SINGHAM (Dir. Rohit Shetty, India, 2011) – Return of The ‘Hard Body’

Picking up from where Dabangg left off, Singham is a police action thriller directed in tribute form by an unashamed fan (Rohit Shetty) of the angry young man films of the 70s. With a plot involving a dishonoured police inspector and the village boy as mythological hero, Singham is very much a throwback film bathed in nostalgic yearnings for traditional genre cinema. I’m not so sure if this plea for re initiating a lot of the action films made in the 70s and especially in the 80s is such a worthy one given their diabolical narratives and questionable technical proficiency. Like Dabangg, Singham reasserts the rural Indian village as a microcosm of Utopian ideals in which community, honour and justice are organised around the police and local criminals. The crusading cop with a vendetta is now one of the most tired conventions in all of cinema. However, such a melodramatic convention carries with it a narrative momentum and set of conflicting ideologies (the cop who must transcend the law to reinstate order) that still appeals to film makers and audiences alike. Like Dabangg, Singham is clearly a star vehicle for Ajay Devgan who first appears on screen emerging from the holy waters of the river Ganges with a Goliath like physique – his larger than life entrance marks him out as a mythological figure; an immortal amongst mortals and whilst Singham may be a police inspector, he is also a superhero. Ghajini, Dabangg and Singham prove that the hard body is an iconographic element and established convention intrinsic to the DNA make up of the contemporary Indian action film. I’m not sure but I think it might have been academic Yvonne Tasker who coined the term ‘hard body’ in reference to the action heroes played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a testosterone fuelled 1980s Reaganite America. Compared to Hollywood, the hard body concept seems quite new to Indian films.

Traditionally male leads like Amitabh and Dharmendra were expected to perform demanding stunts and also maintain some kind of physique but the Indian film star and leading male hero tended to remain a little out of shape so to speak. One could argue that much of this has changed considerably now. The emphasis on maintaining a clean, crisp and buffed physical appearance has now become an audience expectation. All of the major male leads working in the Mumbai film industry today have taken up the ethos that the inner must be in equilibrium with the outer – for many male leads such an ethos has become the norm. So now it might be appropriate to say that we are clearly in the era of the hard body cinema but with one major difference when compared to Hollywood – the absence of blood. The violence in Singham and Dabangg is a comic book pastiche, using a slow mo aesthetic that magnifies the violence as a post modern spectacle. Dabangg may have had Salman Khan as the star attraction but Singham wins out largely because of the scene stealing presence of Prakash Raj in a fantastic turn as the villainous Jaikant Shikre. Actor Prakash Raj who is closely associated with the Tamil film industry has acres of fun with his role. Of course, I am forgetting to mention a major point in my appraisal of the film; Singham is a remake of a successful Tamil action film of the same name. So, perhaps it’s not so surprising why it works so well as a mainstream summer film.

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.

ISHQIYA (Dir. Abhishek Chaubey, 2010, India) – Rural Noir

It’s hard to believe that this is director Abhishek Chaubey’s debut given the confidence, maturity and assurance with which he handles the material. Chaubey’s emergence has been under the tutorage of Vishal Bhardwaj, a film maker who like his contemporary Anurag Kashyap is not afraid of blurring genres and mixing visual styles whilst grinning mischievously and rubbing his hands with glee. A lot of the energy and zeal generated by Ishqiya comes largely from the chance to send up many of the often redundant values and conventions of mainstream Hindi cinema. Firstly, our heroes played by Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi are certainly not heroes as they fumble through life and rely foolishly on a streak of duplicity familiar from the universe of film noir. Secondly, the love interest is neither loving nor interested in dancing as a spectacle for the men around her. Instead Krishna played by vampishly by Vidya Balan is neither a femme fatale nor a symbol of innocence – she merely wants an explanation from her deceased husband. Thirdly, like all great femme fatales before her, Krishna’s sexuality is manipulation but in this case it leads to the formation of a love triangle in which affections are transferred into a friendship. Finally, by situating the story in the geographical context of the rural village, Chaubey explicitly draws on influences ranging from Shyam Benegal to Satyajit Ray. However, what makes this such a memorable and imaginative experience is the enduring nature of the characters which are imbued with a real affection – the three main leads deliver exceptional performances and whilst the denouement is a little predictable, the camaraderie forged between them clearly leaves it open for a sequel that for once might actually be justified. It is worth mentioning that Ishqiya also benefits immensely from a terrific soundtrack including one of the most melancholic Indian songs of recent years – the Gulzar penned ‘Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji’. In terms of narrative interruptions, it really works a treat. Everything else about the film including the editing, cinematography and sound design is spot on. I have no idea why I didn’t come to this one earlier but I know I will return to it again soon.