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.

Chidambaram (1985, Dir. Govindan Aravindan, India [Tamil])

When Shivagami (Smita Patil) arrives at a Mooraru government run farmhouse in Niligri as a newly wedded bride she is enamoured by the mountainous landscapes and in these fleeting moments of rapture Aravindan carves and crafts this awakening as a synchronic event that ties Shivagami to nature, an elemental conceptualization. Chidambaram is structured as a classical parable and morality tale on fragile masculinities with a latent critique of caste politics while retaining characteristic poetic refrains that define Aravindan’s rhythmical approach. It is a work that remains largely transcendentally tactile with bird song punctuating the soundtrack in an everlasting chorus of repose. Lensed by regular DOP Shaji N. Karun, the impressionistic photography imbues the film with a painterly texture, a classic Aravindan signature.   

In an early sequence, Shankaran (Gopi), a superintendent of the farm, invites Muniyandi (Srinivas), a lower caste labourer, to have an evening drink with him. Jacob, the bigoted farm supervisor, objects to the presence of Muniyandi, openly revealing his casteist prejudices. While Shankaran ignores Jacob’s hostile sentiments, Muniyandi seems to belittle himself when he spontaneously bursts into a song lamenting his enslavement to the master, a gesture that makes Shankaran uncomfortable, hinting at the complicated hypocrisies at work in the shredded mentality of the men. When Muniyandi gets married and requests an extended leave so he can consummate his new relationship, Jacob arrives prematurely at Muniyandi’s home and instructs him to return immediately while lecherously sizing up his new bride. Smita Patil typically underplays, exuding an intelligence and naivety that marks Shivagami as incorruptible.

It is Muniyandi and Shivagami’s lower caste status that makes them susceptible to an exploitation that incorporates Shankaran as the unlikely perpetrator, reiterating the ways in which casteism is systemic and omnipresent. The dynamics between Shivagami and Shankaran, which is framed as a friendship, is only hinted at briefly as something far more sexual, in a flashback insert when Shankaran wanders aimlessly in search of absolution for his transgression. Muniyandi’s realisation that someone has visited Shivagami when he is at work on night duty is depicted elliptically, Aravindan refusing to explicitly point out who it might be. For a lowly caste oppressed labourer like Muniyandi all that matters is his honour, which he is convinced resides in his sanctity of marriage and his wife. While it comes as a shock to discover that it is Shankaran who has strips away what little dignity Muniyandi has left, the wound of betrayal that is inflicted is a traumatic one, nightmarishly visualised in the dreaded image of Muniyandi swinging from a rope in the cow shed, having committed suicide in an insufferably tragic act of self-destruction.

The final third details the residual psychological deterioration of Shankaran who is consumed by the terrifying, debilitating guilt of his actions, which in turns leads him on a haphazard metaphysical journey for absolution. When Shankaran looks upon the dead body of poor Muniyandi he bolts through the forest in horror, trying desperately to block out the blinding dagger like rays of sunlight streaming through the trees and subsequently throwing himself into a pool of water, a symbolic gesture, so to cleanse himself of his misdeeds. The sacred, ancient Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is where an aging Shankaran retreats, coming face to face with Shivagami, a haunting mythological moment that arguably represents Shivagami as an ethereal yet tortured figure. Carrying with her the mark of violence left by her late husband, Shivagami’s supernatural appearance is arguably a projection of Shankaran’s painful imaginings trying in vain to reconcile with a past from which he cannot escape no matter how greatly he seeks exoneration.