DASTAK (Dir. Rajinder Singh Bedi, 1970, India) – The Vagaries of Parallel Cinema

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The New Cinemas project over at Indiancine.ma is one of the first inclusive efforts to historicise and catalogue the films made between 1969 and 1980 that form the basis of parallel cinema. The canon assembled to date is a fascinating one; likely to trigger much debate about what criteria has been used to determine which films should be included. One of the more disputable films in the canon is Dastak (1970), written and directed by Rajinder Singh Bedi, which was also his directorial debut. Dastak feels closer to Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) than any of the other parallel cinema films I’ve seen, mainly because both films narrate a middle class relationship, probing the densities of married life through a semi-realist prism. However, Bedi’s film cuts closer to the bone, exploring ‘the suggestion that a woman economically dependent on her husband is comparable to a prostitute’ (Flemming, 1985). Sanjeev Kumar’s presence in the film made me reflect on his output in the 1970s evincing an admirable range of roles across mainstream, independent and auteur led films. In fact, while Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah are often denoted as the acting faculty for parallel cinema, Sanjeev Kumar’s omission should in fact be reconsidered as films like Dastak, Anubhav (1971), Aandhi (1975), and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) point to an early relationship with parallel cinema. It was only towards the late 1970s and 1980s that Kumar effectually left behind his 1970s tentative phase for a more commercial based cinema. Notably Sanjeev Kumar was a key collaborator with director Gulzar throughout the 1970s, another director often associated with middle cinema, a point of contention I want to return to later.

Dastak was an adaptation of Bedi’s acclaimed radio play ‘Moving to a New House’ (first broadcast in Lahore, 1944). The story involves a newly married middle class couple, Salma (Rehana Sultan) and Hamid (Sanjeev Kumar), who move into an apartment (it is really a two roomed space) formerly occupied by a courtesan in what is a red light district area of Bombay. This truth slowly dawns on the couple and throws up many complications especially for Salma who is literally imprisoned in the apartment. The husband, a lowly yet corrupt free clerk, begins to realise the space that they live in has been defiled by the sordid memories of the local courtesan who sang, danced and probably had sex with her clients in the same apartment. There is a psychological realist force Bedi infuses into the narrative, impacting Salma, causing her to imagine nightmarishly, abjuring the work of Polanski chiefly Repulsion. As Salma and Hamid’s relationship begins to disintegrate, a troubling darkness creeps into the narrative that sees Hamid rape Salma and later project his own male insecurities onto Salma’s beleaguered figure whom he starts to construct as a courtesan: ‘comparison of the housewife and prostitute is implicit here’ says Flemming. The film ends on an acutely abstruse note as the realisation by Hamid that Salma is pregnant could be interpreted in two ways; that the child belongs to him, or the suggestion, although not made explicitly, is that the child could be illegitimate in the fantastical acuities of Hamid’s warped mind, and suggesting ‘respectability is a complex issue’ (Flemming, 1985).

Whereas the canonisation of Kaul’s Uski Roti as a key parallel cinema text is in no doubt (although it would be safer to place it under the umbrella of experimental cinema), films like Dastak and even Sara Akash (1969) are more subjective, open to debate. Unlike Uski Roti, an experimental work, Dastak clings onto tropes, devices and conventions (melodrama, songs, traditional gender roles) intrinsic to mainstream populist Indian cinema thus problematizing its status as a parallel cinema text. In a way films like Dastak take up a middle ground that looks forward to the middle cinema of Shyam Benegal (although not every Benegal film would fall into the fluid category of middle cinema). However, Dastak’s position as an example of middle cinema female melodrama (Salma sings to ease her suffering) can also be questioned since the semi-realist tone Dastak strikes, achieved largely through the cinematography of Kamal Bose (Bimal Roy’s regular DOP), recalls the social realist cinema of the late 1940s and 1950s.

While aesthetic considerations are fragmented across many parallel films, showing a less uniformed approach to style often characteristic of a film movement, many parallel films do share an ideological affinity with habitual thematic concerns. The real problem with classifying films under the tag of parallel cinema is the term itself is indeterminate and appears to have broadened as more films have become available for scholarly research. Bedi’s literary influence (member of the Progressive Writers Movement) on Indian social realist cinema and parallel cinema demands exploring further since his body of work especially as a writer testifies to an on going engagement with social issues. One such film is Garam Coat (1955), for which Bedi wrote the screenplay, adapting a short story by Nikolai Gogol. In truth, Bedi’s skills as a writer of dialogue were significant to many of the films he worked on but it was his brilliance as a writer of Urdu fiction, writing some of the most powerful stories of partition, that places him amongst the lexicon of great Urdu writers.

Bibliography

Progressive Writer, Progressive Filmmaker: The Films of Rajinder Singh Bedi, Leslie A. Flemming, Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 5, 1985 p. 81 – 89

DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

two days one night

Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.

THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (Dir. Derek Cianfrance, 2012, US) – Eclipse of the Son [Spoilers ahead!]

I’m still convinced that as Ryan Gosling gets older he’s going to eventually look like Jimmy Stewart; it’s that curvature of his elongated face and dewy eyes. Much has been made of Gosling’s performance in this latest feature from director Derek Cianfrance and it is suggestive to the film. Gosling is a performer who is superb at conveying emotions through effective uses of silence. In fact, Gosling would be perfect in both a western by Sergio Leone as a gunslinger and a shadowy gangster in any Melville’s polar films. In other words, the less dialogue for Gosling, the better. This was proven by a near wordless performance as The Driver in Refn’s 2011 Drive. Gosling takes a similar approach in The Place Beyond The Pines, playing a disaffected and incorporeal young man who finds it insufferable to make a concrete connection between his responsibilities as a father and the demands of adulthood. Gosling plays Luke, a motorcycle stunt driver, who gets his thrills from entertaining crowds of enthusiasts at a travelling funfair. Luke is a drifter with no attachments other than his bike, which he considers to be family. He indulges his solitary existence in the transient, nomadic nature of the travelling funfair. The absence of any kind of family around him points to a potentially tough childhood, which is explored allegorically in the final third. The Place Beyond The Pines is essentially an old fashioned melodrama, framed against familiar social thematics including absent fathers, corruption, power and history. Luke’s story turns out to be the first in a triptych narrative that transforms from an opening tale of desperation into one about class and exploitation. The narrative shift from Luke to Avery Cross, a police officer, played by Bradley Cooper strays into Sidney Lumet territory of corrupt cops but Ciafrance weaves into this overly familiar genre convention, the idea of class. When Cross shoots Luke as a result of a bank robbery that goes awry, the elevation of Cross into a local hero sees him become embroiled with some of the corrupt cops in his precinct. However, it is only later does it become more evident that Cross has a powerful father as a judge and he uses his privileged status to turn in his friends in order to further what turns out to be an ambitious, if not cynically opportunistic, political career. This is one of the more ideologically complicated statements as we witness a perpetual cycle of class struggle and more specifically exploitation in which power and status silence those like Luke who live and die on the margins of a vacant American society.

The final part of the film is arguably when the film falters. Although the central theme of fathers and sons comes to vivid fruition, the casting of the two teenage boys and their characterisation is uninspired to say the least, reminding me of an inept pilot for a new series about disaffected youth in the 1990s. While the presence of Luke is rendered symbolically in the last two parts, it is the character of Romina (Eva Mendes) who provides a narrative bridge in the triptych. Romina, who works as a waitress in a diner, is a social outsider and her ethnicity (likely Mexican) underlines separateness yet she is by far the most dignified of the broken characters we encounter. It is a dignity threatened by the insecurities of the men around her. Given the genre context of the melodrama, if Romina comes to embody an ideal about family then both Luke and Avery are deconstructed as fathers and men who cannot function within the realm of family as the past prevents them from doing so. What this means is that a crisis of masculinity emerges discordantly from the three parts and culminates in a moment at the end, which seeks to articulate a view of fathers and sons predicated on class. What I find disconcerting is when films longer than two hours are automatically labeled with the tag of ‘epic’ when in fact ‘epic’ means something entirely different in film. The epic was and still is considered a useful genre category but now the term has become associated with porridge like cinema of The Avengers kind. What I admire about Ciafrance’s approach is that he takes his time with the storytelling but the way some characters are introduced and not even explored seems to be one of the recent detrimental effects of contemporary TV Drama upon film narrative. What gives this American independent film a certain edge is the masterfully atmospheric score by Mike Patton, which imbues much of the drama with a tone of dread, and uncertainty that recalls the work of Badalamenti for Lynch. Altogether, The Place Beyond The Pines makes for a superior American melodrama. 

LAND AND FREEDOM (Dir. Ken Loach, 1995, UK/Spain/Germany/Italy) – Transformative Political Cinema

The POUM militia – The Workers Party of Marxist Unification.
‘Come, join in the only battle wherein no man can fail,

Where whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.’

The cinema of Loach is transformative. What this means is that his way of looking at reality, which is through a leftist internationalist political prism, is one that can alter the manufactured and largely consensual reality of the spectator who has been normalised into adopting apolitical conformist ideology. So much of mainstream cinema is intrinsically connected to the idea of the market that dissent is suppressed in favour of maintaining a derisory status quo in which materialistic ideals are aggressively promoted as a mass aspiration. Some mainstream filmmakers and industries justify the transparent propagation of the market as entertainment for the masses because apparently film should be viewed as an escapist and sensory medium. Such an obviously conformist position points to a cowardice and subjugation that is implicit in the way a film is produced, marketed and celebrated in the media at large. Any kind of political critique can rarely occur in the same space in which the film is celebrated because the media and subsequently film discourse tends to be patented by an infectious and at times myopic Euro centric agenda. What this means is that limited ways of thinking about certain films, genres and narratives circulate, thus political cinema specifically becomes obfuscated so much that its absence from critical discourse makes it appear unimportant and insignificant to the common perceptions of film. The worst kind of mainstream Hollywood cinema seems to give the impression of empowering the spectator when in fact it is asking us to obey and validate wider ideological ideals that contradict our own criticisms of the market. The film spectator is not merely gazing but fully participating in the spectacle of the market by maintaining the processes, thus transforming spectatorship into a secondary narrative that mirrors the fictional one. It seems almost sacrilege to accuse postmodern mashup artists such as Quentin Tarantino of dissolving ideology and rendering it obsolete because their work have become embedded within the history of film as beatnik bricolage, which means his films are hip yet apparently sophisticated given the depth of the intertextual discourse on display for our instantaneous diverted spectator like minds to savour. And savour we do, with the instantaneous preoccupations of a YouTube browser. If the market dictates what kinds of films are made and which are distributed then where exactly does Ken Loach fit in this corporatist universe? 

To begin with, filmmakers who usually have something overly political to articulate as part of an on going participatory discourse find it virtually impossible to work in the mainstream because of market regulations – this means that iconoclasm can only exist in a designated vacuum aimed at supposedly marginalised tastes. Another mismatch when it comes to political filmmakers is that they are usually middle class. The political disconnect between someone as middle class as Loach propagating politics of the working class left to a predominately middle class audience is usually a class dialectic that critics are quick to acknowledge in an attempt to skew the argument or to throw in doubt the true intentions of the director. It might actually be more accurate to propose that if Alan Clarke understands the psychology of the working class then Loach understands the politics of such psychology. Is Ken Loach the only British filmmaker to have been able to make a film about the revolutionary militia that took up arms against the fascist takeover of a democratically elected socialist government in Spain? He might be alone in having achieved such a political feat but he has done so on his terms and with collaborator Jim Allen, the film is resolutely political in its entire being. In the context of the market and mainstream cinema, Land and Freedom proves a critical point: transformative cinema functions on the intrinsic relationship between history and politics. The historical context is Spain in the 1930s and the conflict between socialism and fascism may seem likely candidates for points of ideological discussion but Loach politicises the narrative by training his gaze on the internal power struggle that occurred within the communist party of Spain. Additionally and perhaps most importantly the film internationalises the POUM’s revolutionary ideals as a Marxist class struggle. By opening and ending in Liverpool, the story of David Carr (Ian Hart) is interconnected through a working class solidarity that transcends nationality, culture and identity. Upon hearing a talk about the POUM in Liverpool, David volunteers to join the people’s army in Spain. The narrative charts David’s journey as part of the international brigades and his eventual face to face confrontation with Stalinist opposition to the militia, leading to the death of Blanca – a symbol of Marxist ideology. Ken Loach has argued that the rise of fascism was a direct result of Europe’s failure to stand up to Franco. The POUM was a true Marxist group betrayed by Stalinist propaganda, thus sealing the fate of an entire generation. The final reading of a poem by William Morris titled ‘The Day is Coming’, suggests that although the POUM were unsuccessful in their revolutionary aims of collectivism, political integrity and the refusal to compromise are aspects of a dissident ideology that should be celebrated in today’s largely apolitical apathetic society.

SARA AKASH / THE WHOLE SKY (Dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1969, India) – Marital Bliss


How often has it been stated and reiterated that 1969 was a seminal year for film making in India as it signalled the emergence of New Indian Cinema. Whilst Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen more or less remained resolutely independent in both form and content throughout their later years the same cannot be said for Basu Chatterjee who debuted with Sara Akash in 1969. Kaul’s Uski Roti, Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Chatterjee’s Sara Akash may have had a transparent and lucid neo realist agenda, much more significant was the signature of cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who shot all three films in an unorthodox style. Unlike his contemporaries Chatterjee was an auteur whose impact on other film makers was less discernible yet the influence of a film like Sara Akash can be seen in both Ray’s Pratidwandi and also Benegal’s Ankur. Samar, a young college graduate with worldly ambitions and Prabha, a sensitive and intelligent matriculate, become husband and wife through an arranged marriage. It transpires that neither of them are prepared for such an arduous new life and the family inevitably victimise the new bride and slowly gang up on her in the house, making life difficult. Samar’s refusal to accept the cruelty of traditions which he cannot reject makes him bitter towards his wife. His silence and refusal to even touch her or make eye contact becomes a great source of marital animosity and Prabha is treated like a pariah. Samar’s thoughts of imprisonment and escape are expressed through dream sequences which would go on to influence Pratidwandi. However, unlike Ray’s politicised representations of Bengali youth Chatterjee’s urban adolescent is waking up to the stark realities of cultural traditions.

In many ways Chatterjee seemed to shift dramatically from such realist film making with some immediacy, thus Sara Akash really stands apart in his oeuvre when compared to the light comic touch he would bring to his films in the 1970s. Perhaps what makes Sara Akash unconventional as a film for Chatterjee is the rejection of song and dance. Such a rejection gives the text a greater artistic validity and imposes a sincerity that ties in with the manifesto of 1968 espousing realism. In many ways, the narrative mixes elements of the youth film with strong melodrama accents and the focus on family as a destructive guardian of tradition is a strong point of social criticism. The ending feels like a compromise though because Prabha who comes to the house still takes the abuse and reconciles with her husband Samar. Of course Chatterjee deals with another reality here – that it would be impossible for her to simply leave Samar as this would mean disgrace for her, so in a way she is forced to stay merely out of a dependency on tradition. I’m not so sure if Prabha should have been so unforgiving considering the vindictiveness of Samar’s rejection. For me, it is a problematic ending full of compromise. Sara Akash is not a particularly strong film nor is it a seminal one but what makes it alive and fresh today is K.K. Mahajan’s extraordinary eye. His cinematography gives the film a special look and at the time some of the bold, audacious camerawork was visually indicative of Indian cinema’s capacity to show signs of radical iconoclastic authorial expression. K.K. was central to the development of a realist, creative aesthetic in the late 60s and his work with Mrinal Sen in particular is simply brilliant. Like Pratidwandi, Padatik and other films during the New Indian Cinema phase, Sara Akash is a film about youthful ambitions and dreams that collide with the regressive traditions of Old India, leaving us with a painful resolution in which both parties are imprisoned for their cultural subservience.

Here is some useful reading on cinematographer K.K. Mahajan who passed away in 2007:

http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2415/stories/20070810509308700.htm

http://www.upperstall.com/people/kk-mahajan

http://www.mattersofart.net/colomnkkmahajan.html

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.