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GURGAON (Dir. Shanker Raman, 2017, India) – The Horrors of Economic Liberalization

gurgaon

Gurgaon is a vicious, nihilistic denunciation of India’s on going project of economic liberalization. I didn’t know much about Gurgaon but I soon discovered it is an emerging place for business and technology. This may not be important to our viewing pleasure but this film is very much about what Gurgaon symbolises in India right now – the question of economic progress. This vexing socio-economic question is articulated through the story of the landowner who is seduced by and concedes to capitalist overtures. In many ways, the story is a flipside to Bimal Roy’s pathbreaking Do Bigha Zamin, the definitive tale of capitalism vs. the worker, in which the peasant farmers go to extraordinary lengths to protect and hold on to land they have helped to cultivate over generations. The ending to Do Bigha Zamin sees the defeat of the farmer in the face of the inevitability of modernization, progress and capitalism. Whereas Bimal Roy suggested that resistance to industrialization was futile, the economic liberalization that we witness in Gurgaon is a corrosive phenomenon. The gambit of real estate development and exploitation has led to the creation of a new Indian elite that seems to be completely lost and vacant, unable to function at all other than as sociopaths.

Director Shanker Raman brings a chilling touch to the staging of the family scenes – a deadening paralysis, a result of infanticide and new elitist arrogance, conjures a family of sleepwalkers, notably the cruel men. Is this the new India that had been promised to the farmers, peasants and workers? Morally bankrupt, violent and bleak. The neo noir aesthetic and non-linear narrative of Gurgaon recalls recent films like Peddlers, Titli, Mantra, Moh Maya Money and The Hungry. But these are not the only tentative similarities shared by this cycle of films. Perhaps more significant is the ugly face of economic liberalization juxtaposed against the milieu of a new urban elite in which a betrayal of ancestry and the nation has led to the sadistic implosion of the family unit. There is also a grotesque quality to these films; the lecherous face of masculinity and wanton sadism is manifested in exhibitions of misogyny. Arguably, in Gurgaon, the only fully alive people are the women, although the mother and daughter are also unsurprising victims. And it is up to the mother to restore a grudging social order at the end as if to redress the fatalism of economic liberalization. In doing so, the ending to Gurgaon recalls Mother India (1957) but with a vehemently self-destructive twist.

Raman’s film has strong overtures of the horror genre, a satirical horror on capitalism perhaps. I have tried impressionistically to note a few of the more obvious characteristics of this loose cycle of films. But how do we label such films? The tropes of melodrama still prevail no matter how deftly Gurgaon fuses noir and horror. In some respects, this is why so much of Indian cinema has never been delineated along strict genre lines. It is a magnificently porous cinema that throws up a plethora of genre anomalies and delights. There is one overarching theme though. This is to do with the youth, expressly disenchantment with politics, family and society. But since this is largely a middle and upper class representation, sympathy for such youthful anxieties is partial. One fascinating sub-plot that lingered in my mind involves the character of Jonty (Yogi Singha), a destitute man from the slums, who is hired to kidnap the only daughter of Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi). What this sub-plot points to is the static reality of socio-economic exploitation in which the people from the slums are instrumentalized to keep in check their own oppression. We come to discover real estate development, a corrupt enterprise, has meant the disappearance of the poorest people, their land swallowed up in the name of progress. The analogy between capitalism and the horror genre is not new – both Marx and Lenin made the equivocation. And it is a socio-political equation that marks the insidious ways, in which capitalism is a self-devouring force in Gurgaon, clearing a path in which greed, corruption and entitlement are vestiges of a new nation.

The spectre of classic Indian cinema resurfaces in one of the penultimate shots of a pathetic plaque that is erected to memorialize the death of Preeto (Ragini Khaana), the adopted daughter of Kheri Singh. But this is not a sacrifice for the good of the nation that is alluded to at the end of Mehboob’s Mother India when Radha is present for the opening of a new dam. After all, the imagery of blood at the end of Mother India remains a tangible afterthought in the name of progress. Just as the price of blood remains as fresh and vivid as the one spilt on the land and witnessed by Radha in Mother India, the blood, sweat and tears of the workers who helped to erect the new metropolises of India are invisible, there is no plague to memorialize their spirit and contribution. The land that once spoke of sacrifice, toil and labour, now reeks of an unchecked violence, corruption and murder. But capitalism, economic liberalization, hedonism, all seem to have forgotten about one thing which they are unable to corrupt or defile, which is the mother. Whereas Sukhilala’s defeat, the parasitic moneylender in Mother India, has won out over the course of time, as evidenced in the narrative of economic liberalization, the mother in Indian cinema remains indubitably visible and embedded as a symbol of resistance on many different fronts. Is it not safe to say then Radha’s gunshot that slays Birju still reverberates and finds a distant yet eerie echo in the contemporary imaginings of the nation in Indian cinema.

It is worth mentioning that Gurgaon is the directorial debut of award winning cinematographer Shanker Raman (Harud, Frozen, Peepli Live). Sadly, the film did not get a UK cinema release but is now on Netflix. I haven’t seen an amazing amount of Indian films of late but Gurgaon really stands out in terms of its terrifying political discourse.

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Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 3: The Transitional Years (1978 – 1979)

smita patil

Smita Patil in Gaman (1978).

This Third phase marked the transitioning of Parallel Cinema into perhaps the high point of creativity. During the Emergency, the FFC criteria was re-written in 1976, whereby avant-garde pursuits were discouraged and ‘Indianness’ promoted. Perhaps it would be absurd to say this was the beginning of the end but risk, adventure and experimentation would be curtailed. Some of this about turn was at the behest of Satyajit Ray and the apparent failure of films in the developmental phase to turn a profit, which in fact was not the case at all. The real failure had been with the FFC to invest in a viable distribution and exhibition network to fully support the access of Parallel Cinema for a specialist film audience. By the time we reach the end of the 1970s, popular Hindi cinema was on the ascendancy again with the multi starrer. Although many of the newly established filmmakers of the early years of Parallel Cinema continued to make films, the time frame of 1978 to 1979, hardly two years, is the shortest of the phases that I have mapped since it was a period of transition structurally for the FFC. However, since the centre had been smashed, it was the South that seemed to take up the aesthetic and thematic challenges.

Notable also in this period is the continuing emergence of Malayalam Parallel Cinema predominately in the form of John Abraham and Govindan Aravindan. We also start to see a second cycle of Naxalite films that begin to look back at this polarizing historical moment from a critical distance, if not romantic, including a contribution from K. A. Abbas in 1979 with The Naxalites, a work that only seems to exist in a poor VHS transfer on YouTube. More importantly, one can also begin to see the impact of Shyam Benegal on films like Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1979). Indeed, Benegal and Shashi Kapoor’s collaboration seemed to consolidate the path forged by Middle Cinema, pointing to the varied attempts to incorporate and fuse the socio-political aspects of Parallel Cinema with more palatable, mainstream narrative storytelling idioms – as evidenced in Junoon (1978). Relatedly, the ensemble of actors who had first worked with Benegal on his early films, notably Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil begin to branch outwards, appearing in more mainstream projects. It is Smita Patil who arguably becomes the ‘face’ of Parallel Cinema, a major discovery, working prolifically and starring in half a dozen new films. Quite telling also is that in this period Sen turns his back on earlier agit-prop political experiments and begins to find a totally new style, leading to perhaps his first truly accomplished work – Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and the first in Sen’s Absence trilogy. The other filmmaker to mention is Saeed Akhtar Mirza who debuted in 1976 with Arvind Desai, his first full length feature, and who would go on to make some of the most important Parallel Cinema films of the 1980s.

Third Phase: Transitional Years (78-79)

79. Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan/The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1978, Hindi
80. Dooratwa/Distance, dir. Buddadhev Dasgupta, 1978, Bengali
81. Gaman/Going, dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1978, Hindi
82. Grahana/The Eclipse, dir. T.S. Nagabharana, 1978, Kannada
83. Junoon/The Obsession, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1978, Hindi
84. Ondanondu Kaladalli, dir. Girish Karnad, 1978, Kannada
85. Parashuram/The Man with the Axe, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1978, Bengali
86. Pranam Khareedu, dir. Vasu, 1978, Telugu
87. Prisoners of Conscience, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1978, English/Hindi
88. Sarvasakshi/The Omniscient, dir. Ramdas Phutane, 1978, Marathi
89. Thampu/The Circus Tent, dir. G. Aravindan, 1978, Malayalam
90. Avalude Ravukal, dir. V. Sasi, 1978, Malayalam
91. Yaro Oral/Someone Unknown, dir. V.K. Pavithran, 1978, Malayalam
92. Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal, dir. John Abraham, 1979, Malayalam
93. Ek Din Pratidin/And Quiet Rolls the Day, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1979, Bengali
94. Estheppan/Stephen, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
95. Kummatty/The Bogeyman, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
96. Maabhoomi/Our Land, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1979, Telugu
97. The Naxalities, dir. K.A. Abbas, 1979, Hindi
98. Neem Annapurna/Bitter Morsel, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, Bengali
99. Sinhasan/The Throne, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1979, Marathi
100. Sparsh/The Touch, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1979, Hindi

TIKLI AND LAXMI BOMB (Dir. Aditya Kripalani, 2017, India) – Sex and the City

tikli and laxmi bomb

The hectic roadside at night is a connective urban tributary in Tikli and Laxmi Bomb, a brazen, atypical and bleak observation of sex workers in Mumbai. Given the rise of female centred narrative cinema and the strong female protagonist, a cycle of films including Lipstick under my Burkha, Pink, Piku, Anarkali of Aarah, NH-10, Margarita with a Straw and Tumhari Sulu point to a shifting acknowledgment of the growing power of the female audience at the Indian box office. Many of these films take up a centre ground, mixing idioms from popular Hindi cinema with indie aesthetics. Although Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is a stylised work, based on director Aditya Kripalani’s third novel, the richness of the inner lives of the characters including the tangential bit players maps a sprawling tale of despair that recalls Nair’s powerful Salaam BombayTikli and Laxmi Bomb has already attracted critical acclaim and is likely to do well on the festival circuit but the urgent themes it deals with suggests this is a film that deserves a wider international audience, not necessarily a specialist one.

Both of the leads Vibhawari Deshpande (Laxmi) and Chitrangada Chakraborty (Tikli) are superlative, exuding a raw, unfiltered energy that is both darkly humorous and endearingly human. Mostly shot at night and on location, and which gives the film a luminous aesthetic sparkle, director Aditya Kripalani contests the conventional sordid milieu often associated with the world of the sex worker, whereby the gender struggle over space becomes an extended metaphor for the reclaiming of a feminist solidarity. The periodic structure of the narrative lets Kripalani move freely across the lives of the characters, depicting the unceasing threat of rape and violence the sex worker faces and from which they have little protection given the fraudulent system is aligned against them from all vestiges of power including the police. The extended homage to the painful contradictions of the city of Mumbai is a subtext that Kripalani mines thoughtfully in themes of anonymity and the displacement of the migratory worker. This recalls Salaam Bombay, and more recent works like Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, while the visibility of the sex worker gives these two intertwining themes a strikingly gendered edge.

But sadly Tikli and Laxmi’s revolution is short lived, terminated with a terrifying retribution, and which sees realignment in the social order of things. Just like Chillum is replaced at the end of Salaam Bombay, extenuating the expendable nature of such socially and economically vulnerable people, Kripalani grapples with a similar kind of political symbolism, thereby reiterating poverty, hunger and inequality that feeds such a cruel, blighted system is cyclical and impossible to transpose.

MUKKABAAZ / THE BRAWLER (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2017, India) – Fist of Fury [spoilers ahead]

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Mukkabaaz ends with very little of the catharsis you would expect from a boxing biopic. But Kashyap’s latest venture uses the sports film trappings as a way of navigating the politics of caste against the backdrop of an unconventional Hindi romance. This one zips along, partaking a breathless, infectious energy and enjoys circumventing audience expectations so to let those authorial Kashyap flourishes gather a hedonistic momentum.

While mainstream Hindi cinema continues to dodge the question of caste, having rendered caste invisible in the sentimental NRI neoliberal narratives, Parallel Cinema attempted to make the question of caste a central edict of the communicative political cinema of Benegal. Some time or another many of the great Indian filmmakers have all dealt with caste. Even Ray realised the urgency of this task with Sadgati, his grimmest film. And many of the best films about caste have come from the South; see Chomana Dudi. While alternative, independent cinema has thrived, caste led narratives have been intermittent. Yet the critical success of films like Sairat, Chauranga and Masaan point to a cycle of films that deal with caste head on, and so Mukkabaaz in some respects can be situated in this cycle. But what seems to separate Mukkabaaz from these films is the political address; much of it on the nose politics, which is openly critical of Modi’s polarized, nationalist rhetoric that has claimed the lives of many innocent Indians.

One gets a sense of urgency from this work that has been lacking in the past because it feels like a film that Kashyap had to make – but not to silence his critics or to stage a pithy comeback, rather to finally put his neck on the line in ways that become amplified in the coruscating tale of caste subjugation. Not that Kashyap has ever put his neck on the line before; he does it all the time on social media and usually gets it chopped off! Kashyap has been bumping up against mainstream Hindi cinema for a while now, often with mixed results; see Bombay Velvet. With Mukkabaaz Kashyap manages to pull off such a creative feat, freely mixing the idioms of 70s storytelling with the postmodern Hindie panache of hyper-edit montages and monolithic super villains. Kashyap has always been a tactile filmmaker and with Mukkabaaz he once again conveys a naturalistic feel for the urban environment and particularly the spaces the characters inhabit. The juxtaposition of blood, sweat and skin gives the film a tangible ambiance that seeps through into the unconventional romance.

Where the film really comes to life ideologically is when Ravi Kishen shows up as the Dalit boxing coach and in one particular initial exchange with Jimmy Shergil’s upper caste despotic, bigoted Bhagwan, a crippling social reality transforms boxing into a metaphorical caste struggle that energises the narrative. An attempt to depart from the conventional romance is at the level of caste but the decision to make Sunaina (Zoya Hussain) mute heralds a palpable symbolic gesture to do with patriarchy and female oppression. Moreover, muteness becomes a device with which to create lots of humour and arguably Mukkabaaz is also one of Kashyap’s wittiest films. Perhaps one of the darkest moments is when Shravan (Vineet Kumar Singh) humiliates his boss in the workplace, overturning a caste hierarchy and privilege that seeks to disenfranchise further those already on the margins.

Most of Kashyap’s films never follow any set rules in terms of narrative storytelling and often function episodically, rarely building to a traditional sense of closure. And given the emotional catharsis often associated with boxing films, much of this is kept in check so not to sentimentalise Shravan’s epic struggle. But there are deliberate moments of hyperbole such as Shravan’s rescue of Sunaina, a brilliant send up of Bollywood’s deference to the mythological, and which Kashyap pulls off with chaotic aplomb. Indeed, such hyperbole also stretches to the sordid degrees of corruption prevalent in society, one in which the film paints a nexus of the upper caste, the police and public institutions working in cahoots, a major characteristic of popular Hindi cinema in the 70s.

Undeniably this is actor Vineet Kumar Singh’s film and he rumbles and contorts his way through, his sculpted body instrumentalized to mirror a razor sharp determination that claws into the warped psyche of a nation that seems to have yielded to a neo-fascist impulse. But what to make of the final invocation of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’? It seems to be yet another rejoinder, delivered in a tone of mockery. Nevertheless, I still felt some ambivalence towards this moment since I didn’t fully comprehend the intentions. I should also mention the final shot is a brilliant one that crackles with mischievous delight.