[the latest in my First Post column about establishing sequences; this is about the first film in Bhattacharya's 'marriage trilogy']
It begins like a party scene that could have come out of any number of Hindi films of the 1960s or early 70s. A hostess in an elegant saree. Liveried servants bearing plates of snacks and cold drinks. A dining room packed with guests, many of whom are clearly played by “extras” (a couple of them glance self-consciously in the direction of the camera). There is even AK Hangal doddering around as the family retainer, one of the staple sights of a certain sort of cosy Hindi film of this period.
Keep watching, though, and you’ll realise that this early scene in Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971) employs a language very different from most other narrative Hindi films of the time. A sense of disarray is created by the use of overlapping dialogues – rare in our cinema, though the American director Robert Altman was doing notable things with this technique around the same time – and naturalistic sound. A handheld camera follows a little child as he drifts about the crowded room looking confused and lost, negotiating a melange of sights and conversations. Much like the viewer.
We might have been prepared for this by the film’s opening two minutes, just preceding this scene, where there is a deliberate mismatch between visual and soundtrack. First, over shots of the Bombay seascape, we hear a phone conversation between two people in which a “marriage anniversary party” is mentioned. Then we see extreme closeups of a woman’s eyes, lips, ears, forehead, fingers, as she applies makeup and jewellery. This is Meeta Sen (Tanuja) getting ready for the party she is hosting with her husband Amar (Sanjeev Kumar), but no easy cues are provided to the viewer at this point (the aural accompaniment to this scene is another phone conversation between two people whom we won’t even meet).
In fact, the first indication Anubhav provides of settling down and focusing on one of its protagonists is in the post-party scene where Meeta sits contemplatively on her bed, next to the now-sleeping child. But even here, the stylistic decisions are precise and significant: the sound of a clock ticking in the background, which will become one of the film’s running motifs (this is, among other things, a story about time and how we use it), the way the camera freezes on Tanuja’s face as the opening credits begin, with “Anubhav” written in Devanagari multiple times across the screen. Even the placement of the names of the three main actors is telling.
It all looks a tad “arty”, but it perfectly establishes the film’s mood and aesthetics.
Anubhav was the first film in what became known as Bhattacharya’s marriage trilogy (it was followed by Avishkaar and Griha Pravesh). What is it “about”? A six-year-old marriage that has stagnated because Amar, a prominent newspaper editor, is too busy with work… and, well, because married couples often take each other for granted in a way that they don’t do with their other relationships. Meeta tries to rectify this state of affairs (starting with downsizing their domestic staff so that the place becomes less like a hotel and more like a home) – but things get complicated when her former boyfriend Shashi (Dinesh Thakur) shows up and becomes one of Amar’s prized employees.
That sounds like a solid plot, but it isn’t enough to discuss this film only in terms of story or what it has to say about marriage, companionship and loneliness – or by focusing on the dialogue and performances. All those things are important, of course (without Tanuja’s excellent performance in the central role, the film would be diminished), and one can’t underestimate the frankness of Bhattacharya’s depictions of intimacy between two people who have lived together for years (even when there is a fracture in their relationship). Scenes like the one where Meeta gets out of bed after extricating herself from the sleeping Amar’s hold and reaching behind her pillow for the blouse that was unloosened the night before, or the one in Avishkaar where Mansi (Sharmila Tagore) and another Amar (Rajesh Khanna) fool around in the bathroom together, may be the closest that 1970s mainstream (or semi-mainstream) Hindi cinema came to the quotidian, lived-in feel of the sex scene between a married couple in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).
However, what Anubhav does with its visuals and sound design are just as central to its effect, making it one of the most distinctive Hindi-film experiences of its time. There is also a playfulness that might not be apparent to a first-time viewer, since this is on the face of it such a “serious” film. In one scene between Amar and Shashi, they talk about Bertolt Brecht, and shortly afterwards Sanjeev Kumar gets a little moment – when Amar has an epiphany about his wife – where he delivers his lines using the detached Brechtian method, repeating phrases over and over in a descriptive rather than an emotionally expressive way.
During a recent online session about Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the Middle Cinema, I was asked a question about why the “middle-class” directors of the 70s seemed so uninterested in doing avant-garde things. I was reminded of what the filmmaker Kumar Shahani once said about interviewing Mukherjee:
“Hrishi-da was always very knowledgeable about technique and theory, so I asked why he didn’t do more experimental things despite the fact that he knew so much about cinema. And he got a little defensive and said ‘Kumar, please be kind to me! You know we can’t do that beyond a point in our milieu’. ”
There is a different debate to be had about how intelligent stylistic choices can subtly be made even in a straightforward narrative-driven film – and how “visually interesting” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “showy”. But for now, let’s ask a more specific question: what might the Middle Cinema of the 1970s have looked like if its directors had channelled the spirit of the many global cinematic New Waves of the time, the work of directors like Godard or Menzel or Fellini, instead of opting for a version of the tele-serial aesthetic? What if these films had been full of rapid cuts, unexpected zoom-ins and zoom-outs, lengthy held shots, or the use of surrealism to convey a character’s inner conflicts?
An answer to this question may be found in selected sequences from some popular films of the time, such as the nightmare of dislocation that opens Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (1974) – Vidya Sinha in a lovely blue saree (what could be more representative of Indian middle-class cinema!) waking to find herself alone on what seems like a ghost train, and then stranded at a desolate railway station. Or the proto-MTV-like whip zooms and extreme close-ups used in the “Rail Gaadi” scene in Mukherjee’s Aashirwad. Or in a few scattered films that were clearly keen to push the boundaries of cinematic form: Chatterjee’s 1969 debut Sara Akash, Awtar Krishna Kaul’s one-off 27 Down (1974). But Anubhav is perhaps the most fully realised work of this kind.
It is unconscionably late in this piece to mention this, but much of the film’s visual impact comes from the decision to shoot it in black and white – at a time when colour was very much the norm, even for low-budget films. Nando Bhattacharya’s camerawork superbly justifies this decision, making many scenes look moody and noir-ish. Much attention has been directed at the delicate picturization of the song “Meri Jaan Mujhe Jaan na Kaho” (one of Geeta Dutt’s last major works as a singer), but there is also “Mera Dil jo Mera Hota”, a wonderfully constructed sequence that was essentially put together in the editing.
In this scene, as Meeta bathes, vignettes from her newfound happiness with Amar flash through her mind, and both sets of images – the here and now, in the bathtub, and the day-dream that encompasses many other places and times – blend. Dissolves, superimpositions and shadowy juxtapositions are carefully employed: at one point, the shower in the bathroom seems to be raining down water on an image of Amar and Meeta as they appear in her mind’s eye. This device also allows Bhattacharya to suggest risqué moments – kissing, lovemaking – without actually showing them directly.
It’s a fine example of the coming together of what is “actually” happening and the heightened reality of the inner world. The scene allows a viewer to be directly plugged into Meera’s experience – or anubhav – and creates a sense, vital to the film’s purpose, of how tenuous and shadowy our relationships can be. With hindsight, it also adds to the impact of that early scene with the many little “anubhavs” printed across the screen as she sits by herself, reflecting.
[Earlier First Post columns are here]