21 March 2010

Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda / Seventh Horse of the Sun (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 1992, India) - The Unreliable Narrator

The first of Benegal’s films to receive state funding (NFDC), Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda’s resonance comes from a sophisticated use of narrative subjectivity. Comparable to Kurosawa’s Rashomon in its gradual and shifting points of view, this is a moving examination of the storytelling process and one of the rare occasions that Benegal has explored cinema as a construct. The narrator, Manek (Rajit Kapur), is not only unreliable but his perception of the truth concerning the three beguiling female centred stories he relays to his friends is questioned throughout, culminating in a genuinely cryptic ending that seems to unravel the entire film making process. Though Rashomon may serve as a direct inspiration, the cinema of Kiarostami seems closer if one was to contextualise Benegal’s masterpiece as it poses fundamental questions that concerns film making and cinema – whose truth is being represented, how is it constructed and how should we respond as a spectator? This is what academic Sangetta Datta has to say about the film in her accomplished appreciation:
‘The title is also a clue to the film. The seventh horse of the sun is the youngest; he moves perpetually towards the future, towards light. The title itself signifies the concept of time with the Hindu myth of the sun god riding in his chariot driven by seven white horses. Man will constantly be drawn towards love and imagination; lives will always be lived and stories will always be told.’
BFI World Directors: Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, 2002: 199

20 March 2010

Shyam Benegal - Indian 'Parallel' Cinema

Shyam Benegal - Indian Cinema's last remaining parallel film maker?

Shyam Benegal and Parallel Cinema or Middle Cinema will be the focus of my next chapter. I have finished reading what are two definitive introduction’s to his work. The first is a BFI World Directors book, published in 2002 and written by Sangeeta Datta. It is one of the few academic studies of Benegal and covers his entire career whilst also providing a useful chapter on parallel cinema. The second book ‘Bollywood Babylon’ are a collection of interviews with Benegal that were conducted over five years. Both are equally valid introduction’s and come highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring further Benegal as an auteur and key figure in the development of Indian parallel cinema.

However, Benegal is very dismissive of the term middle cinema, ‘You don’t sit there and say I’m going to make an art movie with commercial ingredients in it’. (William van der Heide, 2006: 46) Benegal’s criticism of the term may hold some relevance as it seems more useful to academics, allowing them to trace an alternate route through the cinema of the 70s and 80s but Benegal’s words seem to contradict the political reasoning of Mrinal Sen and Arun Kaul who in 68 issued a manifesto for new Indian cinema which would require the wider support of the state. At the time, Benegal was still working at an advertising agency and yet to make his debut feature, Ankur (The Seedling), which he would finally direct in 1973. So, one could argue that the foundations and groundwork for middle cinema had already been established by the likes of Mrinal Sen, thus enabling Benegal to come to prominence with the success of his first feature.

Yet many of the so called parallel cinema directors have either stopped working or struggled to secure financing but Benegal’s unique position (similar to that of Satyajit Ray) has meant he has been able to continually find either state sponsored or private financing for his films whilst maintaining a degree of authorial control over his material. Some have argued that he is Indian cinema’s most important and influential director after Satyajit Ray. This claim certainly seems to hold a great deal of validity if one takes a closer look at his prolific body of work and also the number of actors he helped to introduce to the film industry. This repertoire included Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Smita Patel, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and many others as well as cinematographers, music composers and writers.

The multi talented cast of Benegal's second feature Nishant (Night's End, 1975)

His rural trilogy that launched his career continues to be regarded as his most significant achievement. However, his later work in the nineties especially when he finally started to receive state financing saw him experiment with narrative subjectivity in Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992), a film that Sangetta Datta argues is Benegal’s masterpiece. Much of Benegal’s work is not readily available on DVD or even VHS, though YouTube has some useful links, making it yet again problematic to provide a critical appraisal that takes into consideration a body of work rather than intermittent films. I have struggled to even get hold of the films he has directed in the last ten years including the biopic on Chandra Bose. What follows are some ways into the work of Shyam Benegal including video resources. I will try and post some entries on the films I have been able to watch. On a final note, if we were to try and find a parallel figure to that of Benegal in American cinema that it would most likely have to be the great Robert Altman.

1. A detailed and lengthy interview with Shyam Benegal on the influence of Satyajit Ray on his work

2. An excellent and informative interview with Benegal conducted at the National Film Theatre (BFI), 2002 by Girish Karnad.

3. India's Art House Cinema by Lalit Mohan Joshi (BFI guide to Contemporary South Asian Cinema) - one of the best introductions to Indian art cinema

4. The Official Shyam Benegal Website - some useful resources here but pretty basic

5. Bhumika (The Role, 1977)
- Uploaded in 15 Parts including subtitles

6. Zubeidaa (2000) - Uploaded in 17 Parts (no subtitles but this is one of the few Benegal films that is readily available on DVD including English subs)

7. Mammo (1994, NFDC) -In the 90s Benegal started to explore the identity of Muslim women in India. Available to watch for free through Jaman and includes subtitles.


8. The Making of the Mahatma (1996, NFDC) - The film focuses on Gandhi's years in South Africa fighting for equal treatment of non-whites under British rule. Available to watch for free through Jaman and includes subtitles.

The Making of the Mahatma

9. Nishant (Night's End, 1975) - Uploaded in 15 parts including English subtitles.

10. Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (Seventh Horse of the Sun, 1992) - Benegal's masterpiece. Uploaded in 17 parts including English subtitles.

11.Well Done Abba (Well Done Dad, 2010) - This is the trailer to Benegal's latest film which is due out this year. (that's if it gets a UK release?!)

18 March 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010, US) – Cinephile Delight

DiCaprio as U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels

One could argue that the last great film Scorsese directed was back in the late nineties. Financed by Disney, Kundun (1997) performed miserably at the box office due to limited distribution, the absence of any major Hollywood stars and the niche subject matter of the Dalai Lama. Yet in many ways, this was one of the few occasions in which Scorsese found himself in the realms of global cinema, producing some of his purest and poignantly cinematic moments since Goodfellas. Kundun is the one film that shares a similar fate to After Hours, another overlooked Scorsese which is obscured by his masterful eighties work.

The mainstream academic and media literature that surrounds Scorsese has a lot to answer for the way in which we interpret his body of work and situate him as an auteur in the context of American cinema. Of course, a lot has been written on Scorsese and his films but I’m not entirely sure if this has been helpful for his evolution as a film maker. Much of the academic study on Scorsese is fixated with foregrounding masculinity, violence, enclosed communities, and especially his collaborations with De Niro. All of this may seem relevant when attempting to construct a credible argument for Scorsese as an auteur yet it means a tendency to discriminate and isolate certain films at the expense of what is a deceptively wide oeuvre. The over emphasis on his status as an auteur means the quality of his new films are constantly being judged against his prior work and of course such a comparative approach regularly fails to into consideration the role of context, genre and even ideologies in how he goes about constructing meaning and maintaining a dialogue with the spectator.

Released in 2002 the historical gangster epic Gangs of New York is continually referred as a turning point in Scorsese’s evolution as a director as he finally emulated the spectacle of Cecil B. DeMille, transforming himself into a commercially accomplished director of big budget studio financed spectacles. I have found much of the work Scorsese produced in the last decade to be slightly disappointing but watching Shutter Island has made me realise that this is a film maker who has gradually used the medium as a means of paying an extended tribute to all the cinematic influences that have fuelled his creative imagination. It in this context of post-modern homage that Shutter Island should really be appreciated for what it really is; a film about Scorsese’s on going love of cinema. I guess this is why for me he continues to be the one American film maker who shares perhaps the closest affinity with Godard as both have continually reinvented themselves through a self reflexive prism of cinephilia that doesn’t appear crass or even elitist.

Scorsese may have arguably stepped away from using his films as a means of articulating personal anxieties and autobiographical concerns but what remains is a desire to continue reconstituting the language of American cinema for contemporary audiences. Shutter Island is somewhat of a schizophrenic film and whilst one could accuse it of being disjointed, it more than many of Scorsese’s previous films features a litany of obvious and obscure references to horror, film noir, the thriller and war film genres. This is what I really want to focus (without giving away too many spoilers) on in my appreciation of what some critics have dubbed as Scorsese-lite. This is not the first time Alfred Hitchcock has been referred to by Scorsese (Cape Fear) but amongst him we can also include the repeated nods to Stanley Kubrick, Jacques Tourneur and Samuel Fuller.


The ghostly children, the nightmarish blurring of the real and dream world and of course the explicit mentions of the axe, murder and deluge of blood all point to Kubrick’s influential The Shining. There is even a moment in which the bodies of the dead children neatly laid out on the carpet juxtaposed to the bloodied image of Rachel in which she chillingly pleads for help reconstructs the vision of Danny when he sees the dead girls in the Overlook Hotel. Similarly, Scorsese fetishes the island and hospital for the insane in the way Kubrick makes the hotel a key character in Jack’s torment.


Some critics have cited Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor as an influence in terms of the insanity that riddles the mind of our disenchanted US Marshall but in the flashback sequences that take place in the death camps of Dachau, the visual look especially in the framing recalls Fuller’s World War II films including most significantly The Steel Helmet.


The references to Hitchcock are expansive, ranging from Spellbound to Vertigo. One of the most emotive and memorable is DiCaprio’s obsession with the woman he loved proves to be the deadliest of all and throughout the narrative he is constantly attempting to resurrect her image like that of Scottie with Madeline. Spellbound is referenced more obviously in the figure of the duplicitous psychiatrist.


Lewton was a producer at RKO in the 40s and together with directors Mark Robson and Jacques Tourneur made a number of memorable low budget horror films that were minimalist in style and deeply atmospheric. In his critical appraisal of the film, Graham Fuller (in the April issue of Sight & Sound) underlines the influence of three Val Lewton productions; The Seventh Victim, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam.


Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) is one of the films Scorsese screened for his cast and crew and it is clear to see how DiCaprio’s character finds the past inescapable and that he is doomed from the outset. Noir and horror are the two most identifiable genres Scorsese integrates into what is a convoluted narrative.


The first shot sees a ferry gradually appear out of the fog as it comes towards us in a ghost like movement. Scorsese cross referencing the opening moments to Taxi Driver makes one wonder if self parody is the greatest indication of the film’s deliberately constructed nature or if this is simply one for the fans.

The self conscious style tends to linger predominately in the Hollywood cinema of the 1940s and 50s with strong political references to the brainwashing of American soldiers by the Korean military, anti-communist sentiments and how the psyche of the American male protagonist was ultimately corrupted after facing the stark realities of the Holocaust. Is Shutter Island a return to form for Scorsese? Though it might just be his best film since Kundun, it is certainly his most ‘cinematic’ in the way Godard continually reconstructed cinema at his peak. On a final note, it also features DiCaprio’s best performance to date in a film directed by Martin Scorsese.

16 March 2010

AGHAAT / ANGUISH (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1985, India) – Divide and Rule

Om Puri as Union leader Madhav Verma in Nihalani's Aghaat.

Released in 1985 and directed by Shyam Benegal’s regular DOP, Aghaat (Anguish) takes a neo realist look at the politics of trade unions. Govind Nihalani’s film can be read as a delayed response to the persecution of trade unionists by the government of Indira Gandhi in the emergency of 75-78. Prior to Indira Gandhi’s unruly clampdown on civil unrest after declaring a state of emergency, industrial strikes had become rampant. Unions who campaigned on behalf of their workers for safer working conditions and better wages were met with bitter resistance from the ruling elite. In the film when one of the workers (Pankaj Kapur) is injured in an accident, the factory employers attempt to overlook their accountability by refusing to meet compensatory demands. Madhav Verma (Om Puri) is leader of the main union at the factory, arguing for stronger relations between the workers and the employers. However, an oppositional union, headed by Krishnan (Gopi) that is secretly encouraged by the factory employers comes to prominence, exploiting the fragility of the worker’s sympathies by offering unrealistic aspirations and ideals.

Madhav knows that it is only in the interests of the employers that two unions exist as it undermines the potency of political solidarity amongst the workers. Krishnan’s extremist tactics engenders a violence that engulfs the warring unions and subsequently wrecks Madhav’s non-violent attempt to negotiate a mutually beneficial settlement. Written by Marathi playwright, Vijay Tendulkar, who collaborated several times with both Nihalani and Benegal in the 70s and early 80s on a series of social realist works, contributing what was an ideologically engaged dimension to parallel cinema, reiterates a similar voice of dissent on the shameful exploitation and degrading treatment of workers. Nihalani was equally committed to the development of parallel cinema as that of Benegal and Aghaat’s obscurity as an exemplary illustration of oppositional film making is all but absent from contemporary Indian cinema. Regulars of parallel cinema including Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur and Vanraj Bhatia as composer provide the usual superlative creative support.

15 March 2010

FIRAAQ / SEPARATION (Dir. Nandita Das, 2009, India) - Rejecting The Other

Released in 2009, Firaaq deals with the aftermath of the Gujarat Riots in 2002.

Released in 1973 and directed by a former member of the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), leftist director M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (Hot Winds) was the first and one of the few films to deal with the crisis of partition faced by a North Indian Muslim family:
‘Despite its affirmative secular-nationalist closure, Garam Hawa remains the only film to address the plight of Muslims in post partition India in the early years after independence. Ironically, the film found itself in a great deal of trouble with a section of the Muslim community who appealed to the government to ban the film.’
Secularism and popular Indian cinema by Shyam Benegal
The Crisis of Secularism in India by Anuradha Dingwaney Needham,
Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 2007, Duke University Press

Thankfully, Nandita Das chooses not represent the Muslim as simply 'the other', dealing with aftermath of the Gujarat riots in 2002 with a very sensitive eye for the self destruction brought on by communalism. Reminiscent of Crash in many ways, but minus the liberal pretentiousness, the film shifts across a number of parallel narratives whilst sympathising quite strongly with the plight of women. In many ways, a striking ideological criticism is aimed at a collective patriarchy that fuels communalism and makes women the real victims regardless of religious differences. Nandita Das is a well respected figure in the film industry and her image as a humanitarian and social activist who has campaigned for the rights of women in India mirrors that of her idol, Shabana Azmi. The marginalisation of the film has been criticised by Nandita Das, accusing the producers of failing to market the film properly, which probably seems likely given the difficult subject matter. Supported by a strong and talented ensemble cast, Firaaq excels particularly in its menacing depiction of a milieu under curfew at night in which social collapse creates a crisis in terms of trust and suspicion. We would have to categorise the film as a contemporary example of parallel cinema as it rejects many of the rules of popular Indian cinema, dispensing with songs and foregrounding a realist approach adopted by the director.

I'm not sure how a male director would have handled this material as Das purposefully avoids representing any of the violence, referring instead to the representation of the riots through television news channels. She also succeeds in offering a credible and rational voice to a cross section of the Muslim community, avoiding the all too familiar trap of tokenism. The workaholic and brilliant Naseeruddin Shah pops up in a minor yet significant role, delivering another effortless performance whilst the criminally underused talents of Paresh Rawal are put to good use in what is an alternative role. The film does not set out to offer any explanations or provide any glib solutions to the sectarian divisions that have come to exist in some parts of India. What we are left with at the end is a plea for tolerance and understanding. It is a humble message but the right one. Overall, this is an impressive directorial debut and demands to be seen by a much wider audience.

The following video link is a two part interview with the director of Firaaq, Nandita Das:

In addition, Garam Hawa (1973), which to my knowledge is still unavaliable on DVD and VHS has been posted on YouTube with subtitles: