Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Habib Tanvir, Shyam Benegal, and a truthful thief

Given that Shyam Benegal is one of our most respected directors, I’m a little surprised by the under-the-radar status of his second feature film, the 1975 Charandas Chor. This version of Habib Tanvir’s famous play about an honest thief was done in collaboration with Tanvir – before the play itself had acquired its final shape – and I think it is one of Benegal's most enjoyable movies and one of Hindi cinema’s sharpest satires. But it is often overlooked, perhaps because it was made for the Children's Film Society and therefore seen as being geared to a non-adult audience. I have read Benegal profiles that refer to Ankur, Nishant and Manthan – cornerstones of the Indian New Wave – as his first three films, with no mention of Charandas Chor. (See the second sentence of this Wikipedia entry, for starters, and the “Feature Films” subhead.) Even Dibakar Banerjee – a voracious movie-watcher and a big Benegal fan – had not seen the film when I spoke with him last year, though he was certainly familiar with Tanvir’s play. (Banerjee noted that the play contained a precedent for the Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! theme of a thief’s career becoming a comment on the society around him.)

The neglect notwithstanding, Charandas Chor is a notable film on many levels. It represents a rare meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with vital contributions by musicians and actors of the Chhatisgarhi Nacha troupes who worked with Tanvir) and is a document of one of our most significant modern plays in a nascent, transitional form – but it is also recognisably a film, cinematically imaginative and dynamic. It was one of Govind Nihalani’s most impressive early outings as a cinematographer, as well as the feature debut of the young Smita Patil, as a beautiful princess who is besotted by the bumpkin Charandas.

Despite the seriousness of its themes, its form is that of a playful entertainment from the very first image, a medium shot of a doleful-looking donkey, its tail apparently wagging in tune to the folk-song on the soundtrack. While this animal plays a functional part in the narrative (it belongs to a dhobi who will become Charandas Chor’s sidekick), the ass motif is integral in a wider sense: many of the side-characters, including a “chatur vakeel” (clever lawyer), are depicted in illustrations as donkeys that Charandas will get the better of (or expose as hypocrites). The film's episodic structure is quickly established too, with Charandas (Lalu Ram) encountering the dhobi Buddhu (Madan Lal), who wishes to become his chela. The scene employs the language of an enlightened guru addressing his disciples: asked to impart his gyaan of thievery, Charandas replies, "यह कला है, बेटा - बड़ी साधना से मिलती है।" (“This is an art, son – it requires practice and rigour.”)

But this being a parable about the duplicities of social structures – including the ones rooted in class and religion – we also meet a “real” guru who, as Charandas observes, has an even more efficient money-making gig going. “आपका धंदा बैठे बैठे, और आमदनी ज़्यादा" (“You sit and do nothing, but earn more than me”) he tells the sadhu with genuine reverence in his eyes. This lampooning of authority figures extends across hierarchies: for instance, a view of temple idols shorn of their ornaments (making them look bald, comical and most un-Godly) is echoed by a shot of three unclothed policemen drying their uniforms by the riverbank. Through most of these episodes, the chor maintains his essential dignity and his moral compass while the “law-abiding” world is revealed as hollow, rotting or plain naked.

There is so much to enjoy here, for children and adults alike. There is Nihalani’s black-and-white photography (inferior Orwo film had to be used due to import constraints of the time, but the occasional graininess goes well with the subject matter and the bucolic setting) and his imaginative use of zooms, particularly effective in chase
sequences that evoke the silent cinema's Keystone Kops. Also the Nacha music, which continually comments on the action, and wonderful lead performances by village actors from Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, including the emaciated Madan Lal – one of Tanvir’s favourite actors – who played Charandas on stage but plays Buddhu in the film.

Inter-titles are used like chapter heads, and Tanvir himself reads them out in his nasal voice, fumbling over big words the way a child might. ("बुद्धू का चोरी के दाव... दावपेंच सीखना।") In a funny little cameo, he also appears as an absent-minded judge who might have dropped in from Alice in Wonderland, holding large scissors and a walking stick instead of a gavel***. And there is the casual drollness of such exchanges as the one where Charandas, miffed by the princess’s show of largesse, proudly tells her “मैं चोरी करता हूँ, दान नहीं लेता" (“I steal, I don’t accept alms”) while the sadhu standing behind her pipes up "दान लेना तो मेरा काम है, बेटी" ("Taking alms is what I do").


A few months ago I briefly spoke with Benegal about Charandas Chor, particularly the divergence between his version and the one that Tanvir finalised for the stage. One important difference was the ending: in both film and play Charandas is put to death, but in the film a humorous epilogue shows him plying his roguery in the afterlife, where he steals Yamraj’s buffalo and presumably sets off on a fresh round of adventures. (This narrative circularity is of course common to many myths or fables; one might also recall the last scene of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, with the rake coolly strolling into the far distance as a TV news reporter blathers on.) But Tanvir’s later modifications to the play made it bleaker and more hard-hitting, with a conclusion that allowed his hero to maintain his integrity – to die for the truth he holds so dear, while the world around him continues on its merry path. “He turned it into a sophisticated tragedy,” Benegal told me, “whereas my film was a moral story done as a comedy for children.” The playwright also opted for a sparer, more minimalist idiom, removing the part of Buddhu along with other extraneous elements, including that zany courtroom scene.

But film and play have one important thing in common: Tanvir and Benegal were both influenced by Brechtian alienation, wherein the audience is asked to be intellectually aware of the issues raised in a story, rather than becoming emotionally immersed in it or “forgetting” the constructed nature of what they are watching. In her book Habib Tanvir: Towards an Inclusive Theatre, Anjum Katyal observes that Tanvir made atypical use of Indian folk music: while our folk theatre tends to use songs in a didactic way (explicitly telling the audience what is good or bad), Charandas Chor follows the Brechtian technique of having two songs express contradictory ideas (e.g. one might say “Charandas is not really a thief, he is a good man, there are bigger thieves in society” while another goes “he is a dangerous thief, protect yourself from him”) and letting the viewer weigh each stance and consciously work out his own attitudes.

Many of Benegal’s later films, notably Arohan (which begins with Om Puri directly addressing the camera, speaking about the subject of the film and introducing the other actors) and Samar, would use similar distancing techniques. One sees it also in Nihalani’s directorial ventures such as Party or Aghaat, where self-conscious, expository dialogue takes the place of naturalistic conversation. The film of Charandas Chor doesn’t do this to the same degree (it was, after all, made for children and needed something resembling a conventional narrative flow) but it does draw attention to the storytelling process through its titles, illustrations and voiceovers. At one point the images on the screen even shake and rupture – as if there were an error in the projection – and Tanvir’s sharp voice asks “Kahin film poori toh nahin ho gayi?” In its own way, this entertaining “children’s movie” is very much a companion piece to the meta-films in the new art cinema of the 70s and 80s.

P.S. For anyone interested in Tanvir, the English version of his unfinished memoirs (translated by the multi-talented writer, historian and dastangoi Mahmood Farooqui) has just been published. I haven’t yet read it, though I intend to (it only covers Tanvir’s life up to the 1950s, I think). Anjum Katyal’s study of his life and career, mentioned above, is strongly recommended too.

P.P.S. A few months ago I discovered that Charandas Chor was on YouTube in a good print, and despite my reservations about watching movies on a computer screen I grabbed this available option. Unfortunately the YouTube video was removed a few weeks ago. But perhaps this indicates that a fresh print of the film will soon be made available on DVD. One can hope.

*** The stammering judge in Charandas Chor is probably an extension of the role Tanvir played in the 1948 IPTA comedy play Jadu ki Kursi, which also had Balraj Sahni in an acclaimed lead performance.


  1. I'm curious - what is your reservation against watching movies on computer screens? Especially because more and more screens these days are basically computer screens (led/lcd tvs, digital projection etc).

    Is it the size that bothers you? I watch almost all of my movies on my computer so I'm wondering if there's something I'm missing :)

  2. PR: yes, the size of the screen mainly - it makes a huge difference in terms of appreciating the visual qualities of a film (as opposed to just watching something at the plot-oriented level of "what happens next"). When movies that were made to be seen on a large screen in a darkened hall are watched instead on a computer screen (or even a TV screen), one is in an important sense watching a completely different film. Not that it's possible to do much about it now, unless one has the luxury of a home theatre.

    Have written about this before, by the way - most recently here and here.

  3. 'Charandas Chor' used to play quiet often on DD when I was a child. And I found it boring, mainly because it was too theatrical. But then, even now, except for Mammo and to some extent Making of Mahatma, I hardly 'love' any of his other work. For me, he was a extremely competent director but rarely brilliant.
    Of course, his later movies are a blot on his filmography.

  4. I remember watching the play, years ago in Calcutta. And had no clue that Benegal had made the film. Here's hoping there's a DVD version out soon.

  5. Jai - Nice post! I have always wondered why people do not talk about Chandrahas Chor. I have not seen this film. But, 2 years ago, I was caught by Benegal mania and wanted to watch any and every movie he made. No one knew about it aside from wikipedia :) I will get its DvD.

    On Dibakar - He mentioned in a TV interview that Benegal made his name in 80s. I was quite appalled. We all knew he made his name in 70s and not only that he got a Padma Vibhushan in 70s.

    And, yeah I am reminded to read Tanvir...

  6. This work is masterpiece...and so are manthan, kalyug, trikaal, mammo, ankur and welcome to sajjanpur

  7. Great post. We used to do a chilren's film festival once a month in suburban North Mumbai, where I first saw this in a movie hall. I, too, remember feeling that it had been unfairly "classified". It is quite an adult film. And yes it does count among Benegal's best. Loved the piece. Especially the info on the film used. I'd always wondered if it was deliberate given the folk setting.

  8. oops!! I mentioned Chandrahas while it is Charandas. Jesus. For last so many years, I thought it is actually Chandrahas. Apologies

  9. I loved the film ! The comedy brought out by the brilliant acting and the use of film such as speeding it up at times, and the austerity of black and white which keeps it all simple make it a classic in my opinion.

  10. Very good to hear from you, Anna, and glad you liked the film. All the best,