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

trikal

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.

PAAN SINGH TOMAR (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2010, India) – From Hero to Bandit

paan

Although director Tigmanshu Dhulia has emerged as a key voice in the mainstream of Indian cinema, his last three films including Paan Singh Tomar were NOT released theatrically in the UK. Such a sorry state of affairs echoes real and immediate concerns to do with the way in which distribution is so narrow. Indian distributors based in the UK continue to select films on their commercial appeal rather than cinematic merits, which has led to many of the best Indian films never making it to cinema screens. Star power continues to be the defining criteria that distributors use to select Indian films. This has led to mediocre and pretty terrible films being exhibited in UK cinema screens – namely those starring Akshay Kumar. Shagird, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and Paan Singh Tomar are impressive genre films yet none of them feature an A list bankable star, thus their commerical prospects have suffered notably in foreign territories such as the UK. Thankfully, Paan Singh Tomar has been a sleeper hit in India. The film opened to a strong critical response with many praising Irfan Khan’s performance. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia has slowly worked his way up through the film industry. He started as a casting director on Bandit Queen then worked as a scriptwriter on Dil Se. His career as a film director took off with his debut Haasil in 2003, followed by Charas in 2004. It is only recently that Dhulia has become more prolific and with this increase in output, he has proved himself to be a formidable genre director with real range. Dhulia’s most recent film is a historical biopic, retracing the varied life of a forgotten national athlete and hero Paan Singh Tomar, played brilliantly by Irfan Khan. (Strangely enough Paan Singh Tomar was made in 2010 before both Shagird and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster but suffered from a delayed release). Paan Singh’s trials are related to a journalist, triggering a series of flashbacks that cover his most famous exploits including his radical transformation from national hero to feared bandit.

The first half deals with Paan Singh’s time in the Indian army and his rise to fame as a medal winning steeple chase runner. Although Paan Singh is encouraged to become an athlete, his participation in many of the races points to a disinterest from the Indian government in supporting athletics as a worthwhile cause. The second half offers a radically different narrative with Paan Singh involved in a dispute over land, leading to violent conflict within the family. At first Paan Singh attempts to resolve the conflict by involving the local police but he is confronted with incompetence and corruption, ridiculing his status as a national hero. When his family is attacked, Paan Singh retaliates by attacking the despotic thugs who control the land and crops. It is not long before Paan Singh becomes an outlaw, forced to go on the run with his group of bandits. Dhulia’s experience of working on Bandit Queen is quite telling in these sequences and arguably the narrative develops into a full blown modern tragedy. What really holds all of this together is the towering performance by Irfan Khan who delivers a moving study of Paan Singh. Interestingly, Dhulia also worked as a casting director on Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, which also starred Irfan Khan, and he also employs the rural outlands of India, in this case the Chambal Valley, as a perfect aesthetic backdrop for the eventual marginalisation of Paan Singh and his bandits. This is close to perfect as grown up mainstream Indian cinema and is certainly one of the more memorable Indian films of the year.

ISHAQZAADE / LOVE REBELS (Dir. Habib Faisal, 2012, India) – Star Crossed Lovers

ishaqzaade-0v

Its too early to say whether or not Habib Faisal is a solid mainstream filmmaker but on the basis of the two films he has directed to date including Do Dooni Char & Ishaqzaade, he has certainly tried to take on the conventions of mainstream Indian cinema and give audiences something a little different. Ishaqzaade is a Yash Raj production and was expectedly well marketed, performing surprisingly well at the Indian box office. The slate of Yash Raj films released over the last two years have been somewhat disappointing and while they have branched out into different genres, the quality of scripts has been uneven. Habib Faisal was a scriptwriter before becoming a director and he continues to write for Yash Raj projects. Ishaqzaade is also written by Habib Faisal and that seems unusual in the context of mainstream Indian cinema since most films use a script typically credited to an array of writers. Ishaqzaade can be interpreted as a contemporary updating of Romeo and Juliet and the story of the star crossed lovers who are fated by their warring families remains largely intact. Given the current sorry state of mainstream Indian cinema, Ishaqzaade is a film that has a lot going for it including an energetic style, vibrant locations, solid performances and an ending that makes good on its promise of fatalism. With Do Dooni Chaar, Habib Faisal dealt with the day to day problems faced by the middle class of India and such an interest in social themes is evident again in Ishaqzaade but in the shape of religion. The story of Romeo & Juliet is given a topical variation by bringing into play communal politics, pitting two political families (The Chauhans & the Qureshis) against each other. In the midst of such intense hatred that goes back generations is the twisted love story of youngsters Parma Chauhan (Arjun Kapoor) and Zoya Qureshi (Parineeti Chopra). In many ways, the characterisation of Parma and Zoya are stereotypical and are familiar enough to us from other romantic films but the religious divisions transforms the characters into potent political symbols of sectarian strife visible in some parts of India. The great compromise when it comes to mainstream Indian cinema is the inclusion of song and dance sequences. In his first film, Habib Faisal succeeds in bypassing such a tradition and although he tries he hardest to keep songs to a minimal in Ishaqzaade, the ones he does use are both insignificant to the narrative and unmemorable. Had he been able to eliminate song and dance sequence altogether, the film might have been stronger for it but then this would have inevitably changed the type of film being made from mainstream to art film.

Thankfully the narrative of the film doesn’t suffer from the film of two halves syndrome plaguing so many Indian films of late – this means the first half is light hearted whereas the second half is dominated by heartache; I guess its the perfect emotional mix for the masala film genre. An interesting departure is the way the intermission is used. Many films use the intermission as a crossroads in terms of narrative and romantic films in particular use the intermission to convey a predictable dilemma facing the main protagonist – usually related to having fallen in love. Habib Faisal departs from such formulaic hyperbole by using the intermission to frame Parma’s successful plan to marry Zoya and have intercourse with her, thus giving his family the edge in the election race. It is a bold and inventive use of the intermission and takes the material into an unfamiliar territory. The discovery of Parma and Zoya’s secret marriage which was carried out by Parma as a way of exacting revenge on Zoya for her humiliation at college at first creates more hatred between the two families. However, once the families realise that their political reputation and domination could come to an end, they come together to eliminate Parma and Zoya. Such an alliance demonstrates a wider point about religious divisions and political power and the way the two interconnect and depend on one another in today’s India. Rather than embrace Parma and Zoya’s secular marriage, the families reactionary stance reveals a reactionary ideological perspective that promotes a culture of intolerance. What Parma and Zoya’s union represents is the progressive face of middle class India in which the youth will have a decisive role to play in the erosion of such traditional and repressive values. Ultimately, Parma and Zoya’s marriage poses a threat to the political power structure which is in place and it is political interests that must be protected, even at the expense of a premature youthful liberalism.

Similarly like recent films such as Ishqiya and Omkara, the city is nowhere to be seen and director Habib Faisal opts for a rural ‘lawless’ geographical landscape of old colleges, brothels, over sized family mansions and depilated railway carriages. It is a rustic terrain that seems fitting for the ancient rivalry that exists between the two families. Zoya is a feisty and spirited female character who seems trapped in such an overly male dominated world. When she tells her brothers that she has dreams of becoming a politician like her father they laugh, mocking her enthusiasm as foolishness. It is only when she is disgraced by Parma does Zoya realise that the value of honour is sadly more important than her happiness or even existence. Such a reactionary response from the two families yet again taps into the feudalistic mentality still prevalent in rural India. Yet it is a feudalism that wins votes and appeals to the traditional sentiments of the electoral. The film also seems to deconstruct the male arrogance of a youthful figure like Parma who is transformed from vicious, hot headed demagogue into a symbol of religious tolerance – any romantic notions of heroism are nowhere to be seen, replaced by an aberrant banditry. The turning point for Parma is the death of his mother who is executed by his uncle who heads the Chauhan family. From thereon Parma promises to uphold his mother’s dying wish, to protect Zoya. Interestingly, the matriarchal figure yet again resurfaces in relation to the actions of the fallen male hero and this aspect seems to invoke the conventions of traditional Indian cinema from the 1950s onwards.

In terms of the ending, the film opts for a bloody shoot out which results in Parma and Zoya taking their own lives, thus adhering to the fatalism of Shakespeare’s classic tale. In fact, it feels more like an ending inspired by films such as Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid in which the main protagonists have no means of escape other than self destruction. In the case of Parma and Zoya, their rebelliousness threatens the norms of the feudal, sectarian world so they must be eliminated for the status quo to prevail. Ishaqzaade is a deceptive work, posing sophisticated and pertinent ideological arguments that are smuggled into the fabric of what appears to be a pedestrian boy meets girl love story. So perhaps we can conclude by saying in the words of Martin Scorsese that Habib Faisal is a director as smuggler, working in personal themes and social preoccupations into the fabric of his films. It seems like a perfectly sound argument why the mainstream can in fact be a perfect arena for testing out more unconventional ideas on a wide audience in the most deceptive of manners.

DO ANKHEN BARAH HAATH / Two Eyes, Twelve Hands (Dir. V Shantaram, 1957, India) – Reformist Metonymy

B_Id_288098_Do_Ankhen_Barah_Haath

Do Ankhen Barah Haath is one of director V Shantaram’s best known works. It has been labelled a classic yet in terms of popular Indian film discourse the film is rarely discussed unlike similarly revered Hindi films such as Mother India or Mughal E Azam. Perhaps this has to do with the film’s somewhat darker thematic explorations of social reform, masculinity and capitalism. It is a film that seems at home in the company of neo realist works such as Do Bigha Zamin, manifesting a reformist ideology shaped by Nehruvian politics. The story of reform is refracted through the relationship between a prison/police warden and six convicted murderers. Adinath, the warden, is played by director Shantaram and takes it upon himself to prove the prisoners/murderers can only be reformed by humanising them within a communal context. At first, the six men are compelled to leave the farm which they have been brought to by Adinath. In many ways, reformation is posited as a social experiment, criticised by Adinath’s superior as both futile and detrimental to society. Adinath’s persistency leads to success and the men forge together to transform the once barren farmland into a socialist enterprise that results in them selling crops to a local market as an honest livelihood. One of the clearest ways in which to read Shantaram’s film is as a contemporary parable or fable since the ideological conflict between oppression and reform is a universal one, transcending cultural barriers and offering a cathartic narrative that frames liberation against a vein of martyrdom familiar to us from Italian neo realist cinema.

Starting in the 1920s and finishing in the 1980s, as a pioneer, Shantaram worked across the spectrum of Indian cinema and his development as a director runs parallel with the film industry’s transition from silent to sound cinema. What his films share with directors from a similar era such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt is a fondness for expressionist imagery that recalls both German expressionism and film noir in equal measures. Ideologically, it is the presence of Champa, the sole female character in the film, a toy seller (played by Sandhya – Shantaram’s wife) who at first is represented as a disruptive force only to become a transformative figure, salvaging the dignity of the men and facilitating a premature gender equilibrium. The final third hints at a rebuke of free market capitalism since the men who take their crops to sell at the local market keep their prices at an affordable rate thus invoking the ire of the greedy merchants. The merchants feel threatened by the men and it is not long before they sabotage the farm and effectively neutralise any attempts to destabilise their economic hegemony. The ending in itself with the two eyes of the martyred Adinath looking down at the six reformed men is sentimentally manipulative but the melodramatic touch of Adinath’s imaginary tears turning into drops of rain becomes an indelibly humanist metonym for what is a noble cinematic enterprise.

AGANTUK / THE STRANGER (Satyajit Ray, 1991, India/France) – Anthropological Articulations

Ray’s final period as a director was effected by his ill health and while some critics have remarked on the predominance of sequences shot indoors in his final films, I’m not sure of the validity of such a statement considering Ray’s best films, Charulata and The Music Room, unfold in a similar contextual space. Agantuk, released in 1991, was Ray’s final film and although it is not as masterful as some of his best works, it is still impressively directed. The story of a long lost uncle coming to stay with his niece in Calcutta leads to an investigation about identity, personal prejudices and urban values that continue an interest with characters out of sync with mainstream contemporary India. Disappearance and re-appearance is an abiding theme in Mrinal Sen’s Absence trilogy and the arrival of Uncle Mitra (Utpal Dutt) sets up a fascinating ideological conflict between two generations reminiscent of Sen’s bravura dissection of middle class anxieties. Thematically, the philosophical debate between Sen Gupta (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and Mitra on the fine line between the civilised lifestyles of the urban middle class and the so called barbarism of rural Indian tribes reiterates an invaluable discourse that has marked Ray’s greatest works; the tradition vs. modernity dichotomy. In an interview conducted in 1992 by Kerstin Andersson, Ray refers to his last three films, Ganasatru, Branches of the Tree and Agantuk as ‘political films‘ (Cardullo, 2007: 205). What makes this a significant admission by Ray is that whereas academics and critics alike criticised Ray for his apolitical cinema, his final films, perhaps even a loose trilogy about urban civilisation, are relatively unexplored in their explicitly stated political content. 

What Agantuk tells us about Ray as an individual at the end of his life is a fundamental and absolute rejection of modernity ‘I don’t believe in modern life. I am disappointed, disillusioned‘ (Cardullo, 2007: 211). Ray’s disillusionment with modern life is underlined in the final sequence of Agantuk. Having claimed a substantial financial inheritance, Mitra leaves his entire share to his niece then departs to continue his anthropological studies abroad. The political symbolism of such an act of good will should not be overlooked since Mitra’s rejection of capitalist wealth can be interpreted as an extension of Ray’s disillusionment with modern life and all its materialist trappings. Mitra’s preference for the simplicity of rural life is shared by the director. Given this was Ray’s last film it is not surprising that Mitra feels most content and in his element amongst the tribes of India as illustrated in the penultimate sequence that sees his niece, a reluctant dancer, join in with the Santals as they perform a traditional dance. This moment is significant, returning to a journey Ray commenced in the rural with Pather Panchali. Although the urban intersected on many occasions, it was the rural that Ray seemed to offer the most consistently articulate observations on India and particularly Bengal. This may not be a masterwork but it does tell us a lot about Ray’s outlook on life at a time when his was sadly drawing to a close.

References

Satyajit Ray Interviews, Edited by Bert Cardullo, University Press of Mississippi, 2007

SHABDO / SOUND (Dir. Kaushik Ganguly, 2013, India)

shabdo

The mechanics of sound have been coldly explored in films before such as The Conversation, Blow Out and most recently Berberian Sound Studio. Shabdo (Sound, 2013), a Bengali film written and directed by Kaushik Ganguly navigates a similar world of film sound with a story about a Foley Artist who loses his grip on reality because of an unhealthy obsession with Foley sounds. This is a psychological drama that offers a compelling view of the Bengali film industry, taking you behind the scenes and detailing the painstaking processes that a Foley Artist goes through to reproduce and record the soundtrack for a film. Unsurprisingly, what I enjoyed most about Shabdo was the rich sound design, used brilliantly as an extension of the psychological disintegration of the Foley Artist.

BULLET RAJA (Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) – Homoerotic Encounters

bullet raja

Tigmanshu Dhulia is a man of many talents. Over the years Dhulia has written screenplays, acted in supporting roles and most prominently directed a number of genre films. With Bullet Raja, his latest film, he certainly is one of the few Hindi directors who has refused to play it safe, jumping from one genre to the next in quick succession. Although Bullet Raja was met with mixed reviews, I am still convinced of Dhulia’s talents since on the surface this action thriller feels connected to the ongoing love affair with neo masala cinema. If Raja (Saif Ali Khan) and Rudra (Jimmy Shergill) in their tacky, colourful attire recall the imagery of the Tapori then this 1970s vibe is vividly brought to life with a contemporary, if somewhat, superficial exploration of the unsavoury relationship between politics and violence. Bullet Raja is a star vehicle for Saif Ali Khan but he is out performed by an underrated Shergill, Gulshan Grover and Raj Babbar to name a few. Dhulia clearly seems to have wanted to make a political thriller in a mainstream context but finds himself having to compromise with one too many action set pieces; narrative strands are seemingly introduced every so often while the song and dance sequences are nervously integrated into the story.

The buddy film genre is often associated with Hollywood cinema but popular Hindi cinema has had its fair share of male bromances stretching back to the 1960s. Dhulia uses the buddy film conventions for some vagaries in terms of sexuality, queering the male friendship between Saif and Jimmy so that it becomes a film about homoerotic frissons. It is only with the entry of the female love interest Mitali (Sonaskshi Sinha) does the extent of Raja and Rudra’s inseparable bond of love become more noticeable. What is implied in terms of homoeroticism is later explicitly stated after Rudra’s death. In a song that sees Raja serenade Sonakshi, his point of view is disrupted with shots of Rudra that not only challenges Raja’s attempts at a heteronormative state but also visualises a struggle to repress homoerotic desires. Further still, Raja’s need to reclaim his homoerotic identity is a reaction to the void left by Rudra’s death, and he does in the final act when he befriends a hard body male police officer, establishing a new friendship. Another point of eroticism is the way Dhulia fetishises guns especially in the way Raja and Rudra seem connected by such phallic objects. Even more interesting is the transgender construction of Sumer Yadav (Ravi Kisan), a hitman who dresses as a woman so to evade capture from the police. Bullet Raja, as a film about sexuality, male identity and eroticism reiterates the ways in which Dhulia uses genre as a vehicle to subvert mainstream frameworks while exploring more complex ideologies, in this case gender politics. Critics were quick to dismiss the insignificance of Bullet Raja but even as a genre piece it is still a respectable and enjoyable mainstream film.