ki har khwaish pe dum nikle
Bahut nikle mere armaan
lekin phir bhi kam nikle...'
(A thousand desires, each seeming to take a lifetime to realise.
Try as I might, they don't seem to want to become real)
- Mirza Ghalib, Urdu Poet
I felt historically ignorant and slightly ashamed of myself whilst watching Sudhir Mishra’s impassioned film as I knew very little of India’s long association with left wing communist and Marxist ideals. A voice over begins by informing us about the many sacrifices given by those who were part of the initial Naxalite movement in South Bengal. I had to stop the DVD and take some time to read up on the historical events of the Naxalite movement in the 60s and in what sense Sudhir Mishra was actually using such events in his film. It probably is not absolutely necessary to have some contextual knowledge and understanding of the origins of Naxalite ideology as the film thankfully never falls into the trap of having to explain every kind of ideology or political party we encounter through what becomes a sprawling narrative, stretching over 20 years. It would also be wrong of me to argue that Mishra could have framed the opening to his film within some kind of wider historical context, but had he done this then his film would have struck a false chord by immediately giving the impression that what we were about to see was going to be in the vein of a historical documentary. Then perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Mishra’s film is undoubtedly being directed at a specialised audience, a generation of well educated middle class Indians or even Bengali’s who would be able to get to grips with the complex political arguments. This may even account for the film’s disappointing commercial performance at the Indian box office. Historical context is articulated through the narrative but it is a gradual process and never intentionally signposted by Mishra or condensed into preachy political moments. This is superior political cinema and the differing ideological conflicts are filtered through a love story between three college friends who we first meet in the confines of Delhi University.
The word itself ‘Naxalite’ originates from the name of a village. The Wikipedia entry states the following in regards to the formation of such a leftist ideological group:
‘Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal, where a section of The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) led by Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal led a violent uprising in 1967, trying to develop a "revolutionary opposition"
Such an event subsequently led to the fragmentation of The Communist Party of India (CPI) and out of this emerged an ultra left wing faction of extremists who declared their opposition to the leadership of the party. Naxalites argued that the party needed to campaign more vigorously for the rights of the lower classes and comprehensively remain committed to the fundamental importance of revolutionary ideals. However, the implications of such an uncompromising commitment seemed a near impossibility when considering that the CPI would have to sanction and in essence condone the use of violence as an acceptable form of resistance. The Naxalites viewed the conflict between the classes as an armed struggle that required an absolute adherence to Marxist principles. Those who did eventually break away felt that the CPI was increasingly shifting to appease the hostile sentiments of those political groups occupying the mainstream political spectrum. The Naxalites seemed to disperse across Bengal and declared themselves as true Marxists; one’s who did not feel the need to dilute their original beliefs so that they could merely be accepted and assimilated into the mainstream. In a recent 2008 interview, Mishra talks explicitly about how his film documents the Naxal movement in rural Bihar:
‘Back in the ’60s and early ’70s, a lot of young people from upper-class backgrounds like my hero Siddharth were drawn to the Naxal movement because of the total violence and obscenity evident in the oppression of people in rural India at the time. Radicals like him tried to change the world for the better, and failed.’
Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
Though Mishra does not directly deal with many of these aspects in his film, he does present representatives of Naxalism as contradictory and complex. A telling moment occurs early in the film when Geeta (Chitrangda Singh) and Siddharth (Kay Kay Menon) are listening to a speech being given by a Naxalite member to a crowd of semi-illiterate villagers. Hitler is referenced quite explicitly but the problematic nature of Siddharth’s intellectual beliefs are more or less rendered redundant when Geeta angrily points out the stark reality of the villagers ignorance of Hitler and history in general is symptomatic of a general grass roots problem to do with a high level of illiteracy. This seems to underline how any kind of political and ideological education was pointless without the propagation and reality of some kind of effective literacy programme in many of the villages. Geeta’s wisdom and intelligent foresight underlines that the failure to initiate widespread revolution is an inevitability that Siddharth will painfully have to come to terms with many years later.
Siddharth Tyabji (Kay Kay Menon) comes from a privileged background and is representative of the upper class, wealthy ruling elite but his political activism and involvement in the struggles for a popular Naxalite revolution seems to galvanise the sentiments of those around him. Siddharth seems to epitomise a social reality of the time as many students from Universities across India became increasingly active in their support of peasants and the oppressed that were reluctant to challenge and overturn an archaic and hegemonic caste system. The Naxalite movement has been incredibly visible in large parts of Andhra Pradesh and it has considerably affected the kinds of films produced by Telegu cinema. Film academic, S. V. Srinivas, one of the preeminent authorities on Telegu cinema has written extensively about the emergence of a Naxalite genre that appeared in the 90s:
‘Osey Ramulamma belongs to a genre that is locally known as the red film or naxalite film. In the films of this genre the naxalite is a representative of the oppressed who often speaks the language of rights. Despite the ‘forms and keepings’ of this genre, it is possible to argue that the naxalite in these films is a citizen figure, albeit a vigilante citizen who at times belongs to the group he fights for (such as Dalits or tribals). It has been pointed out that this genre, associated with Narayana Murthy who produced and directed naxalite films in addition to starring in them, remained in the margins of the film industry for half a decade and underwent a transformation with major film industry players taking an interest in it (Balaji 1999). The result was the production of big budget star-studded naxalite films, which incorporated a number of elements from industrial genres—duets and elaborately choreographed fights, for example (Adavilo Anna, B. Gopal, 1997). Osey Ramulamma, the prime example of the industry’s takeover of the genre, is the most commercially successful naxalite film ever…’
Citizens and Subjects of Telugu Cinema, S.V. Srinivas
Published in Deep Focus: Film Quarterly, March 2002, pp. 63-67
Published in Deep Focus: Film Quarterly, March 2002, pp. 63-67
It is interesting to see how a marginal series of film or even a genre like the ‘red film’ has eventually become subsumed into the mainstream. The phenomenal success of a Naxalite film like ‘Osey Ramulamma’ poses a number of striking questions especially when framed within today’s politically agitated context. Admittedly, the big budget Naxalite films that Srivinas alludes to in his article also seems to suggest that perhaps the politics of Naxalism was diluted and compromised so that it would be palatable for a wider audience. It would be interesting to watch some of these films and determine whether or not this statement is true. The presence of Naxalite groups can still be widely felt across Bengal and the on going conflict with the Indian army led the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to recently declare the Naxalites as ‘the single biggest threat to Indian internal security’. Some journalists have labelled it as India’s ‘hidden war’, an appropriate assessment when considering how Naxalism rarely appears high up on the news agenda in fear of agitating the masses. Today, most Naxalites are viewed by the media as terrorists and what seems remarkably challenging in Mishra’s film is how he clearly condemns the failure of civil institutions like the police in supporting the lower classes and instead sympathising with the noble cause of such revolutionaries like ‘Siddhartha’.
Heralding from a theatrical background and also influenced by his brother’s formative years at the Film and Television Insititute of India at Pune, Mishra’s career runs parallel with the emergence of the short lived but highly influential Parallel cinema at the end of 1970s and early 1980s. Mishra’s first notable contribution to such a revolutionary art cinema came as a scriptwriter on the darkly satirical comedy ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro' (Don’t Mind Folks)’. Directed by Kundan Shah, ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ featured a cast and crew made up of some of the key figures in the Parallel cinema movement; actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapoor. The film itself was interpreted by critics as a blistering attack on political corruption in the 1980s. Mishra worked quietly through the 1980s, directing films with a strong political slant. Unfortunately, much of his work is not available on DVD or VHS and this seems a real shame when you consider how some of the most banal ‘Masala’ films made by Indian cinema regularly appear on specialised Asian television networks like Zee and Sony. ‘Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin’ (This is not your destination) (1987) and ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ (I am alive) (1988) are perhaps two of the most acclaimed films he directed in the 1980s but it is impossible to comment on the way Mishra’s career has evolved without being able to scrutinise in detail on the films he has made.
In 1991, Mishra directed Om Puri and Shabana Azmi in a little known and often forgotten film titled ‘Dharavi' (City of Dreams). The film received the National award for best film in 1992 and though I have not seen this film, it seems particularly current in the light of the success being enjoyed by ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as ‘Dharavi’ is a film that was shot in the slums of Mumbai and grapples with the issue of poverty. In an interview given by Mishra in 1997, he is very critical about the kinds of films produced by contemporary Indian cinema:
"In an industry where mediocre scripts rule, producers have got into the habit of compromising with content. I also feel that most of them are illiterate to understand good subjects."
Most Bollywood producers are illiterate: Sudhir Mishra
Mishra is quite damning of the rampant commercial mentality that has besieged Indian cinema of late and goes on to vent his anger against the hypocrisy to do with the problem of piracy:
"The basic problem is that audiences also see bad films and hence producers prefer to give money for rip offs or stories that have been used before and can land hits. It is such a farce that we shout against piracy when we are operating on rip offs."
Most Bollywood producers are illiterate: Sudhir Mishra
Much of what Mishra says is equally evident in Hollywood film making and it is very hard not to sympathise with his position on the plague of remakes and rip offs that continue to be churned out by Indian cinema on a regular basis. The Mahesh Bhatt studio has made a virtual career out of remaking Hollywood films. One of their biggest successes has been ‘Murder’ (2004), a remake of Adrian Lyne’s Richard Gere/Diane Lane starrer, ‘Unfaithful’. With the emergence of the NRI (Non Resident Indian) market towards the late 90s and the proliferation of independent television networks, financing possibilities from a variety of newly established production outfits and companies offered film makers some interesting possibilities. Alongside UTV Motion Pictures and K Sera Sera Productions (Ram Gopal Varma’s production company) was Pritish Nandy Communications, a production company set up by Indian poet and journalist, Pritish Nandy, in 1995.
Admittedly, Pritish Nandy’s production slate tends to favour a broad range of films and it has not specifically supported films with an overt political agenda but they did take a risk with ‘Chameli’ (2003) and then later with Mishra’s most personal film to date, ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’. Though both films underperformed at the box office, they certainly gave credence to a theory that indigenous film production companies could afford to take risks in supporting credible forms of film making that in turn provided an added degree of artistic credibility to the name of certain companies who were still trying to get a foot hold in an overcrowded industry. Unlike his contemporaries, Mishra complements Pritish Nandy on the risks it can take as a company:
‘PNC (Pritish Nandy Communications) is an ideal corporate set-up because it is not faceless. And while Pritish (Nandy) and I may not agree on a lot of issues politically, he’s an interesting, intelligent man with a wicked sense of humour. Someone who believes in stories and has the courage to back them at a time when many others are backing stars’
Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
Mishra’s latest film, ‘Khoya Khoya Chand / Lost Moon’, released in 2007 was unfairly savaged by the critics and though much was expected in terms of box office, the film was a commercial disappointment. Set in the 1950s, it is a period film that explores the Indian film industry through the eyes of an over eager director, self obsessed film stars and the anxieties generated by a film set that is out of control. Structurally, it is a messy film and is marred by an over stylisation but Mishra’s celebration of Bollywood’s golden age makes for a visually stunning film. The production design in particular is beautifully judged. Also, the film was disadvantaged by the earlier release of another similarly themed film about the film making process which was Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’, a playful post-modern pastiche and an unstoppable commercial juggernaut that literally laid waste most films released after November 2007. I guess it would be right to question the person or people responsible for what appears to be an obvious but catastrophic scheduling error. Had ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ been released before ‘Om Shanti Om’, it may have had a better chance to find a suitable audience.
A similar kind of problem faced the marketing department when thinking up appropriate ways of trying to market what many would have declared an unattractive commercial property as ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’. Clearly an audience existed for a youth film like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ in 2005 because this was proven most formidably with the incredible commercial success achieved by ‘Rang De Basanti’ in 2006. The marketing especially the posters sent out contradictory messages about the film, downplaying the political content and constructing a pretentious but marketable idea that alluded to the gangster and crime genre. Look carefully and it seems slightly absurd that Geeta, a character who continually argues for non violence in the film, appears on the poster pointing a gun. What this unveils is an uncertainty on part of the marketing department who did not really have a clear idea about the kind of film they were supposed to be selling to audiences.
‘Shekhar Kapur, Dev Benegal and Ashutosh Gowariker have called Hazaaron...the first genuinely political film to be made in Hindi and while it is about three people who are not too keen on the India they have inherited from their parents, it is not entirely about politics.’
Follow the Dream - Sudhir Mishra, 2008
This seems like an exaggeration on Mishra’s part as parallel cinema in the 70s and 80s demonstrated how film could be used as a social and political tool for addressing the inequalities in contemporary Indian society. Terrorism continues to be a political anxiety that still affects the content of many Indian films that collectively represent a specific kind of political cinema. Once again, film makers from the South have been less reluctant to confront the representation of terrorism in their films and Mani Ratnam’s loose trilogy, compromising ‘Roja (1992)’, ‘Bombay (1995)’ and ‘Dil Se (1998)’ offers perhaps some of the most intelligent and insightful commentary on the origins, nature and affects of terrorism on society, whether that terrorism be a communal one (Bombay) or one inoculated by brutal repression (Dil Se).
One figure overlooked when discussing terrorism and political cinema is that of the lyrcist turned film maker, Gulzar (Sampooran Singh Kalra). He has worked intermittedly as a film maker and though much of his ouvere shows little signs of political concerns, the last two films he directed ‘Maachis’ (Matches) in 1996 and ‘Hu Tu Tu’ in 1999 are illustrative of a shift towards an engagement with politically oriented themes. ‘Maachis’ is one of the genuine masterpieces of 90s Indian cinema and is by far Gulzar’s most ambitious and finest achievement as a film maker. The film focuses on the 1980s period of brutal repression and discrimination faced by Sikhs in the Punjab, but Gulzar does something quite extraordinary in the film that very film makers have been able to accomplish to date when tackling terrorism as a subject matter; he shows us the birth, evolution and death of a terrorist cell whilst simultaenously humanising the figure of the terrorist.
‘Maachis’ strikes a nightmarish tone and is unremitting in its plausible and convincing examination of how society creates terrorism. Interestingly enough, Gulzar collaborated with Mani Ratnam on ‘Dil Se’, writing the fatalistic lyrics for many of the songs. Since 1999, Gulzar has not directed a feature film and seems to have semi retired, continuing to be celebrated as one of India’s most successful and acclaimed film lyricists. Incidentally, Gulzar has been nominated for an Oscar for the song 'Jai Ho' alongside A R Rahman. Though ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ was actually made in 2003, for some unexplicable reason, it was not released until 2005. In his interviews, Mishra does not throw any light on this question and why there was a delay of over 2 years before the film was distributed. I am assuming that the producers did not really know what to do with the film once it had been completed because it was undeniably an example of political cinema that was neither too mainstream or too arty but somewhere in between. It seemed to address the concerns of an emerging middle class youth audience who were eager to be challenged by a rejection of traditional and orthodox Indian cinema.
The UTV financed ‘Rang De Basanti’ (Paint it Yellow), released in 2006, finally offered confirmation that such an audience existed but it also managed to incorporate some of the more appealing mainstream elements from a film like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ into a traditional ‘song and dance’ narrative that unashamedly juxtaposed contemporary youth apathy with the political resistance of past figures like the legendary Bhagat Singh. One of the other reasons why a film like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ failed to achieve commercial success was partly to do with the lack of a leading film star. However, I think the film works brilliantly because of its rejection of stars in the leading roles and though Mishra paid dearly in terms of box office, ultimately the presence of a leading Bollywood star may have severely detracted from the political thrust of the film.
On the other hand, ‘Rang De Basanti’ feeds off the energy generated by a socially and politically engaged film star such as Aamir Khan. Compared to the realism of ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’, the politics of revolution in ‘Rang De Basanti’ come across as slightly implausible but we have to bear in mind that this is not only an unselfish star vehicle, it is a mainstream youth film that aspires to the stylised aesthetics of a Hollywood production unlike ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’ which is not afraid of acknowledging the debt contemporary cinema owes to the fierce political honesty of the 'parallel cinema' movement.