Category: Indian Cinema

Shanghai (India, Hindi 2012)

Two of the principals in Shanghai, Abhay Deol as T. A. Krishnan (left) and Emraan Hashmi as Jogi

Shanghai was released at the height of interest in the new Independent Indian film production cycle. Though the film managed a commercial Indian release it did not reach UK cinemas and I was frustrated not to be able to see it at my local Cineworld in Bradford. I recently unearthed it from deep in the bowels of MUBI’s catalogue. I’m not sure that MUBI has known what to do with some of its Indian acquisitions since this film has not been given the full treatment with reviews and extra material. In the end I was glad to be able to see it before it disappeared from the streamer.

My interest in this film was sparked first of all by its director Dibakar Banerjee. I had enjoyed his first film, the comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla! (India 2006) and then found his contribution to the compendium film Bombay Talkies (India 2013) to be the best of the four short narratives on offer to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema. Banerjee is an intriguing character whose career began in advertising and by Indian standards he has made relatively few feature films, having started in his late thirties. He seems to have continued making advertising films so perhaps that is how he gets his funding (but I note that this film also had some support from the NFDC – National Film Development Corporation). His films are generally received as being at the more commercial end of the Indian Independent spectrum. Shanghai seems placed as more controversial and ‘edgy’. The location for the film suggests a city blessed/poisoned by modern capitalist exploitation, something like Shanghai and its depiction as the great postmodern global city. It also occurred to me that the narrative includes elements similar to those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008) which gained recognition in the UK after winning the Booker Prize.

Dr. Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) arrives at the airport with a fellow passenger, a Bollywood starlet (Scarlett Mellish Wilson) who will perform for localFront activists and police

The film’s story actually has a rather different source, the 1966 Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was adapted a couple of years later for the Costa Gavras film Z (France 1969), a film made in Algeria masquerading as Greece that was a significant commercial hit and awards favourite. The original was based on the story of a Greek opposition politician during the period of the military junta in power in Greece from 1967 to 1974. This more recent Indian adaptation by Urmi Juvekar and Dibakar Banerjee features several scenes which match exactly those in the Costa Gavras film, but also some different themes and a slightly different tone I think. It feels authentically like an Indian political thriller – i.e. it is familiar from other Indian films. In the fictitious city of ‘Bharatnagar’ (or is it a smaller district/town in a wider urban sprawl?), presumably a state capital, a large business development project known as ‘IBP’ is being pushed through by ‘The Front’, a coalition of political parties on the right, headed by the state’s chief minister, ‘Madamji’ (Supriya Pathak). The project is clearly damaging for several groups of the poor and lower caste peoples whose land is being illegally re-possessed. A leading leftist figure Dr Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes to the city to speak to his supporters but the local ‘goons’ in the pay of the The Front are being organised to sabotage the meeting. When Dr Ahmedi comes out of the meeting hall where he has addressed his followers, a small truck is driven at speed knocking him down as he faces the mob. He will spend the rest of the narrative in a coma.

T. A. Krishnan and the civil servants

The low-ranking political fixer with Jaggu (Anant Jog, left) the poor man who is paid by the Front to do their dirty work

The Chief Minister institutes an investigation into the ‘accident’ and appoints an ambitious civil servant, T. A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) to head the enquiry. Meanwhile, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Dr Ahmedi’s former student in New York and his most ardent follower, is outraged and determined to uncover the corruption and the conspiracy that has put her leader in hospital. Her response to the hit-and-run soon brings her into contact with local videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) who has captured aspects of the events on a disc. Shalini also meets Dr Ahmedi’s wife (Tillotama Shome) at the hospital and the two women don’t immediately get on. These are the six principal characters of the narrative and the six lead actors. There is also a group of secondary characters who are the paid disrupters and in effect murderers/assassins. I won’t spoil the plot directly any more and I’ll turn instead to analyse the kind of film Shanghai develops into and how it creates meanings. It’s a film that does have some problems, at least for me, but overall it is very successful.

Shalini (Kalki Koechlin) sees the video footage shot by Jogi

I struggled with the narrative a little because of the six lead actors I only know the work of Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome (who has very little to do, but don’t miss her at the end of the film). Both are associated for me with the ‘Independent’ sector of Indian cinema and at this time in 2012 Kalki Koechlin was in many ways the ‘poster girl’ of this new kind of cinema, partly because of her relationship with Anurag Kashyap, the leading writer-director of the Independent production movement. In his blog posting on the film, Omar Ahmed suggests that Koechlin is miscast in the film and she is indeed an odd character, especially because she seems to have been given a peculiar hairstyle (is it a wig?) that doesn’t suit her and she is required to be quite volatile in the frustration she feels in trying to uncover the truth. This means some almost melodrama acting is required that is sometimes even more disruptive than might be intended. I think part of the problem is the background information about her character which I found confusing. She is introduced as the daughter of a General who has been arrested and kept in prison on remand by the government. Dr Ahmedi is taken to her house as his base for the visit and there is clearly a strong attraction between the two of them. Later on, during her investigation, Shalini is assumed to be a foreigner or an ‘outsider’. (Kalki Koechlin is the daughter of a French couple living in Tamil Nadu but she is an Indian citizen and speaks French, English and Hindi.)

The most intriguing character is Jogi. Emraan Hashmi, like Koechlin, is a well-known actor who is given a beer belly and other distinctive features to turn him into a ‘disreputable’ character. The character has a back story forcing him to leave home and move to Bharatnagar where he is now a videographer making money from filming anything that pays. His ‘bread and butter’ is cheap pornography made with his friend Vinod. He has got some work filming Front politicians and is always sniffing round any action. Jogi and Shalini will make a strange pair. Initially he wants to sell his evidence but later he will have other motives. Krishnan plays the Jean-Luis Trintignant role from Z, except that he is a very Indian figure – a career civil servant who takes his investigation seriously but is also drawn into playing dangerous political games.

The biggest difference between Shanghai and Z is arguably the former’s exposure of the corruption/incompetence of the police and the exploitation of the poor. Those who carry out the attack on Dr Ahmedi include one character who needs money to pay for the English lessons which might help him get a better job. Many of the poor will be removed from their homes and shipped to a re-settlement development out of town. They will not advance economically since it will become more expensive to commute back in for any service jobs that might become available. The poor who resist or who cause problems are easily eliminated by more paid thugs with the police turning a blind eye to the crimes. Although it is set in 2012, Shanghai seemed remarkably on the nose when it refers to corruption within the governing party – contracts going to friends of those in power without proper contracting bids. Now, what does that remind me of in the UK during the COVID pandemic? Several current British ministers need to be investigated on that score. Things in India have seemingly got worse in India as well since Modi won the 2014 general election and increased his majority in 2019.

Shanghai is only 102 minutes long but it packs in an enormous amount of plot – possibly too much. When I thought back over what I’d seen, I realised that there were aspects of the plot that I had forgotten. Included in that running time are two extended musical song and dance sequences. No subtitles for either I’m afraid, but one within the politicians/senior police officials etc. and one within the poorer community: I wish I had had more time to think about what they contributed. Whatever its minor flaws, I think Shanghai is an important film showing real ambition to present the genuine evils of the current political situation in India. The world really is a shitty place right now and this kind of narrative of exposure is needed more and more. If you can find it, Shanghai is well worth investigating.

Here’s the Hindi trailer (no English subs):

The Goddess and the Hero (Devi Aur Hero, Hindi, India 2019)

The third film from the Indian author-turned-director Aditya Kripalani was well received at the Kolkata International Film Festival in late 2019 where it won the NETPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) but was then stalled in distribution by the impact of the COVID pandemic. It is expected to be available on streaming services in the near future.

The ‘Goddess’ and ‘Hero’ of the title are Kaali Ghosh (Chitrangada Chakraborty) and Dr. Vikrant Saraswat (Vinay Sharma). She is a young woman trapped by a history of abuse and he is a practising therapist suffering from a form of sex addiction. She needs his help but he is told by his own therapist that he must try to keep practising for both male and female clients but must not become emotionally involved with his female clients. He must focus on his work.

Compared to the earlier two films Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) and The Incessant Fear of Rape (India 2019) this feels like a different kind of narrative though elements are shared across all three films and the main theme is again the misogyny of contemporary Indian society. One of the main common elements of the three films is another notable performance by Chitrangada Chakraborty and Vinay Sharma is also making a return after his role as the male hostage in The Incessant Fear of Rape

Our first view of Kaali (Chitrangada Chakraborty), trapped in her abuser’s apartment

Kaali Ghosh is a young woman from Kolkata now living in Mumbai and seemingly trapped as a sex worker. As a teenager she was abused by her father and subsequently became the sex slave of the son of a wealthy industrialist. When we first meet her she is clearly disturbed but escapes from Mittal Jr’s apartment, sees and advert for Dr. Vikrant and sets out to meet him. During this introduction intertitles are used to emphasise ‘The Problem’, ‘The Hero’ and ‘The Goddess’. I’m not sure if this is intended to present the narrative as a form of ‘Psychiatric Case Study’. Later we will get ‘The Resolution’ but I didn’t notice/remember other titles.

Vikrant (Vinay Sharma) spends perhaps too much time fantasising about his phone contacts . . .

I did find this opening sequence less engaging than those of the other two films but whether this was to do with my reading failure or the difficulty of constructing the introduction of the two characters, I’m not sure. There is a long history of film narratives dealing with the psychiatrist-client relationship, with several well-known Hollywood films released in the 1940s and 1950s when Freudian practice began to become better known in the US. I’m not sure if representations of psychiatry have appeared often in Indian cinemas. In this film we have two therapist-client relationships and then when Vikrant and Kaali meet he will struggle to establish a professional relationship before diagnosing her condition as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In the past this was sometimes known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and it is characterised by moments of blackout and loss of memory associated with the appearance of different distinct identities. The sufferer may see and hear these alternative ‘selves’ and take action according to what the voices are saying. DID/MPD may be brought on by traumatic experiences, including childhood trauma. It can sometimes last just a few weeks, but may last much longer and require extended therapeutic treatment.

Therapist and client both have problems

The relationship between therapist and client/patient is key to successful treatment and the premise for the narrative involving Kaali and Vikrant is doubly problematic because of his sex addiction. She needs his help and he needs to develop a working relationship with her both for her sake and his own. The sensible option would be for him to refer Kaali to another therapist, but to do so would be to ignore his own therapist’s advice – and anyway would not make such an interesting dilemma. The set-up that does develop leads us into a form of melodrama with plenty of action. ‘Kaali’ is presumably a name which refers to ‘Kali’ the Hindu goddess seen as one of the ‘aspects’ of the mother goddess Parvati. She is associated with defeating evil and often depicted

I’m a little out of my depth here but I did note that twice Kaali alters the name board outside Vikrant’s office. She moves the letter ‘i’ of the clip-on characters so that it appears at the end of Vikrant’s family name which now reads Saraswati, the name of the goddess of learning and wisdom. Kaali is an intelligent young woman and she appears to have an interest in art and in martial arts. Once Vikrant has established that Kaali hears voices and these are activated via tex messages and audio, the narrative moves into action sequences as the pacing of the narrative increases. By this stage I was very much engaged and overall I thought film was successful.

Kaali in her warrior identity confronts one of her abusers

I noted a couple of issues around the sexual content in the film. A couple of times the camera focused on parts of the action rather than showing the whole scene. I wasn’t sure if this was a form of self-censorship. Deciding how and what to show in a sex scene is tricky and in this case visualising Vikrant’s compulsion to fantasise about Kaali and her red nails is a real challenge. It is necessary I think for the plot, but it isn’t pretty. My other concern is that as in the other two films, all the men (apart from Vikrant and his struggles) are shown to be misogynistic. Of course there is no real reason why a filmmaker can’t choose to write/direct characters like this but it does make me wonder about the differences between social realism, various forms of genre cinema or a character-driven drama. At times this film has elements of all three. I will be intrigued to see if this kind of mix carries through to the next film by Aditya Kripalani.

From the few comments I have seen this film does speak to audiences and they are prepared to listen. The central story is intriguing and there are other pleasures including the use of Mumbai locations and several music tracks. I would recommend the film as a sensitively handled and thought-provoking action melodrama.

(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)

International Satyajit Ray Congress

So today, May 2nd, is the centenary of the birth of Satyajit Ray; one of the giants of World Cinema. Here in Britain we have to wait to celebrate the master in theatrical settings; however, the National Film Archive do have a number of 35mm prints which hopefully we can enjoy soon.

Meanwhile there is an online celebration of his work at the Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress. Happily it is streaming on You Tube so even if you cannot join in the zoom meeting you can follow it. It promises to be a rewarding affair with contributions from film-makers, critics and fans. It runs from 3 p.m. today Sunday [British Summer Time which is 2 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time] and again from 3 p.m. Monday [2 p.m. GMT].

The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (Laila aur satt geet, India 2020)

The beauty of Kashmir

Independent films set in Jammu and Kashmir seem to be appearing more often on the festival circuit. This is an unusual film that draws inspiration from various sources. It presents a folkloric tale in a modern context with a narrative divided into seven chapters, each titled with a song. The songs are from a variety of sources around the Himalayan region and the film is influenced by Sufism. The focus is on a community of shepherds who range across a wide area from Northern India and Kashmir and Ladakh to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now recognised as a ‘scheduled tribe’ in India, the Bakarwali are Muslims. As is common in South Asia, they are also seen as part of a bigger group that includes Gujjars, more associated with North Indian states such as Rajasthan. The writer-director of the film is Pushpendra Singh. He was born in Agra and attended FTII in Pune, initially training as an actor but later moving into direction and this is his fourth feature which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was shown in festivals in Calcutta and Kerala before lockdown denied an expected run in PVR multiplexes. The director was able to introduce his film and to offer a Q&A at Borderlines.

The male shepherds bargain with the police inspector about the need for ID cards

He explains how the original idea came about:

I had read the folktale in 2010 and was fascinated that Vijaydan Detha [a well-known Marxist writer from Rajasthan] wrote a feminist story in the late 1960s which also dealt with desire and exploitation and how a woman in a conservative feudal society asserts herself and makes her own choices. The idea to adapt it to contemporary times was also a strong drive to choose the subject. (Quoted in a Variety piece by Naman Ramachandran, 26 November 2020)

Pushpendra Singh decided to rework the story in a contemporary political context by locating it in Kashmir and he also decided to take inspiration from the the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded.

Navjot Randhawa as Laila

The Barkarwali are nomadic shepherds and goatherds who practice annual transhumance, taking their flocks up into the Himalayas in the summer months and returning to bed down in the winter. Their traditions don’t recognise boundaries, but in the contested territory of Kashmir they find themselves being harried by Indian security officials who demand more stringent forms of identity. This is personalised when, during the summer move, the shepherd Tanvir finds a bride in the form of Laila. Tradition demands that he show his strength as a future husband and then ask for her hand. It is when the group return from the mountains that they realise how much has changed. Tanvir is accused of bringing a wife across the border illegally. The Barkarwali don’t recognise borders or ‘lines of control’ – or at least they pay them lip service – but the local police chief demands that they get proper ID cards. He also has designs on Laila. She will have none of it. Both the crossing borders and the potential ‘possession’ of Laila are metaphors for the control of Kashmir as well as male power directed towards women.

Tanvir demonstrates his strength . . . but he can’t control Laila

The narrative then moves into a kind of folklore farce. The police chief’s assistant Mushtaq assures his boss that he can ‘tame’ Laila and bring her to his chief. Or does he simply want her for himself? She is quite prepared to play a game, but only on her own terms and leads the men on, fooling her husband and frustrating Mushtaq. The Seven Songs take us through the stages of a kind of marital comedy. The folklore elements also produce moments of symbolism. A large tree bursts into flame from a gaping hole in the trunk as a sexual symbol. The end of the film makes a dramatic reference to the 14th century poet and the clear inference is that Laila will not accept the identities that men attempt to force upon her.

The film is very beautiful and I wish I knew more about the music. Navjot Randhawa gives a strong performance as Laila. Most of the other performers are local and non-professional apart from Shahnawaz Bhat who has appeared in other films. I’m not sure if the film has got UK distribution, but if it does appear it is recommended.

Satyajit Ray, May 2nd 1921 to April 23rd 1992

This year sees the centenary of one of the really great film-makers in World Cinema. The question is not whether to celebrate this but whether we will be able to do with the films he wrote and directed in their original format, 35mm prints. Will the pandemic allow audiences to visit cinemas to enjoy these fine films? In West Yorkshire there are a limited number of venues where this could happen. Unfortunately the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds will not re-open until 2022. The City Screen in York, like the company Picturehouse, has an uncertain future. This leaves the Media Museum in Bradford, the Sheffield Showroom and Hebden Bridge Picture House.

Happily the National Film Archive in Britain has a number of Ray’s finest films available in 35 mm prints. The condition of some of them is not great and it may be that not all are accessible for screenings. And the British Film Institute, which controls access to the archive, sometimes seems loath to ship prints outside London. The quality that comes from a 35mm print, even with scratches and jump cuts, make the efforts to screen such prints worthwhile. So these are the titles currently listed as held in the archive.

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a 1955 Bengali film produced by the Government of West Bengal. It was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 Bengali novel of the same name and was Ray’s directorial debut. This first film in ‘The Apu Trilogy’ depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family.

I first saw this film in my early film society years. It was a wonderful eye-opener to a very different cinema. One impressive sequence shows a first sight of a train thundering and smoking across the landscape; a trope that I have seen again many times in Indian films.

Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is a 1956 Bengali film and is the second part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. It was adapted from the novels ‘Pather Panchali’ and its sequel ‘Aparajito’ (1932). It starts off where the previous film ended, with Apu’s family moving to Varanasi, and chronicles Apu’s life from childhood to adolescence in college, right up to his mother’s death, when he is left all alone.

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) is a 1959 Bengali film and.the third part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’, about the childhood and early adult life in the early twentieth century Indian subcontinent. The film is based on the later part of the novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.

Released in 1959, The World of Apu focuses on Apu’s adult life. This was the first Ray film that I saw on 35mm and it is the final part of the trilogy. It has wonderful sequences as Apu enters married life. There is a Tonga ride back from an entertainment: a scene of domesticity of Apu and his young wife: and finally a sequence of father and son which is a fine expression of the humanist values that inform Ray’s films.

Jalsaghar ( The Music Room) is a 1958 Bengali film based on a popular short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. The fourth of Ray’s feature films, it was filmed in a village in West Bengal. Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) in Bengal and his efforts to uphold his family prestige while facing economic adversity. The landlord is a just but otherworldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the government’s abolition of the zamindari system.

Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Bengali film based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. ‘Devi’ focuses on a young woman who is deemed a goddess when her father-in-law, a rich feudal land-lord, has a dream envisioning her as an avatar of Kali.

Rabindranath Tagore is a 1961 documentary film produced by Films Division of India in English about the life and works of noted Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. Ray started working on the documentary in early 1958. Shot in black-and-white, the finished film was released during the centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore.

Teen Kanya is a 1961 Bengali anthology film based upon short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. The title means ‘Three Girls’, and the film’s original Indian release contained three stories. However, the international release of the film contained only two stories, missing the second (‘Monihara: The Lost Jewels’).

Kanchenjungha (Kanchonjônggha) is a 1962 Bengali film. The film is about an upper class Bengali family on vacation in Darjeeling, a popular hill station and resort, near Kanchenjunga.

Abhijan (The Expedition) is a 1962 Bengali film. When a corrupt cop takes away Narsingh’s taxi license after an illegal car race, Narsingh finds himself reduced to poverty living in the outskirts of Kolkata. A practicing Sikh, he finds himself having to accept work from a dubious business man, Sukhanram, who employs Narsingh in dope smuggling.

Mahanagar (The Big City) is a 1963 Bengali film based on the short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra, it tells of a housewife who disconcerts her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. Shot in the first half of 1963 in Calcutta, this was also the first film directed by Ray set entirely in his native Calcutta, reflecting contemporary realities of the urban middle-class, where women going to work is no longer merely driven by ideas of emancipation but has become an economic reality.

Charulata (The Lonely Wife) a 1964 Bengali film. Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law, Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own cousin, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education.

Chiriakhana or Chiriyakhana (The Zoo] is a 1967 Indian Bengali crime film, based on the story of the same name by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Rather different from many of Ray’s other films we follow Byomkesh Bakshi, a detective, is hired by a rich man to investigate the name of an actress appeared in a movie decades ago, who has eloped ever since. The case became complicated when the rich man is murdered by someone for that.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) is an Indian Bengali film released in 1970, based upon the Bengali novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The partly dramatic story is undercut by the treatment which often includes humour. A group of Calcutta city slickers, including the well-off Asim, the meek Sanjoy and the brutish Hari, head out for a weekend in the wilderness.

Jana Aranya is a 1976 Bengali film, based on the novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee. It is the last among Ray’s Calcutta trilogy series, the previous two being, Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film portrays the economic difficulties faced by middle-class, educated, urban youth in 1970s India.

Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is a 1977 Indian film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, is a devotee of chess. This plays into the machinations of General James Outram and his empire-building designs. This is the first Hindi feature film of the film-maker..

Sadgati ( Salvation [or] Deliverance) is an 1981 Hindi television film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story of same name by Munshi Premchand. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film [. . . ] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”

From his pioneering neo-realist films in the 1950s, through his more modernist and critical studies of his home culture, Satyajit Ray has been a dominant force, both in his home cinema and in the wider world of art and foreign language distribution. His films are generally both scripted and directed by himself. And, like many other key film-makers he regularly worked with certain actors and craft people. Their contributions are important and the majority of his films have a fine form, style and production delivery. I hope to see many of the above titles, and hopefully, prints from other archives in this year of celebration.

See Roy’s re-appraisal.

Party (India, Hindi 1984)

The writer Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh) and his wife Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi) and between them the party hostess Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) 

Party is one of several ‘parallel cinema’ films that are now available for streaming in the UK via MUBI’s Library. It has been very difficult to see these films in anything like a decent print for many years and it is good to have this new opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since I last tried to summarise what was meant by ‘parallel cinema’ and ‘New Indian Cinema’ in the 1970s/80s. Since then, Omar Ahmed has worked hard in the UK to find film titles and scholarly work around them. His blog at ‘Movie Mahal’ and his writing and PhD research is now a very useful source of both background and reviews of specific titles. His review of this film is here. I’ll try to approach the film a little differently in an attempt to use it more as an exemplar.

Party is a film by the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani. Born in Karachi in 1940, Nihalani’s family moved to independent India after partition and he later attended one of the first film schools in India in Bangalore. He then began work as an assistant to the legendary V.K. Murthy, the cinematographer who worked with Guru Dutt in the 1950s. Nihalani  took on cinematographer roles on the parallel films of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s before his own directorial career began in 1980. Party is based mainly on a Marathi theatre play with a script by Mahesh Elkunchwar and it was financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). This public funding and Nihalani’s background are two indicators of parallel cinema and a third is an extensive ensemble cast list including several names associated with this type of cinema.

Vrinda the would-be communist and feminist takes on the poet Bharat

In some ways, Party is a familiar genre narrative, a form common in many developed societies where discussion of politics and the arts meet in middle class gatherings. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally Potter made The Party (UK 2017) and there are other films discussed on this blog which share similar elements. However, the mix of Indian literati and journalists, actors etc. takes place in a Bombay house under circumstances that are significantly different to those in the UK and where demographics are very different. The politics of inequality, the persistence of caste, communalism and the very real violence of political resistance set up an environment in which an upper middle class drinks party is not the same in Bombay as it might be in London or Paris or New York. (It is difficult to discuss Indian society using the socio-economic class definitions familiar in the UK. The hostess of the party is the daughter of an eminent lawyer – a national leader and ‘Cabinet Minister’.)

A classic mirror shot sees Mohini, wondering who she is

Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) is a widow who hosts a party in honour of a playwright, Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has won a literary prize. She has invited a range of other writers and their spouses. She has inveigled her daughter, who has a small baby but not a husband, to join the party. Meanwhile her son invites his own friends to a smaller party upstairs where they drink and listen to Western pop/rock music (including the Irena Cara track ‘What a Feeling’ from Flashdance (US 1983) – I wonder what or if – this might have cost?). It soon becomes apparent that there are several conflicts waiting to erupt among the party guests, some of which are sexual/marital but most of which involve politics. There is also a considerable intake of alcohol. Inevitably this is a very ‘talky’ film with relatively little chance to develop an expressive visual style. There is a short section at the beginning of the film setting up the party that finds the various characters in their ‘home’ environments and the house itself is a useful location with staircases, mirrors and a garden which allows some possibilities such as a classic mirror set up in which a character might look at their multiple reflections in adjacent mirrors.

The two major pressure points in the film seem to be firstly the status of women – the writer’s wife who has turned to drink and given up her career, the hostess and her daughter who clash painfully, a young woman who oscillates between flirtation and Marxist dialectics. These conflicts are also connected to the central discourse of politics and the purpose of art. The central character of Barve is revealed as egotistical and something of a fraud whereas the young poet Bharat (‘India’ in Hindi) is passionate but weak and naive. In the last third of the film, these various conflicts are thrown into relief by the late arrival of the journalist, Avinash, played with enormous energy by Om Puri. He has been injured during a protest by tribal peoples against an illegal central government development and he has news of the character everyone has been discussing – the poet Amrit who has done something practical in attempting to help the tribal community in their resistance.

Om Puri as Avinash offers a powerful challenge to the complacency of the other guests

Om Puri is remarkably powerful in these scenes, privileged by the camera, with a compelling speaking voice and his iconic rough and ‘lived in’ face. Everyone has to listen to him. I don’t remember Puri from the small group of parallel/’New Cinema’ films I saw in the 1980s and I only became familiar with him in the last 20 years of his career across independent and mainstream Indian and global cinema, so this was a highlight for me. Similarly, Amrit makes only a fleeting appearance in Party, but it is significant that he is played by Naseeruddin Shah, like Om Puri, an actor who began in films like this and who has over time become an iconic Indian actor, thankfully still with us.

Party is a well-written play with an array of interesting characters. I would pick out the hostess as perhaps the central role. Over the course of the narrative she is criticised and becomes more self-aware. She is a tragic character bit she comes across as more sympathetic than the writer who recognises that he is a fraud but is still prepared to milk his position.

MUBI’s print of Party is a restoration of a film in colour and Academy ratio – common for many films of this kind, some of which might have gained their best audiences via screenings on the Indian PSB TV channel Doordarshan, another indicator of parallel cinema since relatively few cinemas would take the films. The film’s dialogue is in Hindi most of the time but there are significant exchanges in English which would limit the TV audience I suspect. In recent years the same level of English dialogue is found in some more mainstream Hindi films Generally it looks OK. It’s very pleasing that MUBI has made its Library available in this way and I look forward to re-engaging with more of the history of the ‘alternative cinemas’ of India.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):