CHOMANA DUDI / CHOMA’S DRUM (1975, India, B. V. Karanth)

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In Chomana Dudi the sound of the drumbeat never really stops. It is a sound at first made by Choma (Vasudeva Rao in a remarkable performance), the aging bonded labourer and untouchable, used to express the rage he feels about his oppression. But later it appears more frequently, punctuating the narrative, an incessant reminder of feudalism and casestism as perpetual to history. The sound of the drumbeat is one of political impotency; a pathetic cry of futile social conditions from which Choma and his family are unable to escape, no matter what they do. Chomana Dudi is based on a classic of Kannada literature, Choma’s Drum, written by acclaimed novelist K. S. Karanth. Choma’s dream of buying his own land, having toiled his entire life for a despotic, exploitative landlord, is a fatalistic death kneel, conjured from the debauched universe of noir.

Directed by B. V. Karanth (interestingly director Girish Kasaravalli is credited as assistant director) and released in 1975, Chomana Dudi, was part of a Parallel Cinema that transpired in Karnataka in the 1970s, a new wave that often gets lumped in with Indian Parallel Cinema as a troublesome monolithic entity. Of course, there are undeniable frissons and intersections between the regional Parallel Cinema that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. But the Kannada Parallel Cinema, much of it pioneered by Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth seemed to coincide with Benegal’s rural realism in the mid 1970s, forging a path that branched away from more initial avant-garde concerns to a notable ideological engagement with representations of the subaltern; a project that would come to life theoretically in the 1980s with Subaltern Studies.

In part, films like Ankur, Samskara and Chomana Dudi were a return to the questionable neo-realist experiments of the late 1940s and 1950s, notably Do Bigha Zamin and Dharti Ke Lal. However, a work like Chomana Dudi fuses melodrama with a pronounced Marxist address, whereby caste discrimination is brought to light in some impenitent, startling instances. For example, when one of Choma’s sons is drowning, an upper caste villager runs to the aid of the boy. While this is happening someone can be heard shouting that the boy is an untouchable and the villager should not intervene. Having reached the boy, the villager stops and simply lets the boy drown. Choma looks on despairingly. It is an extraordinary sequence, a blunt rejoinder to the horrors of the caste system, articulating a history that still bears a silence around it in Indian cinema.

Although Choma’s beating of the drum acts as a pulse in the film, a symbolic manifestation, his earthly connections to the land imagine the peasant farmer and untouchable as resolutely magical, transcendent and epic. Absent though is any attempt at political resistance, embracing fatalism and futility that is overwhelmingly bleak. Perhaps this best describes casteism but it also problematically situates the lower caste peasant farmer as a politically redundant, subjugated figure with no recourse to implementing social change. In this case, how should we read the final shot of Choma’s drum rolling into the frame: another defeatist aide-mémoire of the supremacy of caste politics that remains intact or the benign trace of an individual, dignified victory against the system?

MASSEY SAHIB (Dir. Pradip Krishen, 1986, India)

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Filmmaker and environmentalist Pradip Krishen only ever directed three full length feature films in what was a significant but short-lived filmmaking career (although Krishen has directed numerous short films) that came to an end in the early 1990s. Krishen wrote one of the finest essays on Parallel Cinema, titled ‘Knocking at the doors of public culture: India’s Parallel Cinema’ (1991) taking stock of the inadequacies and accomplishments of the film movement through the 1970s and 1980s. His directorial debut Massey Sahib, supported by the NFDC, and released in 1986 is a key work in the second phase of Parallel Cinema. But it is a work that has largely been forgotten.

Set in colonial India in the 1930s, the story follows the exploits of Francis Massey (Raghubir Yadav), a petty Indian clerk, who works in the Deputy Commissioners office in Central India. Krishen’s work, partly inspired by Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, has been noted by some as a political satire, which in some respects it is, ridiculing the servile and subjugated Massey who is brainwashed and enchanted by Empire. There are some notable parallels with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and the character of the infatuated, complacent middle class.

All of this rings true but Krishen’s film is one of the starkest and perhaps nuanced critiques of British colonialism, demonstrating in particular the insidious, manipulative ways in which colonialism exploits and discards those who prove to be useful at a certain moment in time – as is the fate bestowed upon poor Massey. Massey’s repeated derision and elision by the Deputy Commissioner Charles Adam (Barry John) gets to the very heart of Empire’s tryst with India, the contemptible rancour of civilizing the supposed native in the fruits of religious enlightenment while expanding the imperial infrastructure through a process of coercion.

Charles Adam’s desire to build a road through a jungle leads to a confrontation with local tribes who are steadily coerced by Massey to help with the imperial project. Massey does get the job done but when later he decides to cunningly ask for a tax from people who want to use the road, Adam ostracizes Massey, damning his near state of poverty as completely unrelated to the way Massey has been duly oppressed economically by Empire. Massey’s infatuation with Empire inoculates ugly traits of self-aggrandizement and pathetic imitations of British customs. And Massey’s duplicitous treatment by Adam, that function as a barometer of hegemony, later emerges and records a posture of arrogance and ultimately hypocrisy, offset by guilt, that all but defines imperialism.

Krishen’s is a vicious indictment of colonialism, articulating what Empire did to the Indian psyche, engineering an inferiority that was psychologically wounding, and traumatising self-identity. A work like Massey Sahib also reiterates the interventionist role Parallel Cinema was continuing to play in the cultural public sphere well into the late 1980s and beyond, and how many films were still defiantly political. Arundhati Roy appears in a small role as Massey’s wife and her relative silence throughout registers an indescribable witnessing of the umbrages of Empire, turning away from the cruelty of a world that Massey tries but fails to introduce her to. Raghubir Yadav is exceptional in the lead role.

REVELATIONS (Dir. Vijay Jayapal, 2016, India)

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Revelations is about the inadequacies and vulnerabilities of relationships. Writer and director Vijay Jayapal crafts four memorable characters and appreciatively gives them time to grow. In doing so the director also draws on common archetypes – the housewife, the husband, a mysterious stranger, the youthful novice – connecting with a recognisable cultural code but inverting our expectations in trying to figure out their psychological flaws, taking such convincingly told urban stories into unpredictably rewarding places. A major theme of a city based film of this type, shot on location in Kolkata, is the ghostly lives of the characters (in fact, the central character of Shobha, a young Tamil woman, played by Lakshmi Priyaa, exudes a lasting spectral impression that recalls Shahani’s 1972 Maya Darparn) that seem at once invisible and concrete in the migratory urban sprawl. Credit to Jayapal for embracing the aural landscape of Kolkata, offering an incessant urban ambience (impressive sound design) to the unhurried narrative. Much of the film capitalises on the dead space that traverses the desperate lives of the four characters, personal repressions and anxieties rising to the surface. An abiding theme that seems to be the connective glue is the destruction and guilt that marriage can breed. But more significantly, Jayapal captures a benign resignation that marks the melancholy and enigma simmering beneath many of the relationships. Performances are impressive notably Lakshmi Priyaa and Chetan. What stands out in respect of the direction is Jayapal’s capacity to articulate the essence of what made Parallel Cinema so exceptional: the understatement of human emotions.

Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 1: The foundational years/developmental phase (1968 – 1974)

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There is a general consensus that Indian Parallel Cinema officially started in 1969 with the triptych of Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti and Sara Akash. In 1968 B.K. Karanjia, former editor of Filmfare, was appointed chairman of the FFC. Prior to Karanjia’s appointment, the FFC, reluctant to support new cinema had been criticised for its support of successful realist filmmakers like Satyajit Ray. Under the ‘enlightened chairmanship’ (Vasudev, 1986: 34) of Karanjia, the FFC softened its stance, adopting a new formula: ‘low budget films, talented new filmmakers, Indian stories’ (2005: 194). The new criteria would become official in 1971. B.K. Karanjia’s initial chairmanship lasted seven years (1969 – 1975), approving the financing of thirty-six films and ‘between them they won twenty-one national and international awards’ (2005: 197) resulting in a cultural prestige for the state. Indira Gandhi’s re-commitment to a state sponsored cinema was initially a response to both the initial failure of the FFC since ‘no returns were coming in from the 30 odd films that had been financed since its inception seven years earlier’ (Vasudev, 1995: 157) and the proclamation of a New Cinema manifesto by Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen in 1968. It is the foundational or developmental phase of Indian Parallel Cinema that lasted up until the Emergency in 1975 that arguably saw the inauguration of Parallel Cinema as a film movement. It is here we also find perhaps Parallel Cinema as its most creative, experimental and polarizing.

Since so much of Indian cinema is only gradually being made available, thereby making the processes of canonization a revisionist one: ‘a film cannot be canonized unless it is seen frequently, continuously and over a sustained period of time’ (Lupo citing Donato Totaro, 2011: 225). Indian cinema has not been canonized to the extent American or French films have been in the West. Although this may at first appear welcoming because canons are elitist and discriminatory, they are also a fundamental necessity in determining which films are worthy of closer study and wider circulation. In her 1985 essay ‘The Politics of Film Canons’, Janet Staiger argued we need ‘to reconsider the criteria that we use for evaluation and the process of evaluation itself’ (Staiger, 1985: 14), a point that Dudley Andrew agreed with: ‘an obligation falls on every socially responsible academic to push towards a correct rewriting of the canon’ (Andrew, 1985: 56). This push to rewrite the canon of Indian cinema as a whole has been forthcoming from the internet. Like YouTube, open platform software has broadened notions of Indian cinephilia, adopting a scholarly approach to digital curation, drawing on the expertise of cinephiles, scholars and film buffs to holistically and inclusively narrate the history of Indian cinema. Indiancine.ma, an online archive of Indian cinema, ‘a resource for film scholars and enthusiasts in India and beyond’, is a project based on the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen. Indiancine.ma is documenting significant phases in Indian film history with annotated sections on Bombay Talkies, Communist Films, and Indian New Cinema. The exponential collection of Indian films ranging from early silent Phalke films to Keralan cinema showcases the astonishing output of Indian cinema. Indiancine.ma’s canon on Parallel Cinema which they title ‘Indian New Cinema’ is a comprehensive undertaking and is one I have used as a starting point for my own attempt to rewrite the canon.

Contentiously I have decided to also include films made within the Bombay film industry to not only suggest the wider impact of Parallel Cinema but also how new experiments with film was happening at the same time and across many regions and industries. In some cases, I have decided to include films such as Anand largely because of the authorial claim and significance of directors such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee who occupy the territory of Middle Cinema, an altogether fuzzy category that one could certainly argue extends out from Parallel Cinema and really comes to prominence 1973 onwards, after the success of Benegal’s Ankur, one of the first privately financed Parallel Cinema films to achieve commercial success on par with earlier films like Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. Rajadhyaksha and Willemen note Maya Darpan (1972) was an early high point for Parallel Cinema: ‘Shahani’s extraordinary but controversial debut feature marks both the culmination and the end of the brief NFDC-sponsored renewal of Indian cinema’ (Rajadhyaksha & Willemen, 413). I would disagree though. While Maya Darpan is a key film in the developmental phase of Parallel Cinema, I can understand why Rajadhyaksha & Willemen would argue it is a culmination. Up to 1972, 27 films had been made, not all were released though, many with the involvement of the FFC. Whether the limits of experimentation had been reached within that short timeframe is debatable but what does make sense is the way film movements happen fleetingly, are rarely ever sustained over a long period. And certainly framing Parallel Cinema as a movement lasting between 1968 to 1972 has some logic to it in the wider international understanding of film movements.

Nonetheless, I would argue differently. Indian Parallel Cinema was unlike any other film movement since it was nurtured and supported by the state. And it was not until the mid 1970s with the Emergency and the rewriting of the FFC criteria did Parallel Cinema mutate and transform. It is contentious Parallel Cinema was more or less dead by the mid 1980s, largely because of the emergence of television and Doordarshan. But since the NFDC supported independent, alternative cinema in India well into the 1990s complicates the chronology of Parallel Cinema further. As I will argue in later posts, perhaps the decisive factor for me in helping to determine the demise of Parallel Cinema was the radical political and economic shifts that took place in the early to mid 1990s particularly with the rise of Hindu nationalism and the conceptualization of Bollywood as global entity.

The danger of canonizing Parallel Cinema is essentialism, reducing a plurality to one giant cinematic epilogue. Historian Oswald Spengler has argued that history should be seen as organic. There are lots of branches representing different, competing voices. Although a film canon of this nature can be reductive in moving away from this very notion posited by Spengler, I would suggest a canon can also offer a cursory roadmap to the vast extents and riches of Parallel Cinema. Furthermore, what the canon allows us to see, from a distance, is the different regional streams, intervening and conversing with each other, attempting to reshape the very language of cinema in India. Once could just as easily make the case for Bengali Parallel Cinema or Keralan Parallel Cinema. But, primarily, canonizing Parallel Cinema contests the legitimacy and hegemonic ways in which a history of Indian cinema has been written about, challenging a linear historiography which has often been dominated by popular Hindi cinema (namely Bollywood) and pointing to the numerous innovative diversions Indian cinema has taken along the way. Indian Parallel Cinema smashed the centre, politically and aesthetically, and what this canon demonstrates is the birth of a postcolonial cultural engagement and history in which narratives were told from below, thereby, for instance, reshaping parochial constructions of gender.

Here is the first part of a canon on Indian Parallel Cinema:

A Film Canon: Indian Parallel Cinema

(1). The Foundational Years/Developmental Phase (1968 – 1974)

1. Apanjan dir. Tapan Sinha, 1968, Bengali
2. Aranyer Din Ratri/Days and Nights in the Forest dir. Satyajit Ray, 1969, Bengali
3. Bhuvan Shome, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, Hindi
4. Ittefaq dir. Yash Chopra, 1969, Hindi
5. Olavum Theeravum/Waves and Shores, dir. P. N. Menon, 1969, Malayalam
6. Sara Akash/The Whole Sky, dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1969, Hindi
7. Satyakam dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1969, Hindi
8. Uski Roti/A Day’s Bread, dir. Mani Kaul, 1969, Hindi
9. Anand, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1970, Hindi
10. Dastak, dir. Rajinder Singh Bedi, 1970, Hindi
11. Interview, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1970, Bengali
12. Gejje Pooje/The Mock Marriage, dir. S. R. Puttana Kangal, 1970, Kannada
13. Pratidwandi/The Adversary, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1970, Bengali
14. Sagina Mahato, dir. Tapan Sinha, 1970, Bengali
15. Samskara/Funeral Rites, dir. Pattabhi Rama Reddy, 1970, Kannada
16. Anubhav, dir. Basu Bhattacharya, 1971, Hindi
17. Ashad Ka Ek Din/A Monsoon Day, dir. Mani Kaul, 1971, Hindi
18. Ek Adhuri Kahani/An Unfinished Story, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1971, Hindi
19. Guddi/Darling Child, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1971, Hindi
20. Mere Apne, dir. Gulzar, 1971, Hindi (remake of Apanjan)
21. Seemabaddha/Company Limited, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1971, Bengali
22. Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe/Silence! The Court is in Session, dir. Satyadev Dubey, 1971, Marathi
23. Sharapanjara, dir. S.R. Puttana Kanagal, 1971, Kannada
24. Vamsha Vriksha, dir. B.V. Karanth & Girish Karnad, 1971, Kannada
25. Vidyarthikale Ithile Ithile/This Ways Students, dir. John Abraham, 1971, Malayalam
26. Bangarada Manushya, dir. Siddalingaiah, 1972, Kannada
27. Calcutta 71, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, Bengali
28. Maya Darpan/Mirror of Illusion, dir. Kumar Shahani, 1972, Hindi
29. Nine months to Freedom: The story of Bangladesh, dir. S. Sukhdev, 1972, English
30. Swayamvaram/One’s Own Choice, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1972, Malayalam
31. Ankur/The Seedling, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1973, Hindi
32. Ashani Sanket/Distant Thunder, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1973, Bengali
33. Duvidha/In Two Minds, dir. Mani Kaul, 1973, Hindi
34. Garam Hawa/Hot Winds, dir. M.S. Sathyu, 1973, Urdu
35. Kaadu, dir. Girish Karnad, 1973, Kannada
36. Nirmalayam/The Offering, dir. M.T. Vasudevan Nair, 1973, Malayalam
37. Padatik/The Guerrilla Fighter, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1973, Bengali
38. Titash Ekti Nadir Naam/A River Named Titash, dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1973, Bengali
39. 27 Down/Sattawis Down, dir. Avtar Krishna Kaul, 1973, Hindi
40. Abhimaan, dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1973, Hindi
41. Chorus, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1974, Bengali
42. Jukti Takko Aar Gappo/Reason, Debate and a Story, dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1974, Bengali
43. Rajanigandha/Tube Rose, dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1974, Hindi
44. Sonar Kella/The Golden Fortress, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1974, Bengali
45. Avishkaar, dir. Basu Bhattacharya, 1974, Hindi
46. Uttarayanam/Throne of Capricorn, dir. G. Aravindan, 1974, Malayalam

Many of these films are available on DVD/YouTube, etc. but generally the quality of the prints vary and so does the subtitling. Indiancine.ma is an excellent source for many of these films and they are continually adding new films with far superior subtitling. The long term utopian goal is to try and convince home video distributors to begin making these films available in more adequate releases/formats.

References: 

Andrew, Dudley, Of Canons and Quietism: Dudley Andrew Responds to Janet Staiger’s “The Politics of Film Canons” (“Cinema Journal, “Spring 1985), Cinema Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 55-58

Lupo, Jonathan, Loaded Canons: Contemporary Film Canons, Film Studies, and Film Discourse, The Journal of American Culture, Vol. 34 Issue 3, September 2011

Staiger, Janet, The Politics of Film Canons, Cinema Journal Vol. 24, No. 3 (Spring 1985), pp. 4-23

Vasudev, A. (1986) The New Indian Cinema, New Delhi: Macmillan India

Vasudev, A. (ed.) (1995), Frames of Mind: Reflections on Indian Cinema, New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors

OM PURI (1950 – 2017) The Cosmopolitan-Parallel Cinema Actor

Actor Om Puri in film ARDH SATYA. Express archive photo

The film career of Om Puri is worth more than East is East. But since East is East is the film that first introduced a new generation of film audiences in the West to Om Puri as an actor, it also becomes a blockage to his rich and varied accomplishments. Film critic and writer Aseem Chhabra has been one of the few who has noted that Om Puri did not get the recognition that he deserved for the many great performances he gave over his career. And later in his career was all but forgotten by the Indian film industry in terms of the types of roles that should have come his way.

Before Om Puri branched out as a cosmopolitan Indian film actor, it was the earlier phase of his career, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, where we find him at his most productive, creative and accomplished. It was his formative associations with Indian Parallel Cinema, particularly in the second phase when the NFDC came to fruition, which saw Om Puri emerge as a notably gifted and versatile actor. Since he understood theatre, his grasp of acting was extenuated through his command of language and capacity to bring elegance to the grimmest of roles. Om Puri also cultivated elegance to his delivery of dialogue, his reasoned, impassioned voice becoming a major feature of his performances. If we are to appreciate the genuine talent of Om Puri then his contributions to the development of Indian Parallel Cinema also need to be celebrated, revered and viewed in the same light as East is East and other American and British films that he starred in.

One only needs to return to the first ten years of Om Puri’s acting career to realise his brilliance as an actor. It was with the 1986 police crime thriller Ardh Satya in which he was the main lead that brought critical acclaim. The collaboration he formed with Govind Nihalani beginning with Aakrosh in 1980 and culminating in the seminal TV series Tamas in 1986 is a formidable actor-director partnership that often gets overlooked in the history of Indian cinema. Om Puri never really emerged as a leading man, perhaps stemming from a refusal to adopt the persona of a film star. Instead, he excelled as both a remarkably adroit character actor who was never afraid of embracing supporting roles.

Om Puri was also part of a troupe of Parallel Cinema actors who all emerged around the same time, the late 1970s, including Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil. This formidable ensemble including Om Puri nurtured an exceptional political sensibility that was reflected in their choice of films as Parallel Cinema often pointed to a leftist socio-political mode of enquiry. But being political for Om Puri was not merely a temporary state of being nor a singular reaction to the socio-political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s in India. Om Puri remained political throughout his career, speaking out against the establishment, most recently rubbished by the mainstream Indian media for his outmoded liberalism.

As Parallel Cinema started to dwindle in the late 1980s, Om Puri, like many of the Parallel Cinema ensemble, realised (or were sort of compelled to) they had to alternate between art cinema and the mainstream to sustain their acting careers. Om Puri’s associations with British cinema stretch back to the mid 1980s when he had a supporting role in the British TV series The Jewel in the Crown. Prior to this he had also starred in the lacklustre Gandhi by Richard Attenborough. The 1994 film In Custody, starring Shashi Kapoor and directed by Ismail Merchant, seemed to point to Om Puri crossing over into potentially British and American cinema.

And it was the two films Om Puri made with director Udayan Prasad in the 1990s – Brothers in Trouble (1995) and My Son the Fanatic (1997) that finally saw him transcend his status as an Indian film actor, cultivating a broader cosmopolitan identity that put him in good standing with global cinema. Both of these brilliant films, never really talked about today, offer rare insights into the South Asian diaspora experience, exploring anxieties to do with identity, belonging and British Asian culture often glanced over in British cinema or completely marginalized. It was with East is East (overrated in my opinion) in 1999 that Om Puri achieved international recognition, a film that has unfortunately eclipsed the substantial Parallel Cinema output and also his abundant contributions to popular Hindi cinema that went before. My Son the Fanatic is the film that needs reclaiming in Om Puri’s British cinema output, as this is the performance that defined his revival in the late 1990s. Nonetheless, East is East showcased Om Puri’s brilliant comic timing, yet another dimension to his acting skills, which had been witnessed in earlier films such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983).

I have gathered together some writings on the films of Om Puri which in my opinion offers a glance at his Parallel Cinema output, arguably his most creative and substantial:

Ardh Satya / Half-Truth (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-18k 

Mirch Masala / A Touch of Spice (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1987, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-13J 

Ghashiram Kotwal (Dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-UY 

Dharavi / Quicksand (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1992, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-4K 

Party (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1984, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-3n

Sadgati / Deliverance (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-3n

Aghaat / Anguish (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1985, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-ns 

27 DOWN (Dir. Awtar Krishna Kaul, 1974, India) – ‘I just wish to walk…’

27 Down, the only film directed by Awtar Krishna Kaul, before his premature death is one of the great moments in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema. This was the first wave of Parallel Cinema before the FFC criteria was redefined in the mid 1970s because of protestations concerning the types of films being funded were either too esoteric or avant-garde for the tastes of Indian film audiences. 27 Down is about Sanjay (M. K. Raina), a young aspirational man, who is pressured into becoming a train conductor by his lonely and obstinate father (Om Shivpuri). The film’s narrative is structured around a series of flashbacks narrated by Sanjay as he journeys on 27 Down, the Bombay-Varanasi Express. With a naturalistic production design by Bansi Chandragupta, a regular collaborator with Satyajit Ray, and luminous black and white cinematography by Apurba Kishore Bir for which he won a National Award, 27 Down is very much a study of loneliness, regret and indeterminacy. An existential dimension is explicated through Sanjay’s introspective voice over, used to coincide with the iconographic use of the train, here very much a symbol of Sanjay’s transient state. More communicative than the fetishisation of the railway and train is the benign romance between Sanjay and Shalini (Rakhee), depicted as an almost organic development that takes each of them by real surprise.

Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father.

Conclusively, Sanjay does not know what he wants from life; he keeps asking the same questions and it is only at the end does he come to accept that his life is a cyclical diatribe of suffering from which he cannot escape. Sanjay gives up Shalini for a crippling ordinariness but it is a decision augmented by the woes of tradition and a painful generational gap that he is not courageous enough to smash.

27 DOWN will be screening on Zee Classic Sat 24 Sept at 10pm

MAMMO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1994, India)

mammo

When Khalid Mohamed, editor of Filmfare and journalist, wrote a piece on his great aunt in the Times of India he had no idea that Benegal would eventually convince Mohamed to write a screenplay based on the idea. This was made altogether unusual since Mohamed was not the greatest fan of Benegal’s cinema. Mammo (1994) would be the first of three films, all written by Khalid Mohamed, in which Benegal explored the fractured lives of three women from Muslim families. The story of Mammo revolves around the character of Mehmooda Begum (Farida Jalal) – a displaced Muslim woman who doesn’t quite know where she belongs anymore, a victim of partition and someone searching for an identity in an uncertain Bombay in which secularism has started to fade. Thrown out by her relatives in Pakistan, Mammo comes to Bombay, staying with her widowed sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her 13yr old nephew Riyaz (Amit Phalke) from whose point of the view the story is narrated.

There was no plan for a trilogy but along with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, Benegal’s ‘Muslim Trilogy’ is unique to Indian cinema but perhaps less so in the context of Parallel Cinema which had since its birth in the late 1960s at least attempted to make more films on the subject of partition while also re-presenting the lives of Indian Muslims in an altogether convincing and sympathetic way – Garam Hawa the most notable example. The first film in the trilogy, Mammo, was made in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay Riots of 1992. The post-Ayodhya context of Mammo gives the film a particularly significant ideological resonance. Benegal and Mohamed’s depiction of the oppressed Muslim minority is one that contravenes the often stereotyped representations found in popular Hindi cinema; the overly marked presence of the token Muslim character. Instead, Mammo and other Muslim characters are psychologically complex, have an inner life that we get to see and are often shown in the process of negotiating, contesting their Muslim identity.

Benegal’s output is staggering, comparable to Satyajit Ray in many respects, although I would argue Benegal took on many more controversial and difficult topics and stories over his career, and constantly adapted his style and themes to account for social and political changes in society. Moreover, I can’t think of any other Indian filmmaker over the past 40 years who has constantly engaged with the stories of Indian women, offering a voice to subaltern lives which are continually blotted out in the mainstream. Mammo comes very late in the history of Parallel Cinema and in some respects is a film representative of both Middle Cinema Benegal was often associated with and the Hindi melodrama, returning to classic films such as Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Indeed, Mammo is one of Benegal’s least seen works, a poignantly crafted tale about belonging, borders and identity.