Monday, April 6, 2015
Girish Karnad and Naseeruddin Shah in conversation on stage, with Shabana Azmi in the audience also participating....
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Doordarshan Director-General Tripurari Sharan in conversation with Shyam Benegal, discussing Benegal's career of 50 years plus in film.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
If a movie review could be summed up in an equation, then a review for Shyam Bengal's movie Sardari Begum (1996) could perhaps be written Sardari Begum (1996) = Mandi (1983) + Bhumika (1977)!
The recurrence of themes, often in elaborately dressed up forms, in an auteur's oeuvre is hardly unusual. It is certainly something mathematicians and musicians exhibit in their work, and, as I've pointed out before with the example of Benegal, so also do movie directors. What makes life interesting for the consummate reviewer, is the process of teasing out these points of continuity when the director shifts the context, the time-period, the geographic locale, and other aspects of the tale he is spinning.
As if to really drive the point home, the subject Benegal chooses to depict in Sardari Begum, she herself, is an exponent of the thumri-dadra style of singing - in which the musical connoisseur is challenged by the singer to discover and then latch on to the basic musical theme in the presented piece - which the singer, having brought out briefly, proceeds to hide in an almost infinitely elaborated (and sometimes discordant) countertheme. The elaborated countertheme takes up most of the performance, and becomes a musical maze. In the best performances, the theme initially hinted at is embedded into the countertheme in progressively longer subpieces, and as with a complex fugue, appears as a subtheme within the countertheme, when the latter has been fully elaborated. Both lyrical and alyrical styles are possible. At the highest level of the art, the entire musical piece embeds two sets of lyrics, each telling a separate story, but when the countertheme has reached its climax of elaboration, abruptly returns to the initial storyline in the initial theme with the first set of lyrics appearing in logical continuity with the counterthematic lyrics. Thus one doesn't know whether the singer is simply elaborating the countertheme or has returned to the original theme. Or at least, only the true aficionado would be able to tell, or so the singer hopes. Sometimes the singer assists in the process by hiring an ingenue to sing the theme in a different voice (e.g. soprano) compared to her own mezzo soprano, for example. Occasionally, an older younger pair of female singers can have the older woman in noticeable bass voice.
Benegal adopts the thumri-dadra as both the literal and the symbolic motif in Sardari Begum. Just as the naif is unable to tell what is really happening in a thumri-dadra performance - whether it is the theme, or the countertheme, proceeding to the climax or anticlimax, and which set of lyrics is being proceeded toward or receded from - so also he embeds sub-sub-story within sub-story within story, as the character of the legendary Begum is slowly unwrapped for us. But to give the movie an even more compelling angle, the whole movie unfolds as a real news story that a reporter is writing on the death of Sardari Begum, and moreover, he gives it a Rashomon twist in that, as the reporter uncovers more and more of the story, she initially finds more and more contradictory information, which then, having reached an apogee of contradictions, slowly resolves itself, until it becomes a unified whole again, rather like a thumri-dadra piece, which, after introducing the initial theme, then proceeds to lose the naif in a counterthematic musical maze that nevertheless hides the initial theme within it!
Sardari Begum is a headstrong woman with a musical talent - exactly the way the Usha/Urvashi character in his earlier movie Bhumika was. Just as in Bhumika, Benegal traces out the full career of the Begum, as well as her involvements with different men. But whereas Usha/Urvashi was Hindu and the city she lives and works in is the Bombay of the 1930s-50s; the Begum is Muslim, and the city is first Agra and then Delhi, and one is given to understand that the time is the 1950s-90s. But other than that, the similarities in the lives of the Usha and the Begum are striking - the initial rebelliousness, the musical talent, the involvements with a series of men and their jealousies and attempts to use her; and the one daughter that both are finally left with. The Mandi component of Sardari Begum comes in the location of much of the action in a kothaa. Where the bai of the kothaa was played by Shabana Azmi in Mandi, Kiron Kher plays the adult Begum in a truly memorable performance which won her the National Film Award for Best Actress in 1997.
For someone, like myself, who has already seen Mandi and Bhumika, much of Sardari Begum will seem like familiar territory (I saw Mandi and Bhumika back in July, and Sardari Begum in December 2009). But Benegal made Sardari Begum about 13 years after he had made Mandi, and almost two decades after Bhumika. Thus, it is more like going back to a town you haven't been in for a long while - everything looks familiar, but many things have nevertheless changed. From among the old cast of characters he used in the 1970s-early 1980s, only Amrish Puri returns, to play the role of the old Rajput musical connoisseur who becomes the Begum's patron (and lover). This theme of (here symbolic) incest is also familiar from Mandi. And just as in Manthan Benegal had a character named 'Chandavarkar', he now has a character (a sound technician in the movie) called 'Balsaver', both being surnames of Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmins, like Benegal himself. As the credits rolled off at the end of the movie, I seemed to spot a 'Balsaver' amongst the technician credits, perhaps in this case he uses an actor's real last name as the name of the character he plays (in addition, perhaps, to casting a real sound technician in the role of a sound technician in the movie!).
What is dramatically different between 1983 and 1996, as the by now standard narrative goes, is that India 'liberalized' its economy in 1991, bringing changes in social mores as well as new economic opportunities, especially for women. Meanwhile also, the religious right became politically powerful. Both developments underlie some of the premises of the movie - but since most of the action takes place in the pre-liberalization 1950s-1980s, the impact is seen only on one of its subplots - that involving the reporter whose attempt to uncover the details of the Begum's death frames the movie - and in the initial scene, where political parties of all stripes are seen spinning the story of the riot in which the Begum is accidentally killed.
The real pleasure in the movie, for me, came from its many musical pieces (sung by Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar, as well as one piece by Asha Bhonsle), and in its conception by Benegal as a cinematic thumri-dadra with a Rashomon twist. The movie is a tribute to both the art form and to one of its principal exponents, in every sense of the word, but as a production it seems more austere than almost every other Benegal movie I've seen so far, including his first, Ankur. In comparing with his earlier movies, however, I must say this one fell a little short, in my estimation, though it is still quite enjoyable, especially for its music.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Having shown in Junoon that, even at the most revolutionary of times, the most that could change in terms of gender relations - even for women of very high class status - was in the details of which patriarchal norm they become subject to (and not a fundamental realignment of the norm itself), Benegal now sketches out for us what one could call an island matriarchy. Here, women reign supreme. They make their own decisions, run their own lives, and together (or singly) decide whether they will get involved with men, with which men, and on what terms. To call such a matriarchal society a bordello would be, Benegal seems to suggest, to betray a severe patriarchal bias. What Benegal seems to want us to understand is that he is sketching out a cooperative matriarchal culture - perhaps not unlike the village dairy cooperative that he sketched in Manthan - differing only in the commodity that it offers to the marketplace - the Mandi of the film's title.
To the central question, however, of whether such a matriarchal island society could indeed set the terms of trade (to extend the marketplace metaphor), on which it deals with the rest of the world, however: his answer is a nuanced 'no'. He answers instead that such a culture is co-opted, corrupted, and ultimately forced to live in an incestuous symbiosis with the larger politico-economic arrangement that is governed by patriarchal norms. Quite literally: as the movie plays out, Benegal employs the 'dark secret' plot stratagem, in which the 'secret' is slowly revealed in stages as the movie proceeds, but something that has been hinted at often enough that by the time it is actually revealed, it is something less than a revelation!
In this case, the mayor (a 'city father') has fathered an out-of-wedlock child with the madam of the 'bordello', something which both madam and mayor wish to keep a secret. The out-of-wedlock daughter is a symbol of the greater secret - that the bordello and 'respectable society' are in fact in bed together, both figuratively, and literally. The daughter is brought up in the bordello - and as she attains puberty, is taken to the house of the local real estate speculator for a mujra-like show. Here the acknowledged, 'legal' son of the mayor falls in love with her. This being a taboo relationship in many more ways than one, Benegal spends considerable movie time showing how the two parties, otherwise at cross-purposes, conspire and collude to abort and terminate the affair.
Rebelling against both parents, the sibling couple elopes. In this, Benegal sketches out something darker than just incest itself - he hints at its tendency to recur generationally, indeed, to go on in perpetuity, as if that was the destined state of the world. But more: he seems to offer that it is romantic love that brings the two extreme tendencies - toward exclusive matriarchy on the one hand or a dominant patriarchy on the other - toward a middle ground, with a symbiotic modus vivendi.
Benegal also masterfully uses his set-up in Mandi to explore a variety of sub-themes which are still compellingly relevant in today's India: from prim-and-proper moralistic 'crusaders' to incipient but largely closeted lesbianism; from the effects of female sexual repression to real estate speculation gone out of control; from corrupt 'city fathers' to the slow passing of the courtesan culture. But this being Benegal, the incipient lesbianism is shown with incestuous overtones, the moralistic crusader/ social reformer (played to perfection by Gita Siddharth) is also shown to be something of a matriarchal madam-pimp, and the real estate speculator is shown to be both the landlord of and client at the bordello (and who, by having mujra soirees at his residence, is doing what he can to keep the courtesan tradition alive). That the courtesan tradition is under pressure both from commercial interests on the one hand and moralistic crusaders on the other is made clear: what Benegal also shows is that it occasionally runs up against religious tradition. When the bordello is evicted from its current premises, the alternative plot it is assigned turns out to be on a piece of land where a Sufi saint was buried - which creates a third axis that the courtesan culture must confront.
In Mandi, we see Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil together again for the first time since Nishant, but this time cast as mother and daughter, with Azmi as the madam and Patil as the ingenue, where they had been wife and live-in mistress in Nishant. The two actresses, barely five years apart in real age, play their roles very convincingly, with Smita Patil absolutely shining as the bold-but-shy ingenue, and Azmi doing only slightly less well as the overprotective matriarch-madam. Saeed Jaffrey is cast as the mayor (the 'nagar pita', a neologistic transliteration of 'city father'). Naseeruddin Shah, who was the firebrand rebel leader in Junoon, returns as the 'runner' at the bordello - the man at the absolute bottom of the matriarchal hierarchy, half-cretin, barely above being an ape as Benegal sketches him - spends a lot of time chasing monkeys from the rooms of the bordello; so utterly dejected at his station in life that he has to drink and cry and sing himself to sleep (a scene that recurs in the movie, differing in its details each time). Shah shows again what a talented and versatile actor he is.
Many scenes in the movie appear as if to answer a questionnaire Benegal poses about matriarchal society: Would such a society truly be kinder and gentler? Would women treat men any better where they had power over them? (No, see the Shah character) Would women treat each other any better? (No - the movie begins with a deaf-and-dumb woman being sold to the bordello, with many subsequent scenes showing how she's held against her will, how she's 'broken in', how callously she's treated, and how she becomes suicidal, only to be frustrated in her suicide attempt, saved because she's a capital asset. Benegal has employed the deaf-and-dumb device before, with the landless laborer in Ankur - to underline utter helplessness and total vulnerability). Is such a society less likely to cut deals with the powerful to sustain itself, or is it just as likely to cynically manipulate the powerful to its own advantage? (The madam seduces the real estate businessman hoping he won't evict her operation from its present digs [the site of his mall development], she has borne the mayor's out-of-wedlock child, she appears willing to auction off her own daughter to whoever offered the right price). The local cop is shown to practically live at the bordello.
Benegal also appears to suggest that female vanity more than male prurience begets pornography (literally pornography means 'picturing the prostitute'); pornography is thus shown to be the prostitute's marketing tool. In a cinematic subplot, Om Puri is cast as the 'sleazy photographer', a pioneering proto-pornographer who plays on female vanity to get his pictures, only to find that he himself has been manipulated, blackmailed, and then shaken down, what with the local cop also working for the bordello! And all the while, the woman in question actually wants her pictures taken, to be shown to film directors in Bombay, while making a show of faux outrage that she was manipulated into posing for them! Benegal makes the audience wonder who has indeed been manipulated, not just in this instance but more generally.
Benegal scores a coup in Mandi by casting both Amrish Puri and Om Puri in the same movie, with Amrish doing a reprise of the scary mendicant he had played in Junoon, showing Benegal's obvious fascination with Sufism. Kulbhushan Kharbanda plays the businessman-realtor, and Saeed Jaffrey plays the mayor. Mandi is situated, like Nishant was, in a town located in an area that was once under the Nizam, and the movie runs in Dakhani in the main, except when the moralist-crusader played by Gita Siddharth comes in, and especially while declaiming to the city council, she speaks Sanskritized Hindi. Benegal is making a prescient point here: that moralistic crusaders and revanchist linguistic revivalism seem to go together, which recent events in India clearly bear out.
Mandi (1983) is a cinematic masterpiece. While at one level just a movie about prostitution, it is also a logical continuation of the themes that have occupied Benegal since he made Ankur in 1974 - gender relations, the patriarchy, male and female sexuality, power politics, social dynamics and economic organization. It is quite entertaining, with several engrossing subplots and the slow unraveling of the 'dark secret'. Both in its broadest themes, and incredibly, also in its subplots, it is every bit as relevant today as it was when Benegal made it, more than a quarter century ago. For that reason, it is not only worth seeing for the first time, but seeing again if you've seen it before.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Having established in Bhumika that not even the strongest imaginable women can successfully challenge patriarchal norms for long - Benegal now explores in Junoon what could challenge an existing patriarchy - and answers: an alternative patriarchy backed by politico-military power. He introduces two other sociological variables into the mix - race and religion. And to fully explore the issue, he situates his movie at a time of great military-political upheaval in India - the Mutiny of 1857 (now called the First War of Independence), when the existing politico-military order that the British have established in India comes very close to being overthrown.
Junoon is a complex word with the combined sense of mania, obsession, chaos, and rebellion. Indeed, the English version of the title 'Junoon' is The Obsession. But the sense of Junoon here is closer to 'Obsession in the Time of Mutiny'. Benegal places the action in Junoon in a British cantonment somewhere near Delhi, where the local 'nobleman', a Pathan played by Shashi Kapoor, has become obsessed with the daughter of a local British official.
Benegal carefully establishes how, by the time the Mutiny has broken out in 1857, the British had begun to segregate themselves from the 'natives', and this meant, most of all, keeping the 'natives' away from British women, especially those of marriageable age. But Benegal also establishes that this was not always so. He introduces the character of the grandmother of the girl in question - as an Indian lady who had married the British officer that is her grandfather. At least up to the 1820s and 1830s, this situation was not unusual: British males in India took both 'native wives' and 'native' mistresses openly.
By the 1850s, however, the British now go 'out of their way' to protect the 'honor' of their females, and to 'reserve them' only for other British (or other European) men. Quite literally in one scene - where a girl and her British father are going to Church - two Indians approach on the road. The Britisher immediately, and instinctively, puts himself between the approaching Indians and her. They pass by most innocuously - but the incident underlines the ridiculous extent to which British males had by then begun to conceive of traditional 'gallantry' toward the 'fair sex'. By now it had gone over to risible levels of chauvinism, mixed with intense feelings of racial superiority - a potent poison, as seen in so many other contexts, notably the American South.
That the father-daughter pair were going to Church when the incident occurs is also significant, for the Church is thus shown to be the symbolic upholder of an intensely racialized patriarchal system. It is an all-white Church.
Not surprizingly then, (and however dastardly it might seem in retrospect), the Church becomes the locus of an attack by Indian armed rebels - where British officers and their families are massacred while at Mass. The girl in question sees her own father being viciously slashed to death by a rebel in the Church, dying in her arms.
The girl, and her mother and grandmother (who were elsewhere at the time) are rescued by a local Indian businessman her father had once favored with Cantonment business contracts. They receive sanctuary in his home. But the nobleman played by Shashi Kapoor gets wind of this. Anxious to possess the object of his desire, he kidnaps the girl, her mother, and her grandmother and brings them to his mansion. Here, in a long sequence of scenes they are shown to slowly acculturate into the Indian Islamicate culture of the UP Pathan: they discard their 'European garments', and begin to wear the same clothes that other women in his household do; they socialize with them, are inculcated into the habits and entertainments of the zenana woman. What Benegal establishes here is that the three have simply traded one set of patriarchal norms (British, Christian) for another (Pathan-UP, Muslim). They remain secluded from almost all men, as indeed they were before, but now to an even more ridiculous extent - they actually enter the purdah.
The Pathan presses his case on the mother of the girl he is obsessed with - he says he seeks an 'honorable marriage' (nikaah) with the girl - probably 16 or 17 in the movie, while he is closer to 40 himself. The mother refuses, on the ground that he is too old, is already married, and moreover, that they are Christian while he is Muslim. What remains unsaid, of course, but amply evident in the context, is that they are white British while he is 'Indian'. For an Indian, however, Shashi Kapoor is as 'fair' and 'handsome' as it is possible to imagine anyone being; he is moreover a 'nobleman' - with wealth and power - yet the British woman of much more modest class standing (played, with considerable irony, by Kapoor's own then wife, the British actress Jennifer Kendal) refuses him permission to marry her daughter. And this is even while, in every way, she is beholden to him for her own (and her daughter's and mother's) security.
The Shashi Kapoor character is shown to be intensely conflicted: on the one hand, his obsession is eating him up, what with the object of his desire living in his own zenana; on the other, there is his sense of fairplay, that without her consent, and her mother's, a formal marriage simply cannot go ahead. He offers her full formal recognition as the second wife, along with title to a specified share of his property, and a bride price, but the mother is unyielding. And he is frankly incredulous: he just cannot fathom what possible considerations the British woman could possibly be weighing in turning down his 'honorable match'. Eventually, the mother appears to relent, but lays down her condition: the girl can be his if the Indian rebels (who at the time have reinstalled Bahadur Shah Zafar on the Delhi throne) are able to withstand and repulse the British siege of the town.
Here Benegal explicitly drives home the idea that patriarchy is undergirded by politico-military power, and, faced with two alternative patriarchies, some women may follow a strategy of hedging their bets before deciding who to ally with. By foregrounding race, Benegal also shows how it can be a 'trumping variable' - that a British woman and her daughter, even when under the protection of an Indian, and even while acculturating to his tradition, can still trump him, literally frustrating him - by virtue of nothing more than their race. Even while the British Raj in India appears to be crumbling, as it did for a while during the Mutiny. The grandmother character has done the reverse - born into a Muslim noble's family, she marries a British officer and accepts the status that gives her. Why this cannot happen again, with the granddaughter marrying the Pathan, is beyond his understanding, and as the film frames the paradox, the audience also shares the befuddlement.
But not race alone, religion as well - the British women's Christianity is shown to matter - while for another woman in the noble's zenana, who had been born Hindu, it is shown not to have mattered very much at all: she simply converted on marriage. This is driven home in another way: the grandmother, who had, at least nominally, converted to Christianity at marriage, is buried according to Christian, not Muslim rites, even though she was born a Muslim.
Benegal shows in Junoon that, race becomes a compellingly relevant variable in gender relationships, and that the logic of the racial hierarchy is internalized by women dominated by the patriarchy: the Jennifer Kendal character appears adamant that her race (and religion) is indeed superior, never mind how thoroughly the patriarchal norm dominates her own life, and how much she is beholden to the Kapoor character for her own security, and her daughter's. Her daughter is taught to reject the Shashi Kapoor character solely because he might be Indian, and Muslim. Not until the movie's last scene does it become clear that she might have come to develop feelings for him - which had until now remained suppressed within her. In that scene, which appears when the tide turns against the rebels, and the British appear to be re-establishing their authority - we see the Kendal character and her daughter escaping the nobleman's household, and seeking refuge again in that same Church where the father was slaughtered. In other words, back they go into their old world of the racialized religious patriarchy, seeking refuge in its central legitimating institution.
The situation as Benegal paints it is rich with symbolism - the strong doors of the Church appear to be holding the girl back from truly being in touch with her own feelings for the nobleman. At considerable risk to himself, he had gone looking for her, and begs and pleads to be allowed one last look, from outside the Church. When at last the girl realizes that she feels for him, she breaks her mother's resistance to open the door. But he has given up and is shown riding away; one later learns, to his death - in battle against the now victorious British returning from their sack of Delhi. The narration tells us that the girl returns to Britain to die a spinster, letting us wonder about the depth of the feeling she comes to develop for him.
In addition to acting as the Pathan, Shashi Kapoor also produced Junoon. It plays out on a much larger canvas than any of Benegal's films thus far: there are many more people in the movie, very realistic depictions of cavalry charges and artillery barrages, many 'crowd scenes' - and among other things, the movie also has documentary value as a picture of how things were during the Mutiny. Most of the team which Benegal has worked with before return in acting parts: Shabana Azmi (who's just back at the time from acting in another movie about the Mutiny - Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari) plays the wife of the nobleman (Shashi Kapoor); Naseeruddin Shah plays a rebel leader with great distinction (again); Amrish Puri is cast as a Sufi mendicant (a terrifying figure, as Puri plays him, with his trances and dances and his bulging eyes - played extremely well by Puri, but one does wonder why Benegal felt the need to include such a character in the movie at all - other than as a vehicle for Puri's extraordinary talent - the character is by no means integral to the story); Kulbhushan Kharbanda plays the businessman who initially shelters the British family.
Junoon has a slightly different character from Benegal's other films thus far, in that it can also be seen simply as a 'historical romance' or even just a docudrama on the Mutiny. What provides a sense of continuity with themes that have occupied Benegal in his earlier movies is that: in Junoon he examines the interaction between race, religion, social class, and gender at a time of great economic and military-political upheaval. He shows that, in spite of all the change that the Mutiny appeared to promise, even for women well placed by birth, class and race - it simply meant trading one religious, racialized patriarchy for another. That so much might have changed, but did not, is a rather disheartening message overall. And in its last scene, of eventually-requited-but-never-consummated love, across the race and religion barrier, Junoon really drives home the point.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
After his 'rural trilogy' (Ankur, Nishant, Manthan), Benegal continues his focus on the patriarchy - and the nature of women's choices within it - with Bhumika (1977). But to explore the theme more fully, and with added realism - he creates what would today be called a 'biopic': a movie based on the life of a real person (which he nevertheless unconvincingly disclaims right at the beginning of the movie). Above, a still from 'Bhumika', with Smita Patil in foreground, below, Hansa Wadkar (on whom the movie is said to be based) in a still from one of her movies.
Also, he moves up the class ladder: if in 'Ankur', the woman in question was the wife of a landless laborer, and in 'Nishant' the wife of a schoolteacher, then in 'Bhumika' he focuses on the life of an actress who has achieved career and financial success in her own right. Smita Patil is cast in this role as Usha, (with the screen name Urvashi). Anant Nag, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri are cast as the various men in her life.
Benegal starts his narrative from the time Usha is just a pre-pubescent girl in mid 1930s rural Maharashtra. He provides a strong mother figure (as well as a grandmother figure) in the family - but a rather weak father and an even weaker 'bachelor uncle' figure (who, much later, actually becomes her husband). Thus, without any oppressive male figures around, Benegal creates a credible environment in which Usha can grow up extremely 'headstrong'. Usha does have a talent for singing, nurtured by the grandmother; but her mother deeply resents this musical talent. Benegal thus germinates via this resentment a mother-daughter tension that recurs in various forms throughout Usha's life.
Usha enters the fledgling film industry of the 1930s as a 'child singing star', and, blossoming into a winsome lass, is rapidly absorbed into leading roles. The bachelor uncle (played by Amol Palekar) who had made her promise to marry him while she was still a child, now comes by to hold her to it, and she, in a fit of rebellion (against her mother who strongly disapproves both of the match and her vocation) seduces the 'uncle' and becomes pregnant. This compels the 'uncle' to marry her on the one hand, as well as her mother to acquiesce in the marriage on the other. Notice that here she is shown to have had it her way - the marriage takes place not so much because she has 'promised' to marry the Amol Palekar-uncle figure, it takes place because her mother disapproves even of her casual flirtation with the Palekar character - so she seduces him to seal the marriage as fait accompli. By this time she has also engaged the real-life attention of the male romantic lead opposite whom she is cast (played by Anant Nag).
Whether she reciprocates that attention is not initially clear - I rather think it is intentionally left unclear - but the interest from her acting colleague makes her husband uncontrollably jealous. This has the effect of driving her into her lover's arms, again, having it her way, as if to say - if you don't like even the thought of it, whether true or not, then that's exactly what I'll do. The male jealousy then goes both ways, but the Anant Nag character is shown to be markedly less possessive than her husband, so that she is moved to declaim that he's the only man who has 'only given, never gotten'.
What Benegal has created here is a situation in which a woman brought up largely outside the clutches of the traditional patriarchy nevertheless becomes trapped in it as she grows in her profession and exercises her 'agency'. He thus locates the motivating force of the patriarchy in male sexual jealousy, and this motif plays out over and over again in the movie.
The other theme Benegal explores at great length in the movie is the extent to which the real lives and 'screen lives' of movie stars become intertwined - Usha becomes romantically involved not only with her male co-star but also with her director and the financier, among others. In this she is simply acting as a woman of her own will, seemingly unaffected by, and independently of any patriarchal norms. Naseeruddin Shah, who we had last seen in 'Manthan' as the rustic, disaffected, 'half-caste', is now cast as a debonair, happy-go-lucky, racecar-driving hedonist director - another role he plays extremely well. Benegal extends the idea of the intertwining of screen and real lives even further - in one of the scenes of 'Bhumika', Usha is shown playing the female lead in a movie titled Agni Pariksha, the classic mythological trope recalling the depredations of male sexual jealousy. Her 'lines' in the movie and in real life thus begin to coincide - and with the male lead involved with her in real life as well, neither the actress (nor us, the audience) can tell any more whether it is the movie, or the movie within the movie that is now playing, till the on-screen Director says 'cut'!
Benegal also stretches his cinematic legs a little in the movie, allowing some song and dance, and melodramatic musical scores to creep in (unlike in any of his previous movies thus far) - but only in the context of showing the movie-within-the-movie. He also uses this device to expose the shallowness of much movie making that had crept in by the 1950s in Indian cinema. Benegal treats the viewer of Bhumika, for example, to a number of 'behind the camera' scenes, especially of choreographers and Directors directing meaningless 'song-and-dance in the rain' scenes - at one point also showing the garden sprinklers that create the 'rain'. This is a huge dig at commercial Indian cinema, and Bhumika also has significant documentary value in tracing the evolution of stylistic, thematic and technical elements of Indian cinema from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The central message of Bhumika is clearly articulated when Usha becomes involved with a much older financier-industrialist, who she later discovers is already married (with a huge estate, his first wife having passed on, a terminally-ill-but-still young second wife, and a son) - but only after having accepted his invitation to join him at his estate. Amrish Puri plays the partriarch-industrialist here - in a reprise of his role in 'Nishant', but with a huge change in the physical scale of his operations, his estate, and his oppressive power.
The strong near father-like, sympathetic, successful, older male figure she was attracted to (perhaps, one can speculate, because her own father was so weak) transforms into a possessive, jealous brute. Or more properly, he was always that, it was a side of him she hadn't seen yet. Or even more properly, he is just being a man, the difference is that he actually has the power to take the instinctive jealousy to a ridiculous extent. Ridiculous, that is, for a middle class woman, but quite the norm otherwise. Having come into the household, he tells her, she can now physically leave the estate only when she dies. Benegal carefully portrays the scale of male power necessary to enforce his jealousy at this extreme. Amrish Puri's line is simple - you were given every opportunity to say no, he tells her, to reverse course and go back to Bombay - but once you agreed and are in the door, you're mine, and you don't go out again. Ever.
Both the ailing second wife and her mother urge Usha (Smita Patil) to reconcile herself to the situation (the same line, in effect, that Benegal had Smita Patil deliver to Shabana Azmi in 'Nishant'): What would you do even if you escaped? It's only the mattresses and pillow covers that will change, the men won't. And by this time in the movie, there is ample evidence in the nature of Usha's involvements with other men to bear this out.
What Benegal thus shows in Bhumika is that even a woman endowed with enormous agency by virtue of her professional and financial standing, and someone, moreover, who grew up in a household without a patriarchal oppressive environment, can nevertheless become trapped in the clutches of the patriarchy. And all she was doing was attempting to solve her 'loneliness problem'.
In a somewhat hopeful ending, Benegal arranges for Usha to escape the industrialist's household - but only through intervention of the police (unlike the case of the schoolteacher's wife in 'Nishant'). On returning to her home, she finds her daughter grown up and pregnant, but is reassured when the daughter tells her that she is also married. In this way, Benegal shows that the patriarchy, through the institution of marriage, has recaptured the daughter, never mind the mother having lived a life seemingly in defiance of it. Not only that, he also shows that Usha is reassured by this fact, demonstrating that, in spite of her own independent life, she prefers her daughter to be married, even though she realizes marriage is just a cover for enforcing male exclusivist sexual jealousy. The daughter plans for Usha to come and live with her and her husband, reducing Usha thus to an appendage - but in a final act of enormous agency, Usha rejects this, preferring to live alone, and deal with her 'loneliness problem' by herself.
Smita Patil excels in Bhumika (literally translated as 'The Role' - but more appropriately, 'The Vocation', 'The Guise', or even 'The Masquerade'). She's only 21 when the movie was filmed - and convincingly plays a woman through the ages of 15 to 45 in it. She really matures as an actress, and like Shabana Azmi before her, is recognized nationally and internationally for her bhumika in Bhumika. Bhumika is a movie with even more complex themes than Nishant - actual physical violence is shown graphically (especially to illustrate the generationally recursive nature of domestic abuse, as a tool of patriarchal oppression). It disturbs on many more levels than even Nishant does, and while the ending is barely hopeful in Usha's personal life, its more general message carries very little hope for women negotiating the patriarchy - more especially the most accomplished and successful among them. Made over 30 years ago in 1977, and referring to the life of someone during the 1930s-1950s (Benegal actually provides snippets of All India Radio broadcasts to frame the movie in time - 'The Second Five Year Plan begins today' ; or 'General Ayub Khan took over as Martial Law Administrator in Pakistan today'  etc), the movie is every bit as relevant today as it was then. For this reason, it should be seen, and seen again, not merely as a period piece or a classic (it is both), but as a compellingly relevant contemporary film.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Before Benegal began making feature films ('Ankur' was his first) - he was making commercials and documentaries for corporations and government bodies. 'Manthan', which immediately follows 'Nishant', is what would today be called a 'docudrama'. If in 'Ankur' he showed that it was perfectly possible for an oppressive socioeconomic system to arrive at an equilibrium where people are, more or less, happy where they are (the deaf-mute landless laborer symbolizing powerlessness in a, well, rather powerful way) and if in 'Nishant' he asks whether violent revolt was in fact likely to usher in a socio-economic order preferable to the one it displaces (also suggesting that the answer is 'no') - then in 'Manthan' he examines an attempt to bring about social change nonviolently - and inclusively - through an international institution-funded team of specialists. He moves the scene both in space and in time - from the Nizam's Hyderabad in the 1940s to the post-independence state of Gujarat, sometime in the 1960s; and now, instead of grain farmers, he looks at an entire village of dairy farmers.
The milk produced by the farmers is sold to a dairy processing plant owned by a 'capitalist' bad guy, played again with distinction by Amrish Puri (he was the landlord in 'Nishant'). The female lead is played by Smita Patil, who debuted in 'Nishant'. Clearly unafraid of irony, Benegal casts Patil, whose very surname connotes 'upper caste village headman' as a lower caste woman in 'Manthan'. And gives her a significant speaking part, which she didn't have in 'Nishant'. Girish Karnad returns as the leader of the team of specialists, as does Naseeruddin Shah, now cast as a 'half-caste'-but-treated-as-lower-caste male, perpetually scowling, alienated from the locals and deeply suspicious of outsiders (he was the landlord's youngest brother in 'Nishant'). Anant Nag (who also debuted in 'Ankur', along with Shabana Azmi) returns as a junior specialist in Karnad's team. Shabana Azmi herself is off working with Satyajit Ray at this time in Shatranj ke Khilari, having become famous through 'Ankur' and 'Nishant' - and does not appear in 'Manthan'. And in what appears to be an inside joke, Anant Nag's character in 'Manthan' is called 'Chandavarkar'. (Benegal, Karnad, and Nag(arkatti) are all Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmin surnames, as is Chandavarkar.)
One sees through Benegal's lens that, even when land is removed as the primary means of production, and replaced by cattle, serious social stratification comes to exist in the village. While both upper and lower castes own animals, the upper castes own more of them, control access to credit, and have significantly more power in the village. Importantly, they do not intermarry with the lower castes. It is often said in contemporary debate about Indian sociological trends that caste is the basic unit of social mobility in India, not the individual. One learns and relearns this basic sociological 'stylized fact' through the various situations Benegal creates in 'Manthan'. Benegal's focus on the patriarchy remains, and he uses the character played by Patil to demonstrate how the capitalist and powerful rural upper castes collude to oppress the lower castes, and in addition, how lower caste males further oppress the lower caste female. It is normally taken as an accepted fact that caste (or race) hierarchies invert the traditional gender hierarchy - i.e. if white (or upper caste) females are oppressed by their patriarchies, then lower-caste (or black) females are relatively more powerful relative to black (or lower-caste) males. Benegal shows that this need not always be so.
'Manthan' literally means 'churning' - as in churning buttermilk gives you butter (which the dairy actually makes). It also epitomizes the basic theme in the movie - that even the best attempts of specialist outsiders to create non-disruptive positive social change - results instead in a significantly agitated local situation, ripe for ferment. 'Manthan' is also an extremely evocative mythological trope. In Hindu mythology, the Gods and Demons together churn the ocean of milk for the elixir of immortality (amrit). The churning of the ocean (samudramanthan) also yields the Kalpavriksha (the wish-granting tree) and Kamadhenu (the mother of all cows, who could also produce any amount of milk the owner desired). While the Gods and Demons must together churn the ocean, the Gods have actually conspired to be the sole recipients of the amrit. This theme is played out in the movie both in the large and the small - one group (the upper castes) routinely attempts to co-opt the other (lower castes) in the 'cooperative dairy farm' that the specialists visualize, but attempts also to keep the benefits only to themselves.
In actual fact, the cooperative dairy movement in Gujarat not only caught on and took off - the Amul Cooperative Dairy became a vastly successful commercial operation, that, among other things, also blazed new trails in commercial advertising and copy writing. By the late 1970s, Amul and the milk cooperatives were successful enough that 'Manthan' could be funded by its lakhs of dairy farmers. It was the vision of Dr. V. Kurien, who, interestingly enough, is a Michigan State-trained mechanical engineer, that is largely responsible for the 'Anand miracle'. The character played by Girish Karnad appears to be loosely based on Kurien, and the movie itself is a tribute to the Anand miracle.
Apart from Naseeruddin Shah, who positively excels as the ever-suspicious, perpetually alienated, always scowling, 'half-caste' male, and Amrish Puri as the bad-guy capitalist, Kulbhushan Kharbanda does extremely well as the upper-caste village headman (the Patel). I was pained to find that Shah's fine performance went formally unrecognized - he garnered no awards or nominations for his acting - which, apart from being excellent in itself, also critically anchored the movie. He also mastered the rural Gujarati dialect local to the area, which adds much realism to both his performance and to the movie. (By contrast, Amrish Puri, cast as 'Mr. Mishra', delivers his lines in a very inauthentic-sounding Punjabi accent!).
Benegal ends 'Manthan' on an ambivalent note. Attempts by outsider well-wishers to initiate positive social change run up against local hierarchies in collusion with capitalist interests; yet, the very process of inducing change creates a churning (the manthan of the movie title) that results in a situation ripe for ferment. Benegal's lesson for development specialists appears to be: positive change has to occur from within, but your efforts, if well directed, can create enough 'churn' to tilt the possibility of success in your favor.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Whether a woman leading a somewhat precarious existence as a 'housewife' (though in a marriage with a loving husband), would choose instead the life of a (comfortably) kept woman under the right (or wrong) circumstances, is a question that has arisen often, especially in the lower reaches of the patriarchy where its salience is highest, being particularly relevant for the least powerful males. This is the central question examined in Shyam Benegal's 'Nishant', which followed immediately on 'Ankur'. If in 'Ankur' he showed us how a woman subject to the very worst depredations of an agrarian social system would nevertheless choose to remain deeply attached to a man at the absolute bottom of the patriarchy - a deaf-mute landless laborer, who is able to offer her almost nothing, not even elemental human communication, then in 'Nishant' he shows how a woman in a comparatively more comfortable situation (as a schoolmaster's wife) could choose a life as a kept woman in a landlord's household. To drive home the point he's making, and for additional irony, he casts the same woman in both roles - Shabana Azmi.
But where he had Anant Nag as the somewhat idealistic, rather naive dynast in dalliance with the young wife of a laborer in 'Ankur', he now creates in 'Nishant' a real ogre of a landlord in a character played with great distinction by Amrish Puri. The locale moves a bit inland from that of 'Ankur' - from the lush Godavari basin to the rocky Deccan plateau, but remains in an area that used to be the jurisdiction of the Nizam of Hyderabad. The movie is set during the immediate pre-independence period, as was the case with 'Ankur'. The character played by Azmi - Susheela, is married to the village schoolteacher played by Girish Karnad. As the movie opens, the schoolteacher, with wife and son, are shown arriving in the village. Even as the tonga fare is still being haggled over, Susheela has already made known, with biting sarcasm, her disappointment with their new lodgings. As they settle in, her dissatisfaction with the material circumstances he is able to provide is repeatedly expressed. She desires a full-length mirror, for example (an indication of her vanity that Benegal wants to impress on us). She twice reminds him of the front door that needs fixing. This door is both literal and figurative - for it is the very door through which she is kidnapped by the landlord's men at the behest of his youngest brother Vishwam (played by Naseeruddin Shah). But symbolically, it is also the gaping vulnerability in her marriage - her unhappiness with her socioeconomic status - that has gone unaddressed. Vishwam is already married - his wife Rukmani is played by the incredibly sensuous Smita Patil, who also debuts in the movie. She is seen above in a still from 'Nishant'.
That, blessed with such a beautiful wife, Vishwam could still become obsessed with a rather plainer woman (the schoolmaster's wife played by Azmi) is one of the minor paradoxes Benegal wants the viewer to grapple with. Indeed, after the abduction-rape of Susheela, Rukmani asks Vishwam directly, 'Why did you have to do this? Was I not good enough?' The camera has by this time dwelt on Smita Patil at great length, so, at least for the male viewer, the question is hardly rhetorical. But there is also in her question a certain resigned acceptance of the nature of men in general, and the nature of this group of men in particular. That the act is morally repugnant in the extreme is not even in the subtext of the question - it is framed only in the form of - was I not good enough?
Benegal spends a lot of movie time building the character of Vishwam - if his brother the landlord, and his inner circle are heavy drinkers, gamblers, and whorers, then he's a complete goody-two shoes; happy in his subsidiary position and in his marriage, and completely dominated by his elder brother. One might even say that in the picture Benegal paints of him, Vishwam is basically a good man, but his circumstances are wicked - and his friends and associates are the bad guys. As the film unfolds, Benegal seems to want the viewers' sympathies to remain with Vishwam, a simpleton oaf who nevertheless becomes obsessed with another man's wife - almost in spite of himself, and as if to show his brothers that he is just as bad as them.
The other theme Benegal develops at length in the movie is the raw power in the hands of the landlord played by Puri. He and his men have access to, it would seem, any thing they want, and any woman they want in the village - either by raw force or coercive persuasion. It is this unbridled power that Vishwam witnesses at close range, and begins to see the possibility of using these 'fraternal' ties (even while he is not fully accepted into the 'fraternity' because he refuses to drink or gamble to excess) to sate his own obsession: by persuading the landlord's men (half-brothers or cousins to him) to kidnap and bring him Susheela. So here's the situational dilemma Benegal confronts the viewer with: a basically good man develops an obsession for a woman, but unlike most men, he's in a position to do something about it - i.e., have her kidnapped and brought to him! What would you do in a similar situation, if you had the same power to act with impunity, is the question Benegal leaves you with.
Or more pertinently, what would a woman facing such absolute power do? As the plot proceeds, the seemingly improbable happens: Vishwam's wife, played by Patil, acting on her own volition, becomes the intermediary 'soft-power' who persuades Susheela to accept her situation, and thus also becomes Vishwam's enabler. It's not all bad, she tells Susheela. This boggles the viewer's imagination, especially if he has bought the idea that female sexual jealousy should assert itself, the idea that Benegal foregrounded in 'Ankur'.
Benegal now seems to suggest that under a sufficiently dominant patriarchy, even female sexual jealousy, strong though it can be, is overriden by the sororal instinct - which enables a comfortable, symbiotic sororal polygyny to develop between two women attached to the same man. Indeed, the two women in this movie become good friends, and Susheela slowly begins to assert and improve her relative status vis-a-vis Rukmani. The full-length mirror comes in almost immediately. Then she requisitions the family car for an unchaperoned temple visit, where, incredibly, she meets her husband, mourning and pining away for her. In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, where it is made clear that she could escape with him if she chooses, she instead chides him cruelly for his 'lack of manhood', and drives back to the manor, signaling that she has not only fully accepted her position as kept woman, she is now also asserting its privileges. Even her maternal instinct is shown thus to have become subordinated to the status-and-comfort she has successfully obtained elsewhere. She also appears only too willing to believe the subterfuge-alibi her housemaid has spun - that her young son has completely forgotten her - seemingly ready to put her entire life behind for the comfort and privilege that have now become available to her. Again, this is in stark contrast to the situation in 'Ankur', where comfort and status are decidedly secondary to the desire to have and keep a child. Eventually, even though Susheela remains the 'kept woman' in the household, she manages to elevate herself to become Vishwam's mistress-concubine, ranking higher than the 'married' wife. When the housemaid does not show up one day, it is Rukmani who has to get out of bed to make tea for everyone. What is remarkable here is that the entire household - including all the brothers - have instinctively realized who is No. 1 - nobody even thinks of asking Susheela to make them tea!
Benegal thus shows that easy generalizations about how issues at the intersection of power, sex, gender, and desire play out, are likely to be wrong; and that individual conditions and characteristics (and character) determine the choices one makes in different situations. 'Ankur' and 'Nishant' illustrate widely differing possibilities in a woman's response to the patriarchy; Benegal's genius is in getting the same woman to play both roles convincingly in two movies made in quick succession.
In the rest of 'Nishant', Benegal goes on to sketch even more distressing dilemmas and painful paradoxes. As rapacious a landlord as the Puri character is shown to be, he is also shown as someone who chooses not to use the deadly force at his disposal - even when he can do so with impunity, and even when it would be in his legitimate interest to do so (within the premise of the movie). He is certainly not a benevolent uber-presence, but he is also not the cruelest man you could imagine. Worse, from the point of view of constructing a Manichean good-evil disjuncture - he appears merciful when you least expect it. The landlord is unmarried, and Benegal lets drop subtle hints that he might be gay - several times in the movie, for example, masseurs are shown attending to him. In one scene, he's getting a massage as dawn is breaking and he's just waking up. More to the point, he's never shown participating in any of the heterosexual 'adventures' that his henchmen participate in.
The movie vividly shows the homicidal chaos that ensues when the villagers, finally roused from their apathetic stupor by the schoolmaster (and the village priest) storm the landlord's manor, killing everyone they can find - even Rukmani, Vishwam's wife (who Benegal has developed as the only morally pure person in the plot). Vishwam escapes, but with Susheela, not Rukmani. The crowd pursues them, and in the final scene, Vishwam and Susheela, having truly emotionally bonded, realize that there's no escaping the crowd. They sit transfixed, as if waiting for it to descend on them (actually, ascend to them - they have climbed a rocky formation in trying to escape the crowd). The scene slowly fades out, giving the viewer time to reflect on whether such a violent upheaval would indeed result in a better social order than the repressive one the landlord had held up.
The messages in 'Nishant' are thus complex and more subtle than those in 'Ankur'. The cast is larger, and has more established screen names. This time Benegal cedes the screenplay to famous playwright Vijay Tendulkar (although I personally could not tell the difference in dialogic quality from 'Ankur'). Given the locale in the Nizam's Hyderabad, much of the dialog is still in 'Dakhani'. Minor quibble: the year is supposed to be 1945, but the car that shows up in several scenes is late 1950s American! Also, I thought Girish Karnad was miscast in the movie. Notwithstanding his other achievements, in this case I do not believe he did justice to the role of schoolmaster: the raw passion one would expect to see in a man whose wife has just been abducted is completely missing in his interpretation of the scene. On the other hand, it is possible that Benegal cast him in the role fully realizing that even Karnad's best interpretation of that scene would probably still show only an emasculated male, his primal anger repressed within him even at the moment of the greatest conceivable challenge to his manhood - and that was just what Benegal needed in the scene. The emotion writ large on the schoolmaster that Karnad plays is utter disbelief, not the uncontrolled rage one might expect.
'Nishant' is a powerful film, disturbing at a more elemental level than 'Ankur'. There are graphic scenes of physical and strong suggestions of sexual violence; the overall thematic content is profoundly unsettling. The Censors at the time (1975-76) thought fit to grant it an 'A' rating. But it still won many awards and award nominations - including the 1977 Indian National Film Award. From this point on Benegal became more established in his reputation as a maker of quality ('art') cinema. 'Nishant' is a movie that really makes you think, and then think some more. [I still haven't figured out what the title 'Nishant' (translated by others as 'Break of Dawn'; I would go with 'End of Darkness' Nisha = darkness, ant = end) is intended to mean in this context.] It is a movie certainly well worth watching, and then watching again.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
That female sexual jealousy, rather than a male-centered patriarchal power structure, might lie at the root of much caste oppression in rural India (and by extension, at the root of much racist socio-economic oppression in many other contexts) is a provocative thought. It is, however, a thought that receives a complete and thorough airing, in Shyam Benegal's 1974 movie 'Ankur', along with the equally compelling question of whether a poor, young, landless woman caught up in the worst depredations of such a patriarchal agrarian system - could have any attachment for an abusive, much-older, unfaithful, dishonest, impotent, infertile, unemployed drunk man who she has been married to since childhood, but who has abandoned her; and who, in addition, is also deaf-mute [for additional irony, he is also someone she has successfully cuckolded, with a much more powerful (and younger, and sexually attractive) male]. The film offers that the answer, despite everything your intuition might tell you, is actually 'yes'.
This premise then turns the standard patriarchal slander of women, as heartless, gold-digging, selfish creatures who'd do anything to co-opt the patriarchy to their advantage - by allying and/or manipulating and cuckolding with powerful males, and thus seek to maximize benefit for their own progeny and by derivative status, for themselves - if not completely on its head, then considerably to one side. Woman, or at least the female protagonist played by Shabana Azmi in 'Ankur', comes off as a considerably more complex creature, capable of forming a lasting emotional bond with a male she has been married to - even when he is shorn of every desirable human attribute, even the ability to sensibly communicate. At one point in the movie, in a scene rich with multiple levels of symbolism, he is shorn, literally, even of the hair on his own head, as 'punishment' for petty thievery. One marvels at Benegal's autorial imagination that produces a human being by way of such contraption and artifice to make the overall point.
The male protagonist in 'Ankur' is a young feudal dynast, who, having been exposed to liberalizing influences, is ready to forsake his assigned role at the feudal estate to explore the metropolis. On graduating from high school, however, he is assigned to manage the estate instead. Arriving at the estate, therefore, he manifests an initial social liberalism, casts aside day-to-day caste prejudice, even while being every bit the oppressive landlord in his economic self. He begins to accept food cooked by the maid, his 'outcaste' deaf-mute tenant's wife. When the deaf-mute, (who the landlord awards a punitive tonsure for petty theft) runs away from the village feeling humiliated, abandoning his wife - a sexual relationship develops between landlord and maid. This is neither simple opportunistic landlordist lasciviousness, nor a deliberate, manipulative attempt at cuckoldry - but instead, something full of initial mutual tenderness that leaves you completely unprepared for the final actual result. The movie's opening scene further confuses you, because it has the young Lakshmi, played by Azmi, visiting a local shrine to propitiate the deity to ask for a child. Since she knows her own husband is infertile, one might be led to think she actively plans the cuckoldry. Not so clear in the movie.
The plot moves fast when the young landlord's newly-wedded wife comes to the rural estate to join him, a few months later. Her overwhelming sexual jealousy manifests itself, even though she is highly inexperienced and overall quite docile. It overcomes the young landlord's liberalizing tendency, and almost instantly, the maid is cast back out, becoming a literal outcaste again in the landlord's eyes, his feelings conflicted by guilt about the relationship, his attachment to her, and the knowledge that she has conceived his child.
Anyone who believes conventional social-evolutionary anthropology would say at this point that polygyny would be the natural state of affairs in the circumstances, especially when the male has a strong emotional tie to the 'other woman' as he does in this case, and the clear power asymmetry the landlord has over his wife. It is something the wife must just reconcile to. However, in actuality, the new wife's intense sexual jealousy and status assertion vis-a-vis the 'lower-caste' live-in maid dominate (inspite of her naivete and overall docility, and even before she emotionally bonds with her new husband). This makes you wonder about the standard narrative of caste - that a male could choose to mate with a lower-status female, even taking her as a wife and giving her his caste identity (but even if he doesn't, his progeny would take his higher caste status). What we see here instead is upper-caste female sexual jealousy being decisive in keeping a 'lower-caste' woman 'in her place'.
But a child has actually been conceived, which the lower-caste woman wants to keep but the upper-caste landlord wants her to abort. Again this turns the idea of male 'ownership' by-right of any progeny from a sexual relationship on the one hand, and female shame at an extra-marital conception on the other - completely around. Another preconception yet - that sexual shame is an emotion taught to upper-class females by the patriarchy - is also exploded, because the lower-caste woman played by Shabana in the movie does in fact seem to experience a sense of shame and guilt at the extra-marital affair, even as she desires the child it conceives. Almost unbelievably for someone of her station, she is shown as possessing enormous agency in not only desiring and then conceiving a child, but also in defying the landlord-lover father in deciding to keep it.
'Ankur' is famous as a movie because, among other things, it launched Shabana Azmi as an actress. Her acting throughout is controlled and low-key, striking just the right balance. At two points, however, she pulls out spontaneous and overwhelming emotion from within her in truly memorable performances. One, when the cuckolded deaf-mute actually returns, having turned a new leaf and having brought her his saved-up earnings. There her emotional torrent comes from her guilt and shame at her own infidelity toward this abusive-but-in-her-imagination-also-noble man. The second, after the deaf-mute husband discovers that his wife Lakshmi is pregnant. Assuming it is his own child, he rushes to share the good news with the landlord, in a show of faux male camaraderie that nothing in the movie prepares you to expect. The landlord, however, assumes he is coming to enact the 'rage of the cuckold' - since his body language is ambiguous and he's deaf-mute besides. In intervening to stop the brutality that ensues, Shabana pulls out the impotent-but-powerful, dirge-like, cursing, 'rage of the oppressed' wail in the movie's closing scene. Both scenes are so realistic, it is hard not to believe that the performance reflects an actual catharsis that the scenes managed to achieve for her. A lesser actress could have done all the other scenes nearly as well, except perhaps those two. Or perhaps I underestimate the ability of the average human female to pull out that overwhelming emotion when occasion calls for it.
Shyam Benegal not only directed 'Ankur', but also wrote the screenplay for it in Dakhani, a dialect of Urdu. This not only adds to the intrinsic authenticity of the movie's storyline, but also to Benegal's reputation as an auteur. Shabana Azmi got the part at least partly because she could already speak Dakhani. And Govind Nihalani's cinematography, capturing the lush green countryside as vividly as the dark interiors of unelectrified rural India, is excellent, adding considerably to my enjoyment of the movie.
The title 'Ankur' (The Sapling) is a symbolic motif for the many new beginnings that appear throughout the movie, and is also a literal motif in the thousands of little saplings in the lush countryside that serves as background to the movie as it plays out. Almost all of the new beginnings are shown to end badly, including the little potted sapling that the barely post-pubescent Lakshmi takes to the shrine in the beginning of the movie (which gets thrown out when she seems unable to conceive). Equally, the new beginning in inter-caste agrarian relations that the male protagonist appears to promise in the beginning of the movie, ends diastrously. 'Ankur' serves well as the title of the first film (for Benegal) and the first blogpost (for me).
'Ankur' educates, elevates and entertains. It attempts to realistically depict rural life in the Godavari basin, and manages to confront and challenge, if not also explode many fondly held and largely unexamined patriarchal myths. It is a must-see, a true gem of the 1970s Indian alternative 'art' cinema genre.