SADGATI / DELIVERANCE (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, India) – High and Low


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pikoo (1980) and Sadgati (1981) were short films Ray directed for television, marking his shift into the 1980s and both acting as precursors to his 1983 full length feature Ghaire Bhaire. Whilst Pikoo was made for French television, Sadgati was based on a story by writer Prem Chand whom Ray was familiar with from his adaptation of The Chess Players and funded by Doordarshan, a new state run television company. I have yet to see Pikoo and have read from Andrew Robinson’s book that it is a film about the gaze of an innocent. I hope I can see it on a good print one day. Sadgati, translating as Deliverance, lasts for fifty minutes and contains very little dialogue yet is as accomplished and powerful as his masterworks including even The Apu trilogy. The story is located in rural India in a small village and concerns the relationship between a lower caste tanner Dukhi (Om Puri) and a Brahmin Priest Ghashiram (Mohan Agashe). Before his daughter is married, Dukhi needs the approval and blessings of the Brahmin Priest to set an auspicious date but when Dukhi goes to ask Ghashriam to come to his house for the ceremony, the priest takes it upon himself to exploit Dukhi’s predicament by forcing him to complete various chores. Having instructed his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) and daughter Dhania to anticipate their arrival with food, Dukhi complies with the orders of his master, the Brahmin Priest. He begins by sweeping the outside of the house then lifting sacks of wheat but when it comes to the ardous task of chopping firewood, Dukhi comes undone.

However, Dukhi’s sorrows are made much worse when Ghashriam catches Dukhi asleep in the afternoon sun exhausted from fatigue and hunger. Incensed by Dukhi’s apparent insolence, Ghashriam berates him and forces him back to work. In one last moment of desperation Dukhi attempts to chop the wood but having had nothing to eat all day and suffering from an illness, Dukhi falls down dead. Panic sets in for Ghashriam as the removal of Dukhi’s body becomes imperative if the high caste villagers are to carry on as normal but none of them can touch the body as this would mean becoming contaminated in some way. Ghashriam sheepishly pleads to the lower caste workers to remove the body but they ignore his command in light of another fellow worker who was witness to the painful destruction of Dukhi. Such are the horrors brought on by village orthodoxy, Dukhi’s corpse becomes a symbol of rural depravity and the caste system. When Jhuria discovers her husband is dead she breaks down and mourns his loss but even she cannot move his body. Finally, to avoid being directly implicated in the death of Dukhi, Ghashriam using ropes, and using a stick to touch the body, drags the corpse away from the village, dumping it in a field of rotten carcasses. In a final act of vitriolic caste politics, Ghashriam decontaminates the ground upon which Dukhi died and corpse lay with droplets of holy water.

What is brilliant about Ray’s approach to the story is that it all plays like a piece of silent film. Unfiltered, prolonged and detailed throughout, the neo realist tone is poetically evoked by the incredible rhythm of the narrative over which Ray has terrifyingly precise control. Whilst Ray was critical of what he saw as a New Indian Cinema in love with European art cinema, the work of Shyam Benegal was one film maker that impressed Ray in many ways especially his command of actors that included Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil with whom he would also collaborate. Ray has said himself that his early films were not political and whilst he was one of the first Indian film makers to turn the lens on the imperfections and wonders of village life, Benegal’s rural trilogy beginning with the seminal Ankur in 1974 offered a somewhat radical politicisation of rural cultural values. In many ways, Sadgati should be viewed as a reply by Ray to his contemporaries at such a particular moment in time, proving quite brilliantly that polemicizing such political discourse did not necessarily equate to great storytelling and cinema.

I got the distinct impression whilst watching Sadgati that Ray was inadvertently responding to the directors of New Indian Cinema as if to articulate his own vehemently angry and outspoken ideological position on the politics of rural India. Ray had originally intended to make a documentary on the issue of child labour but was met with opposition from the government which was trying to actively discourage and effectively prevent film makers from representing such deeply important social issues like poverty on screen. Sadgati was a response, small scale though, to such critics alike and the fact it was filmed in Hindi for a television audience seemed to suggest Ray was reaching out to a much bigger audience. Interestingly, all three of the main leads including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe were all regular collaborators with Shyam Benegal and their collective presence offers a concrete link to such cinema. Ray takes a very visible observational approach to the action and the camera rarely moves, resulting in a stillness that complements the slow and at times languid pace of village life. Sadgati is available on DVD in the UK as part of a 3 DVD set released by Artificial Eye.

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.

BAZAAR / MARKET (Dir. Sagar Sarhadi, 1982, India) – Buying and Selling

My initial and largely superficial perceptions of Bazaar led me to assume from the stellar New Indian cinema cast of Smita Patel, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Sheikh that this was going to be yet another film which would categorically fall under the auspices of Parallel cinema. However, a closer inspection suggests otherwise as the director behind the film, Sagar Sarhadi, a renowned scriptwriter, only directed one film in a career that started in the 70s. I’m not so sure why Sarhadi only ever made one feature film given his prominence but I wonder if Sarhadi having worked on so many commercially successful romantic melodramas felt he could almost do a better job. In many respects he does succeed if one compares Bazaar to hyperbolic musical fantasies like Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Chandni (1989). Both the dialogue for Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila were penned by Sarhadi but unlike a mainstream director like Yash Chopra and excellent one at that who tended to reject realism, Sarhadi with Bazaar attempts to merge certain aspects of parallel cinema with mainstream commercial cinema – the result is a largely uneven but still intriguing attempt at the female melodrama or woman’s film. I guess the difference is that when compared to the Yash Chopra films, the narrative was generally driven by the actions of the male lead and whilst many of these films also accommodated the point of view of the woman caught up in such fraught middle class relationships, it was the male figure of Amitabh who dominated.

With Bazaar, this is reversed to some extent by making Smita Patel central to the narrative action and the male characters more peripheral, recalling respectively both the female melodramas of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Whilst Shabana Azmi was a more intense actress, her nearest counterpart and rival Smita Patel’s repertoire was far greater and this made her a much stronger performer of the two. In addition, Smita Patel was more successful in alternating between the mainstream and independent cinema because her classical looks recalled the famous studio stars like Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari, allowing audiences to accept her more easily in conventional roles. Thematically, the film does have a strong socialist slant and most prominent is the issue of gender exploitation. The story follows Najma (Smita Patel), a Muslim girl who by eloping with a man much older than her has transgressed the laws of patriarchal religious culture. Najma effectively becomes a slave to Akhtar (Bharat Kapoor) who refuses to marry her until he has sought approval from his family. In essence, Akhtar turns Najma into a possession which he uses to fulfil his own personal ends.

The closing shots to Bazaar dissolves the fourth wall as Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah turn to gaze directly back at the audience.

Director Sarhadi is very critical of Muslim culture and interprets the tradition of arranged marriage merely as an economic one in which young girls are bought and sold in a symbolic marketplace governed by religious and social laws. The point is well illustrated in the story of two young lovers (played by Supriya Pathak and Farooq Sheikh) who cannot be together simply because poverty discriminates against them. Ironically, it is poverty which actually becomes a barrier to them being married, not religious dogma or social identity. Ideologically, Bazaar makes a fascinating and worthy companion piece to director Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), another film that features Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah and also deals with prostitution, femininity and women as a capitalist commodity. It is difficult to say if Bazaar would fall into the parallel cinema category but the use of Khayam’s music and Sarhadi’s overwrought direction does at times make it feel like a conventional Hindi melodrama. However, one could argue that the film’s claim to be considered as part of the parallel cinema collective would rest largely on the closing shots in which Sarhadi dissolves the fourth wall and implicates the viewer in the cycle of victimisation and exploitation – it is a chilling and bold moment, perhaps the most audacious in the entire film.