Over the last three years there has been an attempt in Indian
cinema to make films more meaningful. This may be seen as a departure from
mainstream commercial cinema in Hindi and other regional languages that uphold
status quo, meaning moribund social values, and thrive on sex and mindless
violence. Masaan (2015) was the first in this period to attempt
something different. An Indo-French co-production directed by Neeraj Ghaywan,
it is set in Banaras. It questions in two separate episodes social taboos,
namely, pre-marital sex between two college students, Piyush Aggarwal and his
girlfriend Devi Pathak, harassed till the end by police on the take and, in the
next, inter-caste relations between Deepak Kumar, a lowly Dom assisting his
father to cremate corpses while studying civil engineering, and an upper class Bania
girl, Shaalu Gupta. The end result, despite its topicality is mixed, though the
film did surprisingly well at the box-office and was much feted.
The latest film to make waves is Village Rockstars (2017) directed by Rima Das, made in the Kamrupi dialect of Assam and set in Chaygaon where the director has her roots. It is about a group of poor village children led by plucky ten-year-old Bhunu who inspires her friends to dream of creating their own rock band as they play with mock guitars and other instruments made of styrofoam. It is the 36-year-old director’s second film and has been selected to represent India this year at the Oscar awards in Hollywood. It is a signal honour for the actress-turned-director who made it on half-a-shoestring budget (reportedly ₹4.5 lakh) and yet managed to make it look elegant.
The strength of Village Rockstars is its restrained lyricism and its absence of melodramatic flourishes. Rima Das made this film when only 35, the age at which Satyajit Ray made the epochal Pather Panchali in 1955, which won the best Human Document Award that year at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Like Ray’s first film, Village Rockstars is episodic in nature and deals with the passage of time (the very stuff of cinema) with aplomb.
Another parallel with Pather Panchali is the assured handling of children. She directs them with great tenderness. Since the film revolves around their dreams, it is crucial to make them co-conspirators embarking on a secret adventure. Vittorio de Sica, the great Italian filmmaker, handled children with deep sensitivity, as did Ray and Francois Truffaut, one of the progenitors of the French New Wave, a movement that came about in the late 1950s that profoundly influenced European and indeed world cinema.
Manto comes across as a perpetually angry young man, lacking in subtlety, perception and true compassion—qualities he had in ample measure in real life.
Nandita Das, a well-known actress-turned-director, has made Manto
on the iconic Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. It was shown in the Un Certain
Regard section at Cannes this summer and probably seen more as an interesting
curiosity than an artistic achievement. The film’s critical reception at home
and abroad was mixed. It did not attract too many paying viewers.
To set the record straight, Manto was controversial and also happened to be hugely gifted. He had a sardonic sense of humour, great generosity of spirit, and to hide it, wore the mask of irascibility. He was against the members of the Progressive Writers Association, whom he regarded as fellow travellers of the Communist Party of India led by gentlemen with distinctly bourgeois tastes. He was equally against the namby-pamby school of Urdu poets and writers whose pretty phrases evinced no passion for life or the courage of conviction to face its harsh realities.
In Nandita Das’s biopic, Manto comes across as a perpetually angry young man, lacking in subtlety, perception and true compassion—qualities he had in ample measure in real life. His contentiousness is never relieved by the sparkle of his wit or the acute understanding of life’s paradoxes and angularities that informed many of his stories. Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes a gallant effort to look like Manto but the essence of the man eludes him, as it does his director, who also wrote the script for the film.
Then there is the strange case of Asamapto (2017) by Suman Mukhopadhyay made in Bengali. It is a sentimentalised version of Ingmar Bergman’s probing, sad Swedish Scenes from A Marriage. Bergman, one of cinema’s greatest, examines the marital disintegration of a couple who had married for love. It is a study of the unavoidable pain that comes in the wake of an emotional marital relationship coming apart slowly, but surely.
Mukhopadhyay’s Asamapto replaces the tragedy of loss with force of habit and persnickitiness and an inadmissible need to stay together. Bratyo Bose, the [alleged] academic is married to the sweetheart of his youth, the beautiful actress Swastik Mukherjee. Their son is away at boarding school. Their friend Ritwik Chakravarti appears out of the blue, stays with them a few days and witnesses the abrasive yet sentimental quality of a disastrous marriage.
The director also introduces a parallel narrative of a Nepali domestic in love with a beautiful woman with an enormous sex-drive and many lovers. Another twist is introduced when Ritwik runs into a woman he had once loved and lost. This is supposed to be a film about fragile relationships but the strongest impression you get is one of indecisiveness as it wanders all over the place trying to make its point.
The only claim that can be made on its behalf is that it is different from mainstream cinema with its staple of rape, murder, arson, lust and dollops of patriotism thrown in sometimes just in case nothing else works. Visuals of the autumnal beauty of Darjeeling cannot offset the lack of muscle in the script and flabbiness in direction.
Mukti Bhavan (2016) by the talented Shubhashish Bhutiani, a 27-year-old graduate of The New York School of Visual Arts is set in Banaras, also known as the last stop for seekers of death. The story is about 77-year-old Daya, played by Lalit Behl who is convinced his life has run its course and that he ought to die. He takes his family into confidence and expresses his desire to fulfil his wish in Banaras, much to their consternation.
The well-made commercial film in any language can co-exist with others that do not compromise on the treatment of the content. But these films have to, as experience has proved, belong to a genre.
The middle-aged son (Adil Hussain) follows him perforce to
settle him in Mukti Bhavan, a slovenly lodge, where people go to achieve their
bizarre goal of dying within 15 days, for that is the time allotted to each
guest. If for some reason the guest does not die then he/she has to go home.
Bhutiani gets his 109-minute tale going at a steady pace, lacing it with
slightly off-centre humour and an indulgent attitude to the eccentricities of
the old man with a deathwish.
hutiani and Asad Hussain’s screenplay is responsible for the strange, human, touching film that emerges. But the squalidness that envelops Banaras like a funereal shroud is, of course, Bhutiani’s doing. It is impossible to find any beauty in the city, except of the most horrifying kind, perhaps to satiate a hopeless, and in the end, bogus kind of spirituality. Bhutiani uses the locations with a supple intelligence. He is not a satirist but more like a teller of strangely funny tales.
All the films mentioned so far steer clear of melodrama, the driving force of mainstream commercial cinema. Excepting for Masaan, which has moments of strong drama interspersed with scenes of serious import deliberately underplayed to make a point, the others have a controlled, cool style of acting. In Manto of course, the coolness spills over into the edges of self-indulgence. The same can also be said of Asamapto.
Each film uses its environment with a degree of authenticity. Certainly, both Masaan and Mukti Bhavan use the Banaras locations to their advantage. Allahabad is also used intelligently as a second location for the romance between Deepak and Shaalu in Masaan. The recreation of pre-partition Bombay of the 1940s in Manto is praiseworthy, as is the post-partition locales of some selected parts of Lahore. Village Rockstars recreates the poetic ambience of Chaygaon with tremendous assurance. The village, the surrounding countryside, come alive because of Rima Das’s refined vision.
At this point, we should note that the well-made commercial film in any language can co-exist with others that do not compromise on the treatment of the content to attract a large paying audience. But these films have to, as experience has proved, belong to a genre.
What makes the films we are discussing different from the products of mainstream cinema? Four of the five focus on individuals, seeing them as a whole rather than as components of a group .
In the last 20 years, for example, Satya
(Ramgopal Varma), Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj), Apharan (Prakash
Jha) have been crime thrillers, the third, with a romanticised political
overtone. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gawarikar) was about the triumph of
unschooled village cricketers over the local British team of assorted officials
with the stake being the waiver of a punishing land tax levied by the British
administration in India in the early 20th century.
These films do contain many plausible moments but ultimately lack the rigour that goes with a fully realised filmic endeavour. Their presence, as well as their box-office success, is necessary perhaps to make the financing of the more serious film possible, especially in Hindi, probably in Tamil and other languages as well.
hat makes the films we are discussing different from the products of mainstream cinema? It is necessary to examine their socio-political underpinnings for an answer. Four of the five focus on individuals, seeing them as a whole rather than as components (sometimes vital) of a group representing the values of an even larger entity—society. Masaan is about the dreams and travails of individuals.
In the first episode the young lady (Devi Pathak) played by Richa Chadha is driven to despair when she is interrupted in moments of intimacy with her lover in a modest hotel in Banaras when the vindictive staff inform the police of the “immoral” goings-on in one of the rooms. The local police seize this opportunity to harass the couple endlessly, forcing her to take up a job elsewhere with the Indian Railways. But even there she is blackmailed by the police inspector, who suggests that she might lose her government job for being guilty of grave moral turpitude.
Freedom of speech and liberty is given short shrift by the dominant minority, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, the upper castes, in short, who hold the reins of political and economic power.
The second episode is no less tragic.The engineering student
who helps his father on the Ghats to cremate dead bodies finds true love with a
girl from the upper echelons of society who promises to stand by him. Together
they take a trip to Allahabad, the confluence of two holy rivers known as the
Sangam to seal their bond of togetherness.
The girl dies in an accident, leaving her suitor shattered. Needless to say, it is different from a mainstream Hindi film that clings covertly to the caste system. The commercial film upholds the idea of an individual’s subservience to the family’s well-being at all times, no matter how destructive their attitude towards him/her may be, or an unwavering, unthinking allegiance to God and Country. Such a cinema cannot acknowledge the autonomy of a person’s existence, especially if it is a woman.
In this world, there is no way to acknowledge romantic and/or carnal love between a couple except as an aberration, or at best, a strange eccentricity. Love between a man and a woman or vice-versa has to have the stamp of society’s approval. In a country with a most generous Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and liberty of its citizens regardless of caste, creed, or economic status, it is given short shrift by the dominant minority, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian, the upper castes, in short, who hold the reins of political and economic power. Love between an upper caste and Dalit is not normally permitted in real life. Reel life usually echoes that. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan scripted by Varun Grover crosses that line and then some.
Mukti Bhavan, Bhutiani’s serio-comedy, is still within the norms of ‘good’ behaviour. After all many well-heeled Hindus and Jains opt to die when they grow old and are on the verge of becoming incontinent. Even now, some very old, ailing, conservative Jains decide literally to starve themselves to death, often with family approval. Bhutiani is aware of this phenomenon and chooses to look at it through a comedic lens.
The old protagonist deciding on Banaras as a venue to attain moksha is understandable, because that is the place recommended by myth and religion for such an event. The inconvenience he causes his middle-aged son and his family is droll. The director’s touch is witty but decorous. There is nothing in the film to offend even the most die-hard conservative. The director looks at the foibles of the old man with an indulgent eye. He does not suggest for a moment that the entire exercise unfolding on the screen just might be absurd.
Though his attitude at first glance may appear generous, it just might meet with the approval of those currently ruling India, who believe religious fealty to be more important than the rendering of whole hearted, un-prejudiced public service. As it is, the film is nice enough but somewhat unsatisfying. The director might have done better pushing the wacky absurdity of the storyline towards true satire.
Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Asamapto may just be the kind of fare that the intellectually pretentious middle-class Bengali approves heartily. The film’s patina of pseudo-modernity will tickle the libido of the deep-down-in the-heart conservative, upwardly mobile Bengali male, with a feigned love of poetry, a fear of divorce and the crushing loneliness it brings in its wake. Although it does highlight the dilemma of an educated, middle-class male caught in a marriage to a beautiful wife he loathes and yet cannot do without, its onscreen rendering is lacking in empathy. This attempt at modernity is only half-hearted.
Nandita Das’s Manto is wordy, like her first. Firaq was made in 2008 as a reaction to the Gujarat carnage six years earlier against Muslims. There is a terrifying opening scene in which corpses of Muslim men, women and children lie on top of each other as a few men of the community struggle to bury them inside a long, deep open grave. But the rest of film is full of agonised individuals talking their heads off. It was lauded, perhaps for its content rather than its filmic treatment.
Rima Das’s generosity of vision reflects a mature temperament—a rare trait in filmmakers anywhere in the world these days.
Manto, on the other hand, has many visually
interesting moments that get diluted because of too much dialogue
‘illustrating’ them. Although Das’s attempt at portraying the life of a hugely
gifted, problematic writer is brave, it falls short of being authentic because
she hero-worships him.
Rima Das’s work is free of such encumbrances. She is interested in the rhythms of Nature, her cycles, the essentials that govern human behaviour and the energies that make human beings love one another and care for each other. Her first film, Antardrishti (2016) is about a responsible middle-class man who may be dying and wants to make provisions for his loved ones. A pair of expensive German binoculars, his prized possession, appears as a leit-motif in the story. It also serves as a visual metaphor suggesting a heightened vision of his immediate environment and the people inhabiting it. This same deeply empathetic understanding of people is evident in Village Rockstars, her second film. In it she handles children in the cast, who coincidentally happen to be her young relatives, with great warmth and naturalness.
Rima Das’s generosity of vision reflects a mature temperament—a rare trait in filmmakers anywhere in the world these days. Assam has been in a state of political turmoil since Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan. Lakhs of Muslim refugees poured in, pursued by a bloodthirsty Pakistani army. After the war, most of them refused to go back to their newly independent but economically devastated homeland to face starvation. They chose to stay on and over a period 47 years, were absorbed in the main body of the local population. But they were seen as interlopers by many Assamese and a vote bank for the Congress party. Under the National Register of Citizens exercise these people are in real danger of being disenfranchised.
Various other political factions have made various demands; from a separate state (the Bodoland movement) for the Bodo tribe; autonomy within the Indian state, and a break away to form a new country by a group led by Paresh Barua. Both the Congress that has ruled India for 60 years since independence in 1947, and the Bharatiya Janata Party in two spells (1999-2004 and 2014 to present) have played their games, to the detriment of the people living in Assam; the Congress through chicanery and the BJP through a combination of chicanery and violence. Right now it is the BJP riding roughshod over the entire North East. But as many important BJP leaders were once in the Congress it could just as well be India’s most venerable, perhaps most venal, party at work.
Assam has been a violent place for a long time with rampant murder committed by the state—read police and paramilitary forces—and other political factions challenging the legitimacy of the Indian state. Innocents get killed on a routine basis. Veteran journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee’s Blood on My Hands (2015, Harper Collins) is a compelling, chilling read. Some films have been made on the current socio-political situation in Assam and the people trapped in it. Despite the content, they remain mainly of topical interest with some moments of truth. The durability of such films may perhaps be questionable.
Rima Das, on the other hand, sticks firmly with the ordinary: the change of seasons, the devastation caused by annual floods. Dhunu has to give up her aspirations to buy a real guitar for which she has saved money with great difficulty. Her family of small farmers is economically hurt like many others by the devastating yearly floods. But life is faced with courage and fortitude and little Dhunu and her rock band aspirants serve as a beacon of hope.
Rima Das’s cinematic world is one of transcendence seen through the everyday. It is as if she is telling her viewers about the possibility of a world without mindless murder, arson, rape. Yet nature is posing many questions, including the necessity of leading a dignified life despite existential problems that must be faced with a stoicism that makes life a worthwhile experience.
It is her ability to rise above the destructive forces present in the Assamese socio-political environment and to create her own world of hope and beauty that is within everybody’s reach that makes her such a fine artiste. Rima Das is clearly the most promising Indian filmmaker today.