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.