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.

EK DOCTOR KI MAUT / The Death of a Doctor (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1990, India)

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In 2009 Bengali director Tapan Sinha passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains somewhat unrecognised. One could blame the critical reverence afforded to the holy trinity of Bengali Cinema: Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. While Sinha’s work may have been partially accepted as part of the Bengali film canon, the scholarly analysis of his films remains a tentative point of enquiry for Indian film studies. Sinha regarded himself as an apolitical filmmaker. He did not believe cinema should be hijacked or instrumentalised as a platform with which to disseminate political polemicizing – a naïve objection indeed but one to be admired. The contribution of Sinha to the genesis of Parallel Cinema has never really been fully considered. And in many ways Apanjan (1968), a film Sinha made just as the Naxalite movement was about to splinter the political landscape of West Bengal forever, is a work as ideologically significant as Bhuvan Shome or Uski Roti. Sinha may never have worn his political affiliations on his sleeve but social and political protestation runs deep through his work. If anything, Apanjan points to disillusionment with the state, a theme Sinha would often return to in his career.

Sinha’s career pre-dates Parallel Cinema by many years and although he did not play a major role in the development of Parallel Cinema, he predominately chose to express political discontent through melodrama, and benignly so. In some ways, Sinha belongs to the generation of Satyajit Ray, who invested in a classical style of cinema that believed in simplicity, and professed a dislike for the portentous late 1960s Bengali cinema that was increasingly in awe of a modernist avant-garde. Nonetheless, the work of Sinha shows staggering cinematic sensibilities in which he worked across many genres, collaborated with both Parallel Cinema actors and major film stars, and was able to make films in many regions of India. Yet given all that Tapan Sinha accomplished, also winning many awards along the way, his critical reputation does not so much remain in doubt but lacks the visibility or prominence given to his contemporaries. This can only change by revising the canon of major Indian film auteurs so that Sinha’s work is celebrated more often and looked at more closely. Having said all of this, one must recognise that Tapan Sinha is a colossus in Bengal cinema.

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Ek Doctor Ki Maut, made in the final phase of Sinha’s directorial career and based loosely on the true story of Indian physician Subhash Mukhopadhyay, is intriguingly one of Sinha’s most overtly political works, a contradictory statement given his notoriously apolitical status. The film stars an ensemble cast made up of Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor in the main lead and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), this semi-realist melodrama critiques the medical, health and science institutions of India, posing an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy. Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummately brilliant Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with neglect. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie.

What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism plaguing the orthodoxy of a collective middle class that stand in the way of genius, preferring instead to vilify than endorse his progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research. The state intervenes, exiling him to a remote village, and making it impossible to complete the publication of his research notes. Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment, the failure of the state to celebrate individual achievement, which is communicated in Dr. Roy and his wife’s outrage at the unjust and shameful censure.

Ideologically, Sinha’s film works to elucidate state machinations, an essential theme of Parallel Cinema’s dissenting political voice. But look more closely and the melodrama guise is used to extrapolate a study of marital relations, which gives the film a notable emotive threshold. Ek Doctor Ki Maut is late Parallel Cinema, arriving just as the movement was starting to fade away, a defiantly angry work from a defiantly intransigent filmmaker.

Ek Doctor Ki Maut will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 6 Aug 10pm

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

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Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro is one of Mirza’s most disturbing films, exploring the contemporary identities of Indian Muslims in Mumbai, a work that serves as an extension and indirect follow up to M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. 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 ghetto 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.

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.

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 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 film endings, 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 embellishes 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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