Friday, December 29, 2017

Reinventing the reel: Newton, A Death in the Gunj, Anaarkali of Aarah (a yearend list of sorts)

[For Mint Lounge’s yearend issue, Uday Bhatia and I did a piece that linked some of the best Hindi films of 2017 with earlier works. Here are my three contributions to the package. Full piece here]

Dance as self-expression in Anaarkali of Aarah, Teesri Kasam and Guide

Hindi cinema has usually represented the courtesan, tawaif or nautch girl (each term linked to the others but also carrying subtle shifts in meaning or implication) as women performing for men, subject to the Gaze. Which is one reason why the final scene of Anaarkali Of Aarah—where the titular character uses a dance
performance to reclaim her own sexuality, break the Fourth Wall and confront the powerful man who has been harassing her—is so exhilarating. Here is a woman expressing self-worth in a space traditionally associated with male privilege.

This is also evocative of two of Waheeda Rehman’s best roles: as Rosie in Guide and as Hirabai in Teesri Kasam. There are scenes in both films where the male leads—played by two of our biggest stars, the late Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, respectively—are cowed down by the passion and abandon with which the heroine flings herself into dance. In Teesri Kasam, the naïve Hiraman (Kapoor) idealizes Hirabai (Rehman) and is shaken when he learns that she has been performing in this “disreputable” field since childhood; in Guide, Raju (Anand) wants to heroically rescue Rosie from her shackles, but himself feels insecure and subservient when she moves into the performative realm.

These are not feminist films in the direct, self-conscious way that Anaarkali Of Aarah is (it would be ridiculous to expect this, given that they were made in the mid-1960s), but they are remarkably progressive in their own contexts. And much of this has to do with Rehman’s personality. When in full flight as actor and dancer, she could make everything else in a film swim around her. Watch her magnificent snake dance in Guide and then that last scene in Anaarkali again; though separated by more than 50 years, they are part of the same conversation.

Familial ghosts in A Death in the Gunj and Trikaal

There are many ways in which to talk about Konkana Sensharma’s excellent directorial debut A Death In The Gunj—among them being its examination of the little cruelties and hegemonies that an “unmanly” man may be subjected to, even by a world that thinks of itself as modern. Shutu, played by the mesmerizing Vikrant Massey, has predecessors in our cinema: the many young men, in films like Parichay or Alaap, who prioritized “soft” pursuits like art (mainly music) or love over the family business, causing patriarchal wrath to descend on them.

But A Death In The Gunj is also notable as an example of the ensemble family film. By this I don’t mean a multi-starrer about a large clan, but an intimate, chamber drama-like story where a group of people are together in a relatively small space for a short period, and many mini-tragedies and mini-comedies unfold simultaneously.
In this sense, it is strongly reminiscent of Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, another film about a number of individuals with idiosyncrasies, personal demons and complicated interrelationships, and, like A Death In The Gunj, set in an atypical, old-world location (a mansion in 1960 Goa). Both works are marked by soft indoor lighting that makes the night-time scenes ominous and claustrophobic: Cinematographer Ashok Mehta made brilliant use of candle-light in Trikaal, while lanterns dominate Sensharma’s film.

Interestingly, both feature séances too—though in the newer film, what seems at first to be a supernatural interlude turns out to be another cruel joke played on Shutu; while in the older film, there really is some form of magic involving Kulbhushan Kharbanda marvellously chewing up the scenery. Which is not to say that A Death In The Gunj doesn’t have its own ghost — albeit a more melancholy one.

The perils of idealism in Newton and Satyakam

Amit Masurkar’s Newton—about an idealistic government clerk, a stickler for rules, sent for election duty in Naxal land—carries echoes of a nearly 50-year-old film with a similarly unbending hero: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakam, about a young engineer, Satyapriya (Dharmendra), who refuses to compromise even if it imperils the people who are dependent on him.

In some ways, the differences are just as important. Newton has a dry sense of humour (a herd of goats obediently bleat “haiii” as if in response to the question, “Do you have voter IDs?”), while the stately 1969 film rarely permits itself a smile. But at the centre of both stories are two earnest men whose inflexible commitment to their principles is often a source of frustration to everyone around them.

And yet, here’s a modest proposal: Neither film is unequivocally supportive of its hero. This is more obvious in the newer film, because it is more multilayered at a surface level and allows for perspectives other than Newton’s—notably that of chief of security Aatma Singh (a terrific Pankaj Tripathi), who understands ground realities and the nature of realpolitik in a complicated country better than Newton does. Or the local girl who tells the clerk, with a quiet smile, “You live only a few hours away but you know nothing about us.”

However, Satyakam—on the face of it a more moralistic film—also has scenes where the protagonist has a mirror held up to him (in one case by a character who might otherwise have been stereotyped as a slimy opportunist). Though Mukherjee repeatedly claimed that it was his favourite work, his career is more noted for protagonists who have a much greater sense of fun than the dour Satyapriya—people like Anand and Gol Maal’s Ram Prasad, who contain multitudes and are more understanding of the chimerical sides of human nature.

Both films allow us to reflect that if the world were made up entirely—or even mostly—of Newtons and Satyapriyas, then yes, it would probably be a better, more ethical place; but it would also be much blander, more robotic, less human. A landscape of clockwork oranges.

[Related posts: Anaarkali of Aarah; Trikaal; Satyakam; Guide]


  1. A Death in the Gunj has been on my list to watch for sometime now. Have to watch it and also Anaarkali. It's strange that hardly anyone I know in Goa has seen Trikaal or cares about it even when I tell them the movie is on YouTube.

  2. "Both films allow us to reflect that if the world were made up entirely—or even mostly—of Newtons and Satyapriyas, then yes, it would probably be a better, more ethical place"

    A world of Satyapriyas would be a dystopian hell. Not an ethical place. Ethics aren't defined by any single individual in an ivory tower. Ethics arise by engaging in society. Working with people of different shades. Seeking incremental change. Handling a dozen different cultural ideas of right and wrong. Compromising. Deal making. Negotiating. Evangelising. That's Karma Yoga. That's ethics. That's what worldliness demands.

    Sticking to a certain personal code and being lost in one's obstinate vision of the world, is not ethics. It's just pig headedness of the worst sort.

  3. Take a hero like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Or Gary Cooper in The Man of the West. Or Amitabh Bachchan in Manzil. Or Raaj Kumar in Oonche Log. Or Jimmy Stewart in Rope.

    Now those guys are truly great. Because they dont have a simple ethical code to define themselves. They tell us what's right and wrong by grappling with the temptations of life. They are one of us. They mingle with the crowds. They are NOT virgins. They lose their innocence and yet somehow manage to recover their virtue.

    They are the ones who create "virtue" on earth. Not obstinate one-track minds like Satyapriya.