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.

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.

PARTY (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1984, India) – Lipstick, Politics and Art

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Director Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film Party was based on a popular play by acclaimed writer Mahesh Elkunchwar. Party is one of the first films to have been restored by the NFDC and re-released on DVD in a new print. It’s reassuring to see the film industry responding to the need for film preservation and as a result many more parallel films are making their way to DVD. Party is one of Nihalani’s best films. Events unfold in real time and the action largely takes place in the house of Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta). Damyanti is a widow who we discover has regularly supported artists, mainly writers, of what appears to be middle class Mumbai. She hosts a party in honour of Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), a celebrated playwright. The party brings together petty bourgeois poets, playwrights, journalists and intellects that over an evening of intoxication and debate revel in their own righteous indignation. The title of the film has a double meaning as it also refers to political parties that individuals and groups subscribe to for validation of their ideological beliefs. The set up makes for a scathing piece of experimental cinema, reflecting analytically and slowly upon the often maligned question of middle class educated intelligentsia hiding behind their words and rarely involving themselves directly in the social and political issues that defines them as so called socially committed artists.

The party itself is a grotesque affair and functions vividly as an appropriate deconstruction of the pretentious, unfulfilled and clawing middle class guilt that lingers amongst many of the broken relationships. Actress Rohini Hattangadi as Mohini Barve, the wife of the self-obsessed poet Diwakar, is superb as a retired stage actress who is resigned to a life of self-hate and alcoholic abuse. Mohini’s disgust for her husband’s neglect is in fact an extension of bourgeois perversions; her smudged red lipstick becomes a symbol of such wider moral perversions. The only character we venerate is Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah) who is represented as a symbol of political activism. Amrit’s skills as a poet are a continuous talking point of the party and we discover he has abandoned his middle class lifestyle to go and fight for the rights of the disenfranchised and oppressed in a tribal community. Everyone at the party shows great respect and affection for Amrit. It is only with the appearance of Avinash (Om Puri) towards the end of the film do we finally see an outsider trash their middle class liberalism as apolitical dogma. Amrit’s death and bloody corpse staggering towards us the audience and some of the artists from the party is a powerful final moment as it reminds us that his pain is real, his pain is truth unlike the fictional pain endured by the artist. Party is a cold and at times savage dissection of middle class hypocrisy.

NASEEM / MORNING BREEZE (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1995, India)

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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 the corrosive 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 filmmaker. The body of work produced during the 70s, 80s and 90s often articulated the anxieties of the Muslim experience in India 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 an underclass reality, and one which Mirza situated as part of a broader class struggle.

Naseem is one of Mirza’s most personal films and thankfully the film has finally been digitally restored and released on DVD as part of a slew of NDFC films. Naseem is the name of a young Muslim girl who spends her time listening to the contemplative and poetic stories recalled by her ailing grandfather, played by lyricist and poet Kaifi Azmi (who also contributed to the script of Garam Hava) in a rare screen role. Events are set in 1992, slowly leading up to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya and the external turmoil of the communal rioting creates a deeply unsettling mood throughout. The narrative unfolds largely through the eyes 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 just 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 jingoistic demolition of the Babri Mosque. In many ways, Mirza positions the demolition of the Babri Mosque as a turning point in the history of a 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 about what was about to unleashed with the rise of Hindutva and where we are today in Modi’s India of ethnic cleansing and state sponsored genocide of Muslims. There is no doubting that Naseem belongs alongside Garam Hawa in its realistic and complex depiction of the Muslim family.