In Search of Revolution


'Telangana viewing itself'

The Indian New Wave Comes to Telangana

National cinemas of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh never seem to have had a ‘New Cinema’, at least not as it may be seen represented in Bengali, Kannada, or Malayalam films. However in the 1970s, there was a movement within the filmmaking establishment to go to the Telangana region, which has long been bound up in peasant rebellions and a fight for national autonomy, to build a rapport with the people and somehow document their historical struggle. In his book Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid, Ashish Rajadhyaksha devotes an entire chapter to this phenomenon, focusing in particular on Goutam Ghose’s first fiction film, Maa Bhoomi (Our Land), which was filmed in the Telangana, most of its dialogue in Telugu.

Considering this film, in part against Mrinal Sen’s The Marginal Ones and Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, Rajadhyaksha begins with the question, “why did so many New Cinema filmmakers coming from the Bengal, Kerala and Bombay heartlands feel the need to foreground Telangana as a textual ‘setting’? Few of these famous films were ‘located in’ the region in the standard New Cinema sense…” He frames the attraction that Telangana held in terms of the political imperatives of the day, when New Cinema sought to draw from the place and the people who existed in the minds of the audience as the most oppressed in the nation. And, more importantly than representing Telangana, simply filming there, partly as a show of solidarity with the decades-long struggle that went on there, and partly in the basic need of realist cinema to situate itself, geographically, culturally, and politically. By way of this need, the region becomes an overhang for these individual specificities, endowing the realist text with its legitimacy, its realism.

Still from 'Maa Bhoomi'

Maa Bhoomi (1979)

In the chapter on Maa Bhoomi he proposes that the narration, entering through multiple registers of authority, comprises its own nation-state within the film. It acts as the bridge between notions of reality (including both the history and contemporary condition of Telangana as a national issue) and the funneling of that data into the strategies of realism. He writes that, “this seemingly unmediated reproduction of a plurality of voices appears to have been a strategy of history-writing particular to Telangana narratives…” It is much in keeping with the way that the struggle has been represented across various forms of reportage, such as cinema, literature, and popular song.

“It’s the cry of hunger / it cannot be silenced by a gun

With upturned veena in your arms / you look as lethal as a sword, mother!”

– Gaddar, lifelong Telangana bard and activist

The narrator “staging the nation”, as Rajadhyaksha puts it, can be found in ballads, epic literature, and, inserting itself into that vein, the attempts of outside filmmakers to represent Telgangana in their realist productions. Maa Bhoomi is a historical narrative, telling the story of the farmer Ramayya, growing up in a family of indentured laborers and toiling under the rapacious rule of the local doras or landlords, who pay tribute to the Nizam (Muslim ruler) of Hyderabad. Reaching adulthood, Ramayya falls in love with Chandri and wishes to marry her. But when she is taken against her will to be sexually assaulted by the land owner, Ramayya shuns her, and takes the first opportunity to escape his village and work in the household of a seth (wealthy merchant). He goes through various tribulations away from his home village, eventually leaving the manor to work in a factory, where he is exposed to Marxist philosophy and the workers’ struggle. The laborers in the factory revolt against their bosses, and Ramayya becomes one of the leaders of their strikes, which are violently dispersed by hired goons.

Still from 'Maa Bhoomi'

Maa Bhoomi (1979)

From here the film telescopes out to show what has been going on all along, the peasant revolt of 1946-1951. Once India gained independence, the Nizam of Hyderabad declared his state to be independent, and clamped down on the local peasantry. The Indian government, after several years of fighting with the razakars (a paramilitary group organized by the Nizam), forcibly absorbed Hyderabad. Then followed years of even greater bloodshed as the state fought to crush the communist sangams (guerilla squads) that had been formed by the villagers to defend themselves from their former rulers. Maa Bhoomi takes place during this crucial period in the Telangana revolt, from 1948 til its eventual end at the hands of the Congress government.

Aesthetically the film adheres to many neorealist principles of representation, with low production values, non-actors, and high-contrast photography that relies on available light. At times it resembles an educational documentary about the Telangana revolt, unable to settle on historical reportage or conventional cliches. The young Ramayya gazes into a mirror set against the landscape, entranced as though seeing the contours of his own body for the first time. But then one of the landlord’s henchman scolds him for doing so and commands him to carry the mirror on his back. This disruption of the people’s self-perception is, of course, a key ingredient to their exploitation. The uncomplicated way that all characters are divided between oppressors and oppressed, and how that cuts across caste, religion, and gender, makes Telangana the ideal setting for Ghose’s didactic effect.

The director often returns to local festivities in the village, such as a carnival, a wedding procession, and street theatre. The film is framed by a traditional narrator, but within it there are lines sung in Telugu that are meant to vocalize the ancient undercurrents of the struggle, the feudal system in which it is set having gone back countless generations. Rajadhyaksha notes that, “…the balladic narrator/historian structure overlaps popular history-writing with popular heroic narration. The more complex problem is political, given that the region we are discussing famously put up perhaps the gravest and most severe opposition anywhere to the symbolic authority of the ‘Indian nation’…” In a sense this layer of narration, drawn from Telugu bardic traditions, works to negate the cinematic representation, which, in dramatizing the struggle, exerts a highly generalizing effect, deadening it with drama. The songs, the street performance, and the slivers of life that permeate the film work to place it nearer to the dimensions of the situation than the narrow confines of realism would allow. Thus, being set apart from the possible construction of national myth, they embody true opposition more than do the filmmakers’ imposed narrative.

Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, in the introduction to the anthology they edited, Women Writing in India, Vol. II, discuss the function that New Cinema of the 1970s of trying to reconcile the urban and rural gap. They write that,

it would appear that the urban, upper-class, upper-caste author is seeking an authenticity in these people who are somehow the real Indians, just as thevillage is the real India. This axis emerged at a time when the insufficiencies of the Nehruvian mixed economy had been laid bare. What we find in theseventies is the village-as-Indian-reality ideology of the forties reincarnated with a new twist as the village is rewritten, this time into a multinationalworld economy in which the Indian state is only a mediator.

However in getting interpreted by the somewhat new avatar of the spectator who is male and middle-class (in this case, the creators of new-wave films), the struggle of the peasants, tribal people, the lower castes and women, gets blunted, if not altogether undermined. Tharu and Lalita go on to summarize,

though overtly and thematically these stories and films appear to be about rural India, and about social unrest and protest, their visual and narrative languages work as a sort of translation device through which the rural is inducted into the national mainstream, which is itself being rearticularted as the hegemony of the middle class is consolidated and markets become internationalized. In the process, of course, the political energy of protest… is dissipated.

Let us keep these essential critiques in mind when examining the new cinema’s treatment of peasant struggle in Telangana.

Goutam Ghose

Ghose during the making of Maa Bhoomi

According to Rajadhyaksha, New Cinema filmmakers found in Telangana “the opportunity to set their films in quintessentially ‘feudal’ India: classic-realist feudalism, so to say, against which the Indian-Telugu nations could unite their representational armouries… this was feudal India of the national imagination.” The film’s bid for realism is readymade in the sense that some image of the condition of the place already existed and was largely formed already. It presented an opportunity to visualize a historical moment one step removed from the contemporary, but that was nonetheless in step with the present. The peasant rebellion, the separate nationhood of the place, were still rippling (and continue to ripple) throughout the state consciousness.

With its consistent and impressive history of peasant revolt, Telangana gave the films made there in the 1970s a territoriality that overshadowed, so to speak, other locations in terms of urgency and political aura. Mrinal Sen’s films, in particular, often have a strong identity in whichever geography or language they have, or even the specific conditions under which they were made. Measuring the territory of the Telangana films against Calcutta, they are meant to erupt more from the core of late 20th-Century Marxist discourse, free of privileged trappings, a place suspended in time that is pure and the most totally “revolutionary” that could be found. This can only be true disregarding the complications of outsiders filming there, seeking to represent, drawing local traditions into a narrow frame. Taken as a given in Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid is that Maa Bhoomi:

functions in classic and (for its time) extremely contemporary Third Cinema agit-prop style, breaking out into didactic documentary structures and musical commentary, emphasizing available light and hard contrast processing. All these effects are set up to provide a ‘definitive’ cinematic record of the 1946-1951 uprising, or at least its critical July 1946-Semptember 1948 component: beginning with the uprising and ending with the Indian army training its guns on the Communist sanghams, having vanquished the Nizam’s Razakars, when the movement effectively came to an end.

Rajadhyaksha goes on to write:

The claim of definitiveness is critically important to the film’s aspirations, given that the production of an authoritative rendition of this critical historical moment was both a propaganda and pedagogical requirement. However, at a time – both in the 1940s to which the film alludes, and the 1970s when it was produced – when state authority was ambiguous and under siege, the question of how to produce such authority at the service of narrative intelligibility forced the film to enter into several grey zones, and to engage itself with the production of the very representational history that it claimed to narrate, i.e. reproduce. Maa Bhoomi‘s realism thus finds itself engaging with the sort of data that Telangana’s state-representational modes have politically deployed over the years, giving us direct evidence of how territorial realism often works. In this instance, such data includes history

– and politics, and economics, he adds, all of them equally important.

Still from 'Maa Bhoomi'

Maa Bhoomi (1979)

The film employs similar strategies to the Argentinian film The Hour of The Furnaces (1968) or the Cuban film The First Charge of the Machete (1970), both of which utilize the austere aesthetics of Latin American ‘Third Cinema’ in the interest of their historical definitiveness. Ghose’s film feels as though it was made for local CPI meetings rather than the arthouse venues where his contemporaries screened their work, and indeed that probably was the intent. Nonetheless its self-assumed importance was meant to be recognized from far away, albeit lost on an international audience, as in the case of its predecessor, Sen’s The Marginal Ones (more on that film shortly). Maa Bhoomi has somewhat more in common with Telugu productions of politically-oriented films set in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, from the 1980s into the 2000s. While those are largely meant as heroic genre films set in a backwards region, they could be seen as representing historical data in a similarly didactic way.

Both Sen’s and Ghose’s films are independent productions, but the comparison begins to taper off from there. Maa Bhoomi was structured, beginning with its origins in Krishan Chander’s Urdu book Jab Khet Jage, was an experiment in reconciling New Cinema techniques with strategies of the peasant struggle. Meanwhile Sen, content with The Marginal Ones situating its narrative in national consciousness (but in a way that never seems firmly rooted to the ground) took it out of context doubly by way of international festivals. Though it’s an impressive and profound film, it quickly became a curiosity in his ouevre, without lasting impact. Ghose’s film was meant as oppositional from the start, a high-profile instance of propaganda meant, from inception on through distribution, to bring down the state.

The next four days were spent on befriending the villagers most of whom were rightly eligible to be Kafan characters. They told us their stories and, as we very well knew, there could be not two different stories for the Indian peasants. The same old stories were repeated, the same miseries, the same savagery, the same bitterness and finally the same cold acceptance. But what they told us of the Nizamsahi was terrible.

With all their life-long experiences of grinding poverty and yet of intense passion for living, the villagers walked right into our shots. As they did so, we sharpened our own understanding of the reality, correcting our own failings as often as we felt necessary and adding authenticity to our work.- Mrinal Sen, Filming in Telangana

Still from 'The Marginal Ones'

The Marginal Ones (1977)

The Marginal Ones is adapted from a Premchand story, Kafan, which is set in Uttar Pradesh. It’s not as though these ‘marginal ones’ (these dispossessed, these wretched of the Earth) do not exist in abundance in U.P., or in any other part of India. But the political imperative to address Telangana (the effort to base a film there being even more important than trying to portray the place) situates the story firmly, in triplicate even, within the fact of exploitation. But unlike Maa Bhoomi, which tries to be educational about the struggle, Sen’s film contains little of the history. In Telangana he found a place that is at once in the spotlight of a type of political struggle (as widespread and important as any to be found in India) and at the same time beyond the pale, truly and completely marginal.

The film follows the exploits of two loopy and indigent peasants, a father and son named Venkaiah and Kista. They live in a hovel in the middle of a barren expanse of dirt, a poorly-made house that tumbles to pieces whenever there is rain. They occasionally do day labor when starvation gets them out of the house, but shirk from working whenever possible. They steal food and material to repair their house, are generally shunned by their fellow villagers, and have frequent run-ins with the local landlord and his henchmen. This is Telangana without the political consciousness, divorced from reality and blinded by poverty. The characters in the film can barely see beyond their next meal, let alone structural reasons for poverty. Their trials do not seem to represent a statement on the effects of exploitation so much as the dementing conditions of poverty. Their struggle is opaque, extreme, and cyclical – on a different planet from the emergent awareness that Sen points to in Calcutta 71 (1971). And yet in them we see a universal bottom, one that plausibly exists everywhere, in which toil will never be rewarded, and abuse will never diminish.

At the time he was working on that film Sen wrote, about filming the recently-completed Mrigaya (AKA The Royal Hunt, 1976), that he made no attempt to

make the tribals stand in isolation and thus to build an exclusive case for them. And nowhere in the film has any effort been made to stress on the metaphysics of the tribal rituals. Instead of projecting a less prosaic and more romantic picture of the tribe and making them into museum pieces we have tried to treat them as a continuously growing phenomenon. They are an inseparable part of the vast masses of the agrarian complex who, through years of privation, have learnt to live, to despair and, in desperate bid, to grow militant.

In both cases he uses a broad conception of political mentality to absorb the tribal characters into the revolutionary demographic he would like to represent. He also imposes contemporary class-consciousness and militancy onto a story set in the 1930s, a story that is disconnected from the social movements going on during the time of its setting. Throughout many of his films he has tried to do something similar; Calcutta 71 takes place over the course of five decades, but at the same time, as its title suggests, points firmly to its particular moment. Sen urges the viewers of Mrigayaa “not to draw literal conclusions but to look beyond.” The act of bifurcating narrative intelligibility between two different contexts locks both Calcutta 71 and Mrigayaa in place in a way that saves it from shortfalling attempts at writing an overdetermined classic.

It may be constructive to tease out not only Sen’s reason for filming in Telangana, but also his motivation for adapting Premchand’s story, because they seem to be coming from two different places. About the source material, Sen comments, “Kafan is a cruel story, perhaps the cruelest of all of Prem Chand’s stories – the story of bitter protest against the monstrous society where blood sucking is an ugly fact of reality… the ‘rich grinding the poor and swallowing them up’.” (Emphases Sen’s).

Still from 'The Marginal Ones'

The Marginal Ones (1977)

Deciding to put the film in Telangana, Sen had this to say: “our logic, our understanding was such: the despicability of poverty and the terror of exploitation are brutal realities, irrespective of seasonal changes. Therefore, the relevance of Kafan is not dependent on any time of the year in particular but is true for all times.” One has to try and see beyond these words – it was not an attempt to prove the universal applicability of the story, but to situate his own film within the most opaque sort of oppression imaginable. Thus we are left with a hybrid setting, thick with the palimpsest of Premchand’s vision of village life, the left-wing fixation on Telangana, and the individualist director’s cinematic intentions, all of which are distinct but which get rubbed together into a unified blot.

But by sidestepping the Telgana “issue” – or at least, attempting to embody it by way of an outside text rather than openly discussing it – is Sen doing justice to his region? Or is this no better than putting the same gloss on it that Benegal does, to a great extent, with his film Ankur? Sen chose a story about lazy, insane, totally indigent and good-for-nothing characters as his representation of that region, so it looks a bit insulting to the Telugu peasants, to say the least. He has taken the original story and made the characters even more insane, and placed them at the extreme fringes of a deeply distorted social order.

These representational features, however, must again be separated from the intent. Let us return to Sen’s extra-cinematic point of view. To him the character of Venkaiah is an “iconoclast” who has “seen the world through the eyes of disillusionment… we are also suddenly aware of the spirit of brave rebellion underlying this apparently anti-social act.”

In the director’s search for a character even more diametric to society than Dhritiman Chatterjee’s character in The Guerilla Fighter (1973), by Satyajit Ray, or Ranjit Mallick’s character in Interview (1971), chose a Hindi short story from 1936, and found the most revolutionary character he had yet applied to the screen. Venkaiah certainly has a militant attitude against working for the landlord, but he lacks a social consciousness to break free from it or advance. He and his son Kista lead a bottom-feeding existence, stealing from those in power, living with impunity, roiling and fuming at the system but wallowing in the most miserable of conditions. They are not unlike the ‘ranters’ of 17th-Century England, who espoused confusion as a form of protest.

Mrinal Sen

Sen directing the cast of The Marginal Ones

While in his writing, Sen recalls the efforts that Mamata Shankar made to get to know the local population while they were shooting, he seems to delight in outing her, as it were, as an invader, contrasting her with the environment. There is something of a village collage presented as the women gather round to cross-examine the newly-married bride of Kista, and it feels as though they are interrogating the actress herself, and by extension, her director – although he doesn’t talk of himself as such an ill-adapted outsider.

In a 1971 interview with Udayan Gupta for the magazine Jump Cut, Sen affirmed that,

as long as you present poverty as something dignified, the establishment will not be disturbed. The establishment will not act adversely as long as you describe poverty as something holy, something divine. What we wanted to do in Calcutta 71 was to define history, put it in its right perspective. We picked out the most vital aspect of our history and tried to show the physical side of hunger as well. Over time, the physical look of hunger is the same. But there is a marked change in the people – their perception changes. In a way I call this the dialectics of hunger, the dialectics of poverty. How from resignation and from callousness people move to cynicism and defeat and anger and self-destruction and poverty, and finally, to anger and violence which can become very creative in the process.

Still from 'The Marginal Ones'

The Marginal Ones (1977)

Using the director’s accounts as a primary text, it appears as though it didn’t matter what particular story he used for his film, that the important thing was to film a movie in Telangana, and that simply working there represents an intimate bid for solidarity with the struggle there. But this notion, first of all, diminishes the impact that Premchand’s story had when it was published in the 1930s, and it also downplays the specificity of Sen’s approach to his setting. The fact is, that engagement with the region neither preceded the idea of adapting the story, nor did it take on more importance.

The makers of The Marginal Ones (and Ankur, and Maa Bhoomi) seem to be suggesting that exploitation is considerably worse in Telangana than in Uttar Pradesh, or any other part of India for that matter. It must be worse only by a matter of degrees, because to any observer, the situation for peasants in much of U.P. was and is pretty terrible. The reasons why so much New Cinema attention was directed at the Telugu heartland in the 1970s also have to do with the amount of censorship filmmakers faced at this time. New Cinema was in a pre-militant phase (which it never advanced beyond, unless you count Govind Nihalani’s considerably more mainstream directorial work in the 1980s), and none of them could, very well, make a film set in Naxalbari, even with as oblique a storyline as The Marginal Ones has. They could barely even discuss the Naxalite uprising, except under cover of a bourgeois narrative like Sen’s The Guerrilla Fighter.

The Telangana films of the 1970s, then, illustrate the contradictory atmosphere of the time, the revitalized politicization that permeated everything, but that often was forced to see the light of day in the distant corners of public discourse. While the New Cinema movement, able to bring images of the various far-flung uprisings to the cinema houses of India, should have been at the vanguard of this post-Naxalbari political moment, it instead found itself, in terms of immediacy, well behind literature – such as that of Premchand and Banaphul (who wrote the story on which Sen’s landmark film from 1969, Mr. Shome was based) – and theatre, such as Vijay Tendulkar’s plays. Sen expressed his allegiance to the original text, suggesting that the act of molding it around a different setting was, to him the mark of his ability as a storyteller and as a story relay-er. However, his other two key loyalties – to the setting and to the cinema itself – have put him a few decades behind the material he is adapting.

To qualify Sen’s foray into Telangana against Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1973), also a document under the New Cinema banner, one would have to see through their formal differences. Around each of the notable directors of art films at the time, there was a distinctive film movement in miniature. Sen’s crew, which included cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, sound designer Vijay Raghava Rao, and a rotating stable of reliable actors, represent an independent force of their own, followed by a certain amount of fanfare whether shooting in Rajasthan, Orissa or, in this case, the ashen wastes of the Deccan.

On the other hand you have Benegal’s film, which has a much greater stake in realism, a story that was drawn from newspaper reports and that was made by a director originally from the region. It was also produced independently, but represents a move away from the rough experimentalism of Sen and company, and also much less in the way of avant garde credentials it sows the seed, so to speak, of a different facet within New Cinema, which acted as the conduit into a mainstream (or even Indian national) cinema, of a political approach concerned with exploring contemporary issues.

Still from 'Ankur'

Ankur (1974)

While Benegal’s work over the years proved easily assimilated into the mainstream, at times being indistinguishable from government propaganda, it proves more instructive about the reasons for Indian filmmakers to hover around Telangana during the 1970s. The effort to nationalize consciousness is ever-present, even in the art films of the time, and the instinct to turn this particular region into a palette for social debate is most explicit in Ankur. At the time it seemed to Marxists the most revolutionary place in India, even more than North Bengal, because it had with it a history of peasant rebellion, an ongoing quest for political autonomy, and an entrenched system of exploitation. The region itself is a bit like the two title characters in The Marginal Ones; it has individuality, fights against its oppressors, but is nonetheless still trapped in a feudal age.

That film ends with the men begging for money, coins collecting in their hands as the flies collect on the face of Kista’s deceased wife. Like a cargo cult priest, the father screams incantations for material goods, and the acetate picture literally burns and bubbles in its final images. Because it is so deliriously dire, its impact outlasts that of any image from Maa Bhoomi or the gauzy Ankur. And because the film is lacking a social agenda, its commentary on the debasement of humanity is both duly articulated and embodied. If there were an uprising in the ‘marginal ones’ village, as the one that happens in Benegal’s film Nishaant (1974), would the two men join in, or lambaste it from the sidelines?

“…the final scene, when the film is shown burning,” writes Dipankar Mukhopadhyay in his book Mrinal Sen: Sixty Years in Search of Cinema, “gives the audience the much-needed catharsis.” But why make a film so dire, so hopeless and angry, that the audience is happy to see the frame literally catch fire? We, unlike those people being depicted, can leave behind the misery that we see in a movie, and the images are ephemera that will disintegrate. Sen intends for the anger at injustice that lies behind his films to be so potent that it burns through the medium, but instead leaves us with a symbol of how flimsy and fallible the medium is next to real injustice, and how removed his audience is from those realities.

B. Narsing Rao (who co-wrote and produced Maa Bhoomi, and was key to bringing Ghose to the region) uses the Indian Left’s preoccupation for the classic Telangana narrative in his directorial effort Daasi, however without the same revolutionary enthusiasm for the place. The somber film – whose title means, roughly “female slave” (and also the name of the main character) – is the story of a young woman sent to the house of a local zamindar to work. She passes her days doing chores, working at the bottom of the chain of command (which has the landlord’s wife at the top), and satisfying the man’s sexual appetite. The wife witnesses the latter, but can’t do anything about it. When Daasi’s master gets bored of her, he sends her out to one of the houses in the nearby village to proposition the wife of a peasant for him. The poor man has no choice but to have his wife go to the big house to suffer the same fate as Daasi.

Still from 'Daasi'

Daasi (1988)

We see a similar depiction of imprisonment as in Maa Bhoomi but, rather than being one aspect of many in the oppression of the population – a footnote, almost, in that case – it is here the sole focus of the film, analyzed closely, monotonously, and with an encompassing sense of inevitability. What seems like a crescendo of hopelessness has, in fact, no beginning or end, but merely dangles there. There is the same eagerness to show how terrible and abject the conditions were, but without the same propagandist form that rules Ghose’s film. There also isn’t ever going to be the dramatic, cathartic spell-breaking that is a feature of Benegal’s films of the 70s and 80s. Again there is an inclination away from showing contemporary cruelty, favoring instead exposing historic awfulness. One must never underestimate the need to not have a film banned, and not to anger any particular group, since there are so many that brandish both political clout and brute force to some degree. By that time there had been no government that hadn’t banned films it thought were politically sensitive. So by necessity there was a great amount of self-censorship that went on with filmmakers.

Besides being absorbing, expressive and steady in tone, Daasi also differs from the new cinema renderings of Telangana in broader ways. It shifts the emphasis from the people to hierarchy within the house of a dora, taking place almost completely within. It clearly comes from new cinema pedigree; it uses sunlight for many shots, and includes place-specific details like theatre, customs, rites and daily politics. But a critical look at injustice is not part of its purview; rather, the experience of injustice is told from the perspective of the indentured servant and sexual slave. It is a narrative of misery, without the consciousness of being able to look at it from the outside. In short, it is an art film. It’s extraordinary for its single-mindedness; never is there a moment of happiness or relief, and there is never a point of freedom, a before or an after. While it has only a hint of the gross sensuousness of an art film, which would tend to undermine, trivialize or even eroticize the real-life, daily rape of women (and then pedal it to a worldwide film market as the cruelty of life in India), it does fall short in both its critique and its understanding of such dehumanization. Poor women have their human rights violated just as poor men do, but it occurs on another level of violence. Here, as Tharu and Lalita would maintain happens in almost all of the films to come from the revolutionary 70s, the gaze and the space created by the middle-class male, in this case, turns the suffering literally mute, notably dispensing with the outrage of the victimized.

There are many Indian marxists who hold that there was no slavery in ancient India, since it didn’t contribute to any large-scale production. Some such materialists will allow that it came to the subcontinent in an imported form with the Muslim rulers of the 7th-20th Centuries, and was allowed under the British. Whatever its origins, one cannot ignore the household-level slavery depicted in the film, as well as the considerable economic power wielded by the landlords in a place so poor that people must sell their daughters for a small bit of money. What these historical films of Telangana describe is a form of feudalism in which the landlords take all surplus, and own everything around them, even the human beings.

Still from 'Daasi'

Daasi (1988)

Outside the clamor made by all the idealizers of the ancient past, from the Hindu Right to the Left materialists, there isn’t a period in which the poor weren’t oppressed. So it’s impossible to say if they would have developed out of treating women like property if they hadn’t been economically held down as a whole all this time. Women are locked up and exploited under landlords, but rarely is it considered if there could be an alternative for them. Is life in the village so much less oppressive? There isn’t a counter-example given to suggest any consciousness of something better for her, beyond the vague unease felt by the rich women at her plight. She is a sufferer, and that is her role.

Daasi’s situation is meant to seem grosser than the ordinary enslavement by the husband, house and family because it is by the Muslim aristocracy, an antique brutality that is supposedly over with. Again the supposition is that the debasement of poor women by rich men is the worst possible. Daasi gets physically tormented (enduring an agonizing forced abortion locked in a room) and sexually assaulted (by the landlord, his drunken friends, and his younger male relative). It seems the the psychological scars could never heal, even if some break did come to free her. Nor could she ever be free. If she did return home, she would be treated like dirt for being “damaged.” She could only pass from cruelty to cruelty. But there is little to nothing in the film that would suggest or anticipate this state of things, the environment from which she emerged, and thus misses the implications of top-down violence.

Still from 'Daasi'

Daasi (1988)

Like in the other films mentioned, the misery of the era of the nizams is so easy a target, so obviously unjust, that we start to wonder why so many films focus on it, and why in such an indirect way. Through Daasi, Rao deals with it in a way that is decidedly more direct, and also more simplistic than the realist efforts by new cinema directors, notable for its short breadth and intentional avoidance of contextualizing its content, as well as its abandonment of the epic voice that Maa Bhoomi attempts. Ghose dwells on generalities, Benegal gets derailed by romanticism, and Sen places his film well away from the supposedly central struggle of the people. Daasi goes straight to the heart of the problem, the archetypal exploitation of a young woman, but it is so within the issue that it cannot show what is outside of it. Its presumption is to depict the situation from Daasi’s perspective – unloved, unlettered, and unaware of anything better. While the film provides a sober contrast with the new cinema texts of the 70s, it was done long after the revolutionary honeymoon with Telangana had dissipated, and thus is more a bi-product of their discourse than a part of it.

What’s perhaps a mixed blessing about all three of the 70s films discussed here is how none of them is ever slowed down by trying to approximating authenticity. Nonetheless in The Marginal Ones there are frequent moments of unmediated wildness, such as a fascinating bullock-cart race across the plains that is dropped into the film unconnected to anything, only happening so Venkaiah and Kista can heckle it. Perhaps this film is Sen’s primary attempt to “terratorialize” (to use Rajadhyaksha’s word) and thus nationalize, his discourse.

The associative total of the region’s history and its identification onscreen serves as the space on which filmmakers such as Ghose (using a hybridized, documentary approach) and Benegal (whose contribution partly avoids direct location) stake their claim. The signified, in this case, is what Telangana represents – repression and rebellion, both to a degree that was considered more obvious and pertinent than the examples of U.P. or even Naxalbari. The sign, in Roland Barthes’ notion of myth, is the territory mapped out in the discourse generated by the two – the rewritten, mythologized nation that the filmmakers inhabit upon entering Telangana. Sen is a bit different than his contemporaries; he uses the framework of myth to build further substance, adding space within the form for concepts, even commentary, that other texts cannot allow. He is essentially defining a new land, independent of, rather than within, this framework.

Mainstream politicians maintain that a variety of uprisings, from student riots in the 70s to tribal rebellions today, are the work of a few no-good Telugus, the “Maoist” idealogues who spread unrest like brush fire. This claim denies ordinary people their agency, ignoring the fact that those who resort to violence have real grievances with the government, such as being forced off their land and getting economically and physically pushed to starvation. The Adivasi fighters have everything to lose. The Telangana farmer-guerillas (who are hard to find in new cinema depictions of the place) battling landlords and, subsequently, the successive national and state governments, had already lost everything generations prior. By challenging a system of total exploitation, they had everything to gain. Nowhere but up.

Still from 'Maa Bhoomi'

Maa Bhoomi (1979)

While the Telangana of the bourgeoisie (that which we see onscreen) and the that of the peasant revolutionaries (the historical struggle, extending back, appearing in songs) may be analogous, the “microclimates” of myth (as Barthes refers to them) demarcate the two. New Cinema, which can never be identified as wholly revolutionary nor wholly bourgeois, finds itself standing on both simultaneously. Barthes, in Myth Today, refers to the right as myth’s true home, where it is “essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous,” and where “it invents itself ceaselessly.” At the same time, to the left, “the speech of the poor can only be monotonous, immediate.” The filmmakers, here representing the left, do not so much manufacture myth  but devolve it to their location in a bid to give its people a voice. These are their myths, they seem to be saying via the films.

In their 1986 compilation of oral accounts, We Are Making History: Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle Stree Shakti Sanghatana (a collective that includes Tharu and Lalita) spoke to a woman named Dudala Salamma in the town of Quilashapur. Salamma was known throughout the movement for her incredible bravery and accomplishments. After describing to the interviewers her torture at the hands of razakars and the death of her brother in Nizamabad jail, she poignantly pauses, adding, “to tell you all this – all this detail – it is just at the tip of my tongue. I have survived to tell you all this – you hold the pen – it all comes from my stomach. What is the use of your holding the pen? – my courage stands tall.” This staunch fighter questions the point of writing this down. It would do better in an epic song, transmitted by a traveling theater group. Even the capable and informed recording of her interviewers cannot do justice to the lived history.

The revolutionary eye turned to Telangana in the 1970s should be looked at as having renewed, perhaps dormant relevance, now that it has come into its own as an Indian state. However, the limitations of such statements made at that time are manifest and inevitable. Eager to be connected with the newly-terratorialized, mythic Telangana, the filmmakers were there to align their struggle making the films with those of the people. In the bourgeois consciousness, they become equated. Sen’s ‘upturned Veena’ (to appropriate Gaddar’s phrase) is his use of the cinema-effect, which announces the cry of hunger with a visual amplitude that no bard or narrator could explain to us. The revelation that he could in no way fully communicate the struggle, either through established codes or through national myth, leaves the purest revolutionary statement on it to be found on film.


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