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.