NIRMALAYAM / THE OFFERING (1973, India) Directed by M.T. Vasudevan Nair [Malayalam]

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Born in Kerala in 1933, M.T. Vasudevan Nair is one of India’s most prolific literary voices. Nair is also seen as a key figure in the development of Malayalam art cinema, having written over fifty screenplays and directed a number of influential films. Nirmalayam (The Offering), Nair’s directorial debut, was made at a time when the Parallel Cinema movement was entering the final years of the creative first phase (68 – 75).

The story explores the anxieties of a village oracle, a man of faded glories and religious servitude who fails to recognise and accept to what extent his family cope with an abject poverty that he cultivates. Parallel Cinema was often characterised by the ideological capacity to directly critique and deconstruct orthodoxy and which appeared in many guises. In this case, it is religious orthodoxy. Since very few people in the village go to the temple anymore to give offerings, the oracle is forced to beg for food. In one sequence, the oracle, exploiting his status as a religious figure that everyone respects, visits the homes of local people for rice. However, when a women rebuffs the oracle for begging, it is just one of many humiliating scenarios that marks the decline of faith in the village and ridicules his position.

The film opens with a montage of quick edits venerating the image of the Mother Goddess followed by a short sequence in which the oracle performs a ritualised Chenda dance in the temple. Nair imbues the oracle’s extended religiosity as a feverish performance, a true devotee. The ritualised dance is made altogether potent with the iconography of the ceremonial sword wielded by the oracle in a brazen style and that draws blood. But as soon as the ritualised dance is over, we learn about the dearth of offerings and how the people of the village have stopped visiting the temple. The priest who has been appointed to serve at the temple announces he is leaving, arguing a dwindling lack of revenue cannot sustain him a livelihood in the village anymore. Unlike the priest who abandons the temple, the oracle is dead set in his ways, dismissing the warnings of his wife that they are barely surviving. Later, a new priest arrives, an educated young man, who seduces the oracle’s daughter, Ammini, but only to leave abruptly to get married. Appu, the son of the oracle, also leaves the village, completely disillusioned with the family’s impoverished state. Even the feudal landowner who lords over the village pokes fun at the redundancy of religious rituals, ceremonies and processes that can no longer be sustained in the face of modernity.

But what makes Nirmalayam a daring work is the ending, a radical tour de force of expressionist imagery and religious symbolism. Upon discovering his wife has been sleeping with a Muslim shopkeeper from whom he has borrowed some money and which he has no way of paying back, the oracle who is set to perform a ritual dance at a major ceremony in the village unleashes his rage at the Mother Goddess whom he has served with such unswerving dignity. In the closing moments when he is in the temple, the oracle spits blood at the Mother Goddess, a defiant gesture that he also realises will curse and condemn him. But Nair frames this defiant gesture as something instinctive, necessary, and a source of expiation, carrying with it a vehemently anti-religious coda that is inherently radical in the way modernity and change devours all that stands in its path. P. J. Anthony is remarkable in the main lead of the village oracle. Nirmalayam is a rich and subversive work.

NH10 (Dir. Navdeep Singh, 2015, India) – Hindie Urbanoia

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The quartet of Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl founded Phantom Films in 2011. Since then Phantom has produced a notable slate of Hindie films with differing mainstream sensibilities. Films such as Lootera, Queen and Ugly have featured popular Indian film stars. This has been balanced out with edgy scripts, new directors, genre vagaries and unconventional narratives. NH10 released this year, holds comparably interesting ideas, although not everything gels cohesively as it should. The narrative involves a young, urban middle class Indian couple, Meera (Anushka Sharma) and Arjun (Neil Bhoopalam) who reside in Bangalore. One day, Arjun takes Meera on a road journey to a villa he has rented for her birthday. However, en route they become entangled in some of the more unsavoury politics of rural India such as an honour killing.

Some critics have suggested the parallels with a contemporary British horror film Eden Lake, which is evident in some respects, but at work here is the concept of urbanoia that typically pits middle class urbanites against the treachery of the rural. Horror writer James Rose has written extensively on urbanoia in regards to another British horror film, The Descent. Nonetheless, Rose traces the origins of urbanoia right back to the 1970s and films like Deliverance. In fact, NH10 is a postmodern text, recalling such films as Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left, and Eden Lake. NH10, like The Descent and Eden Lake, which subverts the tropes of urbanoia, also frames the narrative through the perspective of a female anti-hero. In many ways, NH10 is far more intriguing as an unconventional star vehicle for Anushka Sharma than it is as an example of Indian urbanoia. Sharma, a co-producer on the film, attempts to step outside the narrow mainstream roles that have defined her career so far, taking on an alternative female character. While this appears to be a bold career move, the problem with such progressive stardom is Sharma has never been a particularly good actress. Nonetheless, the final badass fight back that she unleashes in the last third of the film points to a gawky physicality that Sharma exudes best when performing.

In ‘Ambiguous Journey to the City’ Ashis Nandy talks about the complicated ideological contestation between the city and the village, which he argues has been imagined and re-imagined in Indian cinema: ‘certain core concerns and anxieties of Indian civilization have come to be reflected in the journey from the village to the city’ (Nandy, 2001). Nandy contextualises this ostensibly politicised narrative in the initial framework of partition, suggesting it is a troubling once since the void between the urban and rural is marked by an epoch of suspicion, fear and ritual. The interaction between the urban and rural in the context of urbanoia is decidedly adverse and a similar idea plays out in NH10. However, the imaginary monster often posing the main threat is refashioned in the form of a feudalistic, hierarchal matriarchy. Not only is the village positioned as the other, but also its suspicion of outsiders, in this case the urban middle class of Bangalore, is denied an exclusive misogyny since Meera is accosted by one of her colleagues in a presentation for having it easy because she is a woman.

The troubling gender politics of the rural harbour an ubiquity also evident in the supposedly progressive urban Bangalore, which makes Meera’s final stand, fuelled by revenge, as a resolutely personal one. A concern with NH10 is that the film comes perilously close to demonizing the rural, offering what is a generalised view of the village as lawless, unfriendly and territorial. Nonetheless, many urbanoia films take a similar stance so NH10 may simply be reiterating the conventions. Another pertinent trope, which marks this out as a horror, is Carol Clover’s final girl theory, and this is where the film seems most explicit in terms of recalling the traditions of the slasher genre, since Meera recognises she must slay the monster if she is to survive and achieve some personal catharsis. Interestingly, the gender politics at work in the finale are very timely indeed, offering female audiences with an affecting Indian female anti-hero, somewhat of a rarity in mainstream Indian cinema, who dispenses violence against the men of the village that reverberates into the real national concerns of rape, harassment and misogyny directed towards women. Is Meera a growing attempt by Indian cinema to rework the angry young man construct as a means of accounting for the shift in gender politics, giving rise to the angry young woman?

Navdeep Singh showed great promise with his rural noir Manorama Six Feet Under, released in 2007. NH10 certainly marks him out as a director who understands genre cinema. One a final note, the songs in the film are misplaced and completely unnecessary and although their inclusion does not overly impact on the film, it seems a little odd why they have been included given the genres of horror and thriller seem unable to accommodate for such artificial devices of melodrama. Ultimately, NH10 works best as a B-movie with an inviting ideological subtext. The film was a sleeper hit and a sequel has been talked about which could develop further the angry young woman trope.

PEEPLI LIVE (Dir. Anusha Rizvi, 2010, India)

Farmers committing suicide so they can be compensated after their death by the government is the backdrop to this Aamir Khan production. The opening dilemma of two farmers, Natha and Budhia, having their land seized by the feudalistic powers that be echoes Shambhu Mahto’s enslavement to the demonic zamindar in Do Bigha Zamin. Peepli Live takes the story of impoverished framers to analyse the state of the Indian media. At times, it was a case of too many characters and sub plots overwhelming the main narrative. I’m no sure why the film feels the need to work in so many narratives and although it might work to highlight the hysterical media frenzy, ultimately it detracts from the original story of the farmers. When the national media discovers that Natha has promised to commit suicide, they descend upon the village, turning the rural space into a media carnival. The film’s parasitic depiction of the media recalls with eerie precision the vicious journalism of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Similarly in Peepli Live, the media pretends to care in the interests of coverage for their respective news channels. If the media is rightly the target of this satirical critique than it does a far better job than a recent film like No One Killed Jessica in which the media is presented as flawed but still courageous in its support of those denied a voice or misrepresented.

Additionally, what makes this film’s representation of the media much more convincing and complex is the attempt to include the role of local media. In this case, the indigenous and authentic voice of the media comes from a local journalist Rakesh who finds the ‘real’ story worth telling in the village. Natha and Budhia’s predicament becomes a political bandwagon, creating a media platform for ideological dogma that reduces life and death to an inconsequential meta-narrative. Director Anusha Rizvi’s film is an assured debut, which benefits from a well-written screenplay, good pacing and some flashes of visual imagination. However, it is a film salvaged in many ways by the end shot of an exhausted Natha covered in a mask of dirt working in a construction site, most probably in the city; it’s the most haunting and effective shot of the film because it says so clearly that no matter where Natha goes he will be always be part of an anonymous invisible mass.

The final shot – Natha as exile, worker, migrant and part of the invisible underclass.

GUNGA JUMNA – (Dir. Nitin Bose, 1961, India)

The following quote from the entry on Nitin Bose taken from Rajadhyaksha & Willemen’s Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema underlines his hugely important role in the history of Indian cinema:

‘A key figure in the New Theatres organisation and maker of some of its most successful films. He later introduced a ‘realist’ element (Didi/President; Desher Mati/Dharti Mata) foreshadowing the films of his own student and cameraman Bimal Roy (Udayer Pathey, 1944), and probably Mrinal Sen‘s early films…’

Many would argue that the auteur theory has led to a process of canonisation and discriminates against the contribution of so many peripheral artists. However, auteurism did wonders in helping to excavate and salvage the careers of those invisible directors who worked tirelessly to perfect their craft as filmmakers. The same authorial approach has been applied to Indian cinema but with less rigour and authority. The 1930s witnessed acceleration in quality output, permitting filmmakers to refine their style and with each year it was clear to see their evolution. The films of Nitin Bose are often under discussed and although his status as a pioneering figure is not in doubt, helping the evolution of Indian film language, his authorial status is conflated with the triumphs of the studio system. Revisiting Gunga Jumna after so many years it is transparent to see that in 1961 Nitin Bose was a director working at the peak of his creative powers as a classicist. Gunga Jumna was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s and demonstrates a capacity to merge classical film elements with vivid stylistic flourishes. Produced, starring and written by Dilip Kumar, the story of two warring brothers on opposite sides of society (bandit vs. cop) transformed into a moralistic narrative template for many other populist social melodramas including most strikingly Deewaar.

The powerful narrative momentum is often the way in which the film is referred to in wider critical discourse but we shouldn’t let such conventional readings get in the way of numerous visually inventive and memorable accompaniments that Bose brings to the film. Firstly, the camerawork possesses an infectious vitality conveyed through the notable dolly and tracking shots, which are used sparingly, at key points in the film’s narrative. Secondly, the use of Technicolor and rural landscapes, offers a strong connection with the Earth and village that is realistically presented. In a way, the authenticity of the rural milieu is also dystopian when it comes to the terrain of the bandit and here the film echoes the iconography of the Hollywood western. The intrinsic relationship between the bandit and the rural landscape was a direct influence on films such as Sholay and most recently Lagaan.

Towards the end of the film, the landscape takes on a will of its own and Bose lets us see nature’s mystical powers through the smoke from the funeral pyre that billows into the air, shrouding the villainous figure of the despotic landlord. Lastly, and most influentially, the melodrama nurtured by the narrative conflict of two brothers on opposite sides of the law is a brilliant device for exploring family and the apathetic way in which society criminalises the most vulnerable. Although Gunga Jumna is recognised as a classic and the contribution of Dilip Saab is much celebrated, it is equally critical to extrapolate the brilliance of a film maker like Nitin Bose in the history of Indian cinema.

Here are the final shots to Gunga Jumna, which I found to be both moving and unusually abstract for what is deemed a populist, mainstream and conventional Indian film:

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