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.


  1. Nice Review ... The film is truly a masterpiece, every bit relevant today as it was when it was made.

  2. Thanks for the review. I just finished watching it, Phulmani's (deaf and dumb woman) sudden return in the very last scene is something i was wondering about. Even metaphorically, the significance of the scene is hazy in my mind. Any thoughts?

  3. Thanks for the review. I just finished watching it, Phulmani's (deaf and dumb woman) sudden return in the very last scene is something i was wondering about. Even metaphorically, the significance of the scene is hazy in my mind. Any thoughts?