SALIM LANGDE PE MAT RO / Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1989, India)

Kutte Ki Maut…’ (A Dog’s Death)

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Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro is one of Mirza’s most respective films, exploring his own identity as an Indian Muslim. In terms of research, Mirza spent time in the deprived milieu of Bombay, interviewing many hoodlums and rogues, all of which explicate a marked authenticity in the final film. This is a film about the street, and is dedicated to influential street theatre activist and Marxist-communist Safdar Hashmi, murdered in Jan 1989 by Congress thugs. Whereas both Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem (1995) can certainly be inferred as a rejoinder to the upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism, consolidating tragically in the mid 1990s with the Babri Masjid demolition, the pseudo documentary style makes the representation of the Muslim community altogether exceptional in contrast to the largely deleterious representations perpetuated by mainstream Hindi cinema. But this is a film not solely about the Indian Muslim experience; Mirza uses this doctrinally sensitive issue to explicate a deeper political fragmentation, the perpetual displacement of an Indian underclass. It is significant to note that Mirza has said the 1984 Bhiwandi riots are a catalyst for the both the anti-Muslim sentiments portrayed in the film and the emerging communal politics of the late 1980s that was being shaped by the rapid ascent of Hindutva violence.

The central character in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro plays up to the archetype of the streetwise, narcissistic rogue and impish Tapoori but is complexly drawn, emerging as a deeply contradictory figure with a profoundly despairing point of view. Salim, played with a riotously anarchic streak by Pawan Malhotra, terribly underrated as an actor, in a breakthrough role, performs the role of a wannabe local hoodlum. Mirza’s sense of milieu is devoid of any kind of cinematic romanticism and the decision to shoot in the working class district of Mumbai foregrounds the iconography of the street to take on a wider symbol of class struggle. There were a number of films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Dharavi (1992) and Salaam Bombay! (1988), that architecturally broadened the dynamics of the Bombay filmic space, reconfiguring the passé spatial figurations of classic Hindi cinema. The urban slum often displaced from cinema is re-centred as a form of ideological inquiry in Mirza’s Bombay. The street as a communal place, explicating a complicated bind of ethnic, religious and caste differences was first explored by Mirza and Kundan Shah in Nukkad, the seminal Doordarshan TV series, and is a key spatial and thematic feature in the film.

The call for tolerance, understanding and religious harmony is advocated strongly through the sequence in which an activist/filmmaker, a clear reference to Anand Patwardhan, screens a documentary in the basti on the aftermath of the Bhiwandi (narrated by Naseeruddin Shah) riots and the political realities of communalism. It is a sobering political sequence in the history of Parallel Cinema, pedagogically articulated and with a didactic clarity of which an authorial political protestation links Mirza’s work with Hamara Shahar (1985) and Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? (1986). Ethnic violence was quite high at the time of the film’s release and with the cataclysmic events of Ayodhya only a few years away, the politics of nationalism that lurk sinisterly in the background seem to make a direct ideological correlation between Salim’s poverty and the endemic religious hatred propagated by the state. Salim does choose to reform at the end, taking up a legitimate job and arranging his sister’s wedding, but his death that comes at the hands of an old enemy bleakly suggests the Muslim community in Bombay exists precociously on the precipice of life and death. The sense of loss in Mirza’s film registers palpably but it is allusively denoted, creating an indescribably wretched dissonance.

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 30 July at 10pm

AMMA ARIYAN (Report to Mother) Dir. John Abraham, 1986, Malayalam

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You know me, Mother, don’t you.
You know everything about me.
I will keep you informed about everything that I come across,
until the end of the journey.
Just see for yourself,
my paths; the sights that have been waiting me on my way…
Lives have been sacrificed all through this deserted path of mine.

I am currently in the throes of research for my PhD project on Indian Parallel Cinema and have started to view films that I may potentially use for my thesis. Amma Ariyan holds somewhat of a Holy Grail status for me. I had always wanted to see this final film by Malayalam director John Abraham but whenever I stumbled upon copies they were always unwatchable. I really can’t believe I have waited such a long time to see Amma Ariyan, and what a film it is. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, Amma Ariyan is located amongst the second wave of Malayalam cinema and John Abraham’s emergence coincided with the international success of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a leading light of the movement. I am declaring it a masterpiece because I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the canon of regional parallel cinema, Indian art cinema or more broadly speaking in the field of Indian cinema.

While some contend Hindi cinema entered one of its worst periods in the 1980s, although I am not persuaded by such an argument especially when you reason Parallel Cinema was at its peak, in Malayalam Cinema there was a ‘qualitative growth’ brought on by ‘Film Cooperatives, the harbinger of which was the Chitralekha cooperative which commissioned a full fledged production complex for struggling filmmakers on the outskirts of Trivandrum’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). Furthermore, the collective reach of a new generation of filmmakers who opted for low budgets and location shooting helped Malayalam Cinema break away from the Madras film industry and ‘establish its own identity in Kerala’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). The more I look at Malayalam Cinema in the 1970s and beyond it is clear there was an ideological engagement with politics on a didactic level that led to some very polemical works. The willingness to engage with political themes of the day articulates the political literacy and politicization of life in Kerala itself.

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John Abraham only made four films before he suddenly passed away in 1987. He hailed from a middle class orthodox family, although his father ‘used to be associated with an underground political movement’, and he started watching films at the age of 15 which ignited an interest in cinema. Joining the Pune Film Institute in 1965 John Abraham worked as an assistant for Mani Kaul on Uski Roti, a film that he later admitted was a formalist exercise, accusing Kaul of having ‘drained out the sentimentalism’ from the story. Strangely enough the temporal-spatial disjuncture of Kaul is present in the elliptical frissions of Amma Ariyan. It was the Bengali triptych of Ray, Ghatak and Sen who had a major influence on his approach to cinema and one can witness such influences in Amma Ariyan’s hybridity, discordantly mixing tradition, radicalism and morality into a loose, episodic stream of consciousness. The international influences are just as discernable especially in the astonishing handheld, deep focus camerawork that recalls both Third Cinema (this could be regarded as a film about the process of decolonization) and Cuban Cinema including Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba/I am Cuba (1964). Abraham’s major achievement was not his films but the ‘Odessa Movies’ collective, which he helped to form in 1984 as a way of working in parallel to the mainstream and offering alternate distribution-exhibition provision. It also meant Odessa were able to screen alternate Indian films in schools and other public places in the context of film education: ‘Once we screened Potemkin in a bus stand. Around 1500 people came to watch it’, recollects John Abraham. In fact, financing for Amma Ariyan was raised through the 16mm films that Odessa distributed, collecting Rs 10 from viewers. This was grassroots cinema indeed and in some respects Amma Ariyan does feel close to Third Cinema especially in terms of its staunchly Marxist address. Here is John Abraham on the rationale behind making Amma Ariyan:

‘Despite all theories and philosophies, our culture teaches us that the destruction of the woman/the mother results in the destruction of humanity. This was the idea behind Amma Ariyan. I believe that mothers should be told about the problems that we face in our lives as men. Their responses to them might offer solutions to a lot of them. In other words, without awakening our mothers, it is impossible to achieve our goals. All our epics tell us the same. The materialistic world modern seems to have forgotten this’.

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The story of Amma Ariyan is set against the backdrop of Kerala in which the Naxalite movement had petered out and the cost of political extremism was being measured and reflected upon especially by a directionless youth. One such youth is Purushan (Joy Mathew), a bearded, introspective cipher. He is on his way to Delhi when he sees the dead body of Hari, a percussionist (tabla player) and political Naxalite activist. At first Purushan is unable to identify the body, as he is not entirely sure if it is Hari. As he begins his journey to inform Hari’s mother of her son’s death he calls upon Hari’s friends who not only confirm the dead body is that of Hari but also unite with him in marching to Cochin to deliver the news. John Abraham says the ‘the film is structured as chapters in the form of reports’, which are typically delivered from the perspective of a character that segues into a flashback detailing their own memories of political histories and of Hari. Abraham embues the film with mysticism, using elisions in the editing, through the flashbacks, inserts, juxtapositions of nature, digressions into monologues, creating an organic rhythm. Purushan’s determination to inform Hari’s mother raises a collective that works as a breathless political image: their animated presence punctuating the rural landscapes in what becomes a road movie narrative. The reports come together as a record of dissent, resistance and injustice, but it is always dissent that Abraham celebrates in many of the reports such as the recollection of workers taking back rice and sugar from the capitalist merchants and redistributing at a fair price.

In what is one of the great endings I have come across to an Indian film, the group of young men who have marched to Cochin to deliver the terrible news of Hari’s death, most probably at the hands of the police, culminates in Abraham’s realisation of ‘awakening’ matriarchy by having Hari’s mother turn to the camera with the men crowded behind her, metonymically speaking the sons of Mother India, removing her spectacles to wipe away the tears. As she does so, Abraham cuts to a cinema screen replaying the same moment to what appears to be an audience of spectators. Cinema, reality, politics, coalesce, shattering to reveal an empty void, a terrifying silence, but an illusion, far out of our grasp, and its like Abraham seems to be laughing at us, for having thought that any semblance of optimism might exist is simply obfuscated by drawing on the cruelty of a self reflexive gesture. Like Ghatak and Shahani before him, John Abraham most pertinently draws on the epic form. In fact, this is a cinema about ‘walking’, an action that Abraham embues with a blatant political value. I have merely touched the surface of what is an extraordinary work, a complex one that demands further analysis, distribution and canonization.

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JANG AUR AMAN / WAR AND PEACE (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2002, India)

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In November I will deliver a paper at the University of Salford on the ostracism of Indian cinema in cinephilia. If Indian DVD labels have categorically failed to distribute films adequately to the consumer then filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan who has only the most tenuous of links with the Indian film industry has worked independently to make documentaries and distribute his work through his website. Patwardhan’s work has been available for a while in India and he has always been careful to whom he licenses his work. Patwardhan’s documentaries have been screened in the UK at film festivals and he most recently toured with Jai Bhim Comrade, participating in a masterclass at the Sheffield Doc Fest. Nonetheless, getting to see his work has been problematic in the past. Some of his early work including his shorter documentaries is on YouTube.

The UK release of War and Peace, Patwardhan’s critically acclaimed 2002 documentary on the nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, made available for the first time on home video by Second Run, a specialist UK DVD label, has bravely released four major Indian films since they started ten years ago in 2005. This may seem slight compared to the many European films they have released on DVD but when you put a stellar label like Second Run up against Arrow Video, Masters of Cinema and many of the other major specialist labels then Second Run having introduced the films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and now Anand Patwardhan to UK film audiences is a major achievement indeed. Second Run also released Celluloid Man, a tribute to Indian film archivist P. K. Nair, in 2014, directed by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a leading figure in the contest for Indian film preservation. The DVD of War and Peace includes a newly recorded interview with Patwardhan, a debate that was aired on Pakistani TV after the documentary was broadcast and deleted scenes. Also included is a booklet of essays featuring an interview with Mark Cousins, a supporter of Patwardhan.

Since Patwardhan is a social activist who has campaigned against the many of the injustices he has documented his uncomplicated approach to filmmaking makes his work very accessible. Though War and Peace focuses on the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan that reached its peak during the Kargil war, Patwardhan’s journey is a global one, which sees him go to both America and Japan, exploring the terrifying legacy of the Atomic age. Patwardhan made War and Peace over four years and it is an exhaustive work, touching on casteism, fundamentalism, propaganda, corruption and the toxic fustian jingoism of the BJP, a right wing political party sadly back in power in India under the dubious leadership of Modi, a man who stoked the fires of communalism in Gujarat. War and Peace belongs in the canon of great documentaries and so does Patwardhan who continues to be a defiantly radical figure in the world of documentary cinema, actively raising the ire of the global elite for his unquestionably resolute collectivist politics. It is Patwardhan’s interviews with the ordinary people of India and Pakistan that reveal an essential truth, pointing to an underlying class struggle glossed over by the machinations of mixing nationalism with religion. War and Peace shows hegemony at work, the enforcement of the status quo, and the conservation of a disquieting cross border social and political paralysis.

NIZHALKUTHU / SHADOW KILL (Dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 2002, India)

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Grimness evades the essence of this quasi-horror film recalling the disquieting ugliness caught wholly in Kieslowski’s A Short film about Killing, a haunting tale about the dreads of capital punishment. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s 2001 film Shadow Kill examines the story of an executioner (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) in British colonial India suffering from the insurmountable crises of guilt, loyalty and death. Rituals dominate in what is an exercise in non-linear subjectivity as the story of the servile executioner collides with the swadeshi politics of his son, a Gandhi convert. One such ritual is the physical and symbolic entity of the rope, politicising the narrative with a multiplicity, framing the creation of the rope by prisoners, and later appropriated for superstitious intents by the executioner as a kind of religious science. The film enters a terrifying domain in the last third when a jailer tells the story of the rape of a young girl, filtered through the horrific imaginings of the executioner, culminating in the suggestion the boy about to be hanged is in fact innocent. Gopalakrishnan is a master at evoking and sustaining mood, an authorial instinct which he has repeatedly returned to in many of his best films. While melodrama is a salient genre marker, horror seems almost an unlikely category until you recognise the iconography of death lingers portentously throughout this primordial tale of woe.

KYA HUA IS SHAHAR KO? / WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS CITY? (Dir. Deepa Dhanraj, 1986, India)

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In the accompanying notes found in the booklet to Arsenal’s (Institute for Film and Video Art) DVD release of Deepa Dhanraj’s 1986 Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? it says that this work is more than just a documentary but

‘might very well be the only audio-visual record of communal violence and its political context in the mid 1980s’.

Not only does this underline the intervening activism of Hyderabad Ekta in trying to account for the surge of communal violence in the city of Hyderabad in the 1980s but it emphasised the lack of accountability for the crimes perpetrated by Muslim and Hindu religious and political parties in their contest for power. What makes this work altogether more unique is that it is perhaps

‘the only independent, non-state funded documentary film engaging with the specific events it follows and analyses’.

Although Deepa Dhanraj is credited as director, the film opens with Dhanraj sharing directorial credits with cinematographer Navroze Contractor and Keshav Rao Jadhav (script & commentary), reiterating the altruistic nature of the group and the risks that they took in order to catalogue as much of the riots and their aftermath. The extras which includes video interviews with the crew is tremendously important in helping to contextualise the work, offering a historical overview and presenting Dhanraj’s insightful critical reappraisal of the documentary, arguing her militant ending would be framed more progressively today. The legacy of this work is that it not only critiques the way religious demagoguery manipulates the sentiments of the working class in the old city of Hyderabad but perpetuates an imaginary division between Hindus and Muslims that has led to the dangerous consolidation of Hindutva as a political entity. Interviews with the victims of communal violence through an observational approach in fact exposes yet again the horrors of poverty affecting all people.

Filmmaker, feminist (she is certainly one of the few filmmakers to have given a voice to the working class women of India especially lower caste and peasant women who are rendered invisible by the media at large) and activist Deepa Dhanraj has made many documentaries over the years but this is the first work I have come across. She seems to have been blotted out of the discourse on Indian cinema. Unsurprisingly we have yet to have had a major study or academic publication on documentaries from Indian cinema especially the progressive activist work. I think much of Dhanraj’s work is not available on DVD but a search on the Internet threw up some interesting finds which I have listed below. Her IMDB page only lists three documentaries which is at odds with other articles written about her work. Either way, her work definitely needs to be made available more widely since like Anand Patwardhan counter hegemonic studies of communalism, demagoguery and the secret crimes committed by the Indian government against the marginalised are ever so relevant given Modi’s terrifyingly benign crypto-fascist ideologies. Thankfully, Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? has been salvaged from the past and deserves its place amongst some of Indian cinema’s most urgent political works. The documentary was also screened at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2013 as part of their celebration of 100 years of Indian Cinema.


1. Something Like a War (1991) – focuses on the coerced sterilization of women in India


2. The Forgotten Generation (2013)

In The Forgotten Generation older people aged over 60 in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra reveal the realities of their lives, relationships and work as well as their expectations of the future. We learn how they manoeuvre within tight constraints to create new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families and friends and how targeted social pensions are producing Kafka-esque encounters with the State. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)


3. The Advocate – based on the life of KG Kannabiran, India’s foremost champion of civil liberties and human rights


4. We’re Still Working (2014)

Unseating the assumption of old age dependency, We’re Still Working, reveals the extent to which families, communities and India itself rely on older people’s work. Shot in urban Tamil Nadu, rural Rajasthan and tribal Maharashtra the film makers argue that people aged over 60 are shouldering the burden of India’s economic development by providing low-cost labour that makes India competitive in the global market. Yet, older people’s work and their moral and legal rights as workers, citizens and people remain unacknowledged. (synopsis by penny Vera-Sanso)

BITTER LAKE (Adam Curtis, 2015, UK)

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Man + Bird = Birdman or Manbird?

Bitter Lake is a work that has already been peculiarly played out in our subconscious with a saturnine oddity. Yet it is the non-linearity of political ideas as narrated to us by the mainstream media that Curtis salvages, excavating the past, connecting the dots. By offering us a glimpse into the system, the machine, the epoch of our times, which we would rather forget, a tortuous historiography emerges that slays the now with something much more terrifying: that fatalism and hegemony are inseparable. This is a fable, parable, and thesis on the story of Afghanistan. It could even be a dream; the hyper reality of the archive footage and the hypnotic simulacra exhibited intercut with a rifling voice over signifying an imaginary realm subject to all degrees of hyperbole could only be contemporaneous of news culture. Curtis hypothesises Wahhabism, a religious orthodoxy and cult, as an ideological contest in the Islamic world with which the Western power elite has reconciled, obscured and inadvertently help to flourish as a form of religious and political demagoguery. The nightmarish poetry of Bitter Lake comes from Curtis’ soundscapes that have in the past borrowed copiously from John Carpenter to Brian Eno, discordantly intervening to unsettle. Since Curtis relies solely on archive news footage we are left with an image of Afghanistan that is suspiciously monolithic and even alien reiterating an aura of opacity contiguous to the war. An idea of labelling something postmodern appears defunct yet Curtis’ work captures our age of uncertainty with a notably judicious political logic that is neither didactic nor altruistic but altogether more horrific.

CHAURANGA / FOUR COLOURS (Dir. Bikas Ranjan Mishra, 2014, India)

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Synopsis: A fourteen year old dalit boy is growing up in an unnamed corner of India. His dream is to go to a town school like his elder brother and his reality is to look after the pig that his family owns. His only escape is to sit atop a Jamun tree and adore his beloved passing by on her scooter. His unspoken love is as true as his mother’s helplessness who cleans the cowsheds of the local strongman’s mansion, with whom she also has a secret liaison. When the boy’s elder brother comes on a vacation to the village, he soon finds out about his younger brother’s infatuation. The learned elder brother makes him realize the need to express his love and helps him write a love letter.

(http://www.anticlockfilms.com/films/chauranga)

I’ve been considering what to say about this film for a few weeks now but still cannot find the clearest way to express my thoughts. The film deals with feudal caste politics in an Indian village. What it is clearly trying to do is recall the films of parallel cinema which were interested in Subaltern ideology and representation. Chauranga is closest to the cinema of Shyam Benegal and particularly recalls Ankur. Similarly, the maid servant who is enslaved to the local Brahim family is readily exploited for sex while her two sons are mistreated by the upper caste Brahim boys who roam the village with pernicious impunity. Writer-Director Bikas Mishra does what Benegal did regularly in many of his early films that can be positioned within the sphere of subalternity, he humanises the powerful and the powerless but in a subtle twist on a familiar tale of rural caste oppression Mishra brings in a touch of providence that complicates the tragedy that befalls late in the film.

Rest assured Mishra aligns himself with the Dalits and is especially interested in the narrative perspective of the two boys and their differing personalities; one wants to study abroad while the other is an outright rebel who refuses to be subjugated like his mother. Mishra’s benign depiction of the Brahmin family in which an ancient brand of violent patriarchy breeds is especially disturbing since an unspoken nexus of oppression exists amongst the men that is never questioned; it is natural and normal for them. Since Dhaniya’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee dependable as ever) death is framed ambiguously makes it difficult for us an audience to pass a judgement on Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the Brahim patriarch but when Dhaval, by chance, intercepts the love letter which older brother (Riddhi Sen) writes in jest for his younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) who is in love with a Brahmin girl, it offers Dhaval the opportunity to annhilate his crimes by expunging the Dalit family from the village. Incensed by Santu’s innocent propositions to his daughter, Dhaval sanctions the violence enacted against Dhaniya’s children. What comes to the surface are caste tensions, exploding into brutality, recalling yet again the cinema of Benegal and his rural trilogy including Ankur, Nishant and Manthan. Another link to parallel cinema is the presence of Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee (Padatik, Pratidwandi, Akaler Sandhane) who plays a blind priest.

Something that Benegal refused to do in many of his films in which he brought to light subaltern exploitation was to never present Dalits as completely subjugated. Instead he often showed the subaltern as a political force resisting, fighting back and challenging the status quo. Perhaps this was a little idealistic and never truly depicted the cruel reality of caste politics, that they could not fight back, that they simply had to get on with things. Mishra advocates such a truism and it is a painful one but one that seems altogether appropriate for the poignant note on which he ends. Santu escapes, unlike his older brother, but as he looks back at the village on the train we get the sense he has never been any lonelier. It’s a parallel cinema ending, a homage of sorts that works as social protest while articulating an underplayed belief that Santu’s escape is almost necessary, that the best thing for him is to remove himself completely from the village as this will at least let him live without the fear of being persecuted. Nonetheless, Santu’s future’s is equally uncertain now and one thing is for sure, no matter where he goes he will always be invisible. This is a terrible truth that Mishra does brilliantly to expose.