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.

SUBARNAREKHA / THE GOLDEN LINE (Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 1962-1965, India) – Elliptical Elation

Ghatak’s exacting control over the rhythm of his films extended from Eisenstein’s theoretical and cinematic experimentation’s with political montage. Elliptical editing inevitably invites an ambiguity and fracture into linear narrative, creating discernible gaps that disorient the spectator. After what is an admittedly schizophrenic opening twenty minutes, Subarnarekha settles into a familiar classical rhythm and the focus of dramatic conflict becomes the relationship between brother and sister. Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is unable to come to terms with his sister, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), marrying Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) who hails from a lower caste. Such caste prejudices come to the fore when Ishwar orders Abhiram to leave for Calcutta. When Ishwar orders Sita to meet the family which has come to see her for a possible marriage arrangement, Sita’s refusal is met with a kind of patriarchal violence.

The triple jump cut in Ghatak’s Subarnarekha:

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However, prior to this moment of violence, Ghatak opens the sequence with what is a triple jump cut of Sita who turns to face her brother whilst sitting on the ground caressing the sitar for comfort. It is a rhythmically organic series of edits which rightly draws our attention to the reflexive nature of Ghatak’s approach. The violence inherent in the triple jump cut that begins with a close up and finishes on a mid shot signals a disruption in the narrative and also act as the trigger for Sita’s abandonment of her brother, choosing to elope with Abhiram. Ghatak’s ideologically intense use of the triple jump cut may seem a normalised practise today but it reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough feature ‘Mean Streets’ which opens with another striking and creative example of elliptical editing immortalised in the three carefully juxtaposed edits of Charlie’s head hitting the pillow to the sound of ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes.

The opening to Mean Streets – Scorsese’s use of the triple jump cut:

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COURT (Dir. Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014, India)

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It’s an impossibility to keep track of the numerous directorial debuts coming our way from India these days. Chaitanya Tamhane joins such ranks with his skilfully scripted docu-fiction courtroom drama unequivocally studying the Indian legal system and its many contradictions. Rather than look at many different cases, Tamhane fixes his observational gaze resolutely on Narayan Kamble, a folk singer, who is arrested for inciting the suicide of a sewage worker. While this case drives forward what is a warmly absorbing narrative, Tamhane is similarly interested in exploring the outer lives of those involved with the case, namely the two lawyers; Sharmila Pawar (prosecutor) and Vinay Vora (defence). Tamhane’s trick is to humanise everyone so that it becomes impossible to take sides and nor does he want us to. Furthermore, such impartiality is mirrored in Tamhane’s arresting use of tableaux as a framing device, utilising master shots in much of the film particularly the courtroom sequences, thus filling the frame so to capture those most trivial of details that provide the unfolding drama with an air of indifference. Yet Tamhane’s brave directorial choices are also paralleled in the ideological commentary, the sewage worker’s story bringing to light the insufferable conditions faced by Mumbai’s invisible underclass. Court walked away with two prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival, winning Best Film in the Horizons category. Various distributors have already took note and picked up Tamhane’s assured debut, making him one to watch in the future.

DO BIGHA ZAMIN / TWO ACRES OF LAND (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1953, India)

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INTRODUCTION

The influence and enduring character of some films are unquestionable and Bimal Roy’s 1953 masterpiece ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ was one of the first mainstream Indian films to receive international acclaim; it was awarded the Prix Internationale at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. Though it clearly was intended as a melodrama aimed at a mainstream audience, the artists involved with the production of the film were not only inspired by a common ideological belief in socialism that defied the conservatism of Indian cinema but they succeeded in demonstrating how genre could be subverted and adopted as a tool to address wider inequalities and afflictions. The film’s influential and landmark status was even supported by one of the most revered and internationally renowned film makers, Satyajit Ray:

“With his very first film Udayer Pathe (Hamrahi in Hindi), Bimal Roy was able to sweep aside the cobwebs of the old tradition and introduce a realism and subtly that was wholly suited to the cinema. He was undoubtedly a pioneer. He reached his peak with a film that still reverberates in the minds of those who saw it when it was first made. I refer to Do Bigha Zamin, which remains one of the landmarks of Indian Cinema.”

Ray’s endorsement of Roy’s introduction of ‘realism’ to mainstream Indian cinema seems to suggest that much of the cinema before had been bereft of such a vital aesthetic quality but of course this is simply not the case. However, Bimal Roy’s approach to cinema extenuated the realism aesthetic that had evolved out of the post war Italian neo realism movement. Similarly, Roy was deeply moved by how film makers like De Sica and Rossellini had effectively rewritten the rules of cinema but the shattering realisation was that such an ideological breakthrough had occurred within the parameters of the mainstream. Roy understood how De Sica had made the seemingly impossible marriage of art and commerce a daring reality in the face of a bankrupt Italian society, and he had done so on his own personal terms.

INDIAN PEOPLE’S THEATRE ASSOCIATION (IPTA)

It is difficult to discuss films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ without making reference to the Indian people’s theatre Association (IPTA) and acknowledging the debt Indian cinema owes to such an influential organisation. Formed in 1942 as a response to the social crisis brought on by the Quit India movement, the IPTA’s primary objective was to use theatre as means of addressing the many problems taking hold of society. Many of its initial members unashamedly declared their staunchly anti colonial views and espoused a Marxist point of view that argued for a cinema based on socialist principles. K A Abbas, Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak and Salil Chowdury were just a few of the members of the IPTA who would later become influential figures in their own right, reiterating the ideological imperative of cinema acting as voice for social change. The partition of India in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan shattered the IPTA’s desire to bridge the differences between Hindus and Muslims in cities like Bombay, resulting in communal rioting and the establishment of deep sectarian divisions that exist even today. The IPTA had received much criticism at the time from conservative sections of society, accusing the organisation and its liberally inclined members of being effectively an offshoot for Marxist propaganda who harboured unrealistic dreams of turning the Indian peasants into organising a widespread socialist revolution.

SOCIALIST CINEMA

In terms of pioneers who paved the way for a new kind of cinema in India, the figure of Khawja Ahmad Abbas (K A Abbas) proved to be crucial in realising the possibilities of a similarly inspired movement to that of neo realism in Italy. Released in 1946, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (Sons of the Earth), is generally considered to be the first mainstream Indian film to have outlined the notion that cinema could act as didactic force in the lives of audiences. Surprisingly, even though ‘Bicycle Thieves’ is regularly cited as a key influence in the aesthetic and ideological choices taken by Bimal Roy when directing ‘Do Bigha Zamin’, it had yet to be released when K A Abbas embarked on ‘Dharti Ke Lal’, which perhaps suggests that the neo realism movement in India was running parallel with that of Italy. If this is true then maybe the emergence of socialist political organisations and theoretical Marxist writings after the Second World War was a universal phenomenon experienced by the intellectual circles of many cities.

The directorial debut of K A Abbas, ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ (1946), documented the 1943 Bengal famine, an avoidable tragedy that criticised the failures of the British colonial government. The film was also notable for the presence of another affiliated member of the IPTA, the formidable actor and star ‘Balraj Sahni’, who would later collaborate with Guru Dutt of all film makers and collaborate most importantly with Bimal Roy on ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ as the impoverished Sambhu Mahato. ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ also expanded the boundaries of distribution for Indian films, securing for the first time distribution in Russia for an Indian film and underlining the socialist sympathies that some felt were recognisable in a film organised around Marxist principles. It seems deeply ironic that in his later career a film maker like K A Abbas would help to launch one of the biggest and iconic of Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan, in ‘Saat Hindustani’ (1969), inevitably paving the way for a more commercially minded type of cinema that would come to dominate the 1970s. K A Abbas has argued that the commercial potential of ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ was largely jeopardised by the social turmoil of the impending partition of India:

“It was released … in one theatre in Bombay,” Abbas said, “and on the same day the communal riots started [Hindu-Moslem caste conflicts]. Our first show was full, all the shows were fully booked … The second show never got started…”

K.A. Abbas (1914-1987), Carol J. Slingo, Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, p.99 http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC33folder/KAAbbas.html

BALRAJ SAHNI

Many of today’s Indian actors seem reluctant to get into any kind of debate concerning personal political beliefs as it may affect potential box office, but those who are able to do so are usually the ones with the capacity to articulate their concerns and use cinema as a platform for propagating leftist ideology. Balraj Sahni was a prominent member of the IPTA and an outspoken Marxist who starred in many neo realist films that challenged the constraints of studio film making in which melodramatic elements were regularly given precedence over other ideological and aesthetic concerns. Sahni was a widely respected figure within the film industry and remained politically active throughout his career. In today’s terms, Sahni would be considered somewhat of a method actor and many of his memorable performances in films like ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ and ‘Kabuliawala’ demonstrate a physicality that is strikingly authentic. In preparation for the role of ‘Sambhu Mahato’, Sahni spent time with rickshaw pullers in the city, immersing himself in the social milieu of his impoverished character and underlining his consummate and realist approach to performance. Though Sahni may have been politically active, he was also deeply affected by the partition of India and the devastating loss of life.

Unlike his contemporaries, Sahni was very selective in the films he choose to star in and though this may have prevented him from achieving widespread recognition as a powerful Indian film star, his body of work expressed a consistency in terms of cinema that was aligned to his own political and social commitments. It is a shame that Sahni is better remembered by today’s generation for his patriarchal role in Yash Chopra’s 1965 ‘lost and found’ multi-starrer, ‘Waqt’. The death of his daughter at an early age seemed to have an impact on him personally and his visit to Pakistan after the trauma of partition was exorcised in a book. His literary talents were shared much more emphatically by his brother, Bhisham Sahni, who was one of India’s most respected writers and whose novel, ‘Tamas’ (Darkness), would later be adapted as a screenplay for a much acclaimed and controversial TV series on the partition.

THE DEBT TO NEO REALISM

The closer you scrutinise the many different new waves or movements that have emerged since Italian neo realism and it becomes starkly apparent how films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Umberto D’ and ‘Paisan’ continue to be influential in terms of what it actually means to capture and observe reality with an honesty, authenticity and truthfulness. Examine any sequence from ‘Umberto D’ and it is difficult not to notice how De Sica’s treatment of the aging professor edges close to becoming purely sentimental. Many of the Iranian new wave film makers like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Darius Mehrjui were also indebted to the traditions of neo realism but unlike De Sica’s dependency on music as tool for manipulating the emotions of the spectator, Iranian cinema rejected such artifice in favour of purifying cinema and pushing the ideas of Zavattini as far they would go.

Though Bimal Roy embraced the aesthetics and ideological principles of neo realism, he was constrained by the reality of having to work within a set of limitations as ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ for all it’s socialist ideals was nevertheless a studio film. Working within the conventions of social/family melodrama genre, Bimal Roy integrated songs into the narrative which in the eyes of purists went against the stylisation and escapist nature of what neo realism was trying to oppose. However, apart from this musical compromise, ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ is closer to the work of De Sica then it is to many other neo realism films, especially when you compare the humanist depiction of the relationship between Father/Sambhu and Son/Kanhaiya. The parallels are striking when compared to ‘Bicycle Thieves’, most significantly perhaps in the idea of the son having to work tirelessly so that he can support his father’s desire to reclaim the ancestral land which rightfully belongs to him. Also consider how cynically the film represents the city; like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, the city is depicted as a labyrinth that literally consumes Sambhu’s aspirations and subsequently corrupts his courageous but illiterate wife, Parvati. Contrast that with the almost lyrical and perhaps over idealistic picture of rural village life and it is plainly obvious that Bimal Roy seems to condemning the speed of modernisation and urban life as something out of control, ravaging those who simply cannot keep up with the pace. The denial of any kind of satisfying resolution to the poverty of Sambhu is also what makes ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ such a powerful film.

THE ENDING

Not many Indian films aimed at a mainstream audience had at the time dared to defy the expectations of audiences who had become accustomed to the familiarity of the melodrama, but the film’s downbeat ending in which we see Sambhu, his wife and son looking out, despairingly at the overwhelming image of a factory being built on the land that has effectively been stolen from them is a moving confirmation of Bimal Roy’s success in being able to integrate neo realist influences with the traditional trappings of the Hindi melodrama. Ideologically, the pessimistic ending illustrates that social oppression is something monolithic, inevitable and a hegemonic extension of industrial change and capitalist triumph.

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.

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.