Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shyam Benegal's 'Manthan'

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

Shyam Benegal's 'Nishant'

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

Shyam Benegal's 'Ankur'

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.