Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shyam Benegal's 'Mandi'

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

Shyam Benegal's 'Junoon'

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.

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

Shyam Benegal's 'Bhumika'

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' [1956]; or 'General Ayub Khan took over as Martial Law Administrator in Pakistan today' [1958] 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.