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?

PINK (Dir. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, 2016, India) – Gestural Cinema

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Stylistically and structurally Pink is a fairly parochial work. Where it resonates is in the ideological mode of address, polemicizing contemporaneous gender politics in which the norms of gender behaviour are regulated by a regressive culture of misogyny, corruption and privilege. Amitabh Bachchan has often functioned as a mediating figure and certainly in this respect he amplifies the sexual harassment suffered by three lower middle class Indian women, reminding us that when Amitabh spoke in the 1970s his miraculous baritone voice projected a ferocious anger that resonated with audiences. It still does. There is a terrifying and prescient rage in this film, like a punch in the face, directed towards the lack of dignity, respect and silencing of women in a society that has normalized sexual harassment, rape and violence, having completely forsaken the significance of body politics to the identity of women.

The later half of Pink unfolds in a courtroom, absorbing conventional elements of the courtroom drama. But the significance of allowing gender politics to be contested within the public space of the court transforms the space into a microcosmic site of the Nation. Besides the didactic blackboard politics, there is a gesture in the film that I found acutely communicative of the often-overlooked salience of micro-gestures (Adrian Martin, 2014), resonating with Giorgio Agamben’s (2000) proposition of a gestural cinema. Gestures, non-verbal communication is perfectly suited to the advanced visual literacy of popular Indian cinema yet rarely spoken about in relation to mise-en-scene analysis.

Deepak Sehgal (Amitabh Bachchan) and Minal Arora (Tapsee Pannu) are together in the park, an interlude that breaks up the courtroom machinations. The sequence actually begins with a master shot of Deepak on a bench, the loose framing extenuating his loneliness but more importantly indicating this public space of the park is a safe one, but perhaps only for men considering what transpires.

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Next as Deepak and Minal are walking, two young men walk past heading into the opposite direction, whispering indistinctly. It is obvious they are talking about Minal. Suddenly, what should be a safe public space for both men and women is rendered threatening for Minal who responds instinctively by raising her hood over her head. This act of concealment, a signifier of being shamed in public by a judgemental male gaze, momentarily renders her invisible. Her head down, Minal continues walking, accepting the public space is privileged for men, although she comes here to jog regularly. Deepak looks back hesitantly at the young men who continue walking away freely.

Next comes the gestural trice. Deepak reaches over, his arm entering the shot in which Minal is still walking, and casually flicks back Minal’s hood, undoing the concealment. It is an ideological gesture packed with political significance because by making Minal visible again not only reclaims the space as a public one, shared by both men and women, but lets Minal realise there is an individual ready to validate her identity as a woman and enough to question male privilege. However, much more than gender politics, the micro-gesture is a humanist one, relaying a compassion that Minal needs to see and feel.

This gesture, which I have magnified for the purposes of this brief analysis, tells us everything we need to know about Deepak’s compassionate character. Although he does not have the right to question the men in the park, given we cannot quite hear what is being said, he does challenge Minal’s subjugating act of concealment since to ignore this act is to also become part of the problem of perpetuating and normalising gender attitudes. In response, Minal’s facial expression, although hesitant, exhibits both a surprise and pride that someone respects her for who she is. Furthermore, Minal does not question the gesture, her silence confirms a tacit emotional understanding for Deepak’s intervention.

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The gesture of unveiling that which should not be hidden is a political one and resonates with Agamben’s discussions on working towards gestural cinema:

‘Agamben has developed a new theory of gestural cinema, arguing that the element of cinema is gesture and not image…cinema belongs to the realm of ethics and politics, and not aesthetics’ (Noys, 2004).

In this context, Deepak’s flicking of the hood becomes altogether potent as a site of ethical and political contestation, a struggle to reclaim identity. It is a remarkable cinematic gesture, one that has stayed with me. Crucially the sequence ends with Deepak walking alongside Minal, an image of solidarity and elementary in terms of its humanistic intent. Gestures can sometimes realise a break in the narrative, screaming out at us about the complicated psyche of human relations and behaviour. Popular Indian cinema does this more often than we give it credit and perhaps a closer examination of formal elements might point to a subterranean language of gestures. But this calls for a much broader shift, to look at the evolving visual literacy of Indian cinema as a whole and the ways in which it has developed over time.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (Dir. David Mackenzie, 2016, US)

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With a title straight out of a Sam Fuller film, Hell or High Water is a delicious neo-noir Western, or a ‘film soleil’ as film writer Adam Batty pointed out to me, unexpectedly emerging as one of the most political films of the year. The political sensibilities of Taylor Sheridan’s very brilliant script tap into a bankrupt American culture. Truly, this is a flea bitten, austerity world sympathetically drawn out through a sinewy, fatalistic narrative so the loathsome political iconography of banks, foreclosures and mortgages aggregates to an undeniably prescient and antagonistic context. As brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) shoot their way through a series of bank robberies so that they can raise enough money to save their mother’s ranch from being swallowed up whole by a demonic bank, the real monster of our times, one cannot but help feel they are strangely justified in their actions.

While Hell or High Water has a brooding ideological subtext, the film also deals in many of the familiar conventions of the Western genre, notably the archetypal buddy bromance between Texas Rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), played out with a piercing beauty all of its own. Director David Mackenzie seems to understand and explicate the psychology of men better than most directors of his generation. And in some ways Hell or High Water is a continuation of Starred Up (2013), pausing to probe at male deficiencies with a suitably philosophical gaze. In addition to all of this, you also get Jeff Bridges, the cinematic personification of self-effacement, expressing a distinctly classic Texas drawl. Hell or High Water, along with The Hateful Eight, reminds us yet again the Western genre is perhaps the one genre that can live and breathe in any era.

MOH MAYA MONEY / In Greed We Trust (Dir. Munish Bhardwaj, India, 2016) – Delhi Noir

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In the traditional film noir universe the destruction of the male protagonist is manifested in a downward spiral of paranoia, guilt and death. And it becomes a virtual impossibility to attain redemption. No matter what one does to rectify an earlier regret usually leads to certain calamity from which there is no return. Thematically, a noir continually invests in the psychology of power and desire, returning to a morality, which is often framed, in capitalistic terms. Marriage, betrayal, adultery, masculinity, and all of the above steadily rise to the surface in director Munish Bhardwaj’s gripping slice of Delhi noir, in which Aman (Ranvir Shorey), a contemptibly low life real estate broker, is sucked wholly into a whirlpool of greed. What makes this slice of urban noir somewhat idiosyncratic is the locale of an affluent Delhi middle class desperate to get ahead in a morally dubious neoliberal capitalist India. Everyone is flawed and so they should be, after all this is a noir. Aman’s world, a corruptible milieu of back end real estate dealings, is made altogether worse by a repugnant exhibition of ethics.

Even Divya (Neha Dhupia), Aman’s wife, concealing her own terrible secret while castigating Aman for harbouring his lies, expounds a sordid marital and familial hypocrisy. And it is Divya’s marital betrayal that neuters the wounded masculinity of Aman, another trait of the doomed noir male protagonist, threatened earlier by the violence of Raghveer and his goons. Not many films have been made on the topic of white-collar crime in contemporary Indian cinema, surprising since the world of economics especially business is often romanticised in popular Hindi cinema as a stylish, apolitical accessory. Bhardwaj and Mansi Jain’s script acutely taps into disquieting anxieties notably social mobility, problematized as a kind of middle class syndrome representative of a new generation of Delhi socialites. If Aman is coded as a Yuppie, he is also like a modern-day vampire, sucking the life out of those around him so he can get ahead. And while Aman foolishly pretends he can remain immortal in a world from which there is no escape, he realises a little too late that his desperation to get ahead is contradicted by a guilt that consumes both him and Divya.

Munish Bhardwaj adopts an understated directorial approach which often best suits the melodrama form. But he also keeps in check the risk of tipping into sentimentality, a major problem with the domestic melodrama, instead confidently weaving together a narrative that switches back and forth as a means of exploring the moral choices and personal dilemmas that define this consuming, corrupted world of Delhi noir.