30 November 2010

SUJATA (Dir. Bimal Roy, 1959, India) - Authorial Peaks

Nutan as The Untouchable Sujata who is adopted by a middle class Brahmin family.

The release of Sujata in 1959 marked the end of director Bimal Roy’s most prolific and creative period. Beginning with Do Bigha Zamin in 1953, Roy’s output in the fifties rivalled only that of Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor. However, the major difference between Roy and his contemporaries of the time was his relative status as an outsider. Whilst his cultural identity was firmly Bengali, his socialist sensibilities and response to growing commercial demands constructed an authorial position in which he was able to address the current social issues of the time through the populist mode of Hindi melodrama. Throughout the fifties Bimal Roy visited many of the social ills that continued to concern Indian society including poverty, capitalism, class, caste, marriage and of course, family. Cinematographer Kamal Bose who was largely responsible for the semi realist visual look of earlier films including Do Bigha Zamin and Devdas (1955), became a Roy regular and his aesthetic contribution to Sujata is readily apparent in many of the expressionist sequences. Ideologically, Roy’s cinema runs parallel with that of Rossellini and whilst De Sica’s work was both political and emotional, the stark humanism of Rossellini’s post war sentiments finds it fullest expression in the overtly symbolic figure of Sujata (played by Indian actress Nutan). Similarly like Do Bigha Zamin which debates the politics of poverty and rural exploitation through the wider metaphor of a family’s urban odyssey, Sujata scrutinizes the politics of caste and gender in the milieu of middle India.

My final point really comes out of the Keynote lecture given by British director Ken Loach at the London Film Festival in which he criticises the loss of craftsmanship in the British film industry. One of the major strengths of the Hollywood studio system was most of the writers, cinematographers and directors got regular work so they naturally developed their particular craft. Film makers like Bimal Roy got good at what they did because they were given the chance to develop their particular craft – this does not seem to be the case today as a lot of film makers attempting to come at film from a different angle struggle to find financing. In many cases, the second feature film can become allusive and for British film makers craftsmanship is no longer considered an aspiration or a realistic possibility in the current state of American screen monopolisation and British television's descent into empty reality shows.

ANKAHEE / THE UNSPOKEN (Dir. Amol Palekar, 1985, India) - The Gaze of Death

Actor and director Amol Palekar in Ankahee.

Horror is a genre absent from much of Hindi cinema and whilst not much work has been carried out to study its development as a genre and why it continues to operate in a state of terminal decline and critical derision (not surprising given its low cultural status), the supernatural aspects of the genre in the form of ghost stories and the occult offer what are some of the strongest and clearest links with Hindi cinema of the past and present. Additionally, reincarnation is a religious thematic that has remained popular with mainstream Hindi films. One only has to acknowledge the significance of the Ghatak scripted Madhumati from 1958 and perhaps more importantly Amrohi’s overlooked Mahal (The Mansion, 1949). Both films are representative of a classical era and deal with reincarnation, implementing an expressionist style accentuating striking Gothic imagery in which the woman’s appearance as a ghostly lover haunts the tragic heroes of Dilip Kumar and Ashok Kumar. If it is true to say that the horror film deals with all manner of repression then a film like Ankahee uses the infinite gaze of an aging astrologer to predict life and death of those around him. Directed by Amol Palekar and released in 1985, Ankahee succeeds in creating and sustaining a terrifyingly potent atmosphere of dread often found in the supernatural/ghost film. Palekar was a terrific comic actor and later forged a successful career as a director but I feel much of his work has been dismissed outright. When the astrologer predicts his son Nandu (Amol Palekar) will have two wives and the first one will die within eleven months, the arrival of a young village girl into their home leads to Nandu concocting a game of deceit so that he can protect the girl he really loves whilst trying to outwit the language of destiny. What really works about Palekar’s understated direction is the love triangle as it’s slow development leads to a moving denouement in which the astrologer’s gaze is coldly absolute. Lurking beneath the more familiar conventions of melodrama is a subtle meditation on the inevitability of death. Iconic Bengali actor Anil Chatterjee also shows up and impresses as usual in a minor role.

20 November 2010


Mrinal Sen's 1973 film Padatik marked the final part of his Calcutta trilogy.

In an attempt to catalogue the YouTube links I have posted before on Indian films I have set up a seperate page titled 'Indian Cinema on YouTube' which appears at the top of the blog. Here you will find all of the links from Post No. 1 and 2 including the ones from this Post (No. 3). I am going to make a concerted effort to ensure this page is updated every month with any new material and links I come across. I am hoping to elucidate links to more marginal films - predominately Indian art cinema. It is encouraging that very few of the films from the first two posts have not been removed as they are serving an important purpose in terms of research and film history whilst also illustrating the breadth, depth and high level of ideological engagement of independent Indian art films including most notably Bengali art cinema and the parallel cinema movement.

The following are a new set of video links to Indian films which have been uploaded onto YouTube. Most of them have subtitles and the quality of the image for many of them is suprisingly good. I have posted a link to the first part of each of the films - the rest of the parts will be listed alongside the film on YouTube. For some of the links the embed code on YouTube has been disabled by the user so just click on the title of the film which will take you directly to the video on YouTube.

1. Swayamvaram - Adoor's directorial debut.
(1972, Dir. Adoor Gopalkrishnan, 131 min)

2. Interview - The first Part of Sen's Calcutta Trilogy.
(1970, Dir. Mrinal Sen, 85 min)

3. Calcutta '71
(1972, Dir. Mrinal Sen, 132 min) - click on title to access link

4. Padatik / The Guerrilla Fighter
(1973, Dir. Mrinal Sen, 98 min) - click on title to access link

5. Komal Gandhar / E Flat
(1961, Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 134 min) - click on title to access link

6. Neel Akasher Neechey / Under The Blue Sky
(1959, Dir. Mrinal Sen, 133 min) - Another Bengali film and an early one from Mrinal Sen.

7. Bombay, Our City
(1985, Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 82 min) - For more about Patwardhan's skills as a documentary film maker check out Srikanth's post at The Seventh Art.

8. Neem Annapurna / Bitter Morsel
(1979, Dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 95 min) - This has been compared to the early work of Ray.

9. Nagarik / The Citizen
(1952, Dir. Ritwik Ghatak, 127 min) - Ghatak's directorial debut.

10. Teen Kanya / Three Daughters: The Postmaster (56 min)
(1961, Dir. Satyajit Ray) - Biographer Andrew Robinson argues that The Postmaster episode features some of Ray's best work.

11. Shadows of Time
(2004, Dir. Florian Gallenberger, 122 min) - Shot in Calcutta and directed by a German director, this one seems interesting as it also features Tannishtha Chatterjee and Irfan Khan in the cast.

18 November 2010

BAZAAR / MARKET (Dir. Sagar Sarhadi, 1982, India) – Buying and Selling

My initial and largely superficial perceptions of Bazaar led me to assume from the stellar New Indian cinema cast of Smita Patel, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Sheikh that this was going to be yet another film which would categorically fall under the auspices of Parallel cinema. However, a closer inspection suggests otherwise as the director behind the film, Sagar Sarhadi, a renowned scriptwriter, only directed one film in a career that started in the 70s. I’m not so sure why Sarhadi only ever made one feature film given his prominence but I wonder if Sarhadi having worked on so many commercially successful romantic melodramas felt he could almost do a better job. In many respects he does succeed if one compares Bazaar to hyperbolic musical fantasies like Kabhi Kabhie (1976) and Chandni (1989). Both the dialogue for Kabhi Kabhie and Silsila were penned by Sarhadi but unlike a mainstream director like Yash Chopra and excellent one at that who tended to reject realism, Sarhadi with Bazaar attempts to merge certain aspects of parallel cinema with mainstream commercial cinema – the result is a largely uneven but still intriguing attempt at the female melodrama or woman’s film. I guess the difference is that when compared to the Yash Chopra films, the narrative was generally driven by the actions of the male lead and whilst many of these films also accommodated the point of view of the woman caught up in such fraught middle class relationships, it was the male figure of Amitabh who dominated.

With Bazaar, this is reversed to some extent by making Smita Patel central to the narrative action and the male characters more peripheral, recalling respectively both the female melodramas of Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Whilst Shabana Azmi was a more intense actress, her nearest counterpart and rival Smita Patel’s repertoire was far greater and this made her a much stronger performer of the two. In addition, Smita Patel was more successful in alternating between the mainstream and independent cinema because her classical looks recalled the famous studio stars like Waheeda Rehman and Meena Kumari, allowing audiences to accept her more easily in conventional roles. Thematically, the film does have a strong socialist slant and most prominent is the issue of gender exploitation. The story follows Najma (Smita Patel), a Muslim girl who by eloping with a man much older than her has transgressed the laws of patriarchal religious culture. Najma effectively becomes a slave to Akhtar (Bharat Kapoor) who refuses to marry her until he has sought approval from his family. In essence, Akhtar turns Najma into a possession which he uses to fulfil his own personal ends.

The closing shots to Bazaar dissolves the fourth wall as Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah turn to gaze directly back at the audience.

Director Sarhadi is very critical of Muslim culture and interprets the tradition of arranged marriage merely as an economic one in which young girls are bought and sold in a symbolic marketplace governed by religious and social laws. The point is well illustrated in the story of two young lovers (played by Supriya Pathak and Farooq Sheikh) who cannot be together simply because poverty discriminates against them. Ironically, it is poverty which actually becomes a barrier to them being married, not religious dogma or social identity. Ideologically, Bazaar makes a fascinating and worthy companion piece to director Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), another film that features Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah and also deals with prostitution, femininity and women as a capitalist commodity. It is difficult to say if Bazaar would fall into the parallel cinema category but the use of Khayam’s music and Sarhadi’s overwrought direction does at times make it feel like a conventional Hindi melodrama. However, one could argue that the film’s claim to be considered as part of the parallel cinema collective would rest largely on the closing shots in which Sarhadi dissolves the fourth wall and implicates the viewer in the cycle of victimisation and exploitation – it is a chilling and bold moment, perhaps the most audacious in the entire film.

13 November 2010

PAAR / THE CROSSING (Dir. Goutam Ghose, 1984, India) - The River as Life and Death

Bengali cinema has produced so many brilliant film makers over the years that it is easy to determine it is predominately auteur led as opposed to the preponderance of genre often associated with the Mumbai film industry. Born in Calcutta, Bengali director Goutam Ghose (also known as Gautam Ghosh) has produced work including documentaries and feature films whilst also being credited as a cinematographer, writer and composer on a number of Indian art films. He is obviously multi talented and somewhat prolific but nevertheless his absence from the discussions of Bengali cinema and Indian art cinema yet again stresses a pertinent need to catalogue with some trepidation key directors and films that construct a strong argument for parallel cinema’s sustained political engagement with the social. Writer Subhajit Ghosh offers one of the best overviews of the director’s work, emphasising his ‘strident political activism’ which of course is more than well represented in his 1984 film Paar (The Crossing). The IMBD entry for Ghose underlines a filmography made up of a string of documentaries, emphasising a concern with realism and political issues. It might be the case that his documentaries are probably far more political and radical than his feature films.

His first Hindi film Paar is a tough watch in many respects. Featuring a towering central performance from Naseeruddin Shah and supported by Shabana Azmi, Om Puri and Anil Chatterjee. I guess, Shah, Azmi and Puri was the perfect cast for a parallel film from the 70s or 80s – all three continue to work tirelessly and remain hugely influential. With the success of Ankur and Benegal’s focus on rural exploitation, parallel cinema made this into a virtual trademark. Paar also explores feudalism and exploitation of the untouchables in Bihar but unlike Ankur which hints at the potential for peasant revolt, Paar sees a worker, Naurangia (Shah), retaliate against the oppressive system by avenging the murder of the local schoolteacher who initially helps the workers to unite and resist. However, Naurangia and his wife, Rama (Shabana Azmi) are forced to flee when the villagers are massacred in a night of carnage. A despondent Naurangia and pregnant Rama end up in Calcutta and this is where the film becomes much darker and visceral in its impact.

Survival becomes the only aim for both the impoverished husband and wife and soon they are faced with a life and death ultimatum. Homeless, destitute and starving, Naurangia’s only chance of making some money comes in the form of an absurd proposition; to take a herd of pigs across a river crossing. A Herculean task and the centrepiece of the film’s narrative, the desperate image of Naurangia and his pregnant wife Rama trying to stay afloat whilst directing the pigs across a wide river crossing morphs into a symbol of human struggle. Admittedly, this is a film of two halves and whilst the first half tends to offer some kind of sociological explanation why Naurangia is forced to flee the village, the second half dispenses with narrative concerns and depicts with great intensity an odyssey of pain and determination. Ghose seems unconcerned exactly where Naurangia and Rama are headed as it is their physical exhaustion which he captures so vividly through the hard edged cinematography and frantic performances. Paar is another key work of parallel cinema and Ghose is an auteur who seems equally impressive as Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen or even someone as radical as Mrinal Sen. It will be interesting to see how the rest of his work stands up to the beauty of Paar. I'm not sure but I think Paar was also funded by the NFDC.

6 November 2010

INDIAN CINEMA DVD ROUND UP: Phalke, Rickshaw Drivers & The Femme Fatale

I have been watching quite a few Indian films recently and many of them have been on DVD. The three discussed below were all DVD imports and the emergence of new DVD labels in the Indian market has led to a drop in prices. One particularly important DVD label is Moserbaer Entertainment which seems to be able to sell DVDs at a very reasonable price. I'm not sure if this is a good thing though as it inevitably leads to a reduction in quality when it comes to image, sound and subtitle translation. However, this has not been the case so far. I'm not sure what the gap is in India between a cinema release and the film's appearance on the home video market? It seems in some cases almost instantaneous whilst in others like many of the films of Aamir Khan including most notably Ghajini a mirroring of European/American patterns (I think it is still 17 weeks before a film makes it on to DVD after appearing in cinemas) is not uncommon.

(Dir. Paresh Mokashi, 2009, India)

A Marathi film, theatre director Moksashi's biopic of Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, the father of Indian cinema, looks at the epic struggle he underwent to direct Raja Harishchandra (1913), the first full length Indian film. Produced and distributed by UTV Motion Pictures, it is somewhat of a no brainer why this film has been made and it has been do so with a warmth and passion that mirrors the creative ingenuity of a pioneering figure like Phalke. However, the fact that I stumbled on this film by chance perhaps suggests it was denied a UK release but had it appeared on the art house film circuit it may have found a niche audience as it documents a very significant part of Indian film history. Admittedly, the history of Indian cinema has not really been represented in many films and credit has to been given to all those involved in being able to make this feature film with such a level of credibility. It is in fact a light comedy and details Phalke's journey with a real fondness for early silent cinema - in one sequence Phalke is shown visiting London to meet Cecil Hepworth, another pioneer, to share ideas and learn about film making. I hope a UK DVD distributor does pick up Harishchandrachi Factory as it offers a delightful glimpse into early Indian cinema.

(Dir. Richie Mehta, 2007, Canada)

A Canadian production shot entirely on location in New Delhi, brothers Richie and Shaun Mehta directorial debut Amal mixes De Sica with Frank Capra to produce what is a good old fashioned morality tale in which a rich man (played brilliantly by Naseeruddin Shah) leaves behind his fortune to an auto rickshaw driver called Amal (Rupinder Nagra). What impressed me the most about Amal was the film's humility towards its central character, an impoverished rickshaw driver who surrenders his livelihood to help someone less fortunate. Richie and Shaun Mehta were able to secure financing to extend their short film into a full length feature and whilst Amal may fall under the label of diaspora cinema, it's depiction of New Delhi is one of the most potent and richest I have come across in a while. Embracing De Sica's humanism, the film is careful to steer away from the realist aesthetics and instead feels closer to American independent cinema. One of the more intriguing ideological aspects of the narrative is the way it depicts Auto Rickshaws as antiquated and outmoded when placed alongside the emergence of the New Delhi Metro system. A wider message being explored is the impact of modernity and rapid urbanisation on the people of New Delhi whilst the demonic representations of the wealthy upper classes hark back to the films of Raj Kapoor. Overall, Amal is an impressive debut.

(Dir. Akshay Shere, 2010, India)

Taking it's cue from the recent cycle of noir films including Sankat City and Johnny Gaddaar to name a few, Emotional Atyachar (inspired by the song from Dev D or is this a popular city euphemism associated with Mumbai) is yet another surprising well made directorial debut. Newcomer Akshay Shere who has previously worked as an Assistant Director to Ram Gopal Varma interweaves four noirish story lines which are held together by the common presence of a pair of bickering comical hit men played by two of Indian cinema's finest comic actors working today; Ranvir Shorey and Vinay Pathak. Arguably, the film seems to find its strength much later on with the appearance of up and coming Indian actress Kalki Koechlin who plays a variation on the femme fatale. Koechlin debuted in Kashyap's Dev D and is currently busy working on a number of high profile projects. She has the potential to become a very promising actress - I think part of this is down to her unusual looks and spiritedness that is well suited to independent film projects. Emotional Atyachar is yet another film that didn't quite make it to the UK and whilst it is not brilliant, it does try and bend the rules a little when it comes to genre.

2 November 2010

SHREE 420 / MR. 420 (Dir. Raj Kapoor, 1955, India) - Contesting Ideologies

Nargis and Raj Kapoor in their last on screen pairing.

The title for Raj Kapoor's 1955 film Shree 420 takes its social inspiration from the Indian Penal Code. Section 420 deals with cases of fraud and cheating yet it's popularisation by Raj Kapoor has meant it has become ubiquitous with the figure of the con-man or trickster in Indian cinema. It seems as though Coca-Cola first entered the Indian market after the push for modernity and industrialisation as implemented by Nehruite politics in the late forties and early fifties. The history of Coca-Cola in India is a shameful one and it continues to face a barrage of criticisms for its unfair extraction of water, workforce exploitation and use of pesticides in the bottling of drinks. Basically, most of these crimes are characteristic of such a hegemonic multi national corporation like Coca-Cola that relies on brand recognition and promotion to mask its lack of due care for communities and livelihoods of people. Perhaps it is a little hypocritical of film stars like Aamir Khan and other A listers to promulgate messages of social revolution and political intervention in films such as Rang De Basanti (perhaps contested further in Peepli Live) when in reality their own political ideals are compromised by consumerist obligations, endorsing certain brand products and doing so without a hint of remorse.

You’re probably thinking what bearing does Coca-Cola have on a film directed by Raj Kapoor released way back in 1955? Well, interestingly, whilst many of the studio films produced in the 40s and 50s were characterised by their escapist and populist sentiments, residing beneath the subtext was a mass of potentially relevant and contradictory ideological discourses articulating the shared authorial concerns of director Raj Kapoor and writer K.A Abbas. Shree 420 is simplistic in its representation of the conflict between classes and whilst Raj wins out at the end for the common man, throughout the film’s melodramatic narrative, K.A. Abbas offers some subtle ideological commentary on the impact modernity was having on the urban space just as Nehru’s vision for progressive change was accelerating.

When Raj first enters the city of Bombay, his figure is framed by the hoarding of a coca-cola sign which becomes a swipe at consumerism that was beginning to infiltrate the cosmetics of the urban city.

Ideologically, the motif of the Coca-Cola sign reemerges again only moments later when Raj offers a street kid a banana – the juxtaposition between the harsh poverty of the slums and the Utopian fantasising of corporate branding is underlined by the language on display – ‘Delicious’ and ‘Refreshing’ says the sign whilst beneath we are confronted with stark imagery of the dispossessed; a ruthless exposition of Nehru’s idealism.

However, the swipe at Coca-Cola consumerist ideology doesn’t stop right there. Once Raj pawns the award he is carrying with him (a definite nod to Bicycle Thieves), the money which he intends to put to good use is immediately stolen from him when he indulges in a game of cards on the streets. His first encounter with the cynicism and corrupting value of the city is framed with yet another Coca-Cola advertisement on the wall which this time is ironically selling the drink through the word ‘hospitality’.

Later on in the film when Raj finally achieves success, as false and shallow as it is, director Raj Kapoor makes use of a startling subjective point of view with the outstretched hands holding the money. Not only does this shot contrast quite starkly with the rest of the film in terms of its bold and symbolic framing but it repeats a similar vein of expressionism from an earlier film, Awaara. In many ways, like the Coca-Cola brand that craves consumer acknowledgement, so does equally the desire for Raj to acquire social status.

I want to finish with a quote from film academic Robin Wood as I too at times can be very dismissive of mainstream populist cinema as merely entertainment yet lurking beneath some films are a set of contesting ideologies which at times can prove to be radically more challenging than those so called political works of cinema:
'One of the functions of the concept of entertainment by definition, that which we don’t take seriously, or think about much (It's only entertainment) is to act as a kind of partial sleep of consciousness. For the filmmakers as well as for the audience, full awareness stops at the level of plot, action, and character, in which the most dangerous and subversive implications can disguise themselves and escape detection. This is why seemingly innocuous genre movies can be far more radical and fundamentally undermining than works of conscious social criticism, which must always concern themselves with the possibility of reforming aspects of a social system whose basic rightness must not be challenged. The old tendency to dismiss the Hollywood cinema as escapist always defined escape merely negatively as escape from, but escape logically must also be escape to. Dreams are also escapes, from the unresolved tensions of our lives into fantasies. Yet the fantasies are not meaningless; they can represent attempts to resolve those tensions in more radical ways than our consciousness can countenance.'
Robin Wood, The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s, from Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York, Columbia University Press, 1986)