditional storytelling methods, experimenting with aesthetics and smashing apart conventional themes. If at first it appeared that iconoclasm was merely a reactive expression, unleashing political and aesthetic forces, the rupture of this particular moment was sustained and re-emerged continuously as Parallel Cinema spread regionally.

Based on U. R. Ananthamurthy’s writings, a key voice in the Navya movement, the story takes place in a tight knit religious milieu, a Brahmin enclave complete with Vedic school and temple, framed by Kasaravalli as cut off from the rest of society, existing in a non-temporal state. Nani, a young Brahmin boy, arrives at the school for his Vedic education. Terrified by his new surroundings and bullied by the older boys, Nani strikes up a friendship with Yamuna, the widowed daughter of Udupa who also lives and works at the enclave as a Vedic scholar. In the opening shot, coins are placed into puja thali, which one of the priests carries through a congregation of women in prayers led by Udupa, a Vedic scholar and widower. A seemingly innocuous detail, signifying the exchange of money for prayers, is the first of many refrains that suggests religion exists in a incongruous state, seemingly impossible to adhere to its many precepts.

Ghatashraddha draws its power from three terrifying sequences. The first is the abortion of Yamuna’s unborn child, a clandestine affair that takes places at night and is starkly intercut with a drunken reverie around a log fire, a notably expressionistic rendering of a traumatic pain. The second sequence sees Yamuna attempting suicide as she pushes her hand and arm deep inside a snake hole only to be rescued by Nani. The third and final sequence comes towards the end and details the ritual of ex-communication (conducted by Udupa) which sees the expulsion of Yamuna from the Brahmin community; effectively ostracized, the final image of Yamuna with her shaved head, left to ruin, is a figurative manifestation of both patriarchal violation and religious hypocrisy. Moreover, Ghatashraddha can also be read as a coming of age film; Nani’s tearful departure from the Brahmin enclave runs parallel with the marginalisation of Yamuna, both emerging as victims of a historical, social and structural trauma that Kasaravalli critiques with a febrile eloquence.

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.