Monthly Archives: October 2008

La Zona (Mexico 2007)

The boys become vigilantes in La Zona.

The boys become vigilantes in La Zona.

La Zona is the real deal – a straight genre movie that delivers the anti-fascist message more effectively than The Wave. There is nothing desperately original here, but the mixture is new and it’s done with flair. At 97 mins it’s just about the right length, though I’m not totally happy with the ending (which may be my problem rather than the film’s).

I don’t want to reveal the plot twists, although this is the kind of genre film that tired fans will probably criticise for being ‘formulaic’ and they’ll guess what happens. But, I don’t think this is the point.

So, here’s the skinny. ‘La Zona’ is what is now often termed a ‘gated community’ – a global phenomenon just as possible in India or China as well as Rio, any major city in the US and no doubt parts of Europe. La Zona is well protected with a wall and surveillance to keep out Mexico City’s teeming millions of shanty-town and inner city block inhabitants. As one commentator points out, from the verdant golf course of La Zona, you can see the slums beyond the barbed wire. (I’m conscious of this because from the golf course near my house you can see the tower blocks of the local town – we don’t have gates, but we are cut off by a limited number of bridges over the canal.)

The innovation here is that the wealthy residents of La Zona have been granted certain legal immunities – as long as they don’t use violence to protect their property. But one night, when a storm causes an advertising hoarding to fall down and penetrate La Zona’s defences, three youths break in with disastrous consequences.

Early in the film a number of different genre repertoires are raided for familiar elements – a young couple are interrupted in their clumsy lovemaking – the perfect victims for a horror film catastrophe. Power cuts out and a surveillance system goes down. The outcome of these two events is bloody and then the other repertoires kick in. There is a central family of misguided father, liberal mother and confused teen and the dysfunctional nature of this grouping will provide the narrative imperative. Parents/elders meet in the school gym to co-ordinate their response – cue 12 Angry Men and the intimations of a fascist community response being established. Shock, horror – the local police captain is neither stupid or bribable. This presents the potential narrative conflict. From here on in, the narrative builds in a predictable manner, but it is well-handled, exciting and intriguing. There are hints of American style science fiction/speculative fiction. La Zona is almost a Ballardian creation. The creepiest character is a young businesswoman who seems completely without emotion. I hate to admit it, but Peter Bradshaw actually gets this one right and his suggestion that it might have been written by Ira Levin and adapted by Michael Crichton is a good observation. You do feel that some of these people could be androids straight out of Westworld. The opening shot of the film (don’t miss it – because it proves important later) also reminded me of a host of images selected to portray a seemingly peaceful suburbia and although it’s very different, I couldn’t help thinking of the opening of Blue Velvet. I was also reminded of some of those 1960s movies that worried about youth culture and totalitarianism. I’m thinking of Peter Watkins’ films, but a more literary reference would be to Lord of the Flies. La Zona flirts with a narrative strand in which the youths of the gated community turn to vigilantism. This is more terrifying because they are dressed in a uniform very similar to that of grammar school boys in the UK (see the image above). I was also reminded of one of the most radical of Hollywood teen movies, Over the Edge, in which middle-class kids bored on a new housing estate turn on their parents through boredom. So, here you have a thriller which draws on SF, youth pictures, legal dramas and policiers – amongst others. It’s perfect for a genre study day.

However, this is a popular Mexican film and carries the kind of political charge we’ve come to expect from recent Mexican movies. If you’ve seen Y tu mamá también and remembered its discourse about the inequalities in Mexican society, you’ll soon pick up the threads here. The climactic scenes have a real power to portray a near future which takes us straight back to the terrors of fascist rule. There is also a narrative strand that to some extent provides hope and therefore dissipates the sense of shock and outrage and this is what I’m struggling to come to terms with. In some ways I wish the film had ended earlier with a jolt. Still, this is something to argue about and I hope the film finds an audience in the UK. Apart from Gomorra, there isn’t much competition around, so discerning audiences should really look out for La Zona.

I was intrigued by the number of faces I recognised. The hospital doctor from KM 31 turns up as a politician, the very wonderful Maribel Verdú (from Y tu mamá también and Pan’s Labyrinth) is rather wasted as the liberal mother. But the star turn as the father figure is by Daniel Giménez Cacho. I thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place the actor at first – he was the creepy priest in Bad Education, another priest in Innocent Voices and the narrator on Y tu mamá también. In his early career he also appeared in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos. There is clearly a growing pool of actors and crew members available for these Mexican-Spanish co-productions. (IMDB lists the film as Mexican, but there are credits for the Spanish funding agencies on the film print.)

This is a first time feature film direction job by Rodrigo Plá, whose second feature, Desierto adentro (2008) won prizes at the Guadalajara Film Festival. Scriptwriter Laura Santullo worked with Plá on both films. The UK distributor of La Zona is Soda Pictures which usually produces a good DVD.

Women behind the camera

“Before the New China was established in 1949, Chinese women were looked down upon by society. In 1950, we started working as camerawomen for the Television Media Department. At that time, very few women worked in camera.”

“Before the New China was established in 1949, Chinese women were looked down upon by society. In 1950, we started working as camerawomen for the Television Media Department. At that time, very few women worked in camera.” Chen Jin Ti, Camerawoman/Producer (Beijing, China)

By chance, I just looked over the website of American Cinematographer and came across this review of a DVD presenting ‘Women behind the camera’. The DVD has its own website and sounds like a great resource. The website itself is terrific with a gallery of female cinematographers from all over the world (from which I borrowed the image on the right). I think every film and media teacher should get this website up on screen and show this wonderful gallery to all their students. The more girls and women who can be encouraged to think about operating a camera the better. The website also has some very useful links.

The DVD sounds good value and there is a PAL version as well as NTSC, both available from an online store. One of the most important aspects of the film (and the associated book) is that it is genuinely global in outlook. I was glad to see the UK’s own Sue Gibson on the site and it encourages us to spot new talent and publicise what they can do. There are plenty of examples of films made by women, with women behind the camera, on this website (check out our category on ‘Films made by women’ listed on the left sidebar.) 

There’s a useful little video clip from Women behind the camera DVD that you can view here.

Black History Month: Babymother (UK 1998)

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Babymother is one of the few Black British films to receive a UK release of any kind since the 1980s, but even so, it is likely to be better known abroad where it was shown in festivals. In the UK it received only a very limited distribution and has been seen mainly on Channel 4 television. The first TV airings showed cropped images from what is a widescreen (CinemaScope) film musical (which bizarrely links it to the early Cliff Richard ‘Scope musicals such as The Young Ones (1961). The film represents a conscious attempt to avoid the typical ‘burden of representation’ that sits heavily on Black British films – it isn’t concerned with the ‘problems of life in the inner city associated with racism and deprivation’. Instead it celebrates one aspect of Jamaican life in London – ‘dancehall’, with its distinctive musical style and dramatic costumes.

A Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen (made on digital video by the legendary Don Letts) was released in the UK in 1997 and did good business in South London. This may have influenced Henriques. Some critics have also suggested that Babymother may owe something to the look and feel of Bollywood. Henriques himself speaks about the long tradition of specifically Jamaican culture including the links to the Saturday night ‘blues’ party which often carried over into Sunday church.

The film is set in Harlesden, the western part of the London Borough of Brent, arguably an area of London that has been defined through successive generations of new communities – Irish, African Caribbean and Asian. The plot sees a young single mother (the ‘babymother’) – Anita, a beautiful talented singer who has not found the confidence to assert herself in the dancehall culture, especially when she has felt herself in the shadow of the ‘babyfather’, Byron, played by Wil Johnson (now a leading UK TV actor). But when Byron steals one of her lyrics, she finally decides to take him on in the competitive arena of the dancehall. The film plays this narrative from the musical (which sees characters bursting into song as in the classical musical as well as in the dancehall) against a more familiar family melodrama about Anita’s mother and older sister. This has an interesting twist. A full synopsis and commentary is available on Screenonline. Though the Screenonline account is accurate, I don’t think it quite picks up the unique qualities of the film. Certainly this is a film to divide audiences. If you are expecting the usual ‘social realist’ drama about inner-city London, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like the idea of a vibrant musical with some reality thrown in, I think it works. If you don’t know about dancehall, it is extremely colourful with the performers wearing outlandish costumes (a bit like the carnival costumes seen at Notting Hill or other Caribbean carnival events). It is a completely Black musical, with no white characters as such. Screenonline suggests that this is a weakness, but it seems fine to me. A TV series called Babyfather appeared in 2001. There was no direct connection between the film and the series which both focus on the concept of single parents, but Wil Johnson also appeared in the first episode of the TV series.

Anita and the children

Anita and the children

Writer-director Julian Henriques was born in Yorkshire. He studied psychology at Bristol University and worked as a lecturer, policy researcher, and journalist before becoming a television researcher. In the 1970s, he started the journal Ideology and Consciousness (later I and C) with a group of young psychologists and social theorists. Their aim was to bring together critical work in psychology with work on the subject and subjectivity coming out of European social theory (structuralism, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis), as well as continental feminism. He has made documentaries for LWT, the BBC and with his own production company for Channel Four. We the Ragamuffin (1992) was his first narrative short film, Babymother his first feature film. Henriques taught film and television at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and currently works at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Here is his staff page at Goldsmiths.

Producer Parminder Vir began her career in 1978 as an Arts Administrator with the Minority Arts Advisory Service, moving to the Commonwealth Institute and eventually becoming Head of the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the GLC. In 1986, she moved into film-making and began working as a researcher for the BBC. She set up her own production company in 1994 and produced several award-winning programmes. In 1996 she had joined Carlton Television as a Consultant to the Director of Programmes, implementing a strategy for achieving cultural diversity on and behind the screen. Since 1998 she has become a leading figure in the film and television industries, serving as a UK Film Council Board Member from 1999-2005 and setting up Ingenious World Cinema to aid production of films from “emerging markets, including India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the Diaspora” as part of the larger Ingenious Media. (She is also married to Julian Henriques.) 

Amazon shows that there are still some copies of the Film Four DVD available.

(Notes updated from a screening in 2002)

Black History Month – Our lists

Watch this space for some discussion of specific films, but to start off we decided to think of the films which we would like students to watch in terms of Black history. Each list is given in chronological order:

Rona’s List 

My list follows (broadly) a history of black cinema in the US – starting with DW Griffiths Birth and Oscar Micheaux’s response.  Even within a restricted list, it demonstrates the diversity of approach to representation of African-Americans, including white filmmakers who address race within their work. Of our generation, Spike Lee (despite some uneven efforts) is one of the most important filmmakers, regardless of race, because of the way he has incorporated his racial identity into his work, and yet produced films that are not bound by it for audiences. 

Birth of a Nation (1915)

Within our Gates (1920)

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Shaft (1971)

The Color Purple (1985)

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Daughters of the Dust (1991)

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Sister Act (1992)

Malcolm X (1992)

Antwone Fisher (2002)


Nick’s List

I tried to think of the ten ‘black’ films that I would like to see this month (limiting myself to one Spike Lee).

Hallelujah (US 1929)

Cabin in the Sky (US 1943)

Borom Sarret (Senegal 1966)

The Harder They Come (Jamaica 1972)

Mapantsula (South Africa 1988)

Mo’ Better Blues (US 1990)

Boyz n the Hood (US 1991)

Deep Cover (US 1992)

Menace II Society (US 1993)

Moolaadé (Senegal, France, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Morocco, Tunisia 2004)


Roy’s List

These are all films made by Black filmmakers that I have used in an education context and that I would happily sit down and watch (and teach) again. 

Ceddo (Senegal 1977)

Burning An Illusion (UK 1981)

Finye (The Wind) (Mali 1981)

Rue cases nègres (France/Martinique 1983)

Sarraounia (Burkina Faso/Mauritania/France 1986)

Handsworth Songs (UK 1986)

Eve’s Bayou (US 1997)

Babymother (UK 1998)

Bamboozled (US 2000)

Heremakono (Waiting for Happiness) (France/Mauritania 2002)

We are planning to write up several films and some of those listed here are already on the blog as indicated. Any comments on the lists or requests for specific films to be included in our coverage?

Black History Month: Introduction

October is ‘Black History Month’ in the UK. It’s a celebration of the importance of Africa and its peoples and diaspora around the world. The US has a month in February, but in the UK, October became established after an initiative by the late (and very lamented in these parts) Greater London Council in the 1980s. You can find out more at the Black History Month website. 

Having noticed the celebrations over the last few years, which now occur not only in London but across the UK, we decided to celebrate the month by focusing on some of the films from Africa, North America and Europe that deal with African culture and diaspora culture. We are compiling lists of interesting films and also intending to review one or two significant titles.

To kick off, we’d like to celebrate the latest film to receive the restoration treatment organised by the Martin Scorsese-backed World Cinema Foundation. This was announced at Cannes in May and a further news item appeared in the Observer today highlighting a screening at the London Film Festival. The film in question is Touki Bouki, directed in Senegal in 1973 by Djibril Diop Mambéty.

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki

Touki Bouki is an important film for several reasons, but most of all because it proved that African filmmakers could make a diverse range of different kinds of films, including those that were seen as ‘avant garde’, but also as youth pictures with a ‘New Wave’ feel. A pair of young lovers attempt to leave Senegal and have adventures presented in an unconventional narrative structure. The pdf downloadable from the World Cinema Foundation website above has a short statement from the great Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé:

Djibril left his country with the dream of finding success and solace in Europe. He soon discovered, however, the cruelty of life. While his dream fell apart little by little Djibril found he was unable to leave “Europe”, his host country. That was when returning to Africa became the real dream for him. Ending his days in Africa was a dream he would never fulfill.

Touki Bouki is a prophetic film. Its portrayal of 1973 Senegalese society is not too different from today’s reality. Hundreds of young Africans die every day at the Strait of Gibraltar trying to reach Europe (Melilla and Ceuta). Who has never heard of that before? 

All their hardships find their voice in Djibril’s film: the young nomads who think they can cross the desert ocean and find their own lucky star and happiness but are disappointed by the human cruelty they encounter. Touki Bouki is a beautiful, upsetting and unexpected film that makes us question ourselves.

The restoration has involved a digital process to recover the colour range of the original. This is at the 2K international standard and a 35 mm interneg has been produced at the end of the process. The restoration was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata Laboratory. It sounds wonderful, so if you get the chance, check out the LFF. The film screens at 18.30 on 24 October.

A second film spotted in today’s Observer also deserves mention. Babylon is a British film from 1980 featuring a fantastic cast of young Black British acting talent, many of them also leading musicians. Brinsley Forde, lead singer of Aswad and former child actor plays a reggae DJ with a sound system. He and his crew face plenty of obstacles as they fight a ‘battle of the bands’, not least the racism endemic in London at the time. The music was overseen by Denis Bovell and the cast also includes Trevor Laird and Victor Romero Evans (as well as a host of other British TV regulars). For the last couple of years there has been an Italian DVD available of dubious provenance (not certificated for the UK):

Here is the trailer for the Italian version:

Now there is a new UK DVD from Icon Home Entertainment. In 1980 the film was rated ‘X’, now it is a ’15’.

If the film is not directed or written by a Black filmmaker, does that invalidate its status as a film to be celebrated as part of Black History Month? I don’t think so – my memory is of a film that felt authentic for the streets of London in 1980 and an important assertion of Black British culture. I’m looking forward to watching it again. There’s a useful Guardian plug for the film here, commenting on director Franco Rosso’s pedigree as a filmmaker representing the UK reggae scene on film.

The Duchess (UK/Fr/Italy 2008)

A fine hat for Georgiana

A fine hat for Georgiana

I wasn’t expecting to go and see The Duchess, but it was the only film worth seeing in a 40 mile radius on a Saturday night. It turned out not to be the film I’d expected and I did find it interesting and quite enjoyable – but it’s an odd film in many ways.

I first saw the trailer earlier in the year and I had it pegged as a film that attempted to present Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as the 18th century equivalent of Kate Moss. Not being a follower of the Diana cult, I’ve been fairly oblivious to those connections, but Georgiana was a Spencer and this seems to have been the angle sold in the US. There is something of this celebrity culture discourse in the film, but more of several other genres as well. Some of the reviews I’ve read assert quite confidently that this is a ‘costume drama’. But what exactly is a costume drama, apart obviously from a drama in period costume? It isn’t enough to just assert a single genre. Keira Knightley has appeared in several earlier films in a variety of costumes. Is Atonement a costume drama – or Pride and Prejudice? Costume dramas could focus on personal relationships – as melodramas or romances – or historical/political events or even on action/adventure (often as a ‘swashbuckler’ in 16th-18th century settings).

The genre repertoires which this film should perhaps be expected to raid are the traditional biopic and the literary adaptation. But the film narrative seemingly draws on only around 18 years of Georgiana’s life (roughly from marriage at 17 up until 35). No attempt is made to age Keira Knightley or to date precisely the events that are represented, so historical/biographical accuracy is not a major concern. Overall, I thought Knightley did well with the material she was given, but I couldn’t really believe she was a mother of four children. In terms of make-up and hair, she cuts a very striking figure and she has the bone structure to go with the accent. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the body shape for some of the dresses. I haven’t read Amanda Foreman’s book, but I remember it being serialised on Radio 4 – it seemed a lot more interesting in terms of Georgiana’s actions than what was displayed in the film. So, I don’t think the film attempts to replicate the book. (The book is doing very well in the charts, so in that sense, the story is attracting an audience in similar ways to Jane Austen.)

It could be a melodrama certainly. There are all the family arguments and emotional turmoil that one could wish for and this period is definitely well-suited to melodrama (e.g. in all the sensationalist films in late 1940s British Cinema from Gainsborough Studios). (The real Georgiana was painted by both Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.) There is plenty of music as well – far too much I think for a straight drama. But it doesn’t add up to a melodrama. Somehow the film is ‘cold’ where it should be passionate. Jonathan Romney complains about too much gawping at stately homes and he could be right.

If it isn’t a melodrama, it also isn’t a romance. The ‘real’ ending prevents the feelgood closure that a romance might want to present. My hope, early on in the movie, was that Georgiana would be presented as a proto-feminist, a catalyst for reforming (male) politicians. For a moment, it seems that she might be, but then it slips away. (For those outside the UK, you should know that the Duke of Devonshire (aka William Cavendish) was one of the richest men in England, oddly owning not Devonshire, but large chunks of Derbyshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as property in London. I seem to have spent much of my life on streets named after the Devonshires/Cavendishes and I would have liked to have seen the family more exposed. Ralph Fiennes does a great job of portraying the brutal man who has the low cunning and inbred nous of the powerful and wealthy. He teeters on the edge of being a human being and the portrayal is ripe with possibilities that the script in the end does not exploit. You can see the problems. How do you explain the complicated politics of late 18th century Europe (and America) to a mass cinema audience? The real Georgiana got married in 1774 and Eliza was born in 1792 – you couldn’t work this out from a film in which the French Revolution is discussed as a probability, but then dropped (and the American Revolution is barely mentioned at all). (It occurred to me that the most common banana variety was probably named after the Cavendish family and I found this reference. I don’t know how the Cavendishes amassed their wealth, but it would be surprising if there were no American or Caribbean trading interests.) 

Saul Dibb does a pretty good job of direction (several US reviewers refer to him rather sniffily as ‘inexperienced’, despite his having made a successful feature in Bullet Boy, plus documentaries and a major TV series) and it’s nicely photographed by the Hungarian cinematographer of Fateless, Gyula Pados. 

I was intrigued by the production in a commercial sense. I’d expected there to be Hollywood money in it, but there are two small independents (UK and US) with BBC Films and Pathe as partners plus Pathé’s French partner company and BIM from Italy as distribution partners. Presumably, this guarantees French and Italian distribution and perhaps other European territories. I’m guessing the budget as relatively modest – perhaps $10-$12 million? It’s done very well in the UK with $10 million plus after 5 weeks of wide release. In the US it is ‘platforming’ and also doing well. After 4 weeks it is now on 1200 screens with $5.6 million so far. However, I don’t think it will manage the worldwide success of Pride and Prejudice.

Perhaps I’ll go back and watch Marie Antoinette again. It might make an interesting (but long) double bill with The Duchess and offer us two contrasting 18th century stories of young female celebrities.

Parallel or New Cinema in India

(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.

Smita Patil (right) as Janaki and Kawal Gandhiok as Hansa in Tarang

Smita Patil (right) as Janaki and Kawal Gandhiok as Hansa

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.

Smita Patil in Tarang

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.