These notes were compiled for a Day School earlier this year that looked at extracts from various Indian films/films about India in an attempt to understand how the issues surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 have been represented on screens.
The ‘partition’ of India was the final act by the British colonial administration working through the India Office and the Viceroy (i.e. the King’s representative) in August 1947. The Viceroy then became the Governor-General of India still representing the King as the Head of State in the independent ‘Dominion’ of India. In Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became Governor-General.
The Labour government in London faced many severe problems in the immediate aftermath of war. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst on record in the UK and the heavy snowfalls in January severely disrupted industry and agriculture. As much as 10% of industrial output was lost, energy supplies were severely restricted. Public spending with the foundation of the National Health Service and the expense of military activity abroad (15% of GDP) created pressure on sterling and subsequent devaluation from $4.00 to $2.80 as the dollar exchange rate. Historians see this as the first stage in the UK’s decline as a superpower. Despite the enormity of the Partition of India as an event, it was only one of the problems facing Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet (withdrawal from Palestine was also a priority). Mountbatten was given considerable powers and the government was prepared to accept a swift retreat from India. Communal conflict has been a feature of life in India at various times throughout recent history (much of it caused directly by British policies) and in August 1946 around 4,000 people lost their lives in Calcutta during clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The lack of action by the colonial authorities at this point is inexcusable, but the British state was increasingly running out of resources to police India effectively. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy in February 1947, charged with achieving a British withdrawal by June 1948 at the latest. He accelerated the process of withdrawal in an attempt to avoid further violence – but instead probably exacerbated the conflicts.
The leaders of the Indian Independence movement, including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, had been pressing for independence since the 1920s and earlier. (The Congress Party and the Muslim League had origins in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.) The emergence of a ‘two state’ solution is generally accepted to have happened because of the position that Jinnah and the Muslim League adopted in the early 1940s. Jinnah argued for a division according to religious affiliation because of fear that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. Ironically, Jinnah himself was not a ’religious Muslim’ and the British had encouraged separate political constituencies for Muslims and Hindus and other religious groups as early as 1932 with ‘The Communal Award’. Congress could reasonably argue that Jinnah did not have the support of the majority of Muslims across India as shown in local elections, but he convinced the British that he was the Muslim leader they should negotiate with.
Once partition appeared inevitable (i.e. when Jinnah and Gandhi /Nehru could not agree on how to negotiate with the Viceroy), the fundamental problem became how to divide the three provinces of British India in which there were roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Punjab was further complicated by the presence of the home base of Sikhism in Amritsar. Bengal had already experienced a very unpopular earlier partition by the British along religious lines in 1905 (rescinded in 1911). Jammu and Kashmir was actually a ‘princely state’ – not under direct British control. India and Pakistan had to negotiate a partition arrangement after independence and this proved extremely difficult – leading to future military confrontations.
Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir will be the focus of our study of how Partition has been represented on film.
Who was actually responsible for creating this inevitability of Partition in 1947 is the most contentious issue in the history of the period. The most recent British film focusing on Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) lays much of the blame on the wartime British leader Winston Churchill and his attempts in 1944-5 to prepare for the threat of Soviet influence over an independent India. Nehru was seen as most likely to adopt a non-aligned but friendly position vis-a-vis Moscow and Churchill saw the possibility of an independent Pakistan as a Western ally, allowing British bases to remain in place. In a documentary screened on British TV in August 2017, Chadha explored this evidence further (referring to wartime documents held in the British Library). This programme suggested that Jinnah had met privately with Churchill and that the idea of Pakistan as a future ally against the Russians was widely shared by what Chadha termed as “the British establishment” – including the Royal Family and the military. The suggestion is, therefore, that the Attlee government was faced with a fait accompli policy that they were unable to alter. Indian historians and Indian filmmakers have tended to blame Jinnah and the British – either separately or together.
‘British India’ referred to what were in effect British colonies, locally administered by colonial civil servants and the India Office in London. In 1947 there were seven major provinces administered in this way and developed from the original ‘presidencies’ of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
The British Crown also had ‘suzerainty’ over some 500 plus ‘princely states’, ranging from large states such as Hyderabad and Mysore to tiny states of a few thousand. Each local ruler had to make a separate arrangement with the newly established dominions of India and Pakistan.
The directly ruled colonies and the princely states together comprised the ‘British Raj’ established after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also became known as ‘the Indian Empire’.
Languages and local cultures
Religion was just one of the potentially divisive factors in India in 1947 and its impact was felt most strongly in the North. In much of Southern India, language differences and ethnic differences (i.e. the Dravidian South’s mistrust of the Aryan North) were more important. During the 1950s and 1960s, Indian government was re-organised to produce states based on linguistic groups. In the states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan after partition, the fact that the mass of the population in the East spoke Bengali and not Urdu was a major issue for any sense of ‘national identity’.
Indian film industries
We are concerned with representations of the events of Partition and its aftermath on film. One of the important issues for us is to identify which film industry has produced a film and who the ‘creatives’ (writer and director in particular) might be. There are many films about Partition issues as well as many filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’ve tried to include something from each of the following categories (they are overlapping categories, so some films and filmmakers appear in more than one category). There is no ‘ranking’ in this list.
- Popular (mainstream) Hindi cinema – often now retrospectively termed ‘Bollywood’.
- Popular international or Hollywood ‘studio’ films.
- Indian art films and ‘parallel cinema’ films
- International art films
- Films by Indian diaspora directors
- Indian ‘regional films’ – films in languages other than Hindi (or English)
(Because of difficulties of availability of films, I have not included Pakistani or Bangladeshi films that might address Partition issues)
From the list above, it would be useful to distinguish between a film like Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s biopic, as an ‘international’ Hollywood studio film and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House as an independent British film (with some Hollywood support) directed by a diaspora director – someone whose grandparents left Rawalpindi in 1947 and who now lives in the UK.
The so-called ‘parallel’ or ‘middle cinema’ of India is difficult to define but it is clearly distinguished from the popular Indian cinema of multi-genre narratives and choreographed song and dance sequences. Parallel cinema was/is more ‘serious’ in its social concerns and character development. It is more difficult to distinguish between parallel and ‘art’ or ‘avant-garde’ cinema, the latter being in formal and narrative terms more experimental.
What follows is an attempt to select extracts from films which represent Partition and in some cases its aftermath in Pakistan, West Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab. In some cases, longer posts are available discussing the films in more detail and I have included links where appropriate.
Jinnah (1998, UK-Pakistan, (English) dir Jamil Dehlavi)
This unusual biopic of the Muslim leader stars Christopher Lee in the title role. Director Dehlavi is a diaspora figure based in Europe and he used mostly British-based actors alongside Indian star actor Shashi Kapoor in this co-production with Pakistan that was controversial at the time of its release but has since been accepted in Pakistan.
Subarnarekha (Golden Line, 1962, Bengali, dir Ritwik Ghatak)
Despite being one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, Ritwik Ghatak’s films were not widely appreciated when first released. But when he went on to become one of the first tutors at the Indian Film Institute in Pune, he soon became an influential figure for younger directors. He was very much affected by partition, being forced to move from East to West Bengal. His trilogy of films in the early 1960s uses music and politics to explore the heartbreak of partition. (The other two films in the trilogy are Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961).
In Subarnarekha, Ishwar, a man in his late twenties and his younger sister Sita find themselves in a refugee camp in Calcutta where they acquire a stepbrother – a young refugee boy Abhiram who has lost his mother. This trio then find themselves in the western part of Bengal by the Subarnarekha River. The children grow up and fall in love, but the older brother can’t cope with events and breaks down, unable to escape from his past. In the clip above, the landscape is expressive of the despair and sense of exile and loss experienced by Ishwar.
Roja (1992, Tamil, dir Mani Ratnam)
An important film for Indian cinema, Roja is an example of Tamil language popular cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which in the early 1990s preferred stylised fantasy films, Tamil cinema, and Mani Ratnam in particular, created romances set in ‘real’ situations. Roja (‘Rose’ – a symbol for Kashmir) sees a Tamil cryptologist working for Indian intelligence being sent to Kashmir with his young wife. Visiting an area close to the ‘line of control’, he is captured by a Muslim guerrilla group who want to exchange him for one of their own members imprisoned by Indian forces. The film won many awards and was hailed as a ‘patriotic film’, being dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam. It encouraged Bollywood to think of more serious issues as the basis for entertainment features.
In this clip the cryptologist tries to talk to his captors.
Lakshya (2004, Hindi, dir Farhan Aktar)
This mainstream Bollywood blockbuster was written by the director’s father, Javed Akhtar, one of the most acclaimed writers in Indian cinema. A young man (Hrithik Roshan) from a wealthy Delhi family attempts to give up his aimless life and eventually passes out of the Indian Military Academy. He is posted to Kashmir and given the opportunity to prove himself in action against Pakistani insurgents. The various conflicts on the Kashmir border/line of control feature in several Indian films, often associated with the ‘Kargil War‘ of 1999.
The film shows Hindi cinema attempting to merge a romance (Pretty Zinta is the hero’s ‘lost girlfriend’, a TV reporter) with a story about young India’s indifference towards guarding its border. Ironically, the Colonel of the regiment is played by the supreme Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan. At the time Roshan was one of the young hopefuls attempting to replace Bachchan.
The clip below is a ‘music video’ featuring the title song with scenes from the film. We see the hero in training and the role of the Army officer is shown as both heroic and glamorous. It’s worth noting that both the Indian and Pakistani Armies were created out of the British Indian Army in 1947, a situation which initially created the possibility of a civil war situation in which officers and men who had trained together might find themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. The Bollywood presentation suggests that today there is an American influence on how the image of the Indian military is constructed.
Garam Hava (1973, dir M.S. Sathyu)
This film, in Urdu, is one of the first examples of the ‘parallel cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The title translates as ‘Scorching Winds’. They are mentioned in the first few lines of dialogue as threatening the flowering trees of the city of Agra (the city which is the home of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, two major symbols of the Muslim Mughal Empire in India). If not uprooted, the trees will wither in the heat. ‘Scorching Winds’ is also metaphorical and refers to the violence of communalism sweeping through India in 1947-8. The film deals with a Muslim owner of a small shoe factory. He decides to stay in Agra, but his brother moves to Karachi and gradually life becomes very difficult for the brother left behind. Garam Hava proved controversial even after more than 20 years since the events depicted. It had a delayed release because of fears of communalist violence. It was supported by the government agency, the NFDC and submitted as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
In the interview above the director and scriptwriter discuss the film and its legacy in some detail. The interview in 2014 was conducted at the time of the film’s re-release. (You need to click on the link and watch the interview directly on YouTube).
Earth (1998, dir. Deepa Mehta)
Earth is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, first published as ‘Ice Candy Man’ in the UK in 1988. The director Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar in Punjab in 1950. She moved to Delhi as a child and graduated from the University of Delhi. In 1973 she migrated to Canada and started a film career as a writer and documentarist. She directed her first feature in 1991 and as well as English language features in Canada she has returned to India to make four features. Earth was the second film in her ‘Elements’ trilogy after Fire (1996) and preceding Water in 2005. All three films were controversial (Fire addresses lesbianism and Water, the treatment of widows in traditional Hindu culture). They were also highly praised and won prizes. Her 2012 adaptation of Midnight’s Children was less successful (but still well worth watching).
Although this is a film from a diaspora director with photography by Giles Nuttgens from the UK, it is also a film deeply rooted in Indian cinemas. The music is by A. R. Rahman and the actors include the current Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in an early role. Nandita Das is a star of Indian parallel cinema and other cast members are well-known in India.
The film is part of the group of films, like Garam Hava that deal with the personal tragedies of Partition rather than directly with the political machinations. Like Train to Pakistan its focus on Punjab means that the complexity of religious, social and cultural relationships are explored in some detail.
The film is set in 1947 in Lahore in Northern Punjab. The city has a Muslim majority but the household at the centre of the narrative is Parsee and the little girl who in effect ‘narrates’ the story has a Hindu nanny/maid (Nandita Das) who has a circle of friends that includes Muslims and Sikhs. The clip below shows the girl and the maid during the kite-flying festival and the maid is being wooed by the Aamir Khan character, the Muslim known as the ‘Ice-Candy Man’, one of his several identities. The kite-flying is a joyful competition which ironically underlines how the community will later be divided by the violence of the communal violence in the lead up to Partition.
Train to Pakistan (1998, dir. Pamela Rooks)
This is another film that received backing from NFDC as a later example of a parallel film. Pamela Rooks was a filmmaker born in Calcutta to an Army family, but the film (in Hindi) is set in Punjab. It’s an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Kushwant Singh, himself a major cultural figure in India post 1947.
The trailer above does not have English subtitles but a subtitled DVD is available in the UK. The story is set in an Indian village in 1947 close to the new border with Pakistan. Despite the conflict all around them, the villagers, mostly Sikh landowners and a minority of Muslim labourers, live a peaceful life. The film explores, through various characters, how the peaceful village is drawn into the conflict. The village money-lender is killed when he refuses to open his safe for a band of Sikh dacoits. The local magistrate, befuddled by whisky and a young prostitute, sanctions the arrest of two men – one is a Communist Party member just arrived from Delhi and the other a local dacoit who never robs in his own village and who was sleeping with his Muslim girlfriend when the murder was committed. The magistrate and police attempt to frame both men, meanwhile a train filled with dead Sikhs arrives in the village and a little later, Muslim refugees on foot from India.
Other Partition narratives
The films discussed here are by no means the only examples of film narratives exploring Partition. Here are two other examples not discussed on the day:
Partition (Canada-UK-South Africa 2007)
Another diaspora director, Vic Sarin, made this film in English starring Jimi Mistry, Irrfan Khan and Neve Campbell in Canada. It takes the Sikh perspective on partition in Punjab.
Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India-Germany-France-Netherlands 2013)
I didn’t see this fine film by Anup Singh until after the Partition Event. Please follow the link on the title above for more details. The film again stars Irrfan Khan as a Sikh in the Punjab at the time of partition. Anup Singh is also a diaspora director with a similar but also slightly different background to Gurinder Chadha.
I used the following two books alongside web searches in preparation for the event:
Akbar, M. J. (1985) India: The Siege Within, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007) Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London: Simon and Schuster
The films from which extracts have been taken have all been available in the UK on DVD except Garam Hava (which is available on YouTube or from India/US as a Region 0 DVD).
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.
The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?
I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.
Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.
Screen International‘s reviewer described Dhobi Ghat as an arthouse film after seeing it at the Toronto Festival. Mike Goodridge suggested that the film could play in specialised cinemas internationally, but he (correctly) forecast that because the film stars Aamir Khan it would be released on what he called “the Indian circuit” (i.e the 17 different territories that take Bollywood releases) to avoid piracy. And indeed that has been the case with a successful release in UK multiplexes. (I noticed too that the film was playing in Kuala Lumpur on the circuit.) This raises all kinds of questions about production/distribution of what Goodridge refers to as the ‘new independent Indian Cinema’.
Dhobi Ghat is an Aamir Khan Production, written and directed by Kiran Rao – Khan’s partner. Since Khan is the Number 1 star in Bollywood at the moment, we should perhaps question what ‘independent’ means in this context. Although the film sometimes looks as if it was shot ‘on the run’ (Wikipedia refers to ‘guerilla shooting’), it was in fact a major production as evidenced by the lists of VFX and extensive crew roles. Currently there are two different overall budget figures across the web. The film cost either 5 crores or 11 crores (i.e. around £500,000 or £1.4 million). I suspect the latter figure includes a major marketing budget. Even £500,000 would get you quite a long way on an independent Indian shoot – especially if Khan himself works without a fee.
The idea behind the film derives from the interconnections between four very different characters in Mumbai (the alternative title is Mumbai Diaries). Arun (Aamir Khan) is an artist – a loner who grudgingly attends his own exhibition opening. Here he meets Shai, an American investment banker whose father still owns property in Mumbai. She is on a ‘sabbatical’, supposedly researching SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) in South Asia, but seemingly more interested in pursuing her hobby of photography. Both of them use the same laundry service offered by a dhobi nicknamed Munnah – a young Muslim from Bihar. The fourth character only exists on videotapes that Arun finds in a drawer when he moves to a new apartment. Yasmin is an unhappy young woman trapped in a loveless marriage as a new arrival in Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh. She makes the videotapes to send to her brother back home. The tapes then provide stimulus for Arun who sets out on a new project.
I’m not sure what I make of this film. On the one hand, it is a beautifully-produced and engaging narrative (though not a conventional story for mainstream audiences). But it is also rather contrived and conventional with imagery that is almost too ‘composed’ in its presentation of Mumbai. (The photos that Shai takes are extremely well-composed and look like the belong in a gallery.) Omar offers an excellent analysis of how Mumbai is presented and he (and Shubhajit) clearly love the film. I certainly enjoyed watching it and I recognise that it’s nearly thirty years since I experienced Bombay (as it still was then), but although there were some streetscapes that I recognised, I did feel that mostly the film repeated images from other films. Partly, I blame the soundtrack by the critically-acclaimed Argentinian Gustavo Santaolalla. The use of music made me think of Satyajit Ray’s ‘composed’ films, but it tended to remove the sense of noisy bustle on the streets, calming everything down. Sorry, the music is beautiful, but I think I would have preferred either A. R. Rahman or the more direct sound of Salaam Bombay!. The critical reaction to the film has come up with the idea that ‘Mumbai’ itself is a fifth character and there is a general consensus that “only in Mumbai” could we find these kinds of stories. Certainly I think it’s true that Mumbai is the Indian equivalent of Los Angeles – attraqcting dreamers and those seeking their fortune (or just a living) from all over India. Rao herself has claimed that the script was based to some extent on her own experiences living in the city and the issues concerning class, caste and religion in many scenes are well handled.
The contrivance comes from the introduction of Yasmin’s tapes at the start of the film when we don’t know their provenance. The film starts with wobbly ‘amateur’ video footage shot on Mini-DV with Yasmin’s voiceover. I felt some uneasiness around me in the cinema until more conventional composed images shot on 35 and 16mm appeared. The tapes intrigue us partly through this introduction – whereas the rest of the narrative is presented in a linear fashion. In the last part of the film we are offered quite conventional narrative resolutions in terms of crime or romance dramas. The four characters are well-drawn but what happens to them seemed familiar to me in terms of Bombay stories. There is nothing wrong with that of course, only that the film sometimes promises to transcend a conventional Mumbai-set drama.
The casting sets Aamir Khan against three newcomers (at least as leads). Khan exudes starpower. He plays the mostly sullen loner and his muscle-toned figure and intense stares dominate several scenes. The two women (with Kriti Malhotra as Yasmin) are excellent but the revelation is the dhobi wallah, played by Prateik – who turns out to be the son of India’s greatest star of parallel cinema, Smita Patil. Prateik would never have known his mother who died when he was only a few weeks old. But mention of his mother raises the question of how this film fits in with the tradition of parallel cinema. Aamir Khan himself refers to the parallel tradition in interviews. I think that the film points in the right direction and its success (both commercially and critically) means that it may be easier to get other similar films made. Certainly Kiran Rao has real talent as does the first-time cinematographer, Tushar Kanti Ray and the trio of actors. Aamir Khan continues to be a fascinating filmmaker as actor/producer/director. The screening of Dhobi ghat was preceded by a teaser trailer for the next Aamir Khan Productions release in the Summer entitled Delhi Belly. The short clip looked like an hommage to Danny Boyle and Trainspotting!
Returning to the discussion of ‘specialised film’ status, I doubt whether many people in the audience at Cineworld were from the usual UK specialised audience. If someone like Clare Binns at City Screen, or perhaps the ICO, were to put the film into UK specialised cinemas, I’m confident that they would find an audience.
Here is an HD trailer that offers a glimpse of the visual beauty of Dhobi ghat:
In this interesting clip, Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan demonstrate how they set up some of the street scenes in one of the famous thoroughfares in ‘Old Bombay’.
The excellent official website for the film offers a good range of resources (thanks Omar)
Also And Quiet Rolls the Day. 1979. Directed by Mrinal Sen. In Bengali with English subtitles.
The article contains plot information, however the plot is not the main focus of the film and its ending is ambiguous.
Mrinal Sen is among the leading independent Bengali directors, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Like Ray he was involved in the Calcutta Film Society: and like Ghatak he worked in the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association. However, he has his own distinctive themes and style, and he was a pioneer in what became known as the Parallel or New Indian Cinema in the 1970s. The major political influence is less Partition [which was central to the films of Ghatak] and more the Naxalite Movement of the 1960s. This was a Marxist-Leninists grouping that split from the official Communist Party of India. Their popular name came from actions in Naxalbari in Bengal in 1967, where peasant seized lands and dispensed ‘people’s justice’. Though the movement was suppressed its political influence and ‘Naxalite struggles’ continue in the sub-continent. These politics are clearest in Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy, especially the second film Calcutta ’71 (1972).
Ek Din Pratidin is less overtly about politics, but it displays the stylistic stance that Sen favoured in his early career. This film also fits into a trilogy, essentially of family melodramas. The other two titles are Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989) and Mahaprithivi (World Within, World Without, 1991). “The three films under discussion all dramatise the bourgeois nuclear family”. [Bishnuptriya Ghosh, 2000]. In each of the three films a crisis occurs when a family member goes missing or dies, though the plots never fully explain what has occurred. In Ek Din Pratidin it is the eldest daughter, also the family breadwinner, who fails to return home on an evening after work.
In this film the family is described as lower middle class. However, the English term is somewhat vague and probably fails to define the particular cultural and economic situation of the film.
The family in question has seven members: the father, Rishikesh Sengupta (Satya Bannerjee); the Mother (Geeta Sen); the eldest son Tupu ; his younger brother Poltu; the eldest daughter Chinu (Mamata Shankar); her younger sister Meenu (Sreela Mujundar); and the youngest daughter Jhuna . Rikeshesh’ status is identified by the address Rikisheshbabu. Babu can be translated as ‘sir’: “babu culture (the well-educated, cultured, polite middle class who retain a certain Victorian Eurocentrism).” In the Bengali context this is known as bhadralok culture.
“Bhadralok sometimes designates education or the kind of labour in which one is engaged; at other times, it is used to demarcate literacy or participation in high culture; at yet others, it creates a marker between immigrant and non-immigrant communities. One’s level of education, accent, emotional restraint, distaste of admitting to material constraints and/or exploitation, and controlled sexuality are some of the classic features of this concept used in gender and class relations as a sign of civilisation.” [B. Ghosh, 2000].
So we are presented with this consciously civilised family set in a context where such values are of great importance. However, the family’s economic situation no longer corresponds to such class values. The father is in receipt of a pension, which is inadequate for the family needs. The son, college educated, cannot find a suitable job but will not undertake manual labour. The three youngest children are in education. Chinu, the eldest daughter. contributes the major income. She has an office position which brings in [with pay and extras] over 500 rupees a month. However, this economic achievement brings with it cultural conflicts with the traditional value relating to gender.
It fact the family hangs over an abyss, likely to slide into the world of the proletarian and lumpen proletarian masses of the city. Their situation is dramatised by their position in the house in which they reside. This is an old C19th mansion owned by Darikbabu and whilst he resides on the top floor the rest is rented out to families. Significantly the Sengupta family are on the ground floor, alongside the communal courtyard and by the entry door. Darikbabu`s lofty position is reflected in his treatment of his tenants. He acts as a lord, berating them over the careless use of water and electricity. He also upbraids the family over the question of traditional morals.
The mise en scène and camerawork of the film reinforce this hierarchical relationship. A recurring shot is a low angle from the courtyards and taking in or titling up the mansion, towering above. Camera tilts down the building emphasise the cultural descent implied in its layout. The family’s reduced circumstances are also depicted by the cramped constraints of the rooms which they inhabit, emphasised by tight angle shots of groups and individuals within. There are frequent slow pans across groups of faces and tracks across the setting. There is a feel of entrapment, added to by shots through doorways, grills and bars.
The film’s plot covers only one night. The pre-title sequence introduces us to the locality and includes a school accident to Poltu. He is tied to his bed for the rest of the film. The narrative is also partly restricted to the confines of the family space. When characters venture out into the city it is predominantly at night, adding a noirish feel to the film. The sense of an alien and dangerous space beyond the home adds to the feeling of paranoia.
The main action covers the point in the evening when it becomes apparent that Chinu is late home from work. Immediately the repressed fears of the family start to surface. This angst is fuelled by the mainly unsympathetic interest taken by the neighbours, both in the courtyard and the house. These fears concern the sexual and economic dangers that may have befallen Chinu and may befall her family. But they are also expressions of the traditional values of bapu culture, a culture that provides the uncertain foundation for this community.
There are sympathetic characters in the house. Shyamalbabu lives one floor above the Sengupta family. A sign of his greater affluence as he is still in employment. He actively helps in the search for Chinu. A young girl, Lilly shows empathy for the situation of the women: she challenges the moralistic comments of her elders. But others, especially the landlord, exude strong disapproval.
As the night progresses the fears and angst of the family increase. Early on Meenu tries to phone Chinu’s office from the local surgery, without success. Then Tupu, helped by his friend Amol [who owns a motorcycle and seems to be a bit of a ‘wide boy’] visits first the police station and then the local morgue. As these actions develop the encircling darkness becomes more obvious and dissension increase within the family.
Later the police call at the house. A young woman has attempted suicide: she is pregnant. Rikishesh, accompanied by Tupu and Shyamal visit the hospital. There a group of possible relatives wait for news. The fears and angst of the Senguptas equally consume all. The woman dies and the relatives have to inspect the body: It is not Chinu.
Then in the early hours of the morning Chinu returns by taxi. The audience has in fact greater knowledge than the family. We saw a sequence earlier where she boarded a crowded tram. Another sequence showed an unanswered telephone call at the local surgery: presumably Chinu trying to contact her family. Whilst her safe return assuages the fears of the family it does not resolve the repressed fears. The family members show little relief and Chinu herself asks “Do people have no faith in me at all”. The repressed nature of the fears is emphasised when none of the family can bring themselves to ask Chinu where she has been. And this repression recurs later when none of the other tenants can bring themselves to ask the family a similar question.
The landlord does descend to the courtyard and threatens the family with eviction: making vague allusions to morals. He is confronted by Tupu who nearly comes to blows with him. Tupu also re-imposes masculine authority by ordering Chinu back into the house. One senses that the landlord will be unwilling or unable to enforce his threat. Morning sees a veil of normality over the courtyard as the house rises. The mother prepares food as on the previous day, though pointedly, the final shot is through the bars of a window.
The narrative of the film is predominantly linear and naturalistic. There is one flashback to an argument between mother and son. However, at several points Sen uses what are usually described as Brechtian techniques: distancing devices. The film’s opening, and a later sequence panning over the city, have titles in Bengali, which appear to offer comment. Unfortunately these were not translated in the recent version that I have viewed. Then on three occasions an authoritative voice-over informs the viewer about contextual matters. In the first we are introduced to the history of the house, its tenants and the Sengupta family. The comments conjure up the C19th Raj, when Bhadralok culture developed, with its co-operation with the British occupation.
The second sequence explains to the audience Chinu’s importance in the family economy as she travels home. In a third sequence a voice over accompanies an insert shot of Chinu, and the competing voices of the junior family members, asking for gifts from her income. Importantly Meenu does not make such a request; indicative of the empathy she shows for Chinu’s situation. Later she challenges the family’s narrow and selfish fears over the incident.
Another sequence with distancing techniques occurs in the hospital scene. The camera prowls round as the waiting relatives voice their fears about the young woman in care: several of these are addressed direct to camera, once more encouraging the audience to consider both the words and what they represent.
The soundtrack reinforces the paranoia of the film. There are a couple of melodies but most of the time this consists of modernist music and accompanying discordant sounds. There feel is both unsettling and indicative of the underlying dread felt by the characters. A sound reproducing a ticking clock accompanies the main titles and recurs throughout the film, emphasising the slow passing of time as experienced by the characters.
Though only 91 minutes in length Ek Din Pratidin is a powerful film, developing a melodramatic situation, fraught with perils for the characters. Yet it also encourages the audience to step back and consider the economic and cultural forces that develop the melodrama in a particular way. Apparently family melodramas were a popular genre in the Bengali cinema of the 1950s and 60s and they generally supported the dominant bhadralok culture. [B. Gosh, 2000]. Sen beautifully subverts this type of story and situation, but allows the audience to both involve themselves in that story whilst [possibly] considering and understanding its position in the larger social scheme.
Bishnupriya Ghosh, Melodrama and the bourgeois family: notes on Mrinal Sen’s critical cinema in The Enemy Within The Films of Mrinal Sen, edited by Sumita S Chakavarty, Flicks Books, 2000. The article, and the book, are rather academic. I also think some points on the film are mistaken. However, there is a lot of useful comment on the context, including on Bengali cinema.
The film has been distributed in the UK and was screened on UK television [I think C4] in the 1980s. Currently available on Angel Digital DVD. Unfortunately the colour is now very washed out and night-time scenes are pretty dark. The subtitles probably contain errors. A translation of a comment reads, “1897 … the revolutionary year of the soldiers.” This is a reference to the Gadre or Great Rebellion, which occurred in 1857.
Restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. 158 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles, black and white, 1.37:1. Available in 35mm and High Definition versions.
“If you were eighteen years old, growing up in New Delhi, a student of cinema, a cinephile or a plain film snob, it was given that you would swoon over the film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and spend endless hours in the Delhi University canteen discussing his film, his alcoholism and his eventual death from Tuberculosis. … years later when I saw his epic, A River Called Titas, [that] I swooned for different reasons. The film is a work of pure genius. A passionate elegy for a dying culture, it moved me profoundly, and continues to haunt me to this day.” Deepa Mehta in Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue, 2010.
Ghatak is a key filmmaker and influence in Indian cinema, but is much less well known in the West: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary omits him completely. Apart from a series of nine feature films Ghatak was also Professor of Film Direction at the Film Institute of India from 1965 to 1967. Here he influenced a generation of young cineastes, including a number who were to become important in Independent Film production.
Ghatak was born in East Bengal in 1925, then part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Later East Bengal was included in the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. After the 1971 war of secession it became Bangladesh. Whilst he was young Ghatak’s family moved to Calcutta. In the 1940s he became politically active and worked in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. This was a radical cultural organisation associated with the Communist Party of India. It was very influential in the early years after Independence including in mainstream and independent filmmaking. Ghatak [among other works] staged plays by Bertold Brecht, who was an influence on both his stage and film work. Ghatak started work in Indian mainstream cinema as an actor. He became a scenarist at the Bombay Filmistan Studio in the 1950s, working with the major film director Bimal Roy, [Roy’s most famous film is Do Bigha Zameen (19540 which was seen as influenced by Neorealism].
Bengal was not only the scene of strife in the dismemberment of India. It had suffered badly under British colonial rule, especially in the major famine of 1943. This social and personal history left a strong mark on Ghatak’s work. The sense of loss, exile and conflict are powerfully felt in his films. Bengal was also the home of Satyajit Ray. However, whilst both filmmakers use a form distinct from popular mainstream films, they are themselves rather different. Both filmmakers often create a documentary look, and show the influence of Neorealism. And Ghatak shares with Ray an ability to integrate characters with landscapes, and he also make compelling use of indigenous music. However, Ghatak uses songs rather than instrumental pieces, and these offer a commentary on the characters and events. Moreover, Ghatak favours a style which included the melodramatic, a staple of popular Indian films. His work offer frequent dramatic close-ups where the emotions and conflicts experienced by the characters are powerfully presented. But these are often counterpoised with long shots and long takes, creating a sense of distance from the scene. Ghatak tends to a style which might be term Brechtian, in the sense that it not only encourages the viewer to stand back a little, but also to consider and appraise the events in the film story. The overall style tends to the elliptical; both the overall narrative and individual sequences are often disrupted by abrupt changes due to visual and sound edits. The soundtracks in Ghatak’s films are especially noticeable, with both songs and noise changing abruptly.
A River Called Titas is typical of this approach. The film is adapted from a classic Bengali novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman. The film is structured as much by symbolism and myth as it is by the development of a plot. Especially on first viewing the progress of character and plot can be difficult to follow.
[The following contains general plot information].
The tale is set among the Malo fishermen who toil on the waters of the Titas. The community includes both Hindu and Muslim families, though Hindu characters dominate the narrative. The central figures are Basanti, a young girl: Kishore, a fisherman: Rajar Khi, Kishore’s bride; and Ananta, Rajar’s son. We first see Basanti as a young girl in the village. Kishore and his brother Subol go on a fishing trip. It is on this trip that Kishore meets Rajar, whom he rescues in a village conflict. He then marries her and takes her back to his village. However, river bandits abduct her and this drives Kishore crazy. Basanti, who envisaged marrying Kishore, marries Subol instead, but he is drowned on the day of the wedding. There is an ellipsis of ten years.
Rajar with her son Ananta arrives in the village seeking shelter. Neither she nor Kishore recognise each other. The situation creates conflicts over traditional values regarding marriage and child rearing. Kishore is attacked and dies, and Rajar drowns alongside him. Basanti now takes care of Ananta; a situation objected to by Basanti’s parents. More village and domestic feuding lead to Ananta leaving to live with another family. Meanwhile the Brahmin landowners stir up conflicts and demand the repayments of loan from the fishing and farming families. At the end the river dries up [partly due to a scheme engineered by the Brahmin landowners]. The village falls apart.
The tragic end of the film is signalled in the opening shot, a dried up river ravine, which re-appears at the end. A Bengali song is heard on the soundtrack, which includes the following lines:
“I fear I see the Ganga waters rise to fill the blue sky
I fear I see the boats aground on the dry river bed.”
The dried up ravine re-appears in the film’s final sequence. Women are reduced to begging: a father dies of starvation: fishermen and farmers fight over the dried up riverbed. Basanti sits disconsolate outside a hut and a voice-over informs us:
“The River Titas flows on but tomorrow it may be bone dry.
It may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart.”
We then see Basanti stagger through an arid desert where she digs for water. Dying she has a flashback or vision of a young boy running in green fields, [possibly Kishore], and the film ends on a freeze-frame of her.
The film seems full of Bengali and Indian cultural references: many of which are probably not apparent to western audiences. However, there are two important references, which are common to the art and culture of the sub-continent. Kishore appears to be related to the mythical figure of Krishna. He is a godlike figure found in classic mythical writings. He fought great battles and ruled over a kingdom and finally ascended into heaven. His romantic life was also important and he married a princess, but he had other romances, the most important being Radha. This aspect of the myth is explained in the film Lagaan (2001), where another Krishna-like Hindi hero Bhuvan [Aamir Khan] explains to the Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) at the Temple to Radha and Krishna,
“Krishna was married to Rukmini and Radha to Anay …But the deep love they had for each other set an ideal … neither united nor separated, They’ve been worshipped together for ages.”
The Radha/Krishna/Rukmini relationship seems to parallel that in Ghatak’s film between Basanti/Kishore/Rajar: [and also relates to the romantic triangle in Lagaan].
Another marital aspect of the Krishna myth includes thousands of maidens who he rescued from captivity and married in order to save their honour. This clearly relates to the situation of Kishore and Rajar after her kidnapping.
There are also mythical parallels to a Hindu goddess. Rajar and Ananta are seen before a shrine to Bhagwati [another name for the Durga, the ‘Mother Goddess’]. Later in the film Basanti is also associated with Bhagwati. This seems a clear parallel for the important theme of motherhood in the film.
There is a lot more complexity in the plot and characters of the film, and I think Western viewers will probably need more than one viewing to assimilate all of this. There is also a rich palette in the film’s visual and aural style. Ghatak has a great command of camera and mise en scène. There are numerous fine sequences. In particular late in the film there is a boat race on the river, which is enthralling in its presentation. This is a film which one should encourage local exhibitors to book and screen.
There is a bfi DVD available, though it is taken from a pre-restoration print.
Two online reviews, which I found especially interesting, are one on Hobgoblin Reviews by Lynda Parker: http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/REVUES.htm. This has informed comments about the political context for Ghatak’s film. And Journey through Bangladesh by Audity Falguni relates the source novel to the area in which it [and the film] is set: http://www.thedailystar.net/starinsight/2010/01/03/jny.htm.
There is an entry on another Ghatak film, Subarnarekha (1963) on this Blog.
Note, film quotes taken from the English subtitles.
I was drawn to consider Ritwik Ghatak because of the dedication by Mira Nair at the end of The Namesake, a film I am using again as part of a course on ‘diaspora cinema’. Nair was referring to the ‘Masters of Bengali Cinema’ – with Ghatak alongside Satyajit Ray. But she might also have been referring to a master of diaspora cinema or more properly ‘exilic cinema’. Ritwik Ghatak (1925-76) was born in Dacca, then part of Bengal in British India. Bengal had been partitioned before in 1905, then restored in 1911 after protests. But in 1947, East Bengal was allocated by the British to the new state of Pakistan. Ghatak found himself in the new West Bengal in India and the trauma of partition – the confusion over the identity of ‘home’ – stayed with him, not least in the trilogy of films released in the West of which Subarnarekha is the final offering. (The film was made in 1962, but not released until 1965.)
Subarnarekha refers to the river of that name (translating as ‘golden line’) which runs through the relatively new state of Jharkhand into West Bengal. Into this strange landscape (forests bordering a valley of sandy shores and rocks beside the river) comes a group of refugees from the partition in 1948. Ishwar, an educated man, travels with two children, his young sister Sita and a lower caste boy, Abhiram, whose mother was taken away by thugs employed by a local landowner. Ishwar is fortunate to get a job from an old schoolfriend who owns a foundry in the area. But although economically secure, Ishwar is troubled by a sense of loss about home. Years later he has a form of breakdown when he realises that Abhiram and Sita are in love. He cannot accept the lower caste young man as a member of the family (although he has brought him up as such). The film ends tragically.
Ghatak is not as widely known as he should be (i.e. outside the circle of serious cinephiles and historians of Indian Cinema). He was at least as important as his contemporary Satyajit Ray and in some ways more so, given his brief stint teaching at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) at Pune in 1966 in which he influenced future directors such as Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. His fame has spread outside India over the thirty years and more since his death.
It’s perhaps not so surprising that Ghatak’s work is not immediately accessible to audiences. He avoids the populism of commercial cinema, yet doesn’t have a coherent humanist art cinema style like Ray, or even a committed political stance like Mrinal Sen. In the same sequence, he might move from what appears to be a conventional social realist approach to portraying village life/city life to a highly expressionistic portrayal of a moment of emotional tension. On closer inspection, however, his seemingly conventional realist camerawork is often undermined by staging in depth with disturbing angles and compositions. Music is integral to the trilogy of ‘exile’ films (which includes the earlier A Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandahar (1961)). Cloud-Capped Star shares with Subarnarekha a brother-sister relationship in which the woman is a singer of Bengali songs, many written by Rabindranath Tagore (1876-1941), the towering figure of Bengali literature.
There is some very good material on Ghatak on several trusted websites. I would recommend the entry on Subarnarekha by Acquarello (and the debate which follows) and the extensive paper by Erin O’Donnell posted on the Jump Cut website. I’d like to draw attention to just some of the points made in these pieces and add a couple of further observations.
I’m taken by O’Donnell’s analysis of Ghatak’s use of melodrama. She suggests that it comes from drawing on a wide range of other melodrama forms including from European and Russian Cinemas as well as theatre. At the same time Ghatak makes use of traditional Indian stories from Hindu mythology. The result is this very cinematic camera, but an unusual mix of other influences placing the resultant films in this no-man’s land between the ‘social’ films of Hindi Cinema (including the films of Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor) and the art films of Ray and Sen.
The films work by using the family as metaphor for the impossibility of creating ‘home’ out of the despair created by partition and exile. Subarnarekha is contextualised by a series of historical events which mark the earlier part of the narrative – the terrible famine in Bengal in 1942, the successful halt of the Japanese advance into Northern Burma and then Bengal in the latter stages of the war, the partition and the exodus to Calcutta and finally the death of Ghandi. After this and the beginnings of a new life by the Subarnarekha River, the time period becomes less distinct and title cards merely refer to a few months or a few years later marking the period when Sita and Abhiram are growing up. I was struck, however, by the abandoned RAF base (i.e. from where the bombers left for Burma). This is where the children play and where Sita has various adventures. The hulks of abandoned aircraft and the few surviving parts of buildings (from only a few years ago) seem to act as a ‘doubling’ of the signifiers of a life that is no longer possible, of times that have irrevocably changed.
Ghatak’s films are not easy to watch, but they have moments of enormous joy and elation as well as darkest despair and everybody should see at least one of them.
See a very short clip from Subarnarekha on the IndiaVideo site.
(These notes were first produced for an evening class in 2002.)
There is no clear distinction between films that have been classified as part of ‘New Indian Cinema’ and those that have been termed ‘Parallel Cinema’.
The description ‘new cinema’ implies a connection to the idea of a ‘New Wave’ – a distinct movement in a national cinema that seeks to be different in some way from the mainstream, possibly as a means of ‘re-inventing’ or re-defining what cinema might be. The most famous New Wave came out of France in the late 1950s and was partly responsible for the development of film studies in Western Europe and North America. A British New Wave and New German Cinema emerged in the same period and the 1960s and 1970s was a period for re-defining the possibilities of cinema, especially in terms of more ‘political’ and socially-conscious filmmaking.
In India, the inspiration for the ‘new cinema’ was arguably the earlier intervention of the Italian neo-realists. Neo-realism was important for both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal and in the early 1950s neo-realism also found an echo of some sort in the ‘social melodramas’ of Hindi Cinema. From the mid 1950s onwards, ‘new cinema’ developed from a series of institutional measures:
- International Film Festival of India – first held in 1952, becoming an annual event in 1975. Important in (a) bringing internationally known filmmakers to India and (b) providing a showcase for Indian filmmakers which was not dependent on commercial considerations.
- Federation of Film Societies of India. The first society was set up in Bengal in 1939, but the Federation was set up in 1959. The FFSI is complementary to the festival in encouraging interest in both Indian films and ‘world cinema’
- The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) set up in Pune in 1960 (Television being added to the curriculum in 1970). The FTII has attracted many of the leading figures of the Indian film industry as tutors and the graduates of the 1960s were important in promoting the idea of new/parallel cinema.
- National Film Archive of India was set up in 1964 as a government agency in Pune with branches in Calcutta, Bangalore and Thiruvananthapurum. The NFAI ensures preservations of ‘Indian film heritage’ and also provides facilities for indian and international film scholars.
- The Film Finance Corporation was set up in 1961 to fund ‘independent’ and ‘experimental’ films. This was also a government initiative. Later it became known as the National Film Development Corporation and extended its work to include distribution of films both within India and worldwide, promoting the films it financed and using distribution to increase access to world cinema.
- Doordarshan, the state television channel has also funded film production.
What is ‘new’?
New cinema offered an alternative to mainstream Hindi cinema in several different ways (not necessarily all found in the same films):
- political ideas;
- ‘social realism’ and ‘ordinary heroes’;
- experimental film forms;
- no requirement for song/dance sequences;
- less dependence on popular genres;
- more ‘personal’ style for the director;
- new stars with a different approach to performance.
Overall, the new cinema was more aligned with international art cinema. It was not profitable, with only limited box office success, but the films increased India’s prestige in international cinema and they were welcomed by audiences drawn from the developing middle class. The new/parallel cinema died away in the late 1980s and now some commentators have identified a shift in popular cinema that connects some of the older new cinema personalities with new creative talents and an increasingly affluent and educated audience.
Kumar Shahani (born 1940)
One of the first graduates of the new Film Institute, Shahani, born in the Sind (now part of Pakistan), became one of the important figures of the new cinema. He was important as a writer and theoretician of film as well as a director in collaboration with his Institute colleague, K. K. Mahajan. He spent time in France in the mid-1960s, assisting Robert Bresson. Tarang (Wages and Profits) (1984) was the second major feature for Shahani and Mahajan.
Rahul, the son-in-law of an old industrialist, and one of the heirs to his fortune, clashes with Dinesh, the industrialist’s nephew who is openly unscrupulous. Rahul, for his part, conceals his personal ambition under a cloak of liberalism and encourages indigenous production. In the centre of the conflict sits the wily old man, with money as his sole concern. His tense and elegant daughter Hansa watches him like a hawk, for he is the only man she has ever completely loved.
Outside the palace and its intrigues, are the hovels of the workers in the old industrialist’s empire, where Janaki lives. Janaki’s dead husband had once led an agitation against the management, and Janaki herself is still considered potentially dangerous. Thrown out of her shack by the industrialist’s henchmen, she is picked up from the streets by Rahul and installed in his palatial home as a nursemaid for his child. As Janaki becomes increasingly indispensable, Hansa quietly withdraws, pushing Janaki into a relationship with Rahul.
Having done her duty by producing a son and heir for the family fortunes, Hansa now turns her full attention to her father, her sole obsession. But when the old man falls ill, Rahul keeps Hansa away from her father, and with Janaki’s help, contrives to remove the nurse, a secret tippler, often from the sickroom, leaving the old man neglected. One day, the nurse comes back and finds her patient dead. Dinesh, who returns from one of his tours abroad, accuses Rahul of killing his father-in-law, but there is no evidence. With the help of Anita, an old paramour and the old man’s erstwhile secretary, Rahul puts Dinesh in a false position with his foreign collaborators. Dinesh’s local ally, a crooked trade union leader, is silenced by Janaki and her worker friends. Rahul sends Janaki away to a bungalow in the hills supposedly to protect her from any investigation arising out of the old man’s death. Meanwhile he buys the allegiance of a section of the workers, and comes back to tell Janaki that she will be accused of murder. Janaki, betrayed but free, walks back to her old life on the streets.
In Rahul’s home, Hansa tries to arouse herself from her grief. After a long time she makes love to Rahul, and wakes up with the promise of a more fulfilling relationship. Yet by the evening she is dead, submerged in the bathtub. Rahul removes his last obstacle by implicating Dinesh in a murder, and takes charge of his empire. Janaki sets fire to the brothel and returns to the shack of a worker friend. As she waits for him to return home, someone throws a lighted cracker in the room. Janaki escapes as the row of shacks goes up in flames.
Perhaps in a dream, on a long and lonely bridge, Rahul approaches Janaki once again with the offer of a life of freedom and equality. Janaki, an etherial figure of great beauty and sexuality, rejects his offer with supreme indifference. “Go back to your destiny,” she says. “I am like the first rays of the sun. I am hard to catch as the wind….”
Tarang, Kumar Shahani’s second feature film, is a saga of conflict and betrayal stretching across the boundaries of different worlds. Bridging the gulf between them is Janaki, forever betrayed, forever alone. In the last sequence, where the myth takes over from the real, Janaki’s persona extends from the exploited victim of human ambition to a celestial embodiment of freedom. She is desirable, but can no longer be used, for she has the choice denied her in the real world, of going her own way without surrender. Perhaps the polarities will finally converge at the end of the long bridge, perhaps there is hope for a common destination.
One of the brightest alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India, Shahani was greatly influenced by Ritwik Ghatak, the controversial film maker and teacher from Bengal, and D.D. Kosambi, the great Indian polymath. Though he writes rarely, he remains one of the most promising film theoreticians in India today. His films are even more rare, a few shorts and documentaries, and one other feature film, Maya Darpan, made in 1972. Very recently, Shahani got together with playwright G. Shankar Pillai and actress Alaknanda Samarth to stage two unusual plays, Kunti and The Human Voice, which received rave reviews in Bombay. Tarang, like his first feature film, is not easy to assess, nor will it ever be received by the general audience with understanding or enjoyment. It is slow, larger than life, and undoubtedly intriguing.
For Shahani, Tarang is his exploration of the epic form in cinema. “The epic tradition overcomes the division between the giver and the receiver of art,” he says. “It is a pity that societies tend to make museum pieces of art when, in fact, the need for it is as natural and as instinctive in people as eating and drinking.” That is probably why Tarang comes through to the discerning viewer as a moving experience, even if he is completely unaware of the intricacies of Shahani’s personal imagination; unaware that for him, Janaki is the Earth Mother revealing herself as Urvashi, the celestial dancer, seductive and divine, bestower of wealth and fertility; unaware that her last words in the film are a hymn from the Rig Veda. (from One Hundred Indian Feature Films: An Annotated Filmography, Shampa Banerjee and Anil Srivastava, Garland Publishing Inc., 1988)
Smita Patil (1955-86)
Smita Patil was born in Pune in 1955. After studying literature at Bombay University, she worked briefly as a TV newsreader, before being spotted by director Shyam Benegal. She became a star in Bhumika (The Role) (1976) for Shyam Benegal. When she died following complications after childbirth, she was one of the major stars of parallel cinema alongside Shabana Azmi. In her short career she made 32 films, including some that are classified as popular Hindi Cinema.