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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.)
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 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):
When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.
Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.
Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.
The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.
The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.
This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.
Nasir is an amazing film that left me stunned after its 24 hour appearance on the We Are One online festival last Saturday. In a nutshell this is a film by a non-Muslim Tamil filmmaker from Coimbatore about 12 hours in the life of a Muslim sari-seller in the city. The film opens and closes with a static long shot of the central character lying in roughly the same position but in a different location, context and framing. It’s a brave and ultimately powerful device. I won’t describe the final shot but sadly I think you will not be surprised when it arrives.
Coimbatore is the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, an industrial centre with a population of 1-2 million. It’s located close to the western border of the state with the Western Ghats to the west and north. The great majority of the population is Hindu but there is a significant Muslim minority of around 8-9% and a similar but slightly smaller Christian minority. Unfortunately, the rise of Modi and the BJP with its right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology is now evident on the streets in Coimbatore – even though the BJP has no political representation in the city. There have been outbreaks of sectarian violence in the city in recent years.
Nasir lives in very modest accommodation outside the city centre with his wife, his sick mother and a young disabled man. It isn’t clear who this young man might be but it is seems he is a relative who Nasir has adopted after the boy’s parents were killed in an accident. Today, Nasir accompanies his wife to the bus stand where she gets on a long distance coach to visit family for a few days. He then gets to work in time to open the shop with a colleague. The director, Arun Karthik, is a young man from Coimbatore making his second film. The first was shown at Rotterdam International Film Festival and this second film was made with support from the Hubert Bals Fund associated with the festival. This year Nasir won the Netpac Award for best Asian film. Like Karthik’s first feature, Nasir is a shortish film of less than 80 minutes – but he crams a great deal into that running time. The film is presented in Academy ratio (1.33: 1). I couldn’t discern any specific reason for this but it works and the simple compositions are very pleasing.
This account of daily life, offered in detail, is almost like Bresson in conception, but didn’t feel ‘Bressonian’. Nasir seems like a decent human being who sometimes goes to prayers at the mosque, who smokes beedis for relaxation and who takes pleasure in writing poetry for his wife – which proves popular with his co-workers who ask him to read out extracts. Nasir is actually a character from a short story by Dilip Kumar, the Chennai-based writer (not the star of Hindi cinema), titled ‘A Clerk’s Story’ and written during the 1990s. The focus on the small details of Nasir’s day means that the growing unease about sectarianism seems to ‘filter in’ rather than to be presented directly. As he walks through the streets, Nasir seems unaffected by the amplified voices, Hindu and Muslim, propagandising. He overhears his boss make provocative anti-Muslim remarks about any resistance to a planned Hindu march through the streets. But the same boss tries to help him get an advance on his wages – which Nasir needs for his various pressing financial problems.
It’s difficult to convey how Karthik is able to present simple tasks in such a way that we engage so easily with Nasir’s concerns. But we (i.e. non-Indian audiences) do suspect that perhaps we don’t completely understand all of the cultural referents we are shown. I was struck with the images of Ganesh on the streets. I understand that the Ganesha festivals are celebrated widely across India and especially in the West and the South, but I’m most familiar with them as depicted in films set in Mumbai. Since Modi’s rise, I find the excitement roused by the festival processions to be increasingly disturbing. A blog post by our old friend Srikanth explains some of the aspects of the film which I didn’t completely understand and also offers fresh perspectives on the film (it’s worth reading the comments too). Srikanth also discusses the ending of the film. I’ve read several other reviews and this film offers a good example of how a specific decision about how to present a single incident can lead to very different readings of the overall narrative. Nasir strikes me as a successful and important film that should be seen and discussed. It’s not an ‘easy’ film in the sense that it is not an entertainment narrative or a straightforward ‘social’ film. But I don’t think it is an ‘art film’ as such. What it requires is simply that a viewer watches it without too many preconceptions. (I should also commend Saumyananda Sahi as the cinematographer on the film.) I hope Nasir is seen widely within India and in international markets.