Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (Dir. Saeed Mirza, India, 1984) – ‘So, who says there is no happiness here?’

A cursory search of the term ‘chawl’ offers a definition of ‘low quality housing’, which can’t be any further from the truth regarding the abject state of housing for the lower and underclass in India. What chawl actually equates to is poor sanitation, overcrowding, cramped living conditions and squalor. Saeed Mirza’s 1984 work Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! is a didactic socio-political satire that was made around the same time as Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), and which shares much of the crew including Mirza and Shah who collaborated on a series of projects through the 1980s. Mirza aims squarely at both the state of housing and rampant corruption in the judicial system, adopting a semi realist approach with use of on location shooting at Taher Manzil (Do Tanki) and Goregaonkar Chawl (Dadar) in Bombay, imbuing the narrative with an unembellished level of authenticity.

Anchored in Bhisham Sahni’s dignified performance as Mohan Joshi, an aging unyielding one-man activist who takes on a fraudulent landlord – Kundan Kapadia (Amjad Khan) may have been a risk since Sahni was a writer by trade and possessed little acting experience. Nonetheless, being the brother of Balraj Sahni certainly testified the acting gene was shared with Bhisham who exudes a pathos that is disarming. The gist of the narrative hinges on Mohan Joshi’s stop start attempts to sue Kapadia saab for his totalizing neglect and refusal to maintain the chawl in which Joshi inhabits along with his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Mirza opens with a scornful montage of Bombay celebrating the city for its glaring contradictions and which are juxtaposed to the playful lyrics of a song that talks of pride, identity and despair. One of the first shots is of a wagon but as the camera begins to rotate, we slowly recognise the wagon is in fact on its side, a casualty of a vehicle accident, coming to symbolise the duplicitous, topsy turvy nature of events that will transpire but also illustrating the disorderly demeanour of Bombay. As the montage progresses images of people sleeping on the roads and pavements become more frequent and when juxtaposed to the piercing lyrics: ‘This is heaven…’, the idealistic tone gives way to something far more pessimistic.

Cue Joshi’s entry down a flight of wooden steps in the run down chawl, narrowly avoiding water cascading down from a burst pipe. Joshi’s low-key entry radiates an ordinariness but a refusal to back down, to resist, is tied up in Sahni’s real life history as a social activist who not only worked with the IPTA in the 1940s but was also a member of the Communist Party of India. As Joshi makes his way through the chawl, Mirza cuts to a series of establishing shots that are strikingly unfiltered, extenuating the rawness of an indigent milieu. Spurred on by an early morning conversation with a fellow resident in which the courts could help elevate their sense of social deprivation, Joshi is determined to take on the landlord as a matter of principle. As he walks back to the chawl, the inner monologue points to altruistic, socialist inclinations, with Joshi musing that resistance would benefit all of the tenants.

Nonetheless, Joshi’s political idealism is dismissed by his family who either don’t have the time to challenge the landlord or simply live in a state of subjugation. Joshi is joined by his wife and partner Rohini (Dina Pathak) from whom he draws a collective strength, and together they certainly seem to represent a bygone age of questioning the status quo and trying to make the system accountable for their crimes. In this respect, Joshi appears to be the exact opposite of Salim (Balraj Sahni) in Garam Hava (1973), although they both share an unwavering stoicism and self-respect. Joshi’s belief in collective action and community intervention is best captured when he visits the residents of the chawl, trying in vain to get names on a petition that can be used in court to evidence the landlord’s refusal to carry out repairs. Only one resident chooses to sign the petition, reiterating both a widespread disillusionment with civil institutions and a sense of dread that comes with going up against the treacherous landlord.

The figure of the zamindar has often been a popular source of on-screen villainy in popular Hindi cinema, and Kapadia is represented as a contemporary variation of this archetypal convention. Seeing a major star like Amjad Khan pop up in such a low budget independent film is clearly surprising but his imposing on-screen presence as the abhorrent Kapadia is a master stroke of casting and was a real coup given his significant star status. Kapadia’s constant pushback is largely programmed by two promoters (Pankaj Kapur and Salim Ghouse) who are cartoonish manifestations of an outrageously ruthless capitalist neoliberal India that was beginning to chomp through the Bombay landscape, displacing families, uprooting communities and trampling on the rights of the lower classes in order to make way for a wretched blood-soaked skyline of high-rise deluxe apartments. Mirza depicts a tainted system that empowers landlords while institutions like the repair board which are supposed to be providing a public service for the greater good are riddled with delay and effectively ruined.

Much of the narrative is played out in the confines of the courts with Mirza parodying a judicial process that puts up endless obstacles and ties itself up in a maze of bureaucratic red tape that only benefits those with infinite resources at their disposal. The farcical nature of intervention that never transpires to resolve the inhospitable and dangerous living conditions snowballs into an epic six-year court battle that culminates in an over egged visit by the judge proceeding over the case to the chawl to bear witness to the intolerable state of things. The defence and prosecution are inept as each other, using Joshi’s sincerity as a means of massaging their irrespective egos and wallowing in an unholy resignation. Advocate Malkani (Naseeruddin Shah) is the epitome of faux middle-class piousness, taking up Joshi’s cause so that he can revel in financial exploitation while pretending to empathise with the cause of the oppressed.

Upon recognising the gravitas of the judge’s impending visit Kapadia acts speedily to adorn the chawl with an impromptu lick of paint with the aim of hoodwinking the judge into thinking the chawl is not as bad as it has been made out by Joshi and the prosecuting advocates. Unsurprisingly, the judge’s visit descends into a charade with both parties exchanging a beat box parade of empty nothings. In the very end it falls upon the demoralised Joshi to ratify a final act of desperation, tearing down the wooden stilts propping up the chawl and triggering a partial collapse, his body engulfed by the rubble and fleetingly silencing the machinations of hegemonic structures and power.

With a screenplay co-written by Sudhir Mishra, dialogues by Ranjit Kapoor and Kundan Shah as consultant, Mohan Joshi… was a continuing collaboration between a close knit group of very talented artists who were central to the evolution of Parallel Cinema through the 1980s, a period where we saw the satire form used repeatedly as a vehicle for wider social and political dissent, and which subjectively in many ways was in spirit echoing the absurdist influences of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

RK/RKAY (Dir. Rajat Kapoor, India, 2021) – Satirical Reflexivity

When we invited film director Rajat Kapoor to Manchester in 2017 as part of the first season of ‘Not Just Bollywood’, one of the things that came to light during our several conversations was his love of Federico Fellini. In many ways, RK/RKay is Rajat’s Eight and a Half (63) – a darkly comical love letter to the trials and tribulations of filmmaking. As I have noted in my earlier posts on Rajat’s films, he is a writer/filmmaker who has remained resolutely independent and the budget for his latest venture was crowd funded, reiterating his desire to make films on his own terms. Rajat must also be one of the few filmmakers working in Indian cinema today who religiously works with the same crew – this seems to be the case ever since he started making films. Working with the same creative people time and again not only breeds familiarity but offers a reassurance and comfort in terms of collaboration that unsurprisingly filters through into the congenial temperament of his films. What I mean by this is that there is often an on-screen camaraderie amongst his actors that extends from Rajat’s grasp of populating his scripts with quality supporting actors who add something tangible.

The gist of RK/RKay is a deeply self-reflexive one. RK, a filmmaker (Rajat), is making a classical Indian film – in the romantically inclined tradition of popular Hindi cinema. However, one day, the lead protagonist who goes by the name of Mahboob Alam (also played by Rajat) literally flees the fictional film world of the film he is starring in and enters the real world of RK, the filmmaker. But what of Mahboob? He is a magical filmi spirit from the past, a man of principles and a die-hard romantic who is on a search to be united with his Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat) – a reference to Waheeda Rehman’s character in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957). The film editor is first to discover this remarkable anomaly, realising Mahboob has gone missing out of all the scenes they have filmed, leaving behind a ghostly residue on the film negative. Of course, such a inexplicable phenomenon completely stumps the cast and crew notably the producer given the money he has invested, and which he wants to protect like the true capitalist he is. What arises is not only an existential crisis experienced by both RK and Mahboob but an exploration of the mechanics of filmmaking expressly the ways in which the reproduction of images is more than just an ephemeral occurrence but wholly spiritual and even sacred.

One of the funniest moments in trying to untangle the complications between fiction and reality unfolds in a police station as RK and his nervy producer attempt to engage in a paradoxical conversation with a police officer on the perils of creative imagination. Since Mahboob has fled the fictional world of the film he inhabits, his sudden absence has a marked effect on the narrative of RK’s film whereby Mahboob’s sworn enemy K. N. Singh (Ranvir Shorey in a memorable supporting role), a nostalgically villainous throwback to the likes of Pran, is determined to catch up with Mahboob whatever it takes. In doing so, director Rajat Kapoor increasingly blurs the tenuous lines between fiction and reality, continually juxtaposing the narrative action with scenes from the film. This emerges as an ongoing meta commentary on a hyper reality in which many us of inhabit on a daily basis.

The levels of reflexivity become increasingly complex in the film and at one point the film editor shows Mahboob a scene they have shot featuring Gulabo while RK the filmmaker looks on in complete dismay. At this point Mahboob experiences his own out of body jolt and his very existence dissolves into an emptiness with which he is unable to reconcile until later when RK tries desperately to make Mahboob understand his being is only useful in the confines of a film. Nonetheless, upon taking up temporary residence in RK’s home, Mahboob’s warmth for the family leaves an undeniably welcoming impression that contrasts stridently with RK’s self-absorbed and hurried persona. Here the film begins to explore more fully the ways in which creativity hacks away at relationships and since it is Mahboob who comforts Seema (RK’s wife) and children with his outdated but calming words it is altogether absurd because Mahboob is a blighted projection of RK’s own repressed romantic inclinations for the past and corresponding disconnect from contemporary reality.

Insisting that Mahboob should return back to the fictional world of the film he is trying to complete, RK realises that what amounts to a relatively straightforward request descends into Mahboob becoming increasingly convinced of his worth and significance in human terms. Seema and many of RK’s close friends are enamoured by Mahboob’s emotional sensitivity, a nostalgic charm that irks RK to such an extent that he wants to be rid of Mahboob. What transpires is the residual presence of Mahboob makes RK’s disdain for the real world radiate with a clarity that leads to a longing for a perpetual everlasting escape into his on-screen imaginings. And for all the criticism that RK directs at Mahboob for his idealistic and naïve musings, RK envies the ghostly protagonist he has forged since it is a persona that he wants to inhabit with an indefinite totalizing ease.

RK/RKay opens with a visual metaphor of Mahboob in a corridor full of doors to different apartments. As our protagonist opens the door and enters an apartment, Mahboob magically re-materialises until slowly through a series of playful cross dissolves the corridor is awash with the image of Mahboob. For what is certainly a surreal opening that neatly sets up the central concept of mirroring, the notion of multiple personas that are inherent in many of us is a central thematic preoccupation. However, in this exciting and innovative work from Rajat Kapoor it is escape that resonates most starkly – escape from ourselves, from the chaotic and at times meaningless world around us. And what remains is the solace we find in precarious illusions; a distraction and diversion that amounts to something far more satisfying for RK than most things in his life.

Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal / The Evil Deeds of Cherian (Dir. John Abraham, 1979, India [Malayalam]

Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.

Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.

Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.

Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.

The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.

IN WHICH ANNIE GIVES IT THOSE ONES (1989, India, Dir. Pradip Krishen)

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Annie is the nickname of Anand Grover, a laidback and idealistic student training to be an architect and who also happens to have a chicken living in his dorm that lays eggs. This is one of many idiosyncratic characters that we encounter. In which Annie gives it those ones, contender for the quirkiest film title ever conceived, has taken on a mythical status amongst Parallel Cinema aficionados, a cult film from the late 1980s partially funded by Doordarshan. Legend has it the film only survives on existing video copies circulating through subterranean channels, allusiveness that adds to the mystique and cult status, along with SRK’s first screen role as a stoner.

Set in the 1970s and with a script by Arundhati Roy and who also stars in the film, it was the second of only two feature length collaborations between Roy and director Pradip Krishen. Roy’s script is very personal, a semi autobiographical take on the counter culture experiences of her time at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, a benign institution symbolised in the character of Yamdoot Bilmoria (the brilliant Roshan Seth), a Head of Department who is lofty and disingenuous towards his students, and a remnant of colonial power and pretentious etiquettes. Adopting an episodic structure, the rapport amongst the students is wonderfully brought to life with Roy and Krishen choosing to present the dorms as an extended hippy commune with pot smoking loafers who embrace the joys of youthful cynicism, sticking up two fingers at the establishment.

Roy takes up the role of Radha, a young trainee architect who has the most scathing political voice, attempting to critique the ideological usage of space in urban planning and what this heralds for the citizen. But Yamdoot effectively censures Radha. Later when Radha gets the chance to polemicize as part of the final exam, Yamdoot and his panel of all male professors are more interested in the dinner menu than affording her the chance to speak her mind. An underlining theme that steadily gains momentum is the farcical nature of civil and government institutions that largely promote conformity and discourage dissent but it is exactly this speaking out against the prevailing powers that be which has made Roy such a significant political activist and voice in India.

Punctuated with covers of The Beatles, an eclectic ensemble cast and end titles that seem to recall American Graffiti (1973), this is a cult film that occupies the similarly eccentric comedic terrain of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Together, they make the perfect double bill.