DHARAVI / QUICKSAND (1992, Dir. Sudhir Mishra, India)

dharavi

A NFDC-Doordarshan Co Production

Much of our cinema, even its so-called modern, alternative strand, is too referential. It thrives on imitation. It is not really our own cinema. We have to learn to break free and do our own thing,” he [Sudhir Mishra] argues.

Hindi cinema’s radical mainstream, Saibal Chatterjee, June 09 http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/jun09/jun091.asp

Should an auteur be judged on the near impossible criteria of consistency or should one simply stand back and simply accept that most film makers can only really ever become accomplished, credible artists if they remain true to themselves. Consistency as a demarcation of a film maker’s authorial status is perhaps arbitrary when considering how virtually most directors unhesitatingly alternate between the personal and the banal. Sudhir Mishra continues to be plagued with what is an inconsistent body of work, wavering from ambitious mainstream failure to realist political cinema. His 1992 parallel art film ‘Dharavi’ set in the slums of Bombay and starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (social realist favourites) certainly suggests a consistent authorial approach yet his status as an influential film maker is undermined by an unevenness in terms of narrative structure that characterises a number of key films.

When exactly the parallel cinema movement started and ended is largely unclear because of the reality that an art cinema has tended to exist alongside the mainstream, popular outlets in the film industry of most countries. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974) and M. S. Sathyu’s ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) certainly seem to act as definite starting points, signalling the birth of a new phase in the emergence of what would be dubbed ‘parallel cinema’. Though Sudhir Mishra has found it deeply problematic to make films on his own terms, ‘Dharavi’ was indicative of a movement which had peaked by the end of the eighties, occasionally producing a handful of noticeable art films in what was a largely commercialised nineties cinema. Perhaps this is why ‘Dharavi’ falls into the category of what is labelled as an unmemorable nineties art cinema.

Yet with the recent international success of stylised films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘City of God’, which have arguably popularised the imagery of slum poverty, Mishra’s realist morality appears wholly convincing and appropriately suited to depicting the lives of a marginalised underclass without resorting to the artifice of sentimentality or an overly constructed escapist narrative in which characters get the metaphorical chance to punch the air in glib satisfaction. A co production between NFDC and Doordarshan, ‘Dharavi’ revolves around a lowly taxi driver, played superbly by Om Puri, who dreams of starting his own business so that he can elevate himself out of the slums alongside his frustrated wife (Shabana Azmi), aging mother and naive son.

Combining a wonderfully atmospheric feel for authentic locations and an unpretentiously realist visual style, the film preys upon the prescient idea that mainstream entertainment in the form of popular cinema is both a diversion from confronting real man made problems in society and also a worryingly powerful distortion of inner ambitions. Mishra’s illustrative and inspired use of dream sequences which act as a projection of Om Puri’s opportunist fantasies features the presence of Madhuri Dixit as herself. The late Renu Saluja’s influential skills as an editor (a key figure in the parallel cinema movement) are evident in the tightly edited montage sequences depicting the visceral taxi journeys through the streets of Bombay, the original and appropriate use of slow motion and perhaps most significantly in the ideologically suggestive juxtaposition between reality and dreams.

Alternatively, Mishra’s film can also be viewed as a sociological study of male anxieties. Once all sense of moral dignity has become invisible to Yadav (Om Puri), a ferocious and uncontrollable anger stirs within the people of the slums who retaliate with violence, collectively resisting the sense of outrageous exploitation being committed in front of their very own eyes. The denouement may seem a little far fetched yet one suspends disbelief largely because the social oppression visible in the slums of Dharavi cannot remain repressed forever. However, nothing really changes for Raj Karan Yadav (Om Puri) as he reverts back to driving a taxi, confirming how survival and those like him are to an extent dependent on the democratic illusion of social mobility which is crudely propagated by the unattainable imagery of cultural icons like film stars. Mishra seems to be saying that the escape offered by Madhuri’s glowing red Saree may be infinite but at what price must this illusion be sustained?

ANURADHA (Dir. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1960, India) – Feminine anxieties

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Hrishikesh Mukherjee is often referred to as one of the forgotten film directors of Indian cinema. Admittedly, much of his work has been overlooked for reasons largely to do with an indistinct directorial style and the middle class sensibilities of his protagonists. The fact that Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a Bengali film maker and not an Indian one seems to provide one of the clearest explanations for his rejection of becoming accepted and positioned in the context of mainstream cinema. Though he did work with many of the A list film stars, his unpretentious approach to film making was nurtured by his formative years as an editor and assistant director with the talented neo realist director, Bimal Roy. This early experience with realism and the ideological imperative of socialism did leave an influence on Hrishikesh Mukherjee but he chose rather to focus on middle class stories and popular genres. Today, his name is often associated with that of Amitabh Bachchan.

Writer, Susmita Dasgupta, in her fascinating study of superstar Amitabh Bachchan comments eloquently on the importance of the director/actor relationship between Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Bachchan in helping to construct a consistent star image:

‘If we observe Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films with Amitabh Bachchan, we realise that he was one director who, in the course of his eight films with the star, actually exhausted the full pantheon of Amitabh’s histrionic abilities. Neither Manmohan Desai nor Prakash Mehra nor Yash Chopra gave as many facets of the star as he did. He understood Amitabh very well and responded both to his innate ability to project tragedy and his potential for comedy’

Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar, Susmita Dasgupta, 2006, Penguin, pg 47

Amitabh Bachchan did some of his best work with Hrishikesh Mukherjee but they also seemed to exhaust the creative possibilities of their cinematic relationship very quickly whilst Bachchan’s superstar status started to cloud his artistic judgements. In the midst of his more popular films like ‘Anand’ and ‘Chupke Chupke’, Hrishikesh Mukherjee directed a number of understated melodramas beginning with ‘Anuradha’ at the start of his career in 1960. Coming at the end of the 60s, it would be safe to position this film alongside the work of Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. In the film, Balraj Sahni, whom Hrishikesh Mukherjee had worked with on ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, plays an aspiring doctor, helping the dispossessed and poor in a rural village. He is joined by his wife, Anuradha Roy (Leela Naidu) who is forced to make a painful sacrifice by choosing to surrender her artistic ambitions as a talented radio artist so that she can support her husband’s idealistic desires.

Structured through a series of flashbacks and recollected by the memories of a lonely Anuradha, the film shows a sympathetic concern for feminine anxieties and aspirations. Though the character of Dr. Nirmal acts as the most visible link to neo realism, it is the character of Anuradha who becomes the focus of the narrative, representing a familiar brand of stoic femininity immortalised in such films as Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’. Unlike the patriarchal values of Hollywood cinema, Indian film makers working under the studio system regularly sought to uncover a heroic struggle within matriarchal ideology. The mother figure continues to act as a symbol of Indian nationhood; silent, hardworking and traditionally dutiful yet prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything to survive. However, the melodrama genre has always accommodated the voice of women more strongly than that of traditionally male dominated genres and therefore it is of little wonder that Mukherjee explores with great humanism and intelligence, the high price a woman must pay so that Indian society could continue to progress in an era when rapid educational and medical programmes were slowly being implemented by the secularism of a Nehruite government.

Compared to his contemporaries, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s popularity as a film maker seemed to peak with that of Amitabh yet his films dealt with middle class concerns that predate the parallel movement that would emerge in the early 1980s. The films Amitabh Bachchan made with Hrishikesh Mukherjee were the antithesis of the overblown multi starer of the 70s. I think this is where his true strength lay; he never allowed any of his actors to overshadow the material with their star presence. Stardom was an aspect of film making that he criticised and this perhaps explains why he was so successful in extracting some of the best work from the biggest Indian film stars.

Unlike today, the film makers who forged auteur careers under the studio system like Hrishikesh Mukherjee were masters at being able to subtly integrate song and dance sequences into the overall narrative, without shifting focus away from the important social message. At the end, Anuradha’s endless sacrifices for her husband’s medical career and inherent desire to help the impoverished transforms from something personal into a microcosm of Indian motherhood and female resilience that often goes unacknowledged.

SHANGHAI (Dir. Dibakar Banerjee, 2012, India) – State of a Nation

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Indian filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee’s latest film Shanghai is a brave attempt at the political thriller genre. The film adapts the 1967 novel Z by Greek writer Vassilis Vassilikos, which was made into a film in 1969 by Costas Gavras, and updates the material to contemporary India. Weaving together the lives of four key characters, the narrative focuses on the murder of an outspoken social activist and charismatic leader Dr. Ahmadi. The murder of Ahmadi by the major political party, which is running for election, brings together filmmaker (specialising in porn films) Joginder (Emraan Hashmi) who was present at the time of Ahmadi’s murder, Ahmadi’s staunch supporter Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) and Krishnan (Abhay Deol), an emerging civil servant. The murder of Ahmadi, which takes place as a spectacle before the eyes of his supporters, results in the current government implementing an enquiry headed up by Krishnan into the Ahmadi’s killing. It is only later that Krishnan discovers that the enquiry was set up primarily by the current government as a way of covering up the crime since it involves the Chief Minister. Joginder and Shalini’s amateurish investigation lifts the lid on a quagmire of corrupt politics with the main political party, the IBP, using its members to intimidate and kill Ahmadi while attempting to cover up the truth. Ahmadi’s concerns seem real enough, arguing that the government’s longing to steal land that belongs to the oppressed underclass of India so that it can be used for an expensive infrastructure project is very much about corporate expansionism. Ideologically, Ahmadi’s outspoken political position makes him a target and the silencing of his voice is familiar signs of a government that cannot offer protection to those who speak out against prevailing economic and social interests.

Director Banerjee succeeds in capturing the nexus of power relations that intersects amongst the people of a city in a state of unease and on the edge of self-destruction. For me the weak link in the film is Kalki Koechlin who plays Shalini. Her character seems underwritten and the role she plays in the narrative should have been more critical and dynamic. Additionally, Kalki is miscast in the role of Shalini unlike Emraan Hashmi who is effectively creepy as an unsavoury amateur filmmaker. When Shalini and Joginder finally present their audio and visual evidence to the enquiry it falls upon Krishnan to take action. At first Krishnan is coerced into accepting that the enquiry set up to deal with the murder of Ahmadi be closed due to lack of evidence. Krishnan is trying to forge himself a political career, which is expedited by the backing of the Chief Minister who appoints him as an adviser to the government. Banerjee dares to debate a very important issue in India today, that of development, and the price the oppressed have to pay so that the ruling elite can continue to rule unequivocally and with a frightening impunity. Shanghai is certainly his most ambitious film to date and what makes it one of the best Indian films of the year are the closing moments in which the juxtaposition between development and dissent coalesce into a terrifying reality.

TRIKAL – Past, Present, Future (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1985, India)

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Benegal’s interests in narrative subjectivity seemed to reach a creative epoch with his masterful Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of The Sun, 1993). However, before Benegal arrived at such a sophisticated point in his career, his 1985 film Trikal marked the beginning of a formal interest in narrative structure. Trikal is a political melodrama set in a 1960s Goa, which focuses on a wealthy, powerful and decadent family fading into obscurity as British rule is giving way to Indian nationalism. This is one of Benegal’s most ambitious films taking an Altman like approach to narrative by using an ensemble cast and probing the personal dilemmas faced by the family members. Ruiz Pereira (Naseeruddin Shah), a close friend of the family, arrives in Goa after many years to an empty mansion. His role as a narrator initiates a flashback, retelling the demise of the family but the narrative storytelling is complicated by questions of memory and nostalgia. Pereira’s reminiscence begins at the funeral of the patriarch in which he is able to pin down each of the family members and their various flaws. The funeral and especially the death of a figurehead in a family of such prominence is a narrative device typical of the Hindi melodrama. What we discover is that the family see themselves as Goans first and Indians second, thus Benegal also explores the way identity is shaped by regional allegiances and communal loyalties.

Although the death of the patriarch symbolically points to the destruction of the family, the real figurehead of the family is actually the matriarch Donna Maria Souza-Soares, played by the actress Leela Naidu. With her husband gone, Donna Maria is deeply protective of the increasingly fragmented family and appears powerless in the face of wider social and political change. It is change that many of the family members fear the most and their aloof social status brings with it a degree of false superiority, which is out of place in modernist India. It would be right to say that this is a family that lives in a bubble, in an alternate reality built on former glories which no longer offers them economic immunity. Additionally, the family’s destruction is accelerated by the children, a younger generation who reject tradition and embrace a kind of emotional intellectualism that recalls European values. Along with the funeral, marriage is another thematic that creates a crack in the psyche of the family. None of the family members who are in relationships seem particularly content and a malaise of unhappiness is sharply juxtaposed to a mood of defiance; the family becomes a symbol of class delusion. Another fascinating point of ideological discourse is with the secondary narrative storyline of Vijay Singh Rane who appears as a terrifying spirit from the past, reminding us of the deceased patriarch’s murky political past and possible hegemonic collusion’s. Epic, ambitious and resolutely political, Trikal is yet another distinguished film by one of Indian cinema’s finest filmmakers.