Cloud-Capped Star (Meghe Dhaka Tara, India (Bengal) 1960)

The classic composition connecting sister, brother, river and railway in Cloud-Capped Star

Cloud-Capped Star is the first film in Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy about the partition of Bengal in 1947 and its aftermath. It could be argued that all of Ghatak’s features between 1952 and 1977, when his last work was released posthumously, were concerned with the partition, but it is the trilogy that has been most widely seen outside India. E-Flat (Komal Gandhar, 1961) and Subarnarekha (1962, but released 1965) are the other two films in the trilogy. Cloud-Capped Star and E-Flat were shown at HOME in Manchester as part of an Indian Partition Weekend in June. DCPs have been struck by the National Film Archive of India. Cloud-Capped Star is also available as a DVD from the British Film Institute.

The narrative structure of Cloud-Capped Star is seemingly straightforward. We meet a family from East Bengal living in a refugee ‘colony’ on the outskirts of Calcutta in the 1950s. The father is a teacher now struggling to get work and the mother has become something of a harridan in her disillusionment. The eldest son Shankar (Anil Chattopadhyay) is a trained musician but idle and like everyone else in the family seems to exploit his sister Neeta (Supriya Choudhury), the only one with a regular income. Neeta’s younger brother Montu wants to be a footballer and her younger sister Gita seems most intent on getting a boyfriend. The narrative then plays out as the tragedy of Neeta. She will see the prospect of her own marriage disappear, losing the possibility of marrying a man who eventually ends up with Gita. Neeta’s selflessness will bring about her downfall – she catches TB (from lack of proper food and exhaustion from over-work?). Shankar does finally make the effort and moves to Bombay where he becomes a successful singer. But when he returns he is faced with his sister’s decline. Like many Bengali films, Cloud-Capped Star is based on a novel – in this case by Shaktipada Rajguru.

A classic noir melodrama composition. Neeta (Supriya Choudhury) is seen here through a window into her room, behind lattice-work, with her father and brother in the background representing the pressure on her as bread-winner.
N.B. These screen grabs have been cropped because of technical problems.

Cloud-Capped Star is not about plot, it’s about the artistic presentation of loss and the consequences of partition. This is a true melodrama with meanings expressed through music, sound effects, framing, composition and mise en scène. Meanings are also expressed through editing. Although this was Ghatak’s most successful film with the Bengali public it’s not because the film follows mainstream conventions. It’s because of the tragic story and the portrayal of Bengali culture. The film certainly is a melodrama but its ‘excess’ is not about beautiful colours or lush music. In his monochrome film Ghatak uses noirish lighting for interiors contrasted with the brash sunlight outdoors. The editing ‘chops’ the end of scenes and ‘throws’ us into the next. Some of the beautiful music in the film is undercut by strident sound effects.

Neeta at the point when she first realises that she might have TB. There are several low-angle compositions in the film and here the camera angle enhances the expression in her eyes and her gestures.

The geography of the Bengal Delta is confusing for outsiders – especially since the rivers that break away from the main Ganges-Brahmaputra to form the fan-shaped delta are given different names by different communities and are now separated by the boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Ritwik Ghatak grew up along the Padma River, one of the rivers of the delta now in Bangladesh. Kolkata (Calcutta) stands on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River. The refugee ‘colony’ in Cloud-Capped Star is close to the river (presumably the Hooghly?) and it is the river bank where Shankar goes to sing and where Neeta walks beneath the great line of trees at the beginning of the film – and where later she meets Sanat (Niranjan Ray), her would-be fiance. Ghatak’s camera, in the hands of Dinen Gupta, composes the images of Neeta and Shankar carefully. They are first brought together with Neeta in a close-up in the foreground to the right of the frame and looking left. In the middle ground is Shankar (looking to the right) and beyond him, first the river and then on the other bank in the distance is a train travelling from right to left (see the image at the start of this posting).

Neeta and Sanat (Niranjan Ray) meet by the river

Neeta and Sanat by the river with the train in the background

Neeta in this sequence is placed above Sanat in the frame – a signifier of her moral superiority?

Later in the film, when Neeta meets Sanat by the river it is soon after the crisis point when, having lost Sanat to her sister, Neeta has to ask him for money to pay for Mantu’s hospital expenses – and she herself is showing the signs of TB infection. The long shot above follows a meeting on the footpath beneath the trees at which point Ghatak develops a complex soundtrack mix. The melodious music and background natural sounds of cicadas are suddenly undercut by a wailing sound that could be the engine whistle in the background, but which lingers on as a peculiarly alien sound. At this point, Neeta invokes a sense of despair that she hasn’t confronted injustice and Sanat seems to admit he was wrong to give up his studies and take a job when he could be continuing as a political activist. In Cloud-Capped Star, Ghatak presents the decline of Neeta’s family as a metaphor for the decline of Bengali culture post Partition. Is it important that the locomotive pulling the train in the background is travelling ‘tender first’ – effectively ‘backwards’?

My perhaps rather simplistic reading has Neeta, the most active member of the family who sacrifices her opportunities to use her artistic talents in order to put food on the table for her family, eventually being sacrificed herself. Neeta represents the potential for a new Bengali society that cannot flourish after Partition. Ghatak’s emotional but also analytical storytelling drenches events with music, sound effects and references to poetry scattered through the dialogues. His camera creates complex framings of equally complex staging of actions. The film for me is literally ‘shocking’ in its excess and its cutting – ‘shocking’ in two senses, firstly in its harshness and abruptness and secondly in its disavowal of the conventions we have all too easily internalised from mainstream cinema. The French film theorist Raymond Bellour has produced a detailed, illustrated reading of the whole film that can be found here. As Bellour, quoting Serge Dany, avers, it is indeed one of the greatest of all melodramas. The title may refer to a line from Shakespeare – The Tempest. It may equally refer to the mountains visible from the sanatorium near Darjeeling where TB takes Neeta.

I’ve watched Cloud-Capped Star two or three times and still I haven’t seen everything it has to offer or understood all its meanings. I’m also completely at a loss (because of my lack of musical knowledge) to fully get to grips with Ghatak’s use of music in this film (which includes a song using Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, I think). He was undoubtedly a great filmmaker, not properly appreciated during his relatively short career but influential through his teaching at FTII in Pune in the mid 1960s and globally through his writing on cinema and archive screenings of his films for various filmmakers ever since. Here’s one of the songs in the film.It comes during a sequence in which Neeta comes home and confirms that Montu has left college and has taken a factory job. He is too ashamed to tell his parents and Neeta here offers his first wage to contribute to the household. Her mother is unreasonably angry with Neeta. Both Neeta and Montu are going to suffer. At the start of the clip, Shankar gets a razor blade for a shave and is shamed by the shopkeeper who tells him it is disgraceful that she has to support the whole family. He thinks of her as being like Sinbad the Sailor – carrying the Old Man of the Sea (i.e. her family) on her back. Screenings of Cloud-Capped Star are possible as part of the Independent Cinema Office’s India on Film Tour celebrating 70 Years of Independence in August. Look out for screenings around the UK.

Midnight’s Children (Canada-UK 2012)

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Babha) are two of 'Midnight's Children' with magical powers.

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Bhabha) are two of ‘Midnight’s Children’ with magical powers.

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.

Outline

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:

Films From the South #15: Virgin Goat (Ladli Laila, India 2009)

Kalyan Singh (Raghubir Yadav) and his goat Laila

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?

The political rally with Laila now a political symbol.

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.

Dhobi Ghat (India 2011)

Monica Dogra as Shai

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.

Prateik as Munnah the laundryman who wants to become a film star.

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.

Commentary

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)

Subarnarekha (India 1962)

A longshot of the abandoned airfield in Subarnarekha

 

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.

Parallel or New Cinema in India

(These notes were first produced for an evening class in 2002.)

Introduction
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.

Tarang

Synopsis
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….”

Commentary
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.

36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981)

Aparna Sen

Aparna Sen

Another trip to the bargain bin to consider a 2006 DVD release of a film from 1981 on a discount label. I chose to watch this because I so enjoyed the writer-director Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer. The film is one of three titles issued as a kind of Shashi Kapoor trilogy on the Prism Leisure/Odyssey Quest label. The star from India’s acting dynasty does not appear in this one, but he produced it and his wife Jennifer Kendal took the lead role. Kapoor gives an interesting short interview on the DVD.

’36 Chowringhee Lane’ is an address in Calcutta in the late 1970s – the home of an ageing Anglo-Indian schoolteacher, Miss Violet Stoneham. She lives alone with her cat, Sir Toby and she teaches Shakespeare to classes of younger girls who pay little attention. Her niece writes to her from abroad and her brother is gradually declining in a nursing home. One day this lonely woman meets one of her ex-students, Nandita and her boyfriend, Samaresh. They realise that her flat, empty during the day when she is at school, would make a perfect love-nest and they persuade her that Samaresh is an aspiring writer who can’t work at home. We fear for Violet, but she seems happy with the arrangement, especially when the couple take her out around the city in gratitude. Where will it all end . . . ?

I thought this was a wonderful film, beautifully made with an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Kendal (playing older than her years). It’s a very sad film, human and affecting. It’s staggering to think that this was the first writing and directing role for Aparna Sen. She was by this time a highly skilled actor and much must have rubbed off from the work of her directors. Her film is in many ways quite old-fashioned with shots and sequences which might have come from Satyajit Ray and other Indian masters, but also a surrealist sequence in black and white which is straight from attempts at modernism in European cinema. The sense of ‘pastness’ also comes from the muted and muddied colours (the DVD was presumably produced from a rather battered 35mm master). But it also comes from the sense of decay and desolation which permeates the images of Calcutta as experienced by Miss Stoneham.

The film is part of the long series of films exploring the end of the raj – or rather the slow decline of the British presence in India in the thirty years following independence. The Kendal family of actors were themselves a central part of Indian theatre from the 1930s through to the 1960s and this film is rather strangely announced as being ‘presented by Merchant Ivory’, the production partnership that made many such films around this time. The decline of British ideas is played out in many ways, but perhaps most obviously in the school, where a new Indian principal promotes a young Indian graduate to take over Miss Stoneham’s Shakespeare classes and whose overall approach drives another of the Anglo-Indian teachers to emigrate to Canada.

The difficult position of the Anglo-Indians is a central discourse in the film. I’ve seen some references to Anglo-Indians as simply British people living in India, but the term properly refers to mixed race families who under the raj were given access to professional jobs in the railways, customs etc., which Indians found difficult to enter before 1947. After independence the Anglo-Indians were caught between two national cultures, neither of which wanted to claim them. Jennifer Kendal uses an accent and general way of speaking that corresponds to an Anglo-Indian type. Her eventual fate is as much connected to racial identity as it is to age and spinsterhood.

In the DVD interview, Shashi Kapoor remarks that though the film did reasonably well in the UK and was praised by some critics in India it wasn’t seen by the mass audience. I think this is a shame as it deals with an important aspect of Indian social history (as well as being an excellent film). There are some Indian reviews that are worth pursuing including http://parallelcinema.blogspot.com/2005/07/36-chowringhee-lane-1981.html

Definitions of parallel cinema are hard to come by. I think this film qualifies as its roots are in the classical art film tradition of Bengal. As befits the Anglo-Indian milieu (English as a first language), the language of the film is predominantly English with snatches of Bengali and Hindi.