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

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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.

VAMSHA VRIKSHA / The Family Tree (1971, India, Dir. B. V. Karanth & Girish Karnad)

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In Parallel Cinema the co existence of creative streams accommodated divergent aesthetic reckonings. The initial films of the Kannada new wave spearheaded by the likes of Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth adopted a largely neo realist approach that was more in line with Ray’s cinema and which was later exemplified by Benegal. The realist tag is an unwelcoming label associated with Parallel Cinema but in some instances is justified and warrants exploring further. The regional flourishes expressly from Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka were aligned in a cinematic radicalism that mapped a frontal attack on all kinds of orthodoxies specifically caste and religion. Based on the novel by Kannada writer S. L. Bhyrappa, Vamsha Vriksha, a key work in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, uses the concept of the family tree as an extended metaphor, attacking head on the patriarchy and double standards of Brahminical culture that literally imprisons women. Perhaps the radicalism of Parallel Cinema films from the South wasn’t strictly aesthetic but far more visible in the confrontational and unconventional thematic tone.

The narrative of Vamsha Vriksha unfolds essentially from the perspective of the woman, a radical about turn in the ways in which Parallel Cinema was forging a new path for counter gender representations. Kathyayani (L. V. Sharada Rao) is widowed at an early age with a young son. She feels trapped, sitting idly at home, and like Charulata in Ray’s film, the opening captures her boredom and isolation as she is reduced to staring out of the windows at the lives of others. Kathyayani overturns tradition, re-marrying and eventually leaving her in-laws. But she does at the expense of being forced to leave her son with her in-laws who claim a hereditary right over the boy. This condition placed upon Kathyayani is cruel; severing a parental bond that becomes part of a deeper psychological struggle she must overcome. However, the radicalism of Vamsha Vriksha comes from the agency of Kathyayani who not only pursues an education, later becoming a teacher, but also continually exposes the tyranny of tradition and corresponding hypocrisies. ‘In our society, a man can marry ten times, but a woman has to suppress all her desires’, exclaims Kathyayani to her father in law.

As we come to discover, the family tree has many branches but they don’t all grow the same way. Moreover, assuming a lofty moral position based on religion is prone to derision particularly when the history of a family has been constructed on a lie, one that is unmasked by the patriarch of the story. While the coda is about reconciliation, Karanth and Karnad conclude that tradition has a way of imposing itself on the past and present, distorting attempts to create new and alternate histories.

THE SACRIFICE OF BABULAL BHUIYA (Dir. Manjira Datta, 1988, India/UK)

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Opening with a series of slow motion shots of a semi-naked labourer working in the punishing heat, the body blackened by the coal is visually conducive of the ways in which the capitalist system comes to possess and devour the labourer. Fragmenting the body of the labourer to the detached sound of a rifle firing imagines the execution of Babulal Bhuiya, a worker who was killed by Industrial Security Guards in Feb 1981. Director Manjira Datta weaves an empathetic narrative that is grounded in the perspectives of oppressed labourers who slave away in the coal washeries to eek out a living. Venturing into the make shift homes of those who knew Babulal, Datta uses direct to camera interviews that catalogues a workers socialist struggle resisting a system in which Babulal’s murder is just one of many labourers who have been slain over the years. As a historical document of the crimes perpetrated by the state, a woman vividly recounts her reaction upon seeing the dead body of Babulal: ‘His face was decomposed. It looked poisoned. It was completely black’. Resistance comes through organized protests and expressly folk music that critiques class, caste and the political status quo in general. What Datta captures so palpably is the deplorable living conditions. Living nearby the coal slurry, workers exist in a primitive state with no drinking water and face relentless intimidation from the bloodthirsty coal company, of which the police is a natural extension. Although Datta’s approach is observational, the sequences used to bridge interviews have a poetic characteristic that comes through the rhythmical editing. Produced by the Media Workshop (New Delhi) and in association with Channel Four, Manjira Datta’s observational documentary is a searing example of political activism that ties in with the urgent Marxist address of works like Jai Bhim Comrade and more recently Court.

ESTHEPPAN (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1979, India)

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Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.

CANONIZING INDIAN PARALLEL CINEMA – PART 5: THE DEMISE (1990 – 1995)

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Saeed Mirza’s Naseem, the final film in Parallel Cinema.

It might seem a little difficult to fathom that Parallel Cinema lasted for such a long time, covering four decades. That’s why it might be more appropriate in the respect of this lengthy time frame to posit Parallel Cinema as a certain approach to making films and not a film movement. This fifth and final phase pools together the least number of films and lasts for five years, although many of the major Parallel Cinema filmmakers were still active, albeit many had diversified into television, collaborating with Doordarshan to also make TV series. The cataclysmic events of Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this historical and political rupture set in motion the ascension of Hindutva into the mainstream, legitimising the BJP’s political hegemony and altering the secularist cultural parameters of India.

In this perspective perhaps it is unsurprising that Parallel Cinema was to meet its demise especially when we recognise Parallel Cinema was predominately forged in both a secularist and radical Leftist context that was duly extinguished by a disturbing neo-nationalism that still prevails. Films like Mammo (94) and Naseem (95), counter representations of the Muslim family, were humanised rejoinders to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had started to proliferate in the mainstream media. While Mammo would become the first of four films Benegal would direct that attempted to re-imagine Muslims in a three dimensional light, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem would effectively become his last film before his semi retirement and a work that seemed to mourn the loss of secularism in the iconic image of the ailing patriarch on his death bed.

This may have been the final phase of Parallel Cinema but with films like Shahani’s Kasba (90), Mishra’s Dharavi (91), Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam (92), Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (92) and Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (95) there certainly wasn’t a lack of creativity. But with the push for economic liberalization and the rise of a NRI oriented cinema, popular Hindi cinema re-formulated itself in the ubiquitous post millennial image of Bollywood, the emptiest signifier of them all; global, excessive, standardised, mechanical, apolitical. However, the NFDC has remained, plodding along, massaging the lost vestiges of state patronage. On the horizon, beyond Bollywood, a new independent cinema would soon be born, forged precariously out of the ashes of Parallel Cinema, obfuscating a glorious cinematic past for a neoliberal magniloquence.

A Film Canon: Parallel Cinema

Fifth and Final Phase (1990 – 1995) 

  • Disha / The Uprooted Ones (Dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1990, Hindi)
  • Drishti / Vision (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Kasba (Dir. Kumar Shahani, 1990, Hindi)
  • Vasthuhara / The Dispossessed (Dir. G. Aravindan, 1990, Malayalam)
  • Agantuk / The Stranger (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1991, Bengali)
  • Dharavi / Quicksand (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1991, Hindi)
  • Idiot (Dir. Mani Kaul, 1991, Hindi)
  • Something Like A War (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1991, English)
  • Apathbandhavudu / The Saviour (Dir. K. Vishwanath, 1992, Telugu)
  • Cheluvi / The Flowering Tree (Dir. Girish Karnad, 1992, Hindi)
  • Maya Memsaab / The Enchanting Illusion (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1992, Hindi)
  • Padma Nadir Majhi / Boatman of the River Padma (Dir. Gautam Ghose, 1992, Bengali)
  • Ram Ke Naam / In the Name of God (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1992, Hindi)
  • Rudaali / The Mourner (Dir. Kalpana Lajmi, 1992, Hindi)
  • Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda / The Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, Hindi)
  • Antareen (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1993, Bengali)
  • Indradhanura Chhai / The Shadows of the Rainbows (Dir. Sushant Misra, 1993, Oriya)
  • Sardar (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1993, Hindi)
  • Sunya Theke Suru / A Return to Zero (Dir. Ashoke Vishwanathan, 1993, Bengali)
  • Vidheyan / The Servile (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1993, Malayalam/Kannada)
  • Amodini (Dir. Chidananda Das Gupta, 1994, Bengali)
  • Aranyaka (Dir. Bhavdeep Jaipurwale, 1994, Hindi)
  • Drohkaal (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1994, Hindi)
  • Hkhgoroloi Bohu Door / It’s a long way to the Sea (Dir. Jahnu Barua, 1994, Assamese)
  • Mammo (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, Hindi)
  • Nirbachana (Dir. Biplab Roy Choudhury, 1994, Oriya)
  • Prasab / The Deliverance (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1994, Bengali)
  • Sopan (Dir. Ajay Bannerjee, 1994, Bengali)
  • Tarpan (Dir. K. Bikram Singh, 1994, Hindi)
  • Tunnu Ki Tina (Dir. Paresh Kamdar, 1994, Hindi)
  • Wheelchair (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1994, Bengali)
  • Bangarwadi (Dir. Amol Palekar, 1995, Marathi)
  • Doghi (Dir. Sumitra Bhave, 1995, Marathi)
  • Kahini (Dir. Malay Bhattacharya, 1995, Bengali)
  • Kathapurushan (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1995, Malayalam)
  • Limited Manuski (Dir. Nachiket/Jayoo Patwardhan, 1995, Marathi)
  • Naseem (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, Hindi)

IN WHICH ANNIE GIVES IT THOSE ONES (1989, India, Dir. Pradip Krishen)

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Annie is the nickname of Anand Grover, a laidback and idealistic student training to be an architect and who also happens to have a chicken living in his dorm that lays eggs. This is one of many idiosyncratic characters that we encounter. In which Annie gives it those ones, contender for the quirkiest film title ever conceived, has taken on a mythical status amongst Parallel Cinema aficionados, a cult film from the late 1980s partially funded by Doordarshan. Legend has it the film only survives on existing video copies circulating through subterranean channels, allusiveness that adds to the mystique and cult status, along with SRK’s first screen role as a stoner.

Set in the 1970s and with a script by Arundhati Roy and who also stars in the film, it was the second of only two feature length collaborations between Roy and director Pradip Krishen. Roy’s script is very personal, a semi autobiographical take on the counter culture experiences of her time at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, a benign institution symbolised in the character of Yamdoot Bilmoria (the brilliant Roshan Seth), a Head of Department who is lofty and disingenuous towards his students, and a remnant of colonial power and pretentious etiquettes. Adopting an episodic structure, the rapport amongst the students is wonderfully brought to life with Roy and Krishen choosing to present the dorms as an extended hippy commune with pot smoking loafers who embrace the joys of youthful cynicism, sticking up two fingers at the establishment.

Roy takes up the role of Radha, a young trainee architect who has the most scathing political voice, attempting to critique the ideological usage of space in urban planning and what this heralds for the citizen. But Yamdoot effectively censures Radha. Later when Radha gets the chance to polemicize as part of the final exam, Yamdoot and his panel of all male professors are more interested in the dinner menu than affording her the chance to speak her mind. An underlining theme that steadily gains momentum is the farcical nature of civil and government institutions that largely promote conformity and discourage dissent but it is exactly this speaking out against the prevailing powers that be which has made Roy such a significant political activist and voice in India.

Punctuated with covers of The Beatles, an eclectic ensemble cast and end titles that seem to recall American Graffiti (1973), this is a cult film that occupies the similarly eccentric comedic terrain of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Together, they make the perfect double bill.

DAASI (1988, Dir. B. Narsing Rao, India) [Telugu]

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The story of Daasi takes place in 1925 colonial India when the region of Telengana was under the rule of the Nizam. The powerful and vicious landlord who reigns over the small village is Jayasimha Rao (Bhoopal Reddy). One of the significant aspects of Parallel Cinema was the resistance it brought to dominant narratives, disrupting traditional gender paradigms that had become established over time; carving out new spaces for women and female subaltern agency that Indian cinema had not seen before. Films like Maya Darpan (1972), Ankur (1973), Umbartha (1981) and Daasi (1988) constitute a kind of unconscious resistance that was working collectively to redress the gender disparity, although much of this has to be approached cautiously considering many of the films were directed by men and therefore one could argue these films tend to replicate a dominant point of view they are supposedly trying to disrupt.

Nonetheless, Telugu director B. Narsing Rao’s story about female enslavement feels like the flipside of Benegal’s Ankur since it takes an altogether oppositional aesthetic approach to the archetypal Parallel Cinema theme of feudalism, opting for a measured and sparse approach that is effectively a character study of Daasi (Archana), an impoverished, lower caste woman sold into bondage for twenty rupees when she was a young girl. Daasi is confined to the mansion and sexually exploited by the landlord. Rao seems particularly interested in exhibiting the drudgery of Daasi’s daily chores and which steadily take on a ritualised status. Apurba Kishore Bir’s camerawork that glides across the courtyard of the mansion not only extenuates the claustrophobia and imprisonment experienced by Daasi but also illuminates the spaces of the mansion with a wonderful texture through the shards of light, unusual reflections and doorways.

The terrifying scream that rings out at the end, that of Daasi who is being forced to abort the child of the landlord, is marked by emptiness and pain that seems to become swallowed up by history, remaining suppressed in the past, a scream that we would rather not confront. It is a scream of exploitation, bondage and the beleaguered masses that relates the inequities of power that Parallel Cinema was able to articulate consistently in many films. Released in 1988, Daasi won five national film awards and is considered to be one of Rao’s best films.