When Khalid Mohamed, editor of Filmfare and journalist, wrote a piece on his great aunt in the Times of India he had no idea that Benegal would eventually convince Mohamed to write a screenplay based on the idea. This was made altogether unusual since Mohamed was not the greatest fan of Benegal’s cinema. Mammo (1994) would be the first of three films, all written by Khalid Mohamed, in which Benegal explored the fractured lives of three women from Muslim families. The story of Mammo revolves around the character of Mehmooda Begum (Farida Jalal) – a displaced Muslim woman who doesn’t quite know where she belongs anymore, a victim of partition and someone searching for an identity in an uncertain Bombay in which secularism has started to fade. Thrown out by her relatives in Pakistan, Mammo comes to Bombay, staying with her widowed sister Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) and her 13yr old nephew Riyaz (Amit Phalke) from whose point of the view the story is narrated.
There was no plan for a trilogy but along with Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa, Benegal’s ‘Muslim Trilogy’ is unique to Indian cinema but perhaps less so in the context of Parallel Cinema which had since its birth in the late 1960s at least attempted to make more films on the subject of partition while also re-presenting the lives of Indian Muslims in an altogether convincing and sympathetic way – Garam Hawa the most notable example. The first film in the trilogy, Mammo, was made in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Bombay Riots of 1992. The post-Ayodhya context of Mammo gives the film a particularly significant ideological resonance. Benegal and Mohamed’s depiction of the oppressed Muslim minority is one that contravenes the often stereotyped representations found in popular Hindi cinema; the overly marked presence of the token Muslim character. Instead, Mammo and other Muslim characters are psychologically complex, have an inner life that we get to see and are often shown in the process of negotiating, contesting their Muslim identity.
Benegal’s output is staggering, comparable to Satyajit Ray in many respects, although I would argue Benegal took on many more controversial and difficult topics and stories over his career, and constantly adapted his style and themes to account for social and political changes in society. Moreover, I can’t think of any other Indian filmmaker over the past 40 years who has constantly engaged with the stories of Indian women, offering a voice to subaltern lives which are continually blotted out in the mainstream. Mammo comes very late in the history of Parallel Cinema and in some respects is a film representative of both Middle Cinema Benegal was often associated with and the Hindi melodrama, returning to classic films such as Bimal Roy’s Bandini. Indeed, Mammo is one of Benegal’s least seen works, a poignantly crafted tale about belonging, borders and identity.
Synopsis: A fourteen year old dalit boy is growing up in an unnamed corner of India. His dream is to go to a town school like his elder brother and his reality is to look after the pig that his family owns. His only escape is to sit atop a Jamun tree and adore his beloved passing by on her scooter. His unspoken love is as true as his mother’s helplessness who cleans the cowsheds of the local strongman’s mansion, with whom she also has a secret liaison. When the boy’s elder brother comes on a vacation to the village, he soon finds out about his younger brother’s infatuation. The learned elder brother makes him realize the need to express his love and helps him write a love letter.
I’ve been considering what to say about this film for a few weeks now but still cannot find the clearest way to express my thoughts. The film deals with feudal caste politics in an Indian village. What it is clearly trying to do is recall the films of parallel cinema which were interested in Subaltern ideology and representation. Chauranga is closest to the cinema of Shyam Benegal and particularly recalls Ankur. Similarly, the maid servant who is enslaved to the local Brahim family is readily exploited for sex while her two sons are mistreated by the upper caste Brahim boys who roam the village with pernicious impunity. Writer-Director Bikas Mishra does what Benegal did regularly in many of his early films that can be positioned within the sphere of subalternity, he humanises the powerful and the powerless but in a subtle twist on a familiar tale of rural caste oppression Mishra brings in a touch of providence that complicates the tragedy that befalls late in the film.
Rest assured Mishra aligns himself with the Dalits and is especially interested in the narrative perspective of the two boys and their differing personalities; one wants to study abroad while the other is an outright rebel who refuses to be subjugated like his mother. Mishra’s benign depiction of the Brahmin family in which an ancient brand of violent patriarchy breeds is especially disturbing since an unspoken nexus of oppression exists amongst the men that is never questioned; it is natural and normal for them. Since Dhaniya’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee dependable as ever) death is framed ambiguously makes it difficult for us an audience to pass a judgement on Dhaval (Sanjay Suri), the Brahim patriarch but when Dhaval, by chance, intercepts the love letter which older brother (Riddhi Sen) writes in jest for his younger brother Santu (Soham Maitra) who is in love with a Brahmin girl, it offers Dhaval the opportunity to annhilate his crimes by expunging the Dalit family from the village. Incensed by Santu’s innocent propositions to his daughter, Dhaval sanctions the violence enacted against Dhaniya’s children. What comes to the surface are caste tensions, exploding into brutality, recalling yet again the cinema of Benegal and his rural trilogy including Ankur, Nishant and Manthan. Another link to parallel cinema is the presence of Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee (Padatik, Pratidwandi, Akaler Sandhane) who plays a blind priest.
Something that Benegal refused to do in many of his films in which he brought to light subaltern exploitation was to never present Dalits as completely subjugated. Instead he often showed the subaltern as a political force resisting, fighting back and challenging the status quo. Perhaps this was a little idealistic and never truly depicted the cruel reality of caste politics, that they could not fight back, that they simply had to get on with things. Mishra advocates such a truism and it is a painful one but one that seems altogether appropriate for the poignant note on which he ends. Santu escapes, unlike his older brother, but as he looks back at the village on the train we get the sense he has never been any lonelier. It’s a parallel cinema ending, a homage of sorts that works as social protest while articulating an underplayed belief that Santu’s escape is almost necessary, that the best thing for him is to remove himself completely from the village as this will at least let him live without the fear of being persecuted. Nonetheless, Santu’s future’s is equally uncertain now and one thing is for sure, no matter where he goes he will always be invisible. This is a terrible truth that Mishra does brilliantly to expose.
Manthan was the third part in a trilogy of films dealing with rural oppression and it is a film which framed Benegal as a fiercely political voice in Indian cinema. Not only does the film have one of the finest ensemble casts you are likely to come across in parallel cinema but also brings together a typically brilliant crew made up of Kaifi Azmi (dialogue), Vanraj Bhatia (music) and Govind Nihalani (cinematography). Manthan is Benegal at the peak of his creative powers and it is a masterful work that focuses on the efforts of liberals Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) and his men to help rural farmers establish a Milk cooperative. Based on the true story of the ‘white revolution’ – the world’s biggest Dairy development programme that took place in India during the 1970s and beyond, Benegal roots his story in a truth and approaches the political contestation of the village through a neo realist prism that serves to dignify the poor farmers/peasants as new egalitarian citizens. At first, the villagers are suspicious of the ‘city folk’ and the ambivalent character of Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah), an oppressed Dalit who becomes a metonym of casteism, is reluctant to allow his people to join the cooperative. Bhola’s reluctance stems from his experience with people from the city who he views as exploitative, greedy and hypocritical – characteristics that are explored in the film with a degree of ideological complexity. The villagers are beholden to Mishraji (Amrish Puri), a greedy Dairy distributor, who exploits particularly the Dalits, paying them pittance for their milk.
Although the Milk cooperative at first seems like an Utopian impossibility, its eventual implementation is later questioned by Dr. Rao as a flawed enterprise since the poorest farmers which it is supposed to help the most remain excluded from equal participation and ownership. For Dr. Rao, this flaw in fact masks a failure to grasp the historical complexities of the different castes in the village. It is a liberal failing that such inequality stems from a history of casteism in which the Dalits have been mistreated and enslaved as sub-human. Bhola reminds Dr. Rao of such a discriminatory and painful past, pointing to the continuing exploitation and mistreatment of Dalit women by singling out Chandravarkar (Anant Nag) as perpetuating such a bind of oppression. Since the cooperative doesn’t discriminate against caste makes it an ideological entity that threatens to destabilise the hegemony of Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the self designated headman of the village and symbol of the higher caste. The status quo of the village is challenged directly when elections to contest the post of chairman are won by Moti, a Dalit. The Dalits claim the victory of Moti as a personal triumph and Bhola’s attempts to overturn an age old hegemonic tradition reclaim a human dignity for the Dalits and oppressed alike by rejecting the notion of inferiority perpetuated by Sarpanch and Mishraji. Sarpanch is outraged by the victory of Moti. In retaliation Sarpanch ensures Dr. Rao is transferred out of the village so that his radical politics can be suppressed. However, Sarpanch is unable to comprehend the infectious revolutionary ideals have already been embraced by Bhola. Even though Dr. Rao fails in his original aim of starting a Milk cooperative embraced in a totality by the villagers especially the Dalits, his radicalisation of Bhola is an ideological achievement that should be read as a counter hegemonic consolidation of a peasant insurgency. Such an explicit final political position unites Manthan firmly with Ankur and Nishant.