Thursday, August 27, 2009

Aghaat, and Govind Nihalani’s use of actors

Recently I discovered Govind Nihalani’s 1984 film Aghaat on a surprisingly well-produced Shemaroo DVD. It isn’t as well-known as the director’s Aakrosh or Ardh Satya but it’s a solid film – stark and talky, as you'd expect from Nihalani, but very well written (by Vijay Tendulkar) and acted. It begins with a dark, hypnotic opening-credit sequence – a dance performance with one set of masked figures symbolising oppressed workers and another set representing their profit-obsessed bosses (sidenote: I was pleased to learn that the masks were designed by Manjula Padmanabhan). Naturally, the dance ends with the success of the Revolution – red flags aloft, wicked management prostrate on the ground, the worker class triumphant.

The audience, comprising trade union leader Madhav Verma (Om Puri) and hundreds of factory workers, applaud heartily; they've just won a minor battle of their own, getting bonuses raised by 17 per cent. But as the film will show, the real-life battle isn't a straightforward one with sides clearly defined. There are ideological differences and selfish agendas within the worker class, and the management is more than happy to divide and rule.

The official authority of Madhav's union is challenged by a rival group led by the shadowy figure of Rustom Patel and his broad-shouldered henchman Krishnan. While Madhav has the long-term interests of all the workers in mind – and is willing to allow benefits to accrue at a steady pace, keeping the future in mind – the rival group succeeds in getting people on its side by promising them quicker, more dramatic changes; so what if a few workers end up being retrenched along the way? Soon this ugly internal conflict begins to play itself out around the personal tragedy of a worker named Chotelal (Pankaj Kapoor), who has lost his legs in an accident. The human side of the story is quickly lost, so that even Chotelal’s funeral late in the film will become a pretext for one-upmanship. Among the others caught in the situation are a conscientious human resources employee (Salim Ghouse) and a woman hired to improve the company's public relations (Rohini Hattangadi).

There’s an essay waiting to be written about Nihalani’s use of Om Puri in the early 1980s. Brooding intensity is sometimes an overrated quality in actors, but Puri’s performances as the mute victim of caste discrimination in Aakrosh and as the introspecting policeman in Ardh Satya are outstanding. His piercing eyes and lined features – often filmed very effectively in half-shadow – as well as the poetic realism of his speech (though in Aakrosh he barely speaks at all) are inseparable from the overall impact of those films. As Madhav, a sincere man who begins to despair of the moral ambiguities he finds himself facing, he dominates Aghaat, which is some achievement considering the many acting heavyweights on view here. (The Malayali actor Bharath Gopi, as the menacing Krishnan, is another standout.)

Madhav’s opposite number is Rustom Patel, whose presence hangs over the film – people are constantly talking about him and his actions move the plot along – though he isn’t seen until the final 10 minutes when he shows up (in a white Fiat!) to deliver a much-anticipated rabble-rousing speech. This short role is played by the biggest name in the cast, Naseeruddin Shah, whose appearance we, the viewers, would similarly have been anticipating. This could have been gimmicky, but it’s the second time Nihalani has used Shah as a sort of doppelganger-cum-nemesis for Om Puri's Man of Integrity, and to good effect.

In Ardh Satya, Shah has a small but very effective role as Mike Lobo, a former police inspector who had to leave the force because he couldn’t deal with the compromises the job required, and who now spends his time getting drunk on cheap liquor and pathetically begging for money. The character makes short appearances four times in the film, each time providing a distorting mirror for Om Puri’s sub-inspector Velankar – when Velankar looks into Lobo’s bloodshot eyes he sees a portent of what he himself might become. In Aghaat, Rustom Patel performs a similar function for Madhav Verma. For all his voiced concern about worker welfare, Patel is palpably cut off from their lives and it’s obvious that he has his own agenda; whereas Madhav moves from one crisis to the next, handling things personally, making sure he’s around for anyone who needs him. By the end, he has seen enough to know what he must do to avoid becoming another Rustom – though the film itself is open-ended about what lies ahead for him.

P.S. The Shemaroo and Moser Baer DVDs are helping me rediscover a lot of these movies and make up for an anomaly in my personal development as a movie buff. Up to the age of 12 or 13, mainstream Hindi cinema made up the bulk of my film-watching (everything Amitabh, but just about anything else with lots of dhishum-dhishum in it), with only occasional, reluctant asides into the “parallel” films that got shown on Doordarshan. Then, sometime around 1990, I discovered Hollywood classics, and shortly afterwards the major French, German and Japanese filmmakers – and I drifted away from Hindi films of almost any description for a decade. Result: for the past 5-6 years I’ve been trying to catch up with the non-mainstream Hindi cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, which I only fleetingly experienced as a child (when I wasn’t best-placed to appreciate a lot of it). Films by Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Govind Nihalani and others of course, but even the more accessible stuff by people like Sai Paranjype and Basu Chatterji – much of which was only a dimly remembered world for me. (On the other hand my wife, who has seen many of these films multiple times on TV over the years, can recite pages of dialogue from movies like Chashme Baddoor and Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai.)

P.P.S. Aakrosh and Ardy Satya are on YouTube, for those of you who can bear to watch films that way.


  1. Great post on Nihalani, Om Puri and Naseer! They were making magic in the 80s, man. Didn't Nihalani also direct Shashi's Vijeta? That film had some great sequences - the prologue, the lengthy flight, etc.

  2. I vaguely remember having seen this movie on DD.
    Have you seen Party?IIRC Naseer's character was only mentioned in 3rd person and Om made his entry very late.That movie stacks up with the finest works of Robert Altman.
    Also, on another note, Vijay Raaz's character in jungle reminds me of Om Puri.

  3. I've also been having a blast with Moser Baer's DVDs - a DIY course on Hindi cinema. The only one that I've had to give up on has been Anand Math - I couldn't take it after a 15 mins, but thoroughly enjoyed watching a host of Bimal Roy, Benegal, Basu Bhattacharyya films among others. Also films like Ankahee (Amol Palekar), Hu Tu Tu (Gulzar) which I had heard of but never been able to see

  4. Niice - an aside the opening credits of Ardha Satya with stripes running down the screen - mutliplying laterally to form Om Puri's tortured visage - the credit for that goes to Ms. Padmanabhan too. I am guessing there may have been more to this collaboration.
    And Party - man if you haven't seen that movie then you should see it first chance you get - it is simply fantastic.

  5. Chakravyuh mein ghusne se pehle,
    kaun tha mein aur kaisa tha,
    yeh mujhe yaad hi na rahega.

    Chakravyuh mein ghusne ke baad,
    mere aur chakravyuh ke beech,
    sirf ek jaanleva nikat’ta thi,
    iska mujhe pata hi na chalega.

    Chakravyuh se nikalne ke baad,
    main mukt ho jaoon bhale hi,
    phir bhi chakravyuh ki rachna mein
    farq hi na padega.

    Marun ya maarun,
    maara jaoon ya jaan se maardun.
    iska faisla kabhi na ho paayega.

    Soya hua aadmi jab
    neend se uthkar chalna shuru karta hai,
    tab sapnon ka sansar use,
    dobara dikh hi na paayega.

    Us roshni mein jo nirnay ki roshni hai
    sab kuchh s’maan hoga kya?

    Ek palde mein napunsakta,
    ek palde mein paurush,
    aur theek taraazu ke kaante par
    ardh satya.

    -- ArdhSatya(Dilip Chitre)

  6. Great post Jai! To be honest, I have been a very regular reader of your blog for years now, but have commented for the first time. On a different note, would you know any place in Delhi where I can find old Hindi (and Hollywood as well) movie posters? I'm nuts for the classics and was looking to decorate my otherwise very plain house up. Any help would be appreciated.

  7. Mudit: there are a couple of good places in Hauz Khas Village. Also in Karol Bagh I'm told, but I haven't been to those ones. I've got all my posters (including nicely kitschy ones of Barsaat - the RK-Nargis clinch against a florid red background - and An Evening in Paris) from a chap who used to have a makeshift storeroom in Hauz Khas Village. I don't think his base is in Delhi, but he tends to be around. My wife has his number, will get hold of it and pass it on.

  8. Rahul: I have a vague memory of Party but yes, need to see it again.

    Pareshaan: for some reason the DVD I have doesn't have that credit sequence for Ardh Satya.

  9. Reading about dance performances by oppressed workers.. there is another such sequence in a Kamal Hassan movie Anbe Sivam..

  10. Bharat Gopi....

    I remember Aghaat and the white wearing Krishnan played by Bharat Gopi.

    Gopi was not comfortable in Hindi and I have heard he requested Nihalani to reduce dialogues spoken by the character!

    Malayalam and Indian cinema lost a great actor when Gopi was paralyzed in 1986. He was a star (a Malayalam version of Amitabh Bachchan) who did not compromise on the quality of films. Whoever came after him did not have his sensibility or refinement. The drastic nosedive in the quality of Malayalam cinema in the 90s till now can be attributed to him leaving the field.

    He is a good example on how an actor who is a star can actually elevate quality of films with his choices...what Amitabh Bachchan could have done, but did not!

    Personally, his close friend is mine too...and we keep his memory alive by downing Chalafonte...the unknown, rare and cheap cognac which he had a craving for.

    You can catch more of Gopi in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's second feature - Kodiyettam (Ascent) - one of the best screen performances by an actor in Indian cinema.

  11. Gopi was not comfortable in Hindi and I have heard he requested Nihalani to reduce dialogues spoken by the character!

    Anon: I thought Gopi's faltering Hindi and accent made him even more effective in this particular role. It was an excellent bit of casting too.

  12. I couldn't find a DVD for 'Albert Pinto Ko Gussa...'

    Is it available? I would love to own it.

  13. The depiction of Trade Unions and labour relations has remained largely the same--the archetypal capitalist fiends and the oppressed working class that is ever-eager to unseat the powers that be. Lazy ! This is one of the few films that shows atleast some other hues and tones, if not all.

    Decent intertwining of personal angst--Mrs. Ali's domestic troubles and even the resultant confusion in the Personnel Officer's marriage ( BTW played by K K Raina )make the otherwise slow pace appear less ponderous.

  14. Kautilya: I don't think any of Saeed Mirza's films are available on Shemaroo or Moser Baer DVDs yet. Really hoping that changes soon.

    In Mumbai recently the actor Pawan Malhotra told me that even he didn't have a copy of Salim Langde pe Mat Ro (in which he played the lead role!).

  15. Anand, Om Puri was in Kalyug as a not so nice trade union type.

    Salim Ghouse I remember as being pretty decent in Bharat Ek Khoj (and he was also quite active in theatre - I quite liked the one he did based on Chekhov's stories). And hard as it is to believe a fair few of Nihalani/Benegal movies used to screen at Regal. And the ref to Manjula Padmanabhan reminded me of the Suki cartoons in the Sunday Observer in the 80s.

    I think Ardh Satya was Nihalani's best though Tamas did come along later. Dilip Chitre's poem was in Marathi if I remember correctly. An English transliteration was floating around in the 80s and I happen to have it. Here it is for anyone interested.

    Before entering the circular death trap
    Who was I? What was I?
    I would not remember
    Once I enter

    After entering the circular death trap
    I would not even realise
    How excruciatingly close were we
    Myself & the enemy
    Maybe I will even be able to make myself free
    From the circular death trap
    But the nature of the trap
    Will never change......
    Shall I die? Or shall I kill?
    Shall I be the victim or the assassin?
    This can never be settled.

    The light in which decisions are made
    Does it render all things equal?
    Impotence is weighed against manhood
    And the pointer of the balance
    Fixed on a half-truth.

  16. And the ref to Manjula Padmanabhan reminded me of the Suki cartoons in the Sunday Observer in the 80s.

    Anu: you've seen this?

    Anand: that was K K Raina as the personnel officer? Not sure why I thought it was Salim Ghouse. I do remember Ghouse as a very convincing Krishna in the Mahabharata scenes in Bharat ek Khoj.

  17. Thanks for the link, great strip (cartoon not Suki's - though hers wasn't bad either)! I didn't know Suki now existed in a proper, bound book.

  18. 'Aghaat' was a movie apt for the time it was made in. That was a time when socialism was spreading as a parallel logical alternative to liberal democracy. For the common man the versions of liberal democracy would always remain hazy and clouded by his own personal experiences. Aghaat attempted to highlight the plight of a common wage labourer for whom the lofty ideals of socialism and democratic emancipation are linked to his getting money to somehow pass his time.

    Despite its obvious good intentions, I personally do not think Aghaat passes the test of a really good movie , simply because it tackles a wider social issue on a very small scale. The problem with most of the parallel cinema of the 80's was their inablity to simplify the level of writing and be sublime in their approach. Many of these filmmakers tried to make serious meaningful cinema but somehow failed to capture the very essesnce of the problems they were showcasing . Perhaps a case of trying to solve too many issues with one film. However I liked Aghaat in parts and their is one scene were Pankaj Kapoor and his wife try to get intimate after he returns from the hospital having lost both his legs.

    Apart from movies like Akrosh , Ardh Satya , Manthan and perhaps to an extent Sparsh and Bhumika the rest of the parallel cinema wave failed to get its act together as a cinematic experience.

  19. Someone please remind me the last time trade unionism was seriously captured in a Hindi movie. It is almost as if it doesn't exist anymore.

    Was just thinking that movies reflect contemporary realities so well - compare the way Ardh Satya examined police brutality to movies today where it is almost celebrated, unchallenged, unquestioned.

  20. I can't thank you enough for directing me towards movies like Aakrosh and Ardh Satya. I had heard about them but I somehow didn't take them seriously till I read your blogpost. I knew there was a huge body of dark Hindi movies that I hadn't yet discovered.

    Om Puri is spectacular in both of them. Can't wait to watch Aghaat.

  21. Same as above, can't thank you enough for providing insights. Keep writing.

  22. can anybody please explain me with example. what does the last line of poem mean,
    between Courage and Cowardice lies Half Truth???