“Stones Into Seedlings”

11/28/2010

Still from 'Ankur'

Three From Benegal’s Middle Period

Among India’s most politically outspoken filmmakers, Shyam Benegal is also one of its most astute and sensitive social critics. From his initial foray into feature-length narratives in 1974, and subsequently throughout his long and storied career, Benegal’s work has presented an unusual mixing of leftist politics with star power and slick production values, all the while disdaining the vapidity and conservativeness of most mainstream cinema in India. The direct, often undeniably indignant messages found in many of his films are always accompanied by a broad humanism that is not the swaddling blanket it could be, but is instead the sweet and uplifting center of his otherwise incendiary tone and often tragic perspectives on real life situations.

Coming into a decade working in a leftist documentary tradition, Benegal no doubt felt somewhat stifled by the need for state patronage and the concurrent dictates that went along with it. The move to fiction filmmaking was both a logical one and one of creative necessity, as he gained more power over the ideas he wanted to convey while also having more of an opportunity merge his experience in a social realist background with an inborn ability for creating compelling stories. Three examples of his narrative dramas, mainly set in a village backdrop, are somewhat tied to real life occurrences and almost always show echoes of many earth-shaking events of India’s post-independence history. Some prominent themes in his work, and ones that are particularly acute in rural settings, include issues arising from land reform, social divisions, and the state of women’s empowerment, the latter of which largely stagnates in India beyond the limits of the cities.

Though Benegal’s early fictions represent a distinct phase in themselves (being notably separate from later, big-budget efforts) they are still decidedly contiguous with his work in documentaries. This can be seen in the ease and affinity with which he presents village life, something from which he draws elements to mold into a narrative form, while at the same time never idealizing or mistreating it. Any contrivances or oversights one may find, most of which are minor, can be forgiven in light of the powerful social messages that Benegal retains as the focus of all of his film work. And this conscientiousness, however broad, is always somewhat torn, between action and consideration, optimism and realism, placing the moral imperative on finding a balance for these forces amid the chaos of humanity.

Still from 'Ankur'

Ankur (1974)

Surya, the protagonist of Ankur (The Seedling), is a young man who has just returned to his parents’ home after completing his exams. His father, a wealthy zamindar (landlord) forbids Surya from returning to the city for further studies, compelling him instead to move to the family’s farm in a nearby district to oversee the property. That is, after he has gotten married to the woman they have chosen. The son grudgingly does both. Being more or less a spoiled sophisticate, he experiences his share of culture shock upon entering the village where he is to live. Although he considers himself fairly refined, basic tenets of politeness and protocol are nonetheless lost on him in this new setting. He finds the property inhabited by a loyal Muslim guard, as well as a young woman named Laxmi and her deaf-mute husband, Kishtaya.

While trying to adjust to life in the country, with its surprises and monotony, Surya agrees to hire Laxmi as his housekeeper. Although she is of a lower caste, he still eats the food that she cooks, not minding it in the least. This scandalizes the other residents of the village, but they understand that he is wealthy and doesn’t know any better. Laxmi does double duty by also taking care of Kishtaya, who is never able to make a secure living, and is more like a child with whom she has been charged rather than an equal in marriage. He seems perpetually adrift, restless but too baffled by the world to move. He will often climb to the top of the palm trees (which belong to Surya’s family) and get drunk off of the fermented coconut water. Surya feels attracted to Laxmi but has a hard time getting close to her, looking perpetually embarrassed at their situation of master and servant. It is only after Kishtaya runs away without warning that Surya makes an advance on his housekeeper, and she is unable to refuse him.

We see expressed in Benegal’s depiction of village life the age-old ideological struggle of the artist who wants to show the poor and oppressed for what they are, flaws and all, while still championing them at the same time. And latent in this dissonance is the question of whether it is even excusable to approach such a subject with one’s foreign sensitivities (acquired through a progressive and urban socialization) still in play. To a certain extent we see this reflected, unconsciously, in the protagonist’s tremulous connection to Laxmi, in his unsureness as to how to relate to her or win her over. His sense of superiority is bred into him, but until now he has had no need or no inclination to assert it. However it comes entirely into its own when he begins his affair with Laxmi, using it to keep her in his arms.

Still from 'Ankur'

Ankur (1974)

Throughout the village, rumors of what is going on between Surya and Laxmi congeal into common knowledge, and eventually his father gets wind of it. He visits Surya for the first time to admonish him against tarnishing the family name. Just as initially he saw his way of life and traditional, feudal income being threatened by Surya’s desire to complete his studies, so too does he feel the need to keep his son in line and follow the inherited codes of his class and background. Soon thereafter Surya’s new wife shows up to live with him, and his affair ends for good.

Glimpses into the life of the village show the locals forever caught up in seemingly inane conflicts, superfluous to the basic desire to live out their lives and prosper. Due to the intricacy and inequity of village and caste politics, they could perhaps never see through the various distractions and be guided by these most essential goals. Thus they are unable to wrest control of their destinies from those who possess the power. Kishtaya is an interestingly-situated character because he is an outcast, unable to relate to the systems that govern people’s lives and thus unable to see their importance. At the same time there is a certain parallel between him and the other villagers, who are perhaps voiceless and disconnected as well, but in a metaphorical sense.

With Laxmi, played by Shabana Azmi, is making reference to uncorrupted goodness, simplicity, and modest beauty. But the actress, of course, bears little resemblance to this rural ideal; looking positively exotic next to the dark-skinned village women, she has a glamorous and glowing halo about her, wears full makeup, and is perfect from virtually every angle. As a result we want her to possess something, a yearning perhaps, too big for that complacent image to conceal. She is using Surya as much as he is using her, but the stakes are much higher for her, as is often (paradoxically) for people of lower social status. Her concerns being too important, too intense to extend far beyond the daily duties of providing for herself and her wayward husband.

Still from 'Ankur'

Ankur (1974)

Surya is expected by everyone to be unyielding and disinterested, which he tries to be, to the best of his ability. But none of that is innate. When social pressures push him further, to try to be more of a zamindar, he cannot stop himself from going overboard and destroying his image entirely. He cannot win; as a progressive he is looked down on as cowardly or deviant, and when he plays the master he gets his due hatred. For not resisting his father, for thinking he could mollify a much larger evil by being kind, or worse, for failing to recognize that the evil exists, he is punished. He had little choice in entering into the situation in which he now finds himself but, blindered by self-absorption and urbanity, he failed to appreciate all of its implications. Benegal is offering a critique of Indian liberalism in general, whose best-intentioned engagement with the needy can still be marred by ingrained notions of superiority, from which follow exploitation. He develops deep feelings for Laxmi (deeper than those he has for his wife, certainly) but is fated to discard her.

It is one’s behavior in extreme situations that really matters. And it is clear that Surya could not escape from external pressure to conform, albeit to a role that he has never wanted nor adjusted to entirely. All his defenses, including the perception of himself as a generous, different sort of overseer, crumble lavishly. There is no such thing as a different sort of overseer, Benegal seems to be saying.

When Laxmi does eventually make her opinions known to Surya, it is not in the form of a measured, thought-out monologue, but a barely articulate outpouring of rage, a diatribe against the social factors that hold her back, and something for which we wish she could have had the voice and opportunity from the very beginning. Like the anguished, disembodied scream that inaugurates Ritwik Ghatak’s The Golden Thread (1965), her tirade is a cry from the heart, one that needs to be unleashed, if only to fill the open and indifferent void that surrounds her, echoing briefly before falling away.

Still from 'Nishaant'

Nishaant (1975)

A subsequent film entitled Nishaant (Night’s End) is similarly fable-like and is said to derive its story from true events that happened near his home city of Warangal. While he avoids giving it a ‘plucked from the headlines’ feel, the urgency and sadness are left intact. It has few of the emotional ambiguities that characterize Ankur, choosing instead as its focus the structural distribution of power, so present in rural India, that works to oppress the poor and low-caste. In it a schoolteacher moves to a small where he has just gotten a new job. With him are his wife Sushila and their young son. This town is under the thumb of a wealthy landlord, and is more or less the playground for his sadistic and debauched brothers, two of whom seem to do little else but drink, carouse, and forcibly enlist local women to do sexual favors. The youngest brother of the four, Vishvam, who does not take part in the crimes and antics of his brothers in spite of their goading, also has a wife named Rukmani who quietly disapproves of what goes on in the house.

Vishvam’s attitudes change when he first sees the schoolteacher’s wife, and is immediately taken by her. The two wicked brothers notice this right away. They show up at her house in the middle of the night and, in front of her family and all the neighbors, abduct her and take her back to their manor. At last the diffident Vishvam fails to resist his brothers’ lifestyle, and rapes Sushila. From then on she is held captive, unable to leave and return to her family as she is made to believe, by the women of the house, that everyone will ostracize her for having been defiled. The schoolteacher’s desperation and outrage in trying to get his wife back are looked upon with sad indifference by others in the village. When he goes to the simpering police chief of the town, he finds the man entirely in the service of the landlord.

While the landlord and his family have material wealth, all that stands between them and the villagers is a high wall and an unarmed policeman. And yet: everyone is paralyzed in their presence. The nobles thrive on a power system that has bred an encompassing feeling of indifference and powerlessness, that in turn lets them continue in their ways. As a result of this void of consciousness the villagers cannot see all that keeps them down, even when it tramples through their market, steals their sacred objects, or kidnaps their loved ones. It goes much further, as the zamindars are just the endmost leaves of an unimaginably massive willow – the government lets system remain, and the world allows the government to do that. There is an indifference that starts at the ground level with that of the peasants and gradually transforms into profit the higher it moves up the ladder.

Nishaant, while rife with caricatures, is rarely one-sided or categorical in the way that it looks at exploitation and disempowerment. We see this in the subtly intimate alliance that develops between Rukmini and Sushila, and in the conflict going on within Vishwam, a morally ambiguous character caught amongst decidedly non-ambiguous villains. The schoolteacher experiences the converse of this, though very much in a way that is parallel, since he is a gentle person but feels a necessity for reciprocating the violence that has affected him. In a larger sense internal conflict affects the whole village and society in general; Benegal is presenting a rather extreme example to look at the ways in which the tolerance of everyday injustice can easily give way to excusing the worst crimes against humanity. The ignorance and apathy that becomes the norm translates into the inequality of power that we see reflected in the story of this village.

Still from 'Nishaant'

Nishaant (1975)

The film contains a few pivotal moments that occur at or in relation to the local Hindu temple. The film begins with the theft of valuable jewels from temple’s shrine. The priest suspects the landlord’s brothers but cannot stand up to them. The landlord, a scary, Spartan man who spends more time with his guns than socializing, shows up in person to intimidate him. Religious functions are shown as a point of intersection between different levels of society. In a way it also binds the lower and the upper castes in India because it is common force that delineates them in the first place. It is also something, much like the land itself, that the poor depend upon and that the rich plunder without remorse, feeling altogether entitled to do so. At one point the schoolteacher encounters his wife, now a concubine for the noblemen, giving darshan inside the temple. There she wounds him verbally by asking why he didn’t save her as she was being taken away. Applying village logic, she imagines that he now reviles her, which sadly couldn’t be further from the truth.

Once the schoolteacher gets the priest involved in his struggle to take down the rulers, he becomes a cause celebre in the village. We see the importance of debate and reasoning as he and the priest attempt to bring people to their side, not working to get them to hate the landlords (which the villagers already do) but getting them to hate injustice, enough to act. Things arrive at what feels like a looming crescendo, but Benegal maintains a level of suspense concerning if and how the people will rise up. When the threat of violence against the wrongdoers becomes an option – and it does so as brutally and abruptly as one might expect – grassroots discussion, which elevated the consciousness of the villagers from out of the darkness of fear in the first place, gets corrupted, even obliterated, in a moment. We see the randomness that can take hold with collective frustration, the previously desecrated temple becoming the only safe haven.

On one level Benegal is entwining or at least comparing the plight of women with the plight of the working peasants. But at the same time he treats them as very separate issues, the distinction between which is only fully appreciated once some victories have been attained; even after the peasants get control over their land, women continue to suffer. At that point the two problems become oil and water, respectively. The filmmaker is plainly condemning mob-oriented activism for its inaccuracy and equating it with the problematic sexual politics that reject as impure a woman who has been attacked, virtually enslaved. Even when they acquire the consciousness to turn on the zamindar, the values are still in place that cause the villagers not see the woman as any different from her captors.

Still from 'Arohan'

Arohan (1982)

Forming an escalating triptych of village life, Benegal moves from a relatively sedate look at classism and hypocrisy in Ankur, to scathing social commentary in Nishaant, and finally into a culmination of political consternation and masterful storytelling with Arohan (The Ascending Scale). The later of the three films takes place in West Bengal in the late 1960’s, in the wake of national agrarian reforms that gave millions of landless peasants ownership of the land on which many of them had worked for generations. The new laws also limited how much land a person could own, thereby scaling back the economic prominence of the former zamindars. But in the film we see how, even after such legislation changed the structure of rural landholding,

The reforms that dictated how much land could be owned (25 acres in many cases), however were not applied in the tea-growing area of Naxalbari, in the Darjeeling District of North Bengal. The tea barons maintaining control over so much of the land was a contributing factor to much of the social unrest in the region, and led to the starting of the Naxalite insurgent movement in 1967. The rise of the Naxalites is something of a framing milieu for the film, which shows a group of farmers kidnapping their landlord in the middle of the night and beating him up, chanting the name of the town that inspired them to rise up and exact vigilante justice.

The movement was unusual for being made up primarily of minority workers – Muslims, people from scheduled tribes, ethnic Nepalis, etc. (the ultra-downcast) – held together by Marxist ideology. It signifies a certain modernizing solidarity of Indian peasants over ethnic divides. Marcus F. Franda writes, in Radical Politics in West Bengal, that the movement was initially fueled by “the feeling that the Congress party in the area had favored the landlords and tea interests to the detriment of the landless peasants and tribals and that the area’s greatest need was to work politically for the creation of strong peasant organizations.” This is partly irrefutable and part a matter of perception, as Franda would no doubt argue that nearly all of the Naxalite activity in Bengal, at the time of its inception, was political, even the target killings and disorganized riots.

Still from 'Arohan'

Arohan (1982)

Following the scene of the beating we meet a farmer named Hari Mandal, who works on a modest rice paddy with his brother. Going to the house of his former landlord, a reliable but recently deceased old man, Mandal asks the landlord’s son for a loan so that he can provide a wedding for his sister. This proves a terrible mistake, for no sooner does the son agree to give him a modest sum of money than Mandal finds himself in the man’s exploitative clutches, first owing him interest, then all the fruits of his labor. It escalates until he gives the man his entire harvest and, receiving a salary in return.

Mandal refuses the intimidation meted out to him by the landlord and the hired thugs who come in the night to steal his grain and do him bodily harm. He takes the issue to court and is fortunate enough to get an advocate of his own and a judge who is conscious of the injustice of the situation. Unfortunately that judge gets called to a higher court to answer for his actions in siding with the distressed Mandal, and his ruling gets overturned. The issue continues to bounce around within the court system, but meanwhile the poor farmer is at the mercy of his self-proclaimed masters. While the charade of justice continues, he is fighting a losing battle at home with poverty, overwork, and powerlessness.

Of its predecessors in Benegal’s ouvre, Arohan is the least insular, the most tied to the progression of recent history. In Mandal’s struggle we can see the chain of larger events being reflected, as things only start to turn around for him, legally speaking, in the late 1970’s, after the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has come into power in West Bengal, with actual efforts being made to enforce the rights of the former sharecroppers over their new land. This attempt to present social realities in connection to the bigger picture of what has gone on in the country shows Benegal’s engagement with the historical underpinnings of this story, solidly tracing real life to its analytical byproduct in fiction.

Still from 'Arohan'

Arohan (1982)

Unlike Nishaant, which dwells in the rooms of the haveli belonging to its wealthier characters, Arohan treats the landlord class in a relatively two-dimensional way, as catch-all villains. Victor Banerjee plays the late zamindar‘s son, and one wonders why he wasn’t given a role that would better explore the extent of his acting abilities. The film does, however, show various sides to the peasant experience. While Mandal works hard to protect the livelihood of the family, his brother has meanwhile given it up for dead. It is he who is wary of dealing with the landed gentry in the first place and, after Hari loses his claim to the land, leaves for the city to work as a laborer. While there he gets taken in by the muscular side of a radical organization, and winds up participating in violent demonstrations and premeditated assassination. So one brother is doggedly working within the system to try to effect change and the other has chosen a very different tack.

While the activities in which Mandal’s brother engages hint at a consciousness of the bigger picture, of systematic injustice, both he and Mandal are ultimately fighting for their own dignity and not presuming to be defending the the welfare of everyone else. The farmer’s powers are limited, and so collective problems must be solved with collective efforts. It seems more that the more politically hardline characters in the film are playing on the brother’s rural disenfranchisement in order to recruit him. Benegal himself seems more conflicted than ever, recognizing the immediate impact of violent action but seriously questioning its overall efficacy.

Of the three films in this village triumvirate, it is Arohan that is the rawest and most confronting statement on class struggle in India. It approaches both Ray’s neorealism and Ghatak’s epic sensibility, while uniquely possessing a righteous anger, a targeting of bald and basic inequality deeply set into the national identity, that places it firmly in Benegal’s ideological territory. The truest imperative existing throughout his politically charged films of the 1970’s and 1980’s, beyond provoking social outrage and sparking debate, is to recognize the situation of society as something that is neither fixed, black-and-white, nor at all easily reducible, but is rather a series of processes. The further, implicit duty of the storyteller is to examine these processes, along with their causes, consequences, and, most significantly, elements within that will give rise to change and that will sprout when given the opportunity, pushing through layers of dark soil and into the sunlight’s warmth.

Still from 'Ankur'

Ankur (1974)

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