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:
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.