Feb 24, 2002
This article originally appeared in India Currents Magazine in October, 1994. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
“The West is just getting a taste of Indian film,” said Bombay director Bikramjit “Blondie” Singh on Canadian television. His subdued and thoughtful face was a singular antithesis to the screaming consumerism that erupted all about him on the MuchMusic network, Canada’s answer to MTV. And yet his own film, Bollywood, would evoke as much blatant cinematic idolatry as would any child of the video generation.
The “taste” to which he referred is no doubt one of curry, to be sloshed about the tongue and its odours inhaled deeply as if it were popcorn in a North American theatre. Blondie and other curry-eaters in the Indian delegation blend into the miasma of the world’s most multi-cultural city, here to display their wares at the Toronto International Film Festival, Canada’s version of Cannes. The Festival has just ended its media-infested run, and this year was host to India Now! – a mini-fest of 18 celluloid scions from our favourite sub-continent.
“Toronto loves cinema!” exclaimed a shocked, though eternally incomparable, Shabana Azmi. She had expected theatres immersed in Asian faces spiced with the occasional curious occidental, and had instead discovered quite the opposite; Westerners had turned out in droves to sample what was marketed as the finest in Indian film.
My first sampling of India Now! (complete with obligatory exclamation mark) was Kumar Shahani’s 1991 film Bhavantarana (“Immanence” [sic]), an eerily hypnotic “dance-umentary” on the life and art of guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, master of Odissi classical dance. It was an uncomfortable experience, being one of three brown faces in the audience; it seemed everyone was looking at me, searching for an Indian response to an Indian film. And yet I was soon calmed and transfixed by Shahani’s unusual camera angles: the backs of knees, the knots of trees and vistas of guru-ji’s joyously feminine contortions set to vedic quatrains of poetic wisdom.
But Bhavantarana was but an easy introduction. India Now!‘s pith and nucleus was a tribute to South India’s Steven Spielberg: Mani Rathnam. Rathnam’s films have entertained millions, but the director has remained largely unknown outside a certain geographic area because his works are filmed entirely in Tamil. Featured were Thiruda, Thiruda (1993); Roja (1992); 1987’s Nayakan and Mouna Ragam, all blockbusters.
Rathnam has built upon all that is sacred in “masala” film. Unlike other Indian filmmakers seeking wider respect, Rathnam has not foresaken the commercial conventions of Tamil cinema with its supporting pillars of song, dance and melodrama. He has thus truly transcended the genre. His is an example that many “art house” filmmakers, Indian or other, might take to heart: by seeking to entertain first, he has also managed to educate, stimulate and provoke his audiences.
And yet one cannot help but cringe at Roja‘s cliched melodramatic antics, as if they justified the West’s casual dismissal of “frivilous” Indian cinema. It doesn’t help that the main perpetrator of such frippery is Bollywood goddess-of-the-month Madhubala, a celestial name to scare any hint of depth from the best of scripts. There are further complications for the occidental observer, such as the uniquely Indian problem of millions of citizens separated by language barriers, and a potential ignorance of Indo-Pakistani relations.
“Kashmir is in India,” says one of Roja‘s characters, on his way to the disputed zone. “Why should we fear?” His patriotic words are met with thunderous applause from a partisan section of the theatre audience, no doubt to the chagrin of the uninitiated.
But we must realize that Rathnam makes movies, and not films in the Western sense; they are meant first to be seen, and then to be important. Unsurprisingly then, Rathnam is a charming humble man who seems ill at ease among pretentious self-proclaimed artists. But his would not be the defining character of the delegation.
The media star would be Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), the controversy-plagued darling of the Cannes Film Festival. Bandit Queen is the story of Phoolan Devi, a rape victim who later served time for the murder of 30 men in the Behmai Massacre. Devi sent a letter to all Toronto and Cannes media, asking us not to see the film as it was made without her permission. Kapur, of course, insists that Devi was indeed paid for her story on the full understanding that a film would be made. A court battle ensues.
One local Toronto newspaper dubbed Bandit Queen “a Kevin Costner cowboy movie with a woman as the lead.” It seems the subtleties of the caste system and other Indian peculiarities were glossed over too much for Western eyes eager to learn more of subcutaneous India.
This desire was more than satisfied, however, with the world premiere screening of Father, Son and the Holy War, Anand Patwardhan’s subjective exploration of India’s “crisis of male identity.” It is a vivid and shameful portrayal of modern Indian society as one whose woes can be directly attributable to the rejection of a positive goddess image in favour of Shiva’s masculine phallus.
Patwardhan chooses the wife-burning ritual of Sati as the major vehicle for his ideas, then moves on to explore the politics of the fascist Shiv Sena and its war against Muslims. I was struck by the dimensions of human suffering in the wake of ignorance and insecurity, all perpetrated by the purveyors of the world’s oldest civilization.
“Hindus are vegetarians,” says Gujarati Maharaj Shambaru, a supposed spokesman for all Hindus. “Vegetarians don’t get angry.”
As an Indian and a Hindu, I was shamed by his ignorance and by the self-destruction portrayed so lustrously in this film. And yet I was acutely aware that the university film professor sitting next to me was probably focused on the lighting, the camera work and editing choices; for her, perhaps, the film’s grander social and historical aspects were secondary at most. Her tack, I’m afraid, is probably representative of the personalities and motivations that typically attend such festivals.
Father, Son and the Holy War, perhaps more than any other cinematic representation available, best personifies the character of modern India as a socio-political entity in turmoil. It pulls no punches, and leaves little for we far-removed romantics who insist on remembering only the classical Indias of emperors Chandragupta and Akbar.
And yet the most memorable of India Now!‘s offerings was a subdued piece set in 1960s Karnataka, where the feudal “Patel” land-management system comes into conflict with the neo-Marxist agenda of a newly Independent India. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (“The Servile”) is the raw touching story of a migrant farmer whose family is terrorized by the local feudal lord, and yet who still retains an irrational doting loyalty to the cruel master.
Vidheyan explores the subtleties of power and village life, an astute examination worthy of a Borges novel. With cunning allegory that pits a Roman Caligula figure with and against a Shakespearean Caliban, Gopalakrishnan -touted as a “living legend of Indian film”- condemns the sin of complacency, and yet is reluctant to make political statement. In interviews, he is uncooperative in all things beyond the immediate environs of the film in question.
But one cannot avoid drawing parallels from Vidheyan to the broader Indian situation. As it is Gopalakrishnan’s claim that feudal values still pervade in a fetal democracy, the conclusion is inevitable that the servility so well illustrated in the film still permeates Indian culture. Beyond that, there is again the ubiquitous theme of male shame and immasculation.
In short, Gopalakrishnan seems to be asking: is it uniquely Indian to mourn an oppressor more than his victims?
After this masterpiece, the remaining films are mere icing, and sometimes not as sweet. Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1992) is an attempt at an American-style gangster film with overtones of importance. Despite a live introduction by screen goddess Shabana Azmi, and wonderful acting by Om Puri -a further icon of Indian cinema- Dharavi fails because it attempts to be more than it is.
“If you don’t make films with singing and dancing, you’re usually lumped into the art-house crowd,” Mishra tells me rather dismissively. “I just don’t get turned on by art-house audiences at all.” And yet he clearly wants Dharavi to transcend mere entertainment, to serve as a cinematic bible for ambitious slum-dwellers like Puri’s character in the film.
Mishra is all too familiar as a non-American entity. He seeks the glamour that only movie-making can offer, but intends to obtain such whimsy by riding the wave of interest in cultural reform and non-Western experiences.
Buddhadeb Dasgupta does not fall into this trap, however, and provides an excellent dessert to linger in our mouths well after this immense cinematic meal has been consumed. His Charachar (“Shelter of the Wings”) is a beautifully filmed and thought-out tale of a gentle bird-catcher who must abandon his vocation because he is sickened by its questionable morality.
Charachar is unique in Asian film because it does not dwell on the evils of the rich and powerful, does not blatantly attempt a social statement, and does not fall back on cliched relationships. And it is in this latter category -the portrayal of relationships- that Dasgupta manages to paint an affecting montage of the unique splendour of everyday Indian life.
Charachar offers a humanistic version of otherwise faceless village life. For the first time, the anonymous Third World masses are given identity to Western viewers in the guise of Lakhinder the bird-catcher. His tale is wrought with ancient symbolism and wisdom that is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. The movie is as poignant, spiritual and philosophical as any artsy French experimental film, though greater for its distinctiveness is conveyed through the vehicle of a supple and accessible story.
I was especially moved by Charachar‘s portrayal of genuine love between husband and wife, a keynote equally well described in both Rathnam’s Roja and Mishra’s Dharavi. All three characterizations show the full spectrum of spousal existence, all within the context of arranged marriage. To my admittedly Western eyes, this portrayal was supreme justification for one of the customs that truly separates East from West.
If, in the end, the Toronto International Film Festival served to strengthen even that one bridge between cultures, then it has justified its existence. India Now! has provided only a quick taste from the vast cuisine of Indian cinema, but that spoonful has shown more aspects of the sub-continent than many a reviewer could have expected. There’s much more to it than just the song-and-dance masala movies.