It’S NO SECRET that we in India have been indifferent to the preservation of our cinematic heritage. Every two or three years, much media attention centres on the (often ill-conceived) computer colourisation of a popular classic, yet prints of most old movies continue to be in a dismal state, the worst sufferers being low-budget, non-studio films that never managed to see an extended theatrical run. There are cases of non-mainstream directors and actors not having access to their own seminal work. Naseeruddin Shah once told me that his only print of Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai was a battered videocassette: “Come to my place if you want to see it, I’m not lending it to anyone.” The actor Pawan Malhotra interrupted an interview to plaintively ask if I had seen a disc of Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, which marked his best starring role.
Linked to this regrettable neglect is a more general apathy towards how movies should ideally be experienced. Glossy DVD covers conceal faded, scratch-ridden prints of old films, with a few seconds of footage missing in nearly every scene. Audio quality is often so bad it can make one weep (more than once, I have had to switch on the subtitles for Hindi films), and there are cases of shoddy recording where sound and visual are not synchronised. Cheaply rented pirated discs seem geared to functional movie-watching where the only purpose is to perfunctorily follow the bare bones of a plot, rather than to fully experience the visual and aural qualities of a film.
What a sight for sore eyes and treat for straining ears, then, are the new ‘Cinemas of India’ DVDs released by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in collaboration with the media content conglomerate Shemaroo Entertainment. These well-restored prints of non-mainstream films (insert your label of choice: Art or Parallel Film, New Wave Cinema) produced by NFDC in the 1980s and early 1990s represent what the movie-watching experience can be—the images are nearly spotless, the colours vivid, the audio clear. View a couple of them and you’ll find it difficult to go back to regular DVD-watching.
The ‘Cinemas of India’ DVDs represent my first sighting of Salim Langde... as well as Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Awtar Krishna Kaul’s 27 Down and Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi, at least in this format (they may have been floating about on that execrable third-world invention, the VCD). Some other films—Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Arun Kaul’s Diksha—have been available, but have never before looked this good. And though the cult of Kundan Shah’s iconic comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro grows each day, I hadn’t come across a DVD of it in the past two years (possibly the earlier Shemaroo edition was taken out of circulation to pave the way for this new, two-disc set containing an interview with the director).
But the real Holy Grail—and for me the highlight of these releases—is the new print of Govind Nihalani’s superb 1984 film Party. Adapted by Nihalani and Mahesh Elkunchwar from the latter’s play, this cutting social satire may be the best representation I’ve seen in Hindi cinema of the chamber drama, where characters are forced into self-reflection in a closed setting, as well as of the ensemble movie. It is so well written and performed that it should stimulate even those who are ambivalent about its ideological position—that art and politics are necessarily inseparable. And yet, it has been out of circulation for years.
In Party’s opening 20 minutes, we are introduced to various sets of people—most of them writers or artists, or otherwise connected with the cultural world—who will gather at the house of arts patron Damayanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta). The much-felicitated poet Barve (Manohar Singh) is accompanied by his depressive, alcoholic wife Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi), a failed actress who seems constantly to be ‘performing’, even in private moments with her husband. Other guests include a theatre actor (Shafi Inamdar) who is more adept at separating himself from his roles (“The suffering isn’t mine; it’s the suffering of the character inside me”), the faux-liberal Vrinda (Gulan Kripalani) who specialises in preaching social responsibility to others, and a dignified doctor (Amrish Puri) who is an outsider to this circle (possibly a stand-in for the viewer), watching from a distance, making the others uneasy—“Lagta hai aap lagaataar humein dekh rahe hain (It feels like you are constantly watching us),” Barve tells him jokingly.
As the evening progresses, small details of character emerge. When we see how the aspiring poet Bharat (KK Raina) shrinks from getting his brand-new kurta ruffled at a bus stop, we understand how much the invitation to this party (populated by potential “contacts”) means to him. Vrinda bickers with a playwright about the shameless populism of his writing and he retorts: “You Marxists speak of the aam aadmi, yet you mock his tastes while sitting comfortably in your Malabar Hills bungalows.” Private epiphanies are experienced and confessions made, and what began as a parade of stereotypes becomes a complex skein of people, capable of self-awareness but bound in the traps they have created for themselves. This aspect of Party reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), in which a group of sophisticates settle down for a dinner party and then find they cannot escape their claustrophobic setting.
Inevitably, then, much of the conversation in Party converges on someone who did succeed in leaving—a poet named Amrit, friend to many of those present, who is now living with and helping the cause of exploited tribals. This enigmatic figure—reminiscent in some ways of Samuel Beckett’s Godot and Joseph Conrad’s Mr Kurtz—becomes a catalyst for our understanding of these people. Their feelings about him run from hero worship to amused indifference to contempt (perhaps Amrit’s “activism” is a cover for his being a creative spent force, Barve remarks drily). But when a journalist named Avinash (Om Puri)—the only person to have met Amrit recently—joins the group, banter gives way to an intense, no-holds-barred debate about an artist’s role in an injustice-ridden society. Is it enough for him to work in seclusion, or must he put himself at risk by participating in the world?
Like nearly all of Nihalani’s work, Party is politically charged and explicitly idea-driven. It remains a startlingly fresh film in its big discussions as well as in its casual chatter about the literary world (Rushdie vs Naipaul, “brown-sahib” snobbery vs “vernacular” snobbery, the inattention to the female perspective in a male writer’s work). Importantly, though, it is adapted from a theatrical work (and features a cast of fine stage actors—Mehta’s performance in the relatively unshowy part of the hostess becomes more impressive each time you see it)—it is not just a static filming of a stage production. The use of space, the many lovely still compositions, the positioning of the characters relative to each other, the cross-cutting between groups of people—all these show a strong cinematic sense. Frequently, parallels or contrasts exist within the same frame: as Bharat recites one of Amrit’s angry poems, we see youngsters dancing blithely through a window in the background; there is a fleeting moment when two gatecrashers move through a room looking bemused at the serious talk happening around them.
This is a splendidly constructed, designed and choreographed work, and though it is driven by talk, it ends with a harrowing scene that is entirely wordless—a scene where an old poet and a young poet (one man who has lived a complacent life, feeding off his own reputation; another who is in danger of doing the same) gaze into a distorting mirror and face their consciences. Mindful though I am of hyperbole while rating movies, I think this is among the great Hindi films.
IF PARTY PROPOSES that the true artist should be more than a detached observer with a splinter of ice in his heart, Shyam Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda determinedly blurs the line between a storyteller and his tale, and between fact and fiction. Nihalani was once Benegal’s cinematographer and I can imagine Party and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda having a conversation about art and artists, with the latter adopting a more relaxed, playful attitude towards the subject. It opens with a scene where a painting of a mohalla, as seen in an art exhibition, dissolves into the mohalla itself, and ends with a shot of the raconteur-in-chief Manek babu walking off into the mist of another story, much like Buster Keaton’s movie projectionist entering the screen in Sherlock Jr.
Benegal’s reputation as a leader of the parallel cinema movement was formed in the 1970s with such films as Manthan, Nishant and Bhumika, but this film, made in 1991 (and based on Dharamvir Bharati’s novella), is one of his most accomplished works—a clever, self-referential comment on the nature of storytelling. This is partly achieved by the non-linearity of the narrative, which coils back on itself like a serpent swallowing its own tail; a scene might be repeated from a different perspective, giving it a marginally different timbre and altering our feelings about the characters.
Manek (Rajit Kapoor) doesn’t seem older than 25 or 26 but relates his stories as if they were personal experiences from a very distant time. His tales—about his encounters with three different sorts of women—link into each other in unexpected ways. They are driven by Vanraj Bhatia’s lilting music score, and all of them centre on romance and betrayal. But they are subject to varied interpretations, and one is always aware of an element of artifice—a sense that a story is being constructed in collaboration with the people who are listening to it. Manek wryly maintains that a good love story should be uplifting to society (“acchi prem kahaani samaaj ke liye kalyaankari honi chahiye”) and that stories like Devdas are “sentimental junk” because they lack a “moral”—but his own actions in his narratives are less than edifying; he portrays himself as limp-wristed, responsibility-shirking and cowardly.
A different sort of storyteller (one who constructs inner worlds to keep his own hopes alive) is the protagonist of Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi (1991). The film’s title refers to the famous Mumbai slum in which it is set, but a subtitle in the opening credits gives the word its literal meaning: ‘Quicksand’. This is a place where even an animal used to the desert might easily sink—and indeed, there is a strange early scene involving a runaway camel who dies in the slum.
“Bolne ko toh sabhi ret ke jaanwar hain—yahaan marne ko aaye hain (We are all desert animals who have come here to die),” says a voiceover by longtime resident Rajkaran (Om Puri), who works as a cab driver. But Rajkaran is an essentially sanguine man looking to pull himself out of the mire—while his pragmatic wife Kunda (Shabana Azmi) brings in a steady income by working in a sewing mill, he has been saving to invest in a cloth factory, and he may have other tricks up his sleeve. I thought he bore a striking resemblance to Ayyan Mani, the resourceful protagonist of Manu Joseph’s fine novel Serious Men, about a chawl-dweller living by his wits.
Dharavi contains telling scenes where one cinematic idiom collides with another, such as Rajkaran’s Madhuri Dixit dreams that keep him going. The opening sequence winks at the mainstream-movie culture of the time with a clip from a fictitious film titled Shahar ka Shahenshah, starring Anil Kapoor as a slum-boy now returned to protect his childhood turf from machine gun-toting baddies. (When this onscreen hero proclaims “Yeh basti hamaari hai”, the real slum-children cheer. But soon real life takes over: local hoodlums set fire to the projection tent, which leads to a mesmeric shot of the “screen” bursting into flames with Madhuri Dixit’s red-sari-clad image still on it.) Later, an amusing sequence features Rajkaran and Kunda having a domestic squabble against a screen showing another (actual) Kapoor-Dixit starrer, Parinda (directed by Sudhir Mishra’s real-life buddy Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who had just crossed over into bigger-budget cinema).
Mishra’s film is about the human spirit refusing to be beaten back by heavy odds, but it is also full of lovely little visual touches that leap out at you when you watch them on this restored print. Bright red and green dupattas flutter outside the factory that Rajkaran dreams of buying (even the colour configuration seems to stand for the “stop-start” nature of his capricious project); an unexpected close-up of a large, cherry-red Ganesha statue is used as a punctuation mark after a conversation ends; an almost Scorsese-like sense of urgency is created by a constantly moving camera in the busy sequence where Rajkaran goes to negotiate with a middleman, with the latter’s four wives (dressed in different-coloured burkhas) wailing in a corner of the room; there is a simple yet startlingly effective shot of curtains in a room billowing slightly inward as a train passes outside the room where Rajkaran is sitting with his friends. And there are many striking shots from inside Rajkaran’s taxi, a picture of Madhuri hanging in the front.
An underappreciated aspect of Mishra’s work is his penchant for black humour, which may have sharpened during his stint as a young assistant producer on Jaane Bhi do Yaaro in 1982. “I tend to search for the comic possibilities in even a very bleak situation,” he told me once during an interview. There are a few such touches here too, among them a shot of a just-discovered corpse with a transistor playing the song ‘Don’t worry, be happy’, and a gang-war scene where a man is slashed across his chest immediately in front of a board that has a drawing of a heart with an arrow through it. None of this detracts from the essential seriousness of the film, though. The only flaw in Dharavi, I thought, was in the casting of the lead pair. Nothing Puri or Azmi do here can be faulted, but they were both in their 40s when the film was made—arguably too old for these parts—in addition to being established stars of non-mainstream cinema. The film may have worked better with less familiar faces in the roles.
DHARAVI’S CENTRAL NARRATIVE is interspersed with vignettes of slum children playing grown-ups, usually by imitating the things they have seen in Bollywood masala movies (in one scene little boys mock-pursue a little girl, who does her bit by mock-screaming “Bachao”). I was reminded of these swaggering children while watching Salim Pasha (Pawan Malhotra) and his cohorts in Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). Malhotra is a small-built man with an unthreatening voice, but that is only one reason why Salim—who saunters about his district collecting hafta and committing petty crime—often comes across as a child pretending to be an adult. (He wears a canvas jacket and a fish-net vest, he talks the talk and struts the strut, but when a friend is murdered, he vents his frustrations by shooting down fighter planes in a video game.) “Iss shaher mein gunda banna toh bachhon ka khel hai,” an acquaintance, the idealistic Aslam, tells him in a key scene, “Mushkil toh sharaafat se jeena hai.” (“In a city like this, it’s child’s play to be a hoodlum. What’s difficult is to follow the path of honesty.”) In a sense, then, Mirza’s film is a coming-of-age story: a young man growing to self-awareness, slowly turning his face away from the easy way out for someone born in his class and circumstances.
It begins with Salim introducing us to his basti and the people who are part of his life: his family, including a disapproving father and a sweet younger sister; the dancing girl Mumtaz (“chamakti Mumtaz”), whom he loves; a faux-philosophising, guitar-strumming foreigner called ‘Jani Hippie’; the local smugglers and policemen who are inevitably in cahoots. (“Dekho, smuggler ke kandhe pe kanoon ka haath,” someone wittily observes as a cop scrapes before a man he should be arresting.) There is a touch of documentary to these early scenes, but they also have a stylised quality: the opening sequence gives the city a bleached, otherworldly look; the camera tracks constantly, drawing us ever further into Salim’s milieu—and, by extension, his inner world.
Salim Langde... is an unevenly paced film—very breezy in places (with a couple of inspired comic skits such as the one where Salim’s buddies imitate the mannerisms of posh college-goers), but then juddering to a halt as a character (for the most part the conscientious Aslam) holds forth on such matters as the bloody history of the subcontinent and the need for Muslims to embrace education. Much like Mirza’s capricious book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, the film mixes compelling narrative with self-conscious preaching, and the ending is a little abrupt (though that may well have been intentional).
Hindu-Muslim riots are a humming presence in the background of Salim’s life—when local hoodlums encroach on each other’s territory, it becomes a metaphor for communal clashes and the splitting of the country along religious lines. (“Apna area! Unka area! Sab log ka area alag-alag ho gaya hai (our area, their area, everybody has a separate area now),” a character rues.) The drug-addled hippie talks about nuclear destruction and observes that India is a good place to die in; posters of Martin Luther King, Jr and a mushroom cloud share space on a cafe wall, while another wall amusingly has portraits of gods separated by large advertisements for razor blades. The link between poverty and crime (with religion as a catalyst) is made abundantly clear, and our hero must find a way to choose between rokda and izzat. A question that was central to Dharavi is raised here in a slightly different context: “Hai koi tareeka gutter se baahar nikalne ka? (Is there any way to get out of this gutter?)” Like Rajkaran and Amrit—“heroes” of the other films mentioned above—Salim Pasha must try to balance personal integrity and ideals with his circumstances.
WATCHING THESE FILMS in succession, it struck me that these print restorations are important for another reason: they help us overcome a mental block against discussing non-mainstream movies in terms of their aesthetic appeal.
Many viewers of my generation grew up seeing (or being forced to see) these films on monochrome TV sets and believing that they were meant to be edifying but joyless experiences. In some cases, this impression spilled over into adulthood. These movies are characterised by stark writing, gritty performances and “real” emotions, we told ourselves, and surely such things can be appreciated even in dull colours and scratchy prints? (Looked at in one way, poor prints can even heighten the effect of such works by reminding us that they were made on low budgets—that this was the nuanced Cinema of Struggle, not the facile Cinema of Mass Entertainment.)
However, these NFDC restorations make it possible to appreciate their cinematic brio and imagination. They are reminders that directors like Nihalani, Benegal and Mishra were weaned on the vibrant international movements of the 1960s and 1970s—the cinematic new waves in countries ranging from France and Japan to Germany, Czechoslovakia and the US. However “socially relevant” and “message-oriented” the films made in these movements were, the best of them were formally dynamic too. You’d have to be a real pedant (and, I would suggest, half-blind as well) to discuss Party and Dharavi only in terms of their content and ideas, without dwelling on how they do what they do. What makes them so good is a synthesis between depth of content and depth of execution.
For the Indian film buff who believes that aesthetic pleasure is vital to the movie-watching process (even when the movies themselves are “serious”) and who has been exposed to brilliant prints of international classics, these restorations are a first step in what will hopefully be a more rigorous approach to preserving our filmic past. In the year that our cinema celebrates its centenary, it should not be too much to expect that movies only a few decades old should look the best they can.