Sir begins in a village in what I assume is the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. A young woman is about to return to Mumbai where she is a live-in domestic servant in the apartment of a young man who should be on his honeymoon. But the marriage did not take place and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is now in a potentially difficult situation. Previously the young couple were living together in the apartment and the young architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) is now on his own. What follows over the next week is a form of ‘odd couple’ drama. The narrative is deceptively simple but carries both an emotional weight and a subtle social commentary. It is a very fine and delicate piece of filmmaking, deserving its appearance in Cannes Critics Week in 2018. Rohena Gera makes her début as a fiction feature writer-director though she has considerable experience in both American and Indian film industries.
Gera trained in the US and she clearly knows the Mumbai upper middle-class and the largely English-speaking families whose sons and daughters have been to university in the US. But she has done her research carefully and the narrative is largely driven by the village woman who has come to Mumbai, hoping to send money home and to train as a tailor in whatever spare time she can find. Ratna was widowed at 19 soon after her marriage, placing her in a difficult situation in her traditional village – which she hopes to escape in the city.
Tillotama Shome gives a wonderful performance in a role for which she had to learn Marathi to converse with her character’s family. At work Ratna needs enough Hindi and English to cope with her role as a ‘domestic’. Most reviewers refer to Shome’s role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) but in the Press Notes Gera tells us that it was Shome’s performance in Qissa (2013) that convinced her that the Bengali star of independent and mainstream cinema was right for the role. She also reveals that although she was impressed by Vivek Gomber’s terrific performance in Court (2014) she didn’t think he was right for the role of Ashwin. Fortunately, friends convinced her she was wrong and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as Gomber manages to find the perfect combination of frustration, decency and repressed emotion to suggest how Ashwin feels. Although she is only in a supporting role Geetanjali Kulkarni makes an important contribution as Ratna’s fellow domestic servant, Laxmi, from a neighbouring apartment where she is a nanny (ayah?) cum maid/housekeeper – a rather different role to her public prosecutor pitted against Vivek Gomber in Court. But Kulkarni’s characters often seem to be working-class or what in the UK would be lower middle-class. The nuances of class are just as important in India. Ratna’s difficult position in Sir is beautifully illustrated in the sequence in which Ashwin’s parents hold a reception where, as a servant, Ratna is virtually invisible. She serves guests and then returns to the kitchen where squatting on the floor she joins the other servants to eat their food. When Ashwin comes to speak to her, he embarrasses her in front of her friends – people should know their place. At this point Ashwin and Ratna know that they cannot be together. The social class divisions are too important and other people would suffer if they attempt to cross boundaries.
Rohena Gera finds an ingenious way to end her narrative. I’ve seen some Western reviews from Cannes that don’t really ‘get’ the story but this one from an Indian critic makes sense to me. Baradwaj Rangan points out that Gera covers several important social issues in Modi’s ‘Shining India’ but that she first makes a film rather than an argument. I think he’s right. There is something universal and humanist about the story which is also rooted in Indian society. Formally the narrative presents between a ‘closed’ romance melodrama within the flat where the mise en scène says a lot about the invisible barriers between the employer and servant with shots of Ratna’s room, the ‘dividing walls’ of the apartment and the wariness with which the characters approach each other. But when we move outside the building and follow Ratna around the city and back to the village, a different sort of story develops. The neutral location turns out to be on the roof of the building. In a Cannes interview Rohena Gera explains what she thought this overall split meant. Fundamentally though, the film works because of two terrific central performances. YouTube features a Cannes interview by the two actors together which reveals how much they worked with each other to build a convincing relationship.
I enjoyed the film very much and I look forward to seeing what Rohena Gera does next. Here’s a sequence in which Ratna and Laxmi borrow the doorman’s scooter and go shopping. If you go to YouTube you can find the second Cannes clip in which Ratna and Ashwin are together in the flat . . .
. . . and here is the international trailer:
For several reasons this film is key to an understanding of what ‘Not Just Bollywood’ might mean in relation to the history of film traditions in India and in particular, the history of filmmaking described as ‘independent’ or ‘parallel cinema’ which is the primary interest of the season’s co-curator Dr Omar Ahmed. I’ll try to explain.
The title of the film may not mean much outside India. The story is located in a ‘colony’ in the small hill town of McCluskiegunj (or ‘ganj’) in what is now Jharkhand state but which in 1979, when the story is set, was part of Bihar. The colony was originally set up in 1933 by a Calcutta businessman named McCluskie as a settlement for members of the then substantial community of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. The film represents the directorial debut of the celebrated actor Konkona Sen Sharma. She wrote the screenplay herself, based on a story written by her father Mukul Sharma and with assistance by Disha Rindani. Konkona’s mother, the equally celebrated Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen, has a small ‘voice only’ part in the film.
A Death in the Gunj received many nominations for the 2018 Filmfare Awards in India, winning some technical awards and the award for ‘Debutant Director’. The reviews were generally very good and the film played at Toronto and other major festivals. I was surprised that many of the reviews failed to mention that the story is about an Anglo-Indian family. This suggests to me that the drama (and, at times, comedy of ‘manners’) was perhaps not fully appreciated by some reviewers outside India. As Wikipedia helpfully suggests, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ has been used in three different ways. Historically it might refer to those British colonial administrators and soldiers who spent most of their lives in India during the Raj (and earlier) or the original communities of Indians living in the UK. Now, however, it tends to refer specifically to the families formed through mixed marriages whose members tended to form distinct communities in various cities, but especially in Calcutta, during the early 20th century. Anglo-Indians tended to speak English and to identify as Christians. Before 1947 they were mainly employed in administrative jobs but after Independence the communities declined as many families emigrated to the UK and other Anglophone countries.
Anglo-Indians appear in several well-known films. The Hollywood adaptation of John Masters’ novel Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956) stars Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers and was directed by George Cukor. It focused on a railway family (a key Anglo-Indian profession) living close to the partition line in 1947. Satyajit Ray includes an Anglo-Indian character in Mahanagar (The Big City, India 1963). This character, a young woman in Calcutta working for a new company in the early 1950s, enables Ray to explore a range of issues about modernity and prejudice and to contrast this character with the film’s protagonist, a young Bengali housewife attempting to start a working life outside the home. Anglo-Indians in Bengali narratives of the 1950s-70s invariably cue social issues. A Death in the Gunj features mainly English dialogue for the family members with some Hindi and Bengali used with the house servants (who are local tribal people).
A Death in the Gunj focuses on one central family who are hosting a New Year holiday gathering. The parents who live in a house in the Gunj forest are played by Tanuja and Om Puri as the Bakshis. Their guests include their son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and small daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). The other family member is their nephew Shutu (Vikram Massey). The other guest staying in the house is Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). But over the holiday period there are a number of other visitors who also have family in the Gunj. Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) who is a highly disruptive influence (and who seems to spend time away from his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan)) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) is hoping to leave for Australia are both present for many scenes. In this mixed group it soon becomes clear that there is a bully and a character who is bullied, but most of the characters are self-centred in their own ways. There are also clear conflicts in terms of class, gender, age and ethnicity. I’ve seen the film described as a critique of patriarchy, which may indeed be the case, but for me the central reference is to a couple of Satyajit Ray films and no doubt others I know less well.
I was immediately reminded of Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) in which a quartet of young (upper) middle-class young men from Calcutta spend a week in a forest resort area (forcing a caretaker to break rules and open a government bungalow) in Bihar. They insult the local tribal people and then team up with a family group from Calcutta, including two bright and socially confident young women. There is a direct link between this film and A Death in the Gunj in the form of Aparna Sen who has a small role in each film. I also think that Ray’s earlier film Kanchenjungha (1964) and Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) (in which Konkona Sen Sharma stars) offer clues about the scenario of urban sophisticates on holiday or travelling away from Calcutta.
I personally see this film as a critique of Bengali upper middle-class mores worked through by an Anglo-Indian family (i.e. without the same resources or social status). Perhaps they are struggling with the British legacy (why is the story set in 1979?). Shutu is suffering because he is not ‘manly’ and is also a ‘failure’ as a student. Mimi is ‘modern’ but struggling with her sexuality and independence, O.P. (the Om Puri father character) in one of his last roles is playing a character whose time seems to be up and Nandu and Bonnie are struggling to bring up Tani in a modern family set-up. The tribals are treated badly or are ignored by most of the house party except Shutu.
As well as the links back to the films of Ray and her mother, Konkona Sen Sharma also links to the new ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ and to the more radical strains in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. Ranvir Shorey has been a star of both commercial and Hindie films (he was married to Konkona Sen Sharma from 2010-2015). Om Puri straddled both sectors and Konkona herself straddles Bengali cinema, Bollywood and the independents. It’s no surprise that the film shares actors with three of the other films in the HOME season. Tillotama Shome stars in Sir and Kalki Koeklin in Waiting. Vikrant Massey has a supporting role in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Konkona Sen Sharma herself is one of the four leads in that film. The benefits of all these links include a strong sense of ensemble performance with support for the debutant director.
A Death in the Gunj is a remarkable début for Konkona the director and I was completely engaged throughout. The film isn’t a mystery as the death is represented at the beginning of the film, though in a rather oblique way, and then a flashback forms the main part of the narrative presenting the events which led up to the tragedy. I want to praise the cinematography by Sirsha Ray and the background score by Sagar Desai. I was in that forest, feeling the cold of December and experiencing the tensions in the family. The real tragedy is that the film was not released in the UK. It would easily stand up to comparison with any UK/US or European releases. However, I realise that the audiences who enjoyed the films of Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1970s in the UK are now much harder to find. Still, well done to HOME for giving us the chance to see the such a wonderful film.
Not Just Bollywood: 2019 opens tomorrow with a rare screening of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy of films addressing political and social issues in Indian society. Deepa Mehta is an example of one of the important ‘diasporic’ or ‘exilic’ directors who have offered radical perspectives on Indian cinema and society through their films. In this respect she joins other important filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Gurinder Chadha. I don’t want to discuss the differences between ‘exilic’ and ‘diasporic’ here, only to recognise that for various reasons these filmmakers have been trained in and worked in other film industries/film cultures but have travelled to India to make Indian films with Indian stories. In the selection of six women who have directed films in India for this mini-season, three of the others, Dar Gai, Anu Menon and Rohena Gera, have similar experiences of training and living outside India.
Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar before moving as a child to Delhi and eventually graduating from Delhi university. In 1973 she emigrated to Canada with her husband, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. In Canada Mehta developed a career in documentary before moving into TV drama and eventually feature film production. In 1991 she directed a a Toronto-set film Sam and Me which featured an Indian family and the actors Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey as cast members. The latter two of this trio would become important in the Elements Trilogy when Mehta travelled to India to make Fire set in Delhi in 1995. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also featured in Earth made in 1998 and Water, completed in 2005. This last film, proved to be so controversial as a production that it had to be delayed and re-started, losing some of the other original cast members.
Deepa Mehta discusses the background to the trilogy in this Canadian interview which looks back on the selection of Water as the Canadian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2007:
She explains that she didn’t expect that the films would become controversial and that what attracted her were the stories themselves. She saw them as women’s stories, stories about women’s choices or rather the lack of choices that women in India have. The stories are set in different time periods and in different parts of India, but all three stories explore social issues still relevant today. Mehta suggests that she now sees that these kinds of stories are controversial in societies experiencing ‘hyper-nationalism’ because people are encouraged to attack anything that threatens a sense of a set national culture, they feel uncomfortable about anything that wants to question or set up a ‘conversation’ about what has happened and what might need to be changed. The interview was in 2017 in Canada and she refers to Trump’s America but it could be Modi’s India or Johnson’s UK right now, so she’s right to say that the stories are universal.
Fire, the first screening on Wednesday 11th September, offers a story about a young woman Sita (Nandita Das) who travels to Delhi to marry Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) but soon discovers that he has a mistress and no interest in his bride. Sita finds herself in a household of two brothers who share a shop. Jatin rents out videos and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a grocery business. Ashok, for different reasons shuns his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the two wives find themselves caring for Ashok’s elderly bed-ridden mother with the servant Mundu. The two women turn to each other for a real relationship. Deepa Mehta wrote the script herself but Wikipedia references Gayatri Gopinath as the source for a suggestion that the story is inspired by Ismat Chughtai‘s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). Fire is a Canadian film made as a co-production with India. The story and the cast are Indian but the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is British and editor Barry Farrell is Canadian – both also work in the US. On the other hand the music is by A R Rahman and other creative posts are held by Indians. The film’s dialogue is mostly in English. This choice is not that unusual in India and places the film in relation to some examples of what was known as ‘middle cinema’ in the 1980s in India and what is sometimes included under the heading of ‘parallel cinema’. The film to some extent ‘crossed over’ to a wider potential audience in India because of the subject content. Lesbian relationships were rare in Indian cinema at this point and this attracted protestors and attempts to shut down cinemas screening the film. One aspect of the narrative that was not so accessible for audiences outside India was the ‘play’ with the traditional depictions of Radha and Sita in the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Mehta appears to have possibly reversed the qualities of the two traditional characters.
Earth carried the title 1947: Earth in India, a direct indicator of its setting during the final weeks leading up to Partition. This story is an adaptation of a biographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa first published in the UK in 1988 as Ice Candy Man and the later in the US (1991) and India (1992) as Cracking India. Lenny is an 8 year-old girl in a Lahore Parsi family. She is recovering from polio and his very close to Shanta a young Hindu woman from South India employed as the household maid but seen by Lenny as her ‘Ayah’. Shanta is played by Nandita Das and the voiceover of the adult Lenny is delivered as narration at certain points by Shabana Azmi. The production is in many ways similar to Fire (so there is the same mix of Indian and European/Canadian creative personnel), but there are two differences that might make it more meaningful for Indian audiences (on top of the fact that the subject matter is so important in the history of India). First, the central character of the Ice Candy Man is played by Aamir Khan, already a leading Bollywood star and second, the dialogue features Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati with English only spoken by Lenny and her parents. The film was India’s Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 1999.
The Parsi family are close to the British in Lahore and are not part of the growing rift between the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in the city. The narrative cleverly weaves a story of romance through the events with Shanta being the object of desire for both the Muslim Ice Candy man and the Hindu masseur. The film must have felt personal for Deepa Mehta who was born in Amritsar only a few years after Partition and she must have heard the stories of anguish for those displaced into either Indian or Pakistani Punjab after the line was drawn and so many were killed. The trains arriving in stations full of those killed after attacks had come from or were going to cities like Amritsar or Lahore. I think Earth may be the film that affected me most in the trilogy. In a sense there is nothing ‘controversial’ in the film, except that it stirs memories and introduces younger viewers to the calamity that was the British partition of India. It does, however, also relate to the contemporary ‘communalism’ clashes in some parts of India.
Water, by contrast, was taken to be a direct challenge to Hindu traditions and appeared at a time when the ‘Religious Right’ was growing in strength in India. Deepa Mehta wrote this story herself with some dialogue written by Anurag Kashyap. Later Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with Mehta again and wrote a ‘novelisation’ of the film. The film should have been shot in 2000 in Varanasi as the location (as Benares) in 1938 where a young child is taken to a house of widows after the death of her adult husband. Hindu traditions decreed that widows must live away from the outside world. The protests turned violent and the film’s set by the ghats was destroyed. A deeply upset director was offered permission to shoot in neighbouring states where the BJP was not in power such as West Bengal and Bihar, but she decided to postpone the shoot. In interviews she has said that she was too angry to continue and that shooting a film fuelled by anger would damage her artistic vision. Eventually she decided to move the shoot to Sri Lanka five years later. This worked well for the production overall but she lost the opportunity to cast Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das for a third time. The younger and older women’s roles went to Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas. Lisa Ray had appeared in Deepa Mehta’s earlier Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and was just beginning to attract attention from Indian filmmakers. Seema Biswas is probably best known to UK audiences as the lead performer in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994).
The narrative involves a meeting between the child widow and a law student follower of Gandhi. This is Narayan played by John Abraham from Kerala who, like Lisa Ray, had been a leading fashion model and was only just established as an unusual leading man in Hindi cinema. But if Lisa Ray and John Abraham raised a few eyebrows in India, the veteran star Waheeda Rahman playing Narayan’s mother was a re-assuring presence.
I wrote about encountering Water on its UK release in an early posting on this blog. I don’t want to repeat those points here and I may have different responses now but the post is worth visiting, partly to follow the links to other writers at the time. As the interview above indicates, Water was a big hit in Canada and is seen by many as Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement. Its reception in India was more mixed but it had champions as well as detractors. It will be interesting to see what the audience at HOME makes of the film today when contemporary films have become much more explicit and challenging about the abuse directed at women in India which is so deeply rooted in the society. Having recently watched Article 15 and The Incessant Fear of Rape I’m sorry not to be able to attend the HOME screening of Water on Wednesday 18 September and gauge the reaction.
The trilogy is a major achievement by Deepa Mehta and this is a timely screening for the three films.
The 3rd season of ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ runs from September 11th to October 2nd at HOME in Manchester. You can access the full details of the programme on the HOME website. There are eight films in all and a ‘One Hour Intro: The New Woman and Contemporary Indian Cinema’ with Dr Saba Hussain from the University of Warwick. The joint curators of the season, Dr Omar Ahmed and Head of Film at HOME Rachel Hayward will introduce the first film in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Elements’ trilogy, Fire (1996). I will be introducing the final film in the programme, Anu Menon’s Waiting (2015).
This year’s programme is directly linked to HOME’s year-long programme Celebrating Women in Global Cinema to spotlight some of the best examples of Indian independent films directed by women. There are six featured directors in the programme as well as a number of leading female actors. An important feature of the programme is the inter-connected nature of the films with the same actors appearing in different films for different directors with a sense of a collective interest in Indian independent cinema as well as a respect for fellow professionals. Tillotama Shome appears in both Sir (2018) by Rohena Gera and A Death in the Gunj (2016) by Konkona Sen Sharma. Director Sen Sharma is also one of the four women featured in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) by Alankrita Shrivastava. Kalki Koechlin, one of the most prominent actors of Indian independent cinema features in both A Death in the Gunj and Waiting. There are other double appearances as well and some actors will be familiar from films in the two earlier editions of ‘Not Just Bollywood’.
The first two films of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy feature Nandita Das and in Fire she is paired with Shabana Azmi. Azmi whose career began back in 1974 with Shyam Benegal’s Ankur: The Seedling, is a representative of the first generation of actors to gain a profile through the Parallel cinema that revived Indian cinema’s interest in the ‘social’ film. Shabana Azmi a graduate of the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) became both a star and a campaigning social activist. Her pioneering work was picked up by Nandita Das who added the director’s role to her impressive acting performances and social activism. Both women would have appeared in Deepa Mehta’s third ‘Elements’ film, Water if the shoot had not been forced to re-schedule by political and religious opposition groups. Konkona Sen Sharma also has links to the earlier Parallel period, appearing as an actor for her mother Aparna Sen, one of the foremost women in Indian cinema as both actor and director since the 1960s. The women of the ‘New Indian independent cinema’ are developing and broadening the work of earlier generations and ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ offers the perfect opportunity to discover what they have achieved.
Posts on each of the titles in the season will appear on the blog over the next few weeks.