The worker as drone is a familiar enough image these days, ubiquitous with the way corporate companies suffocate the life out of its employees so that they can maximise profits. The worker drone, dispossessed of all pleasure, is drolly captured in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City.
The first story eponymously titled ‘The Fun Committee’ is a darkly comedic parable featuring a deadpan absurdist turn by Vinay Pathak, synthesizing Tati and Kaurismaki into a sardonic comment on the emptiness of office culture, shopping malls and consumerist hedonism. Oberoi even has a go at terrorism. In this first story Oberoi uncovers that most ideologies induce systemic structures imposing a rigour that inevitably cultivates fascistic practices in both the private and public sphere.
Ghost in the Machine, the second story, is the best of the three. A major theme linking the three stories is that of imprisonment; societal anxieties entomb all three characters, repressing desires. The second story is a melodrama about the middle class figure of the repressed housewife who is re-centred as an agent and catalyst for reconstituting the family along altruistic lines. Oberoi’s instructive skill with this second story is the way she parallels the misery and euphoria of the family with the fictional popular Indian soap ‘Purshottam: The Ideal Man’, a parochial, mythological paradigm. This complicated narrative address juxtaposes the fictional utopian constructions of masculinity with the painful realities of an oppressive vision of the despotic Indian husband. With the man of the real family in a coma, liberates the family, but leaves them with a final decision that Oberoi frames incongruently. The final episode is also sensitively observed, a bittersweet deconstruction of romance that narrates the story of an impoverished young girl searching for an idea of love, which cannot exist in such a hopeless lower class milieu.
The portmanteau form is well suited to tales about the city and this has become a popular narrative mode in Indian independent cinema, having spawned a cycle of films including Shor in the City, Dhobi Ghat, Peddlers to name a few. Island City signals an exciting new talent in the shape of director Ruchika Oberoi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, and this is a compelling first work. Performances by Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash are notable.
Bengali director Tapan Sinha had a prolific career, steadily working outside the mainstream on a range of socially engaged projects. In 2009, he sadly passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains some what undiscovered and unrecognised. ‘The Films of Tapan Sinha’ by Subhajit Ghosh provides an excellent, worthwhile overview of the films he directed and also examines his journey from working in the British film industry during the 1950s to his eventual position as an unpretentious auteur in the parallel cinema movement. ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ was made in the final phase of his directorial career and like many of the most powerful Indian art films, it was funded by The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Based on a true story titled ‘Abhimanyu’ by writer Ramapada Choudhury and starring an ensemble cast made up of parallel cinema regulars including Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), Tapan Sinha’s realist melodrama uses the medical, health and science institutions of India to offer an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy.
Using his academic position as a means of sustaining his interest in scientific and medical research Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in what is a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummate Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with accusations to do with neglect and abandonment. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) persecutes, demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie. What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism that plagues the middle classes who collectively stand in the way of his brilliance, preferring instead to vilify than endorse progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research and once the state intervenes by virtually exiling him in to a remote village, it becomes an impossible task for him to complete the publication of his research notes.
Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment at the failure of the state and Indian society to embrace change and celebrate individual achievement. Both Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi effortlessly deliver a series of equally superlative performances, fiercely conveying an outrage at their wrongful condemnation. The character of the lonely, educated housewife (Shabana Azmi) and her willingness to put up with her husband’s intolerant research habits has origins in the 1960 film ‘Anuradha’ directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. However unlike Leela Naidu’s repressed housewife, Dr. Roy’s wife is later forced to take up a job as a teacher so they can maintain some semblance of normality in what becomes a disruptive relationship. Tapan Sinha was a key film maker in the parallel cinema movement and also a hugely significant figure in Bengali cinema, and ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ is yet another creative high point in the parallel cinema movement.
Saeed Akhtar Mirza retired from filmmaking in 1995 with Naseem. It was an unexpected departure for a filmmaker who had been a key player in the parallel cinema movement. Was it creative exhaustion or disillusionment with wider social and political dimensions that led to Mirza’s departure? Mirza says he felt like he had nothing else left to say and Naseem was made as an epitaph to his career as a director. The body of work he did produce during the 70s 80s and 90s articulated the concerns of the Muslim experience with films such as Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), a film which I have written about at length in a previous post. Mirza’s representations of Muslims living in India in a period of intense communalism were rare and distinctive in their depiction of underclass reality. Perhaps then it came as a surprise to see Mirza return to filmmaking in 2009 with Ek Tho Chance. However, the film still remains unreleased in both India and abroad, illustrating the potential problems with taking a hiatus from the film industry in a time of changing audience tastes.
Naseem is one of Mirza’s most personal films and thankfully the film has finally been restored and released on DVD as part of a slew of NDFC films. Naseem is the name of a young Muslim girl who spends most of her time listening to the contemplative and poetic stories recalled by her ailing grandfather (played by lyricist and poet Kaifi Azmi in a rare screen role). Events are set in 1992, slowly leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. The film has no real plot to speak except the external turmoil of the rioting which creates a deeply unsettling mood throughout. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes of the Muslim girl Naseem with much of the action focused on her interactions at school and at home with her friends and family. The grandfather remains on his bed throughout the film, observing and commenting on the world around him. His presence is a symbolic one, representing not only the past but offering an example of a Muslim who has experienced the trauma of partition yet who has also witnessed a time when co existence was the norm. Such norms are tested by the rioting that the family witnesses on television, fearing for their lives and feeling increasingly isolated because of their faith.
When Mushtaq, the oldest of the family, brings home a friend, a debate ensues about what the proper reaction should be from the Muslim community. Mushtaq’s friend Zafar (Kay Kay Menon in one of his first roles) is a symbolic contrast to the grandfather, representing the future and the emerging radicalisation of Muslim youth. When Zafar says Muslims are being butchered on the streets, the grandfather sceptically replies that it is not Muslims but the poor who are in fact being murdered. Such wisdom can do little to ease the outrage of the rioting which continues unabated. A constant threat emerges to Naseem as her movements become restricted due to her brother’s feeling that they could be attacked. The final sequence is by far the most moving with Mirza staging the death of the old Muslim secularist patriarch (the grandfather) to the nationalist demolition of the Babri Mosque. In many ways, Mirza positions the demolition of the Babri Mosque as a turning point in the history of new India, signalling the erosion of co existence, the intensification of communalism and an age of uncertainty for Muslims who live in India; it is a powerful political statement. There is no doubting that Naseem is a rare film and belongs alongside a film like Garam Hawa in its realistic and complex depiction of the Muslim family.
Financed by the NFDC, Awtar Krishna Paul’s debut film 27 Down signalled much promise but his career was tragically cut short when he died while trying to save someone from drowning. 27 Down is a restoration by the NFDC and has been released on DVD under its new Cinemas of India label. Beautifully shot in a noirish monochrome by DOP Apurba Kishore Bir and with a striking production design by regular Ray collaborator Bansi Chandragupta, 27 Down stands out as a key work from the parallel cinema movement. Although the central story about a train conductor and a young typist becomes a study of traditional and modern values, the foregrounding of the train as a key thematic shapes the tactile aesthetic sensibilities. The central character of Sanjay, a disenchanted train conductor, is someone who is born on a train, works and sleeps on a train, and falls in love on a train. Trains define Sanjay’s existence and such a prominent thematic relates to the way trains are such an integral iconographic presence in so many Indian films. In this context, the train becomes a source of refuge for Sanjay. The endless journey that a train can make and the carriages of anonymous passengers also maps an urban trajectory of loneliness for Sanjay, gradually isolating him in the train as a prisoner. Much of the semi documentary footage in the train and on the platform gives the film a realist tone that later complements the cynical decisions made by Sanjay’s father. This is a film to savour and deserves wider appreciation.