CALCUTTA 71 (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1972, India) – ‘Calcutta was passing through a terrible time…’

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Conviction is a virtual necessity of any kind of political cinema especially the one that claims to magnify the ills and sickness of society. Out of the Bengali triumvirate including Ray and Ghatak, Mrinal Sen was by far the most radical, advocating a leftist Naxalite inspired ideology whilst borrowing liberally from European modernists like Godard and Brecht. Unlike the classicist style of Ray and Ghatak’s epic tradition, Sen’s response to the turmoil of contemporary Bengali politics in Calcutta during the 1970s was consolidated in the immediacy of revolutionary ideals and articulated through a distinctive ‘third cinema’ approach. Released in 1972, ‘Calcutta 71’, was the second film in Sen’s Calcutta trilogy and it is generally regarded by critics as one of the greatest achievements of the New Indian cinema movement. Another element separating Sen from both Ray and Ghatak was his anti illusionary mode – sustaining the aesthetics of realism were subordinate to the political content and most importantly, the dissemination of ideas. Like Godard and Eisenstein, Sen stripped away the classical form and traditions of cinema, revelling in a reflexive prism of Brecht inspired agitprop methods. Ray and Ghatak may have certainly laid the foundation for a new, personally engaged cinema but Mrinal Sen was instrumental in outlining a specific doctrine. Such a politically inspired cinematic doctrine was issued in the form of a manifesto by both Sen and Arun Kaul in 1968 arguing for ‘a state sponsored alternative to commercial cinema’.

In addition, Mrinal Sen’s breakthrough feature ‘Bhuvan Shome’, released in 1969, was also strategic in helping to urge the Indian government to offer greater financial support to those filmmakers struggling to be heard. Ghatak and Ray may have shared an identifiable humanism in the struggles faced by their characters yet such a sentiment was absent from the fiercely Marxist cinema of Sen who repeatedly resorted to the dissolution of the fourth wall. Of course, the danger with such strong willed political cinema is that it is typically weighed down by a polemicist tone. However, Sen avoids falling into this trap by offering us five episodes in the form of clear cut political allegories on one common theme, that of poverty. To underline how poverty shapes the psyche of Indian society and Bengali culture, Sen refuses to remain fixed in a contemporary context and shifts across a number of decades. The original running time of the film when it was first released in 1972 is 132 minutes. However, the version I watched was considerably shorter and the opening episode of a young radicalised Bengali revolutionary was also missing. The original brochure produced for the release of the film provides one of the best summaries of the complex set of political ideas that Sen explores:

Sen like Ghatak was involved with the Indian People Theatre Association and it is here that he discovered the work of Brecht, realising the possibilities of utilising art as a tool for the propagation of ideas and instigating wider change in society. Ray continues to be judged as an apolitical film maker when compared to both Sen and Ghatak. The problem with this kind of judgement is that any film maker who is placed alongside as Sen is likely to be accused of ideological abandonment. Obviously, the great weakness with a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ is the lack of emotional involvement. Parallel film maker Shyam Benegal argues that Sen’s later work is much more engaging and rounded when compared to his seventies films which he says left him cold. Of course, much of this criticism is related to the effects of Brechtian devices which are supposed to frustrate and agitate the spectator to think seriously about the ideas being explored. The film itself becomes more fragmented as we get nearer to the turbulent seventies and this reflected in the use of montage – Sen acknowledging the influence of Eisenstein. It is in the final episode in which Sen cuts between a group of middle class intellectuals and the young radical who is being chased by the establishment that the film most resembles the Godardian impulse of the late sixties.

1971 saw the release of both Sen and Ray’s first films in what would be parallel trilogies on the social and political crisis facing the middle classes of Calcutta in the seventies and much of the ideological debate was filtered through an emerging, disillusioned Bengali youth. Ray’s political anger may have remained in check for a long time but with ‘Pratidwandi’ (The Adversary) he silenced many of his critics by choosing to endorse Sen’s notion that it was the collective responsibility of cinema to respond, inform and agitate the audience. Personally, Ray’s ‘Calcutta trilogy’ is a far greater achievement than Sen’s three films and though ‘Seemabaddha’ (Company Limited, 71) is the weak link, it is ‘Jana Aranya’ (The Middleman, 75) that proves to be one of the strongest and most sophisticated Indian films of this era.

In an interview conducted by Udayan Gupta for the Jump Cut film journal, 1976, this is what Mrinal Sen had to say about why he felt compelled to make ‘Calcutta 71’:

MS: I made CALCUTTA-71 when Calcutta was passing through a terrible time. People were getting killed every day. The most militant faction of the Communist Party—the Naxalites—had rejected all forms of parliamentary politics. At the same time they had a host of differences with the other two Communist Party factions. These, in turn, led to many interparty clashes. Invariably all of the factions ignored the main issue of mobilizing forces against the vested interests—the establishment.

This was the time when I felt I should spell out the basic ills of the country, the fundamental diseases we are suffering from and the humiliations we have been subject to. This was the time to talk of poverty—the most vital reality of our country, the basic factor in the indignity of our people. I wanted to interpret the restlessness, the turbulence of the period that is 1971 and what it is due to. I wanted to have a genesis. The anger has not suddenly fallen out of anywhere. It must have a beginning and an end. I wanted to try to find this genesis and in the process redefine our history. And in my mind this is extremely political. I found a continuing link in the film—a young man of 20, uncorrupted. He has lived this age of 20 for the last 1000 years or more. He has been passing through death and squalor and poverty. And for the past 1000 years or more he has bridged despair and frustration. For him the history of India is a continuous history not of synthesis but of poverty and exploitation.

The natural and historically continuous co existence between poverty and exploitation was not the story of Calcutta in the 70s, it extended from a ‘third cinema’ perspective outlined by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. Thus, one can conclude that a film like ‘Calcutta 71’ shares a much greater affinity with the ‘Cinema Novo’ movement of the 60s whilst a highly politicised film maker like Mrinal Sen was closer to the work of Glauber Rocha who also believed that ‘third cinema’ was the way forward in terms of resisting all forms of hegemony whilst criticising the derisory gap between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Whilst Ray’s cinema was never as fatalistic or disillusioning as that of Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, the greatest achievement of ‘Calcutta 71’ remains in it’s uncompromising political content and how like many of Godard’s films of the late 60s and early 70s it has become somewhat of a very significant historical document and powerful record of the times.

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

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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.