Friday, October 17, 2014

Dry well, foul smell - on Ketan Mehta's excellent Bhavni Bhavai

[Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, scheduled to release next month, years after its completion, marks a return to alliterative titles in the director’s filmography: Maya Memsaab, Hero Hiralal and most famously the beautifully shot parable Mirch Masala, now available on a restored NFDC print. But my favourite among Mehta’s films is his debut feature, which he made when he was just 27]

“Our homes are burnt, our women are raped, we are treated like animals, and you don’t feel anything?” the lower-caste man says, looking straight at the camera. I am talking to “all those who are watching from the safety of their darkness”, he tells his wife. The words could refer to the moral blindness of people who practice or tolerate discrimination… or to a darkened movie hall in which some of those people sit in comfortable anonymity, staring and judging from a distance.

This scene in the Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai – written and directed by Ketan Mehta in 1980 – reminded me of the last shot of a more recent film about caste oppression, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry. In Manjule’s film, the final image – which implicated the audience in the bigotry faced by the protagonist and his family – was an unexpected Fourth Wall-breaker in an otherwise realistic narrative. Bhavni Bhavai, on the other hand,operates in Brechtian mode throughout (Mehta dedicates it to Brecht too) – it draws attention to its own staging, employs the distancing device of a story within a story, and has more than one scene where a character directly addresses the viewer.

And unlike Fandry, Bhavni Bhavai can be described as a comedy – jet-black, absurdist and slapstick in turn. “Ketan’s vision for the acting in the film was that it should be like the behaviour of the characters in the Asterix comics,” writes Naseeruddin Shah in his memoir, and indeed Shah himself (three years before his role in a more famous dark comedy) has a grand time as the Raja in this film: preening and swaggering but unable to withdraw a sword from its scabbard when required to (either because he doesn’t have the strength for it or because the weapon has rusted from lack of use); giggling like a baby with a new rattle, and doing high-fives with himself when he learns he has won a war and his queen has given birth to a son. He rolls his eyes wildly, makes little grunting sounds, wails “Chhup re! Hamaari jindagi ka sawaal chhe!” when a jester suggests that a dire prediction mustn’t be taken seriously.

This prediction – which has been contrived by a crooked minister (Benjamin Gilani) and a jealous second queen (Suhasini Mulay) – is that the Raja will die if he sets eyes on the newborn prince. Cast away but found and adopted by a member of the local “untouchable” community, the baby grows up to be Jeeva (Mohan Gokhale), whose path crosses with his biological father when the Raja is told that the only way to get water flowing in his stepwell is to sacrifice a man with 32 vital qualities. By this point the allegorical nature of the story is clear, what with the many archetypes – a Brahmin who has to keep bathing because he is repeatedly “defiled” by contact with a bhangi, a self-serving astrologer, the court fool Ranglo, who may be the wisest man in the tale – and the deliberate comic exaggeration. In a society where the “dirty work” can only be performed by lower-caste people, what happens when they take a day’s leave to attend a wedding? The palace starts stinking to the high heavens, of course, because there is no one to clean the human excrement. The Raja has them whipped, but this worsens matters since they are now writhing in pain and incapable of working, and the shit keeps piling up, so to speak. The smell seeps into the very walls, the king is constantly tormented by it – but then, something has long been rotten in a kingdom where an entire group of people have to wear spittoons around their necks and drag a little “tail” behind them to wipe away their offending footprints.

Like Shyam Benegal’s wonderful Charandas Chor, which it often reminded me of, Bhavni Bhavai is rooted in folk-theatre traditions, including the use of scatological humour to address social injustices and hypocrisies. The gags are beguilingly simple at times, and very effective: the Akashvani tune is used when the Raja is shown bathing in the morning as the sun rises; the Pink Panther theme plays in scenes where the court spy makes his little appearances (to the Raja’s befuddlement, since he can’t recognize his own man under his disguises!). The pomposities of royals and their courtiers are mocked: the king emerges importantly from a room and is set to make a grand gesture, but has to pause because a minion has his head bowed right in front of him; the minister becomes an object of mirth whenever he is trying to be dignified – beset by a coughing fit as he laughs derisively, having a prison door hit him on the head as he struts about.

The pace slackens just a little in the second half, but that has to do with the natural arc of the story, with the changes in the Raja’s own personality – he is now middle-aged, a little more depressed and introspective – and with the shift in focus from the shenanigans in the royal court to the lives of the outcastes, including Jeeva, his romance with Ujaan (Smita Patil), and his knowledge of his own doom. And all this builds up to one of Indian cinema’s hardest-hitting closing sequences.

(Spoiler alert, though I don’t really think one is needed) All this while, the story of the king and Jeeva has been told by an old sutradhaar (played by Om Puri) to comfort the children of another group of outcastes who have lost their homes. His song is beautiful and soothing and runs through the film like a river (“Nadi behti jaaye” he sings, assuring the kids that all will be well in the end, that bigotry will be crushed in the same way that the river crushes rocks along its path). But he is confronted by another member of the tribe, who tells him to stop lulling the children with the opium of lies. “Let’s stop pretending. Too slow is your river, too gentle is its flow. It’s now or never, we won’t live forever. Who knows tomorrow?” And the film finally unsheathes its claws with a scene that presents two separate endings or possibilities. 

In the first, idealised one, the king learns that the man he has condemned to death is his own son; he halts the execution in the nick of time, there is a joyful reunion, and water bursts out of a long-dry well, ending decades of drought. In the second, more cynical ending – the real one – no one shows up to enlighten the king. There is a haunting, static shot of the guards standing at attention at the foot of the well’s steps, and between them is an empty passage: no help arrives this time, “Ranglo aave nei (Ranglo doesn’t come)” goes the plaintive chorus. The condemned man’s head rolls on schedule, and water does burst forth, but this time as an apocalyptic flood that will wash away the kingdom and everything in it, bad and good. This magnificently hyper-dramatic finish has the Raja feebly waving his sword at the deluge that is about to destroy him, intercut with visuals from the Indian freedom movement. It’s a call to arms, to immediate activism, but I think it is also a caustic comment on the very nature of storytelling; on the comforting narration-creation that goes along the lines “Things may seem bad now, but they’ll get better – in the long run, everything will work out.” But what can the long run, the big picture, mean to someone who is suffering in the here and now?

This film is a stunning achievement of its kind. My personal preference in “issue-based” films is for the ones that go about their work in subtle ways – not holding up a “solution”, delivering a “message” or being political in an overt, easily identifiable way, but embedding ideas, and maybe raising a few questions, within the fabric of a well-told story. Every now and again though, I come to love a movie that belongs in the other category, because – even though it can seem a bit heavy-handed or preachy – there is conviction, directness, a throbbing honesty in the telling. (It helps if there is some good “cinema” too.) Bhavni Bhavai, along with Govind Nihalani’s Party, is one of those films. Like Party, Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (both of which also have unflinching endings) and a few other “parallel” films of the time, this one has been a holy grail for many movie-buffs of my generation: dimly remembered through a Doordarshan screening or two in the 1980s, then unavailable for years while stories circulated about how the original print no longer exists, now available in a passable print on YouTube, and also on the festival circuit once in a while. I hope it makes it to the NFDC restorations soon.

P.S. Do read this 2010 column by Salil Tripathi, where he mentions the film’s dual ending in the context of Narendra Modi and the possible futures of Gujarat.

[Some related posts: Nihalani's Party, Mirza's Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan, the Cinemas of India DVDs, Fandry, Benegal's Charandas Chor]


  1. Everything was going fine, until you decided to go all Arundhati Roy on us and get political with your last comment - plugging a known member of the Leftist Cabal as well. Seriously, if I wanted to discuss Narendra Modi, I have my own wall to troll on. Leave it out, Jabberwock, Leave it out.

    1. "Discuss Narendra Modi" - is that what I did? Strange, I thought that sentence was just a short and clinical description of the Bhavni Bhavai reference in Salil's column.
      And if ST is part of a Leftist cabal, I possibly am too - key difference being I'm too chicken-hearted to write about any of these things.
      Now come, follow your own cue and tell me what you thought about the post itself - or about Bhavni Bhavai, or the caste system, or the Pink Panther, or whatever.

    2. Will definitely see the film after reading this review. Never knew fourth wall breakages were employed by the parallel cinam makers too. Great stuff!

      And anonymous: Why so thin skinned ? Is it now illegal to even take the supreme leader's name, without declaring one's undying love for him ?

    3. Mukesh: yes, it was done in most of the films mentioned here: in Charandas Chor, the endings of JBDY and Arvind Desai, and possibly in Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai too. And in some of Benegal's later work, including - most notably - Arohan (which begins with Om Puri as himself, speaking about the subject of the film and introducing the cast and crew, before slipping into his role) and Samar.

    4. Very interesting! One would imagine it being used in films with an overtly absurd tone, to use such a trope quite naturally and would fit in as well.
      But that it was used in 'realist' cinema as well, and by such accomplished directors, is indeed a revelation to me. Great to know.

    5. I would think my comment about your post would be self-evident. I lurk here silently and enjoy your posts. That's why I didn't want it tainted with the political reference at the end. It is also obvious that you are part of the same Leftist Cabal, but I always assumed that you were above that and wanted to focus more on the arts, and less on the politics, not that you were chicken-hearted.

      And to Mukesh - it is precisely due to comments like yours: 'Why so thin skinned ? Is it now illegal to even take the supreme leader's name, without declaring one's undying love for him ?' that I requested Jabberwock to exclude the last comment. As I said before: If I wanted to discuss Narendra Modi, I have my own facebook wall to troll on.

    6. I always assumed that you were above that and wanted to focus more on the arts, and less on the politics

      Anon: if you're so concerned about the arts, perhaps you could follow your own advice; I note you still haven't said anything about the film, instead you're going on about a single tangential sentence in my post.

      And no, I am not "above" anything, but time is always short and I pick and choose what to write about, and I'll continue to do just that. Of course you are free to discuss Modi on your own FB wall or in a million other places, but why on earth should that have any bearing on what I post on my website? What if someone else shows up here and says "Stop writing about films - if I want to discuss Ketan Mehta, I'll do it on my own FB wall"?

  2. One reference to Modi and you get vitriol. Imagine if you had really criticized the man. Your site visits might have permanently plummeted. Sad times we live in.

    1. Actually, no, I'm sure the site visits (along with the hate-comments, of course) would increase exponentially if I were to start writing about Modi - or about more "important" things than movies and books. The Haider post is easily the most read thing I have written in recent months, only because of the political topicality of the film, nothing else...