NISHANT / NIGHT’S END (Dir. Shyam Benegal, India, 1975)

Nishant

Indian film director Shyam Benegal made a series of films in the 1970s that would came under the auspice of a parallel art cinema. Beginning with ‘Ankur’ (The Seedling) in 1974, the ideological interest with feudalism characterised much of the social criticism typically evident in the fiercely angry films of Benegal. ‘Nishant’ was the film Benegal directed after ‘Ankur’ and it occupies a strange place in his career as it is often eclipsed by films like ‘Bhumika’ which is considered by many to be his greatest achievement. Benegal’s pared down approach to film making illustrates his commitment to representing the aesthetics and ideology of realism:

His debut film Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) was a breakthrough in more ways than one. It defied all the ground rules of popular Hindi cinema. Without a star cast, without a song and without melodrama, Ankur was produced with a paltry sum of Rs. 5 lakh but fetched more than a crore for producer Lalit M. Bijlani.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/imagineasia/guide/contemporary/india-arthouse.html
‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Released in 1975, ‘Nishant’ is Benegal at his angry best and it is an anger largely directed towards the treatment of women in a traditional Indian village ruled by a powerful zamindar (landowner). Most of Benegal’s work is still largely unavailable on DVD in the UK but it is possible to order many of his more widely seen films through specialist DVD websites. The difficulty with this option is that many of the DVDs available are often poorly subtitled and suffer from inconsistent picture quality. Many of the prints have simply been imported from inferior VHS copies including an indistinct soundtrack. In many respects, the films of Benegal have regularly played at film festivals internationally and his reputation as a world cinema auteur continues to fascinate contemporary film critics and academics. Most recently, the BFI published a book on the films of Benegal and he is still very much active in the film industry today, having just released ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ with the financial support of UTV Motion Pictures.

It might be an idea to begin preserving the films of Benegal and those of the parallel cinema movement as they are in danger of becoming extinct and obscure. The Indian government and film industry must implement some kind of programme that receives funding to catalogue and preserve the original prints of many of these hugely important films. I am not sure if such an institution exists in India already but the difficulty I have had in trying to access much of the work produced by the parallel cinema movement has been deeply frustrating.

The 1970s found Benegal at his creative best. His first three films form a thematic trilogy. Ankur deals with the slow transformation of the feudal system in India. Nishant (Night’s End, 1975) shows a kind of actual confrontation between feudal value systems and a new emerging rural society in India. In Manthan (The Churning,1976) one sees social change actually coming. The popular acclaim of these three Benegal films (Ankur, Nishant and Manthan), made him the pioneer of new cinema in the 1970s.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/imagineasia/guide/contemporary/india-arthouse.html
‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Nishant is a harrowing study of the power and gender relations in a village that is dictated by the hegemonic impulse of a feudal law that marginalises women and provides moral immunity for the male landowners. In one of the most disturbing moments in the film, Sushilla (Shabana Azmi), wife of the local school teacher, is abducted by the abusive sons of the zamindar (Amrish Puri) and literally held against her will in the local farmhouse. Sushilla is repeatedly raped and becomes a prisoner, forced to co exist with the wife (Smita Patel) of the youngest son, played by Naseeruddin Shah. The abduction of Sushilla is made altogether more powerful as it takes place before the very eyes of the villagers who like the school teacher are powerless to resist feudalism. At first, Sushilla’s husband criticises the villagers for their complicity in his wife’s abduction but his plea for help from civil institutions like the local police unveils a system that is corrupt, oppressive and regressive. Benegal politicises the school teacher and gradually he realises that the frightening ancestral impunity and political influence manifested by the zamindars can only be contested if feudalism and orthodoxy are openly challenged through collective revolution and in this case, violence as a means of self defence. The rage unleashed by the villagers at the end of the film upon the zamindar is bloody and chaotic, bringing about a justifiable reconstruction of power relations. ‘Nishant’ is provocative cinema in how it asks a multitude of pertinent questions relating to patriarchy, feudalism and feminism.

Though the film does not set out to provide any kind of firm solutions to the many social problems plaguing rural India at the time, Benegal is nevertheless uncompromising in how he approaches such issues. It is also important to mention that Benegal sympathises strongly with the contemporary plight of women and his collaboration with both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel characterises some of his best work. The ensemble cast is made up of an amazing array of talented actors; Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel who incidentally would forge parallel careers in mainstream Indian cinema, starring in instantly disposable, formulaic masala films whilst remaining committed to supporting the evolution of a burgeoning art cinema. One could argue that Benegal has become somewhat of an institution in Indian art cinema today and his reputation as a film maker who has been able to make films on his own personal terms reminds emerging film makers of the need to retain some sense of artistic integrity.

THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS (Dir. Anurag Kashyap, 2010, India)

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Kalki Koechlin’s rise has been somewhat meteoric and deservedly so in many respects. She is a fine actress and her 2010 collaboration with husband-director Anurag Kashyap on That Girl in Yellow Boots (the title refers to the yellow Doc Martins worn by Koechlin) suggests she will inevitable shift into filmmaking. Koechlin wrote the screenplay with Kashyap and she is also the main lead. The story involves Ruth Edscer (Koechlin) who comes to India in search of her father who abandoned her in England a long time ago. Ruth finds work in a massage parlour to supplement her obsessive attempts to track down her father. For a film that was shot in just 13 days, the end product is exceptional and much of the iconoclastic spirit generated by the film is largely down to Kashyap’s ability to improvise with both locations and narrative. Many of Kashyap’s films including Satya (for which he wrote the screenplay), Dev D, No Smoking, Black Friday and Gulaal have a strong visual style that comes directly out of the topography of the modern Indian city notably Mumbai. And what makes his representations of the city so distinctive is the unconventional choice of locations – the living and breathing milieu of alleyways, bars, apartments and roads construct a dystopian melting point. Given the narrative revolves around a search, Kashyap let’s his camera roam through the underbelly of Mumbai as Ruth goes about her quest to find her father. Not to over emphasise Kashyap’s authorial contributions, this film is very much an important collaboration between actor and director. Apparently, the trigger for the story was from Koechlin having experienced the judgemental gaze a white girl or foreigner can be subjected to in a city like Mumbai – a point made expressively transparent in the opening minutes. Koechlin is not your typical Indian film lead and for an actress, she is even more unconventional in terms of her looks. I think this is what makes her quite appealing and starkly distinctive when compared to many of the contemporary film actresses. Koechlin is prepared to take a risk. In the film, working in a massage parlour, Ruth resorts to performing a ‘handshake’ for her male clients at the price of 1,000 rupees.

Very few Indian actresses would be prepared to breach such an on screen taboo in fear of losing either box office credibility or deconstructing their star image. In one point in the film, Ruth is told by someone she is a cross between ‘bugs bunny and Julia Roberts’, to which Ruth replies, ‘I like bugs bunny’. It is obvious from this exchange that Koechlin feels very self aware about her looks and is not afraid of using reflexivity as a performance device. Ruth is an outsider and her encounters with all of the men in the film presents us with some unsavoury characters such as a drug addict, demented gangster and a self righteous elderly man. Perhaps Ruth’s position as an outsider is extenuated by the anxious representations of male identity – they all want or need something from Ruth. If Ruth’s relationships with the men in the film points to a familiar theme of patriarchal exploitation then the final revelation at the end suggests that masculinity is altogether more corrupt, perverse and archaic than first imagined. Unfortunately, the film was never released in UK cinemas and was not given much of a distribution in India. I guess we could say the same for Kashyap’s best work to date such as Gulaal. That Girl in Yellow Boots was partly financed by NFDC and it is an iconoclastic art film with a dark subject matter. The most direct link between the film and parallel cinema of the past is the presence of stalwart Naseeruddin Shah. Kashyap is such an exciting and uncompromising new voice in Indian cinema and I am really looking forward to his forthcoming gangster project. What separates Kashyap from his contemporaries is innovation, a characteristic that runs throughout his work.

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.