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

KANDAHAR / THE RUINS (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1983, India)


The gaze of the photographer Subhash (Naseeruddin Shah) is one that shows little compassion for the predicament of those imprisoned in the past. Whilst the initial reaction to marry Jamini (Shabana Azmi) is motivated by sentiment, it holds no actual validity or merit when the decisive moment arises. Subhash sees reality through the lens of his camera – it is a critical distance that stops him from becoming emotionally involved with the subject. The image of Jamini he captures frozen in the milieu of the feudal ruins transforms her plea for escape into a ghostly memory akin to the photos hanging grotesquely in the photo studio of Subhash. He is strictly an observer and preserver of reality which is an aspect of his flawed and troubling personality that Jamini is unable to comprehend. Additionally, Subhash views the feudal past through a tourist like perspective. Jamini is rendered a prisoner of the past by simplifying reality through his photographic lens which essentially cannibalizes rural India and re-presents it as a collection of palatable and stereotypical images. If Subhash is a likely authorial expression of Sen the film maker then he directly implicates himself in the criticism that films allow audiences to pass through historical narratives as casual tourists – such is the guilt free journey taken by Subhash. Subhash feels the disassociating gaze of the camera empowers him and lets him unassumingly think he sees everything but Sen juxtaposes the urban gaze of Subhash with the ancient and truthful gaze of the bed ridden blind widow/mother of Jamini. The mother, a symbol of feudal decay, may represent the past but her failed attempt to construct a link between the past and present cannot transpire given the distance between the urban and rural is simply too extreme. A number of films come to mind that offer interesting formal links including Kamal Amrohi’s gothic noir Mahal (The Mansion, 1949), Antonioni’s L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960) and The Passenger (1975). Kandahar is one of Sen’s most ideologically and stylistically complex works whilst the final image of the helpless Jamini (Shabana Azmi) reduced to a photographic memory is a haunting one.

ALBERT PINTO KO GUSSA KYON AATA HAI / WHAT MAKES ALBERT PINTO ANGRY (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1980, India) – Look Back In Anger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was only recently that I posted a lengthy entry on director Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1989 film Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Don’t Cry For Salim the Lame) which was one of his most personal works. A precursor and very much a template for Salim the Lame was Mirza’s 1980 satire Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai. Focusing on the Catholic community in Mumbai, the story focuses on a garage mechanic Albert Pinto (in one of Naseeruddin’s funniest performances) who spends much of his time arguing with his girlfriend Stella (Shabana Azmi) whilst at home he witnesses his father’s increasing politicisation due to a textile strike. With the secondary narrative of Pinto’s despairing father Mirza refers directly to the Great Bombay Textile Strike which was beginning to take shape as a result of mill closures in the area of Mumbai commonly known as Girangon, meaning ‘mill village’ in Marathi. Until the early eighties, textile workers were a sizable employment force in Mumbai and around 300,000 were employed at the peak of the industry. One of the longest strikes in the history of contemporary India, The Great Bombay Textile Strike lasted for around two years and though the government faced opposition in terms of civil unrest, the workers campaign of non protest did little to prevent the demise of the cotton mills. Today, the land on which the textile mills once operated is estimated to be worth at least 100 billion Rupees and much of it has been sold to various corporations whilst the impact on the surrounding community and level of unemployment has simply been brushed to one side.

Financed by the FFC (Film Finance Corporation), Mirza’s film outwardly displays the characteristics of classic parallel cinema including an art cinema aesthetic, low budget, state funding, a topical script shaped by political/social factors, graduates of Pune including editor Renu Saluja and scriptwriter Kundan Shah and perhaps most importantly the formidable and iconic acting quartet of Shah, Puri, Azmi and Patil. An episodic film, much of the narrative situations revolve around Albert Pinto’s inability to decide what exactly he wants to do with his life other than repair the expensive cars of his rich clients at the garage. A youthful figure with a sharp dress code and eccentric hairstyle, Pinto slowly comes to realise that it his girlfriend and friends at work are the only ones he can really depend on given his minority status. It is Pinto’s lack of understanding of the social and political dimensions of his reality and that of his family which sees him failing to prevent the imprisonment of his jobless younger brother whose vulnerability is inevitably exploited by local criminal elements. Pinto’s anger gradually transforms from a trait of selfishness, coming to symbolise a much wider discontentment that was about to be voiced by the real Mumbai textile workers as represented in the figure of the politically active yet defiant father.

By the end of the film and having witnessed his brother’s imprisonment, his father’s dignity destroyed and the company’s vile attempts to discredit the worker’s union and their right to strike, Pinto’s misplaced anger finally finds an appropriate target – the political and economic elite. This moment is crystallised in the cinema of all places with Pinto challenging the political address of the company management. Yelling out at the cinema screen, Pinto is shouted down by the disgruntled audience members and Mirza reverses the notion of political acquiescence by implicating the rest of society and empowering Pinto. Similarly like Salim The Lame, Mirza’s visual feel for the urban milieu of Mumbai is particularly striking and from what I have read about his career and films, the authenticity of shooting on location yet again points to his documentary roots. One of the great ideological achievements of parallel cinema was its relentless and fearless questioning of Indian cinema’s mainstream assumptions on the state of society – Mirza’s film not only questions power relations but is fully sympathetic to the cause of the workers. That in itself is a powerfully radical position to take up.

PAAR / THE CROSSING (Dir. Goutam Ghose, 1984, India) – The River as Life and Death

Bengali cinema has produced so many brilliant film makers over the years that it is easy to determine it is predominately auteur led as opposed to the preponderance of genre often associated with the Mumbai film industry. Born in Calcutta, Bengali director Goutam Ghose (also known as Gautam Ghosh) has produced work including documentaries and feature films whilst also being credited as a cinematographer, writer and composer on a number of Indian art films. He is obviously multi talented and somewhat prolific but nevertheless his absence from the discussions of Bengali cinema and Indian art cinema yet again stresses a pertinent need to catalogue with some trepidation key directors and films that construct a strong argument for parallel cinema’s sustained political engagement with the social. Writer Subhajit Ghosh offers one of the best overviews of the director’s work, emphasising his ‘strident political activism’ which of course is more than well represented in his 1984 film Paar (The Crossing). The IMBD entry for Ghose underlines a filmography made up of a string of documentaries, emphasising a concern with realism and political issues. It might be the case that his documentaries are probably far more political and radical than his feature films.

His first Hindi film Paar is a tough watch in many respects. Featuring a towering central performance from Naseeruddin Shah and supported by Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Anil Chatterjee. I guess, Shah, Azmi and Puri was the perfect cast for a parallel film from the 70s or 80s – all three continue to work tirelessly and remain hugely influential. With the success of Ankur and Benegal’s focus on rural exploitation, parallel cinema made this into a virtual trademark. Paar also explores feudalism and exploitation of the untouchables in Bihar but unlike Ankur which hints at the potential for peasant revolt, Paar sees a worker, Naurangia (Shah), retaliate against the oppressive system by avenging the murder of the local schoolteacher who initially helps the workers to unite and resist. However, Naurangia and his wife, Rama (Shabana Azmi) are forced to flee when the villagers are massacred in a night of carnage. A despondent Naurangia and pregnant Rama end up in Calcutta and this is where the film becomes much darker and visceral in its impact.

Survival becomes the only aim for both the impoverished husband and wife and soon they are faced with a life and death ultimatum. Homeless, destitute and starving, Naurangia’s only chance of making some money comes in the form of an absurd proposition; to take a herd of pigs across a river crossing. A Herculean task and the centrepiece of the film’s narrative, the desperate image of Naurangia and his pregnant wife Rama trying to stay afloat whilst directing the pigs across a wide river crossing morphs into a symbol of human struggle. Admittedly, this is a film of two halves and whilst the first half tends to offer some kind of sociological explanation why Naurangia is forced to flee the village, the second half dispenses with narrative concerns and depicts with great intensity an odyssey of pain and determination. Ghose seems unconcerned exactly where Naurangia and Rama are headed as it is their physical exhaustion which he captures so vividly through the hard edged cinematography and frantic performances. Paar is another key work of parallel cinema and Ghose is an auteur who seems equally impressive as Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen or even someone as radical as Mrinal Sen. It will be interesting to see how the rest of his work stands up to the beauty of Paar. I’m not sure but I think Paar was also funded by the NFDC.