2 October 2013
Manthan was the third part in a trilogy of films dealing with rural oppression and it is a film which framed Benegal as a fiercely political voice in Indian cinema. Not only does the film have one of the finest ensemble casts you are likely to come across in parallel cinema but also brings together a typically brilliant crew made up of Kaifi Azmi (dialogue), Vanraj Bhatia (music) and Govind Nihalani (cinematography). Manthan is Benegal at the peak of his creative powers and it is a masterful work that focuses on the efforts of liberals Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) and his men to help rural farmers establish a Milk cooperative. Based on the true story of the ‘white revolution’ - the world’s biggest Dairy development programme that took place in India during the 1970s and beyond, Benegal roots his story in a truth and approaches the political contestation of the village through a neo realist prism that serves to dignify the poor farmers/peasants as new egalitarian citizens. At first, the villagers are suspicious of the ‘city folk’ and the ambivalent character of Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah), an oppressed Dalit who becomes a metonym of casteism, is reluctant to allow his people to join the cooperative. Bhola’s reluctance stems from his experience with people from the city who he views as exploitative, greedy and hypocritical - characteristics that are explored in the film with a degree of ideological complexity. The villagers are beholden to Mishraji (Amrish Puri), a greedy Dairy distributor, who exploits particularly the Dalits, paying them pittance for their milk.
Although the Milk cooperative at first seems like an Utopian impossibility, its eventual implementation is later questioned by Dr. Rao as a flawed enterprise since the poorest farmers which it is supposed to help the most remain excluded from equal participation and ownership. For Dr. Rao, this flaw in fact masks a failure to grasp the historical complexities of the different castes in the village. It is a liberal failing that such inequality stems from a history of casteism in which the Dalits have been mistreated and enslaved as sub-human. Bhola reminds Dr. Rao of such a discriminatory and painful past, pointing to the continuing exploitation and mistreatment of Dalit women by singling out Chandravarkar (Anant Nag) as perpetuating such a bind of oppression. Since the cooperative doesn’t discriminate against caste makes it an ideological entity that threatens to destabilise the hegemony of Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the self designated headman of the village and symbol of the higher caste. The status quo of the village is challenged directly when elections to contest the post of chairman are won by Moti, a Dalit. The Dalits claim the victory of Moti as a personal triumph and Bhola’s attempts to overturn an age old hegemonic tradition reclaim a human dignity for the Dalits and oppressed alike by rejecting the notion of inferiority perpetuated by Sarpanch and Mishraji. Sarpanch is outraged by the victory of Moti. In retaliation Sarpanch ensures Dr. Rao is transferred out of the village so that his radical politics can be suppressed. However, Sarpanch is unable to comprehend the infectious revolutionary ideals have already been embraced by Bhola. Even though Dr. Rao fails in his original aim of starting a Milk cooperative embraced in a totality by the villagers especially the Dalits, his radicalisation of Bhola is an ideological achievement that should be read as a counter hegemonic consolidation of a peasant insurgency. Such an explicit final political position unites Manthan firmly with Ankur and Nishant.
It seems a little miscalculated that Criterion have packaged Kapurush with Mahanagar. The apparent logic may appear related with the presence of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in both films. Charulata has been released separately yet thematically Kapurush has much more in common with this film than Mahanagar. Firstly, Kapurush was the film Ray made after Charulata. Secondly, Kapurush continued the collaboration with both Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee from Charulata. Thirdly, Kapurush revisits themes about repression and the love triangle that Ray explored in Charulata. These three reasons are evidence enough that Kapurush is in fact a companion piece to Charulata, resituating themes in a contemporary middle class milieu. Less ambitious than Charulata, Ray distills the melodrama of a love triangle to its most basic by focusing solely on the relationship between a scriptwriter, married woman and her husband. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Amitabh a scriptwriter on the search for locations who ends up at the house of a tea planter after his car breaks down. Much to his surprise, the tea planter’s wife turns out to a former lover, Karuna (Madhabi Mukherjee), whom he abandoned out of selfishness.
I was always under the impression that Kapurush was a minor work from Ray but no Ray film should be thought of in such discriminatory terms since each film tells us something about Ray as a filmmaker, whether this be aesthetically or thematically. Unlike Charulata which seems to fracture the husband-wife bond, Kapurush keeps the husband at a distance so that a collision between the past and present through a series of revealing flashbacks creates an unbearable tension. Ray is interested in the question about a specific middle class selfishness and cowardice that privileges individual creative success over emotional commitment. Karuna is prepared to give up her family and status so that she can be with Amitabh but the flashback tells us he is too concerned with his underachievement's as an artist. Ambiguity permeates the emotional state of Karuna in the present day and it is never made clear if she is happy. Additionally, we never come to know if her husband is aware of Karuna’s past relationship with Amitabh. While Karuna is critical of Amitabh’s cowardice, her decision to snub Amitabh at the train station at the end of the film underlines a cruelty personified through the symbolic significance of sleeping pills. It’s a shame that Mukherjee and Chatterjee never went on to work together more regularly since they were perfectly suited as an on screen pairing.