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A professor in his labyrinth

Print edition : Nov 04, 2005 T+T-
Jahnu Barua in action.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jahnu Barua in action.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jahnu Barua's Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara is a brave attempt at confronting the uncomfortable issue of mental illness in the aged.

ONE would assume that Jahnu Barua, a director who has won innumerable national and international awards and whose films have featured regularly at film festivals, would be nationally known. This is not so. Such is the stranglehold of Bollywood and its regional clones on popular perception that until a director makes a Hindi film and casts well-known actors, he or she is not generally recognised by film-goers. They live in blissful ignorance of regional filmmakers who have made significant contributions to contemporary Indian cinema. Even when the national awards are announced, a minor prize won by mainstream Hindi cinema creates media frenzy while a regional film that may have won the top award is ignored. So regional filmmakers and serious followers of Indian cinema have also had to live with the celebrity obsession of the media.

Hopefully, things will change with a film like Jahnu Barua's Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (I did not kill Gandhi) - for the provocative title if nothing else. Barua has succeeded in capturing that elusive media attention for a serious film. Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, despite a couple of flaws, is a brave attempt at making one confront the uncomfortable issue of mental illness in the aged. Earlier in the year, Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar's Marathi film Devrai explored the world of a schizophrenic. Atul Kulkarni, perhaps the finest actor of his generation, made us live through the tormented mind of a young man who escapes into his hallucinatory reality from the threatening world that closes around him. By and large, the world of the mentally ill has been a taboo subject even for Indian parallel cinema.

Barua's script was submitted to and passed by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) but that august institution is practically defunct when it comes to funding worthwhile films is concerned. Into the breach stepped Anupam Kher - Barua had written the script with Kher in mind - and produced the film and got himself a role that any true actor would grab with both hands. It is not only the role and script but the director's impeccable track record that must have compelled Kher to turn producer of a film that will not attract audiences fed on Bollywood pap.

Jahnu Barua has carved a niche for himself, exploring the many facets of a seemingly idyllic Assam, beset with the problems of impoverishment and inequality. Every one of the nine films he has made after graduating from Pune's Film and Television Institute (FTI) has featured in the Indian Panorama and many have been selected for screening at foreign film festivals. In his later films, violence casts its dark shadows over a tranquil land torn apart by ethnic strife. Barua has been a pioneer of sorts of parallel cinema, working almost single-handedly to bring Assam into national focus, underlining the feeling of isolation and in being relegated to the margins by Hindi-centric mainstream.

This abiding preoccupation with isolation seeps into the narrative of Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, Baura's first Hindi film (technically, it is the second, because his debut film Aparoopa had a little-seen Hindi version). He has intrepidly chosen a theme of acute contemporary relevance to a society of fragmented, atomised individuals living under collective stress. Uttam Chowdhury (Anupam Kher) is a retired Hindi professor teetering on the edge of dementia. What seems like the absentmindedness typical of a professor, who wanders into a chemistry class and starts teaching Hindi poetry, soon takes on the frightening edge of not only loss of memory but a battle with guilt that seems both bizarre and poignant.

The script follows the graph of dementia, from seemingly harmless incidents of forgetfulness, including the fact that his wife has been dead for over a year, to bouts of agitation and instances of shutting himself into his room. The climactic point of no return coincides with the visit of his daughter Trisha's (Urmila Matondkar) prospective in-laws. The insensitive placing of an overflowing ashtray on Gandhiji's picture in a newspaper triggers off Chowdhury's outburst of incoherent rage. This culminates in his cowering assertion: I did not kill Gandhi. From then onwards, this assertion is repeated to the bafflement of his children and the doctor who has treated him without success.

The demented old man's sole pillar of support Trisha, a caring, sensitive young woman who works with a non-governmental organisation. Her south Indian boyfriend who is about to leave for Australia brings his rather conservative parents for a visit. Right from the beginning, the director leaves us in no doubt about the unsympathetic nature of this go-getting young man who has not even mentioned Trisha (he has been serious about her for four years) to his parents. But Trisha is a young woman of great courage and immense patience, qualities that are put to the test everyday when caring for her father. Weaving together the rich tapestry of relationships is Baura's forte and this comes out beautifully in the father-daughter bond. The professor helps Trisha to roll out chapattis - until they come out perfectly round - and she keeps asking for his spectacles to clean them. The two share a bond that is palpably full of affection, trust and loyalty. Trisha is obviously the child who shares his sensibility, calm and patient, firm and stern as the situation demands. They both love to walk by the sea and recite Suryakant Tripati Nirala's famous anthem to courage Himmat karne walon ki haar nahin hoti (Those who are courageous will never fail). This exhortation to keep hope and courage alive is the leitmotif and the ultimate message of the film.

Trisha is the middle child caught in the middle of a classic dilemma. Her older brother Ronu (Rajit Kapoor wasted in a sketchy role) works in the merchant navy and his first commitment is to his own wife and children who live in the United States. The younger brother Karan (newcomer Addy is impressively camera natural) is a college student who thinks that the only way to care for a father who is losing his mind is to put him in an institution. But that is unthinkable for Trisha. She is constantly running late for her job, worried sick when her father wanders off, alternately badgering and begging doctors to treat her father humanely, and chasing any chance of cure with determination. She is not a quitter and she can take the knocks fate hands out - a faithless boyfriend and the loss of her job.

A young psychiatrist (Parvin Dabas) who is not afraid to try out innovative cures comes like a saviour. He gets to the root of the professor's trauma. A blindfolded boy of eight when Gandhiji was murdered, Uttam had shot an arrow at a picture of Gandhiji during a game of bows and arrows. His father, a devout Gandhi bhakt, had thrashed the boy and practically cast him out emotionally. The incident had lain dormant all these years and erupted with the fraying of his mental faculties. How and when does this fragile thing called the human brain succumb to illness? Barua depicts the process and leaves answers that trouble our imagination.

An engaging beginning, a strong middle and a weak ending - that is the narrative graph of Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara. The title, of course, is a sure-fire hook to arouse curiosity and challenge our preconceptions of Gandhiji's legacy. Barua at his best has the virtue of being simple without being simplistic. That ability to say something significant in a direct, uncomplicated way is shaky in a film which pitches its ambitions somewhat high. The whole elaborate charade of the re-trial of Chowdhury, to absolve him of his self-inflicted guilt, sounds better on paper. Barua shows how the professor's children, the caring psychiatrist, the assembled cast garnered from the ranks of junior artists, plus a terrific cameo by the redoubtable Boman Irani as the actor playing a ruthless prosecutor, stage this mock trial for a therapeutic purpose.

SO far so good, even if this unusual therapy, is tried out as an experiment to treat a hopeless case of dementia. The director does not offer any plausible scientific explanation and pitches it as a desperate attempt by an inventive doctor. It promises good drama without lapsing into routine psychobabble. But the actual enactment does not reach the hoped for ambiguity, as the paid actors are supposedly moved to tears by the professor's moment of limpid, and damning, lucidity. The professor, artfully lit to appear almost in silhouette, emerges from the darkness of the mind to indict us all for forgetting Gandhi's essential message while enshrining his portraits and statutes. This indictment - where the lead actor writes his own script while the rest play out their staged parts in an orchestrated script - moves even the hired actors to tears. But what we see is a clumsily staged spectacle. The hoped for dynamics between Chowdhury's reality and the elaborate artifice created to cure him of his delusions just do not ignite the emotions and stay stubbornly static.

The professor's matter-of-fact regaining of his rationality, the casual way he says that of course it was Godse who killed Gandhi and not he with bows and arrows, is the launch-pad for a tired sermon holding us all guilty of assassinating the Mahatma's ideals. This arraignment comes after we see how the globalised world has fractured families. But the arguments lack the intellectual depth and emotional punch of the director's previous films rooted in Assam. So, the last shot of the father and daughter walking along the beach at sunset, reciting their favourite Nirala poem is little more than a pretty picture. Uttam Chowdhury's descent into dementia is irreversible and life is going to get even tougher for Trisha while she has to cope with his illness, her work and life that are put on hold. To end the film at the moment of temporary remission of a terrible mental illness might be reassuringly optimistic but is essentially evasive.

Another weak point is the unrealistic set: a spacious bungalow complete with a wobbly balustrade in space-crunched Mumbai. Barua's signature in his earlier films was the unerring eye for his native landscape, the body language of the people, the bleak dormitories of a juvenile remand home. Whatever the constraints of production in Mumbai, Barua's choice of this fake bungalow instead of a cramped flat is inexplicable.

Barua has previously captured the gentle rhythms of life lived in close harmony with nature. That is why, the tragedies that overtake his characters - the sturdy peasant of Halodia Choraye Baodhan Khai (The Catastrophe, winner of the Silver Leopard at Locarno in 1988) or the old boatman displaced from his village in Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (The Sea is Far Away, winner of Swarn Kamal for best director in 1995 and award for direction in Brussels) - are full of muted poignancy. It is as if a harsh outcry would violate the calm beauty of the land that is magically intact despite all the ugliness. This is not evasion of reality but a deep sense of optimism and faith in the innate goodness of people. Perhaps, it is that same basic optimism that filters into the twilight world of Chowdhury and lulls us into false hope.