All the Indian films I talk about here come from the NFDC(National Film Development Corporation) stable which means that the quality of content and performative aptitude is of a very high calibre. Another distinguishing feature is that they are veritably attuned to the contours of an Indian consciousness without pandering to any discomfiting intents or disorienting cultural influence. By that account, the local and the situational authenticity of lived experiences translate to an universal awakening, to the many ways in which human interaction governs our life choices.
I write about them and share their worthwhile storytelling merits with all discerning viewers, with a lot of enthusiasm. I also hope, once again, that many kindred viewers in their twenties, like yours truly, will gather the interest in exploring our truly commendable cinematic exemplars, especially since they unjustly get eclipsed by popular culture paradigms pertaining to the overblown ‘mainstream’
Kudos are also reserved to the brilliant Indian channel EPIC which showcases the best of these underrated classics. Its online channel/app EPIC ON is further a treasure trove where you will find many rare classics in pristinely restored audio and picture quality. I myself saw many of the titles discussed here on this channel since I had already read about them a lot (and not all of them are available on the otherwise eclectic Youtube)
When we talk about adult relationships and their translation on-screen, many a times petty storytelling and lack of conviction in broadening our understanding of interpersonal bonds between grown ups leaves us desiring for nuance and complexity. I mean life is not just about romance and trivial pursuits of a happy go lucky destiny.
It’s about the gravity of a sustained bond set adrift by temptation, internal conflicts and the ‘inability to hate’ our life partners whom we chose to love and who often leave us without any concrete rhyme or reason. Middle age, after all, clashes with the vigours of youth and all these points get a sensitive delineation in the conversational, internalized writing by the liberal and multifaceted Shashi Deshpande and ace director-cinematographer Govind Nihalani. DRISHTI(Vision/Perspective) is an apt title for this work that lets us come to our conclusions while offering a multiplicity of emotional terrains. Utter realism governs this minefield of faith and straying away from it when human dilemmas rule the head and heart.
The setting is urban and sophisticated yet the aesthetics and values are that of a modern Indian consciousness that doesn’t get overwhelmed by challenging propositions. Cue this image of the protagonist by the sea, captured in silhouette. It’s like the whole city is on one end and she on the other end of the horizon, with her own share of worldly problems.
From the interiors to the dressing, everything is instantly relatable within this educated middle class milieu that the film portrays so deftly. It also, according to me, lets our rapidly judgemental mindsets grapple with the questions of what exactly entails marital or familial disenchantment when everything is seemingly fine. Or how the idea of being unfaithful is mired by gender relations and pre-set values within one particular relationship itself. All of this is beautifully conveyed by the modulations and reflexive work of Dimple Kapadia and by extension Shekhar Kapur. The ‘inability to hate’ each other or indiscretions within a bond that brings essentially two strangers together in the first place is built on their deep friendship. It comes out in their conversations. These long takes and extended verbal articulations are given their rightful place here though it may inspire distance at first. I say this because few marriages subsist on honesty, let alone such openness when the two people are apart.
Ultimately, the most striking aspect about DRISHTI is its parallels between the two best friends played by Ms. Kapadia and the utterly brilliant Mita Vashisht. The latter is again given such modulations of hurt, regrets, anger and practical estimations that we can see a dozen women in her, in her exasperation with a marital bond that is essentially sanctioned by society. A beautiful image of both women in front of the mirror captures their camaraderie along with their points of unity and responsive disjunction. Without Mita’s point of view, we would never see the flipside of the seemingly civil union at the heart of this film. Another triumph is that Nihalani and Deshpande invest their female protagonists with financial independence so Dimple is a successful publisher/editor while Mita starts running a designer boutique of her own.
With the extraordinary vocals by classical maestro Kishori Amonkar guiding this journey, DRISHTI is built on a principle of thairaav(restraint) and gives us ample room for thought. 30 years old now, it is more confrontational of human dilemmas and trenchant than many contemporary dramas claim to be. In that sense, it was far ahead of its times and continues to be a landmark, considering its rounded characterisation.
There are moments of extraordinary beauty here, courtesy K. K. Mahajan’s deft eye for detail occassioned by the natural surroundings of a pristine Himachal Pradesh. The hills, trees in autumn, gurgling rivers and even passing of a train cover the visual panorama of a small town that gets duly noted as a sleepy backwater, in the beginning of the film by chattering train passengers. This juxtaposition is effective given that every heaven on earth is eventually smeared by human settlement. By human corruption whose hands reach far and deep. Kumar Shahani’s instantly immersive mis-en-scene or screenplay in KASBA (Settlement/ The Town) sculpts a dramatic work based on that dichotomy.
The structural positioning of the family home and its identity within this small town is a doorway to the way its inhabitants live. By hook or by crook is a credo for them. However, given the complexity of writing, it becomes a gyre, a circular motion where the vulnerabilities of the perpetrators and the innocent correspond. This treatment rescues the proceedings from falling into the stereotypical black and white structure or ‘circle of evil’ that mainstream cinema is so quick to espouse. This brings to mind Shahani’s own TARANG(1984) which was similarly effective.
I also am highly appreciative of the granular details that make up the realistic behavioural pattern here. From Alaknanda Samarth’s vocal modulations and bewildering shifts in mood as the mother in law, as if she’s the inheritor of all the secrets, to Manohar Singh’s turn as the patriarch operating on simultaneous tenderness and cunning to Tejo, the daughter in law, being elevated as the real fulcrum of this household and its business transactions. In putting a young woman at the center of financial fortunes in a largely chauvinistic ethos, we feel that conventions are broken but it’s actually a ruse to hoodwink authorities with her gender. By getting her married to the mentally challenged younger son( the excellent Raghubeer Yadav), her agency is definitely stifled. Mita Vashisht enables her characterisation to be defined as the center of this dubious family enterprise, refusing to be victimized at any turn. Even though she is well aware of the consequences, her interpretation lets us see that she’s not the one who started the fire. Shahani’s direction gives her a central force through her stance, postures and inimitable presence. She is the structural foundation of this home, of a larger society where both genders are equally complicit and compliant with the status quo. Behold her moment of outburst when she openly expresses the reality.
This is in stark contrast to the chattel like destiny of the beautiful and unsullied older daughter in law ( Navjot Hansra) who grasps the going-ons but ultimately succumbs to being a marginal scapegoat. The image of her seated atop rocks by the river with her dead baby is haunting. Shatrughan Sinha is here in a strong appearance as the older, almost prodigal son whose life-script too echoes the mystery and fraudulent means inherited by his family. Or maybe he’s just a government spy who meets his untimely end, given the nature of his volatile job. We never know fully. Just like the nature of business transactions of Tejo and her father in law are never shown but suggested by their conversational tones. To the world, they run a shop but their wealth and social status tells a different story.
KASBA is a must-watch for its microscopic look at the ways in which mere mortals attack the very foundations of a stable society until almost everyone else joins in the amoral chorus. Vanraj Bhatia’s musical expertise perfectly accesses its atmosphere.
I am so glad and proud to have encountered this almost forgotten gem from the late 1990s, created by France based writer-filmmaker Vijay Singh. Unlike so many of our compatriots settled abroad who choose to renounce their indigenous identity in favour of an enlarged global output which falters on many instances owing to cultural dissonance, Mr. Singh adapts his own novel JAYA GANGA for this pithy screenplay that does away with extraneous details or unconvincing storytelling detours.
It’s a simple, rousing tale of the purity of friendship between a writer back home in India(Asil Rais)and a young lady(the wonderfully restrained Smriti Mishra) whose own poetic felicity has been lost in the marketplace of human desires. They are both independent, instantly attractive personalities and so naturally they are drawn to each other. The conceit being that the travelling writer is on a sojourn from the origin point of river Ganga in the Himalayas to the plains. Now, looking at it from a symbolic point of view, the river definitely undergoes a metamorphosis, laden with impurities, in the course of this journey from the mountains to riverside settlements. The same is the point of emotional transformation that begets the protagonists by the time the story reaches its logical conclusion in Benaras, the land offering nirvana from concentric cycles of life and death, especially for Zehra.
This screenplay is imbued with beautiful moments, like when both are blessed by an elderly man on a bus journey who takes them to be a newly married couple or the kindly boatmen who become unlikely companions on their boat journey from Allahabad to Benaras. Especially the part where both meet with the man’s friend, a district magistrate based in Allahabad ( played by the film’s director himself), immersing themselves in Holi celebrations and allowing Zehra to display her extraordinary dancing skills to patrons of art and culture. Watch how her anklet tassles go flying as she majestically takes her pirouettes to close the recital.
Her journey is one of escape from her previous station in life. That precarious nature grounds Smriti Mishra’s excellent performance as much as her diction and yearning for complete freedom. Her tryst with love is beautifully etched. That said, Asil Rais is similarly effective in terms of body language and charisma. He befits the mould of a decent man who wants nothing external from Zehra and looks the part of a global traveller.
With ace editor Renu Saluja and Vanraj Bhatia’s music in tow, JAYA GANGA is aesthetically, wholly Indian in the best manner. One can never forget its visual lucidity and the ululating theme music. I can’t wait to read the original source novel now.
MANI KAUL’S LANDMARK OEUVRE
Mani Kaul is a filmmaker whose aesthetic consciousness brings to the world an Indian ethos that celebrates its myths, folklores and historic figures. SIDDHESHWARI, his extraordinary documentary on the eponymous, fabled thumri singer, has already been written about and championed by me over the past few weeks.
The dual gifts of his oeuvre from the 1970s came to me courtesy its place on EPIC ON. With impeccable sound and restored visual clarity, works like DUVIDHA( DILEMMA) and ASHAAD KA EK DIN( A DAY IN MONSOON) gain a whole new momentum. I put them in this order based on my achronological viewing of both.
We already know about the prominence of this famed folk tale from Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha courtesy PAHELI(2005)
You know the mystical yarn about a ghost who assumes the form of a man departing for business barely a day after his marriage and becomes center of a cloistered wife’s yearning for companionship. When the original husband returns and is confronted by the ghost/ behrupiya (double/ masquerader), subtle conflicts emerge about the difficult choices befalling the married couple. That with a sprinkling of magic, mysticism and traditions complete the picture.
That film’s mainstream appeal drew from its star power, longer running time, script modifications and memorable musical score. The art of Rajasthani puppetry was further a mode of narration which gave it appreciation and a cultural currency among audiences. I remember how warmly many of my own relatives received its aesthetic beauty, textures and story, never mind the languid pace which was so out of line with accumulated tastes overall.
There would be no PAHELI without the original benchmark set by the differential style and tone of DUVIDHA. The story is the same but here in the original iteration back in 1973, Kaul is more cued in to the almost metaphysical textures of the folktale. It makes sense since he was born and brought up in the state of Rajasthan. So this is his love letter of sorts to aesthetics of the place he knows so well.
DUVIDHA is devoid of much dialogues and revels in the haunting, mystical, earthy style of the core tale where the supernatural mixes with earnest human dilemmas. It holds primacy for freeze frames, the sanctity of gestures and postures which the pioneering mind of its director had brought to the fore with his debut USKI ROTI(1969)
Personally for me, the saturated colours and non-verbal emotional responses emanate most hauntingly from lead actress Raisa Padamsee who is framed in painterly shots. Especially the part where only her eyes are foregrounded as she raises her head to face and then embrace the ghost. To many, it may be a sterile series of imagery and almost static emotions. I feel her face has an almost saintly composure.
For me, the hollow structure of a restrictive society is conveyed well, in hindsight, through this mode of silent storytelling. Just like the interiors of the mansion. This daze like ambience and that visual of the banyan tree from which the ghost originates stays with me. As does the opening credits in handwritten script.
ASHAAD KA EK DIN(1971)
Then there comes the verbal prominence of Mani Kaul’s cinematic adaptation of a play by pioneering playwright Mohan Rakesh. Mr. Rakesh is one among four prominent writers to have emerged from National School of Drama along with the likes of BADAL SIRCAR, VIJAY TENDULKAR and GIRISH KARNAD. My English honours teacher had made that crystal clear to me in class and so that thought has stayed with me. Hence, the privilege of watching and imbibing the essence of this script written in chaste Hindi was supreme for this writer. The dialogues are to be heard and felt for the world of truth they embody.
There are compelling conflicts pertaining to the price of fame, rejecting elite patronage, viewpoints of society speculating on a great creative individual’s arrogance or emotional void. All of it grinded on the whetstone of pure love, on the part of Mallika( Rekha Sabnis) for Kalidasa (Arun Khopkar); as she says, it’s a bond built on emotions and not really worldly expectations.
The point of vocal delivery is in keeping with its theatrical origin while the cinematography by K. K. Mahajan goes for close ups and fluctuations of light effects to capture the sense of uneasy intimacy within a restricted space. That point of a stiffness in verbal exchanges follows a static register, it seems, a lethargic tone but nevertheless one can sense how it is able to carry the quiver of nervous energy and tense emotions at the same time. The sound design is effective on that front.
ASHAAD KA EK DIN(A DAY IN MONSOON) creeps its way into one’s subconscious by its probing depth and melancholic mood, rendered more urgent by its sepia tones. The outdoor shots, however, have the trademark stamp of K. K. Mahajan’s compositional fluency.
For me, the image of Mallika addressing to the camera her ‘current state'( vartmaan), next to her baby in a hammock, is like etching a lifetime of her suffering. Despite her predicament, this interior drama is poised on her outlook and thoughts. That is indeed powerful as she refuses to be merely a victim of her circumstances or become a recipient of others’ profusion of sympathy.
Last but certainly not the least is the heartwarming composite whole evinced by Kalpana Lajmi’s landmark RUDAALI( THE MOURNER)
I call this a composite whole since this story, based on Mahashweta Devi’s novel, isn’t just reliant on utilising its resources to paint the dismal life of professional mourners in rural Rajasthan. It’s far from a dry ethnographic- social examination of class relations. RUDAALI bursts to life with the interconnecting strands of relationships around the protagonist Shanichari ( Dimple Kapadia)
Her lovely bond with her beloved son Budhwa, the mother figure and sakhi(companion) in the form of the sprightly, older rudaali ( Rakhee Gulzar) or her innate love for the landlord (Raj Babbar) enrich her life although many tragedies have left her with an inability to cry over collective losses.
You will never forget the final moments where she reckons with her long lost mother’s fate and bursts into uncontrollable tears for the first time in years. Buoyed by arresting direction, cinematography and a classic soundtrack by Shri Bhupen Hazarika, this unforgettable cinematic work traces Shanichari’s tryst with eventually becoming a legendary rudaali herself. All the while, it makes pointed barbs at mercantile classes and the priestly sect for their hypocrisies and corruption sustaining them even as landed gentry and the poor always fall by the wayside. If Ms. Kapadia completely transforms herself in terms of body language, lingo and essence given her ethos, Mita Vashisht proves her extraordinary talent in merely two minutes of screen time.