The latest offerings from film-makers Girish Kasaravalli and Rituparno Ghosh are out. Their many differences apart, both films tell the story of the fight of women.
A COMMON thread runs through apparently dissimilar films by two of our finest film-makers. Girish Kasaravalli is an established auteur with an awesome record in national awards and Rituparno Ghosh is easily the most exciting film-maker around, even if his last two films were disappointments. The two new films are not their best, but even so they have something significant to say and say it reasonably well.
Hasina (Kannada) is a stark contemporary story set in a small Karnataka town and told with the dramatic urgency of a documentary, while Antarmahal (Bengali) is a lushly languorous period piece drenched in a curious combination of eroticism and irony. The eponymous heroine of Hasina is a Muslim mother of three abandoned by her husband, but she will grow from abused victim to determined fighter against the system. The two neglected wives of a depraved zamindar in Antarmahal suffocate in the airless prisons of 19th century patriarchy. Their tone and texture could not be more different. But what is common is the deep understanding of and empathy for women that mark the films. Both films will feature in the Panorama section of the International Film Festival in Goa. Kasaravalli and Ghosh uphold the remarkable tradition of our `other' cinema when it comes to serious engagement with women's oppression and their fight against the system.
Kasaravalli's is an impressive and substantial body of high-quality films. He has won the Swarn Kamal for Best Film four times and yet remains rather neglected by large swathes of film-going India and also on the international festival circuit. A man of strong conviction and quiet passion, he believes that one does not have to shout to make an impact. Kasaravalli is rooted in the literature and culture of Karnataka, embedded in the essentially Brahminical ethos of its high culture - he explored and exposed its inherent contradictions in Ghatashraddha and Thai Saheb with subtle mastery. He could also subvert the inherent rigidity of an entrenched hierarchy through sensitive portrayals of its victims with ironic humour in Tabarane Kathe and lyrical poignancy in Dweepa.
It is no accident that his most memorable protagonists have been women. The funeral rites of Yamunkka, the young widow in Ghatashraddha, are performed, though she is not dead, to mark her excommunication from the puritanical hypocrisy of the Brahmin agrahara. The cantankerous old woman of the deeply disturbing Kraurya meets a horrible end, after an arid life where she spins incredible yarns for the village kids but has lost the ability to connect with adults, deeply suspicious of the monetary calculations of relatives. The dignity and grace of the eponymous Thai Sahib makes it a very special film. Her outlook broadens in tandem with two decades of our history from the freedom movement onwards, traversing the arc from the personal to the political without flag-waving polemics. Dweepa's pragmatic rebel Nagi, whose heroism in surviving the submerging of their little island by dam waters is unrecognised by her husband, is an ode to the human spirit, of staying connected to the environment.
Kasaravalli's feminism is devoid of posturing and sloganeering. His is first of all a human story told with humane understanding, weaving subtle ambiguities into the narrative. The narration is all quiet grace and deep emotion, capturing the nuances of overt speech and unspoken asides. This is where Hasina is a departure from his earlier work, which illustrates Kasaravalli's belief in layering his films with subtextual meanings while avoiding plot-driven linearity. By his own admission, Hasina is more overtly emotional, directly dramatic and even didactic at times, unlike his signature films where the narrative flows organically from the classic interplay between character, situation and societal forces.
Is this because Kasaravalli is not confident of capturing the everyday rhythms of Muslim life, the nuances of the spoken word? The first stumbling block is the language where standard Kannada is interspersed with Urdu words but without the required inflections and idiomatic usage to create an authentic dialect that most subcultures coin in the course of their coexistence with the dominant culture of the milieu. It is even more surprising because Kasarvalli devotes as much attention to the authenticity and psychological dimension of the spoken word (he often writes the dialogue himself) as to the polished image. A native Kannada speaker can detect the many false notes. This is a real problem for a film-maker who wants to film in his own language but the characters need to speak a unique mixture of the local language and Urdu that has become unfairly identified (more so in post-Partition India) with Muslims. Hasina approaches this problem rather awkwardly, but luckily the dramatic vigour of the narrative and the lead actor's forceful character make up for these gaps.
There is the additional worry of not being judgmental, of a non-Muslim film-maker taking up the cudgels, so to speak, of the injustice done to an abandoned wife. Political correctness can become a crippling virtue, stemming the seeming spontaneous flow of story-telling. Kasaravalli had earlier wanted to make a triptych, narrating stories centred round three women: a Brahmin, a Dalit and one from a minority community. But when he read Banu Mushtaq's story, he abandoned the idea and wanted to tell the story of Hasina's uplifting struggle for justice. And he tells the story with compassion as well as dramatic force. From contented wife expecting her fourth child to be the desired male heir - it turns out the baby is a girl - to the victim of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her sadistic husband, the autorikshaw driver Yakub, Kasaravalli traces the growth of his protagonist with empathy. We marvel at how this simple, unlettered woman grows before our eyes, her commitment to her three daughters giving her immense fortitude and the will to act. Yakub deserts her and she hears he is all set to marry again. The hope that her eldest daughter, the blind Munni, can have partial sight restored if she can scrape together Rs.20,000 drives Hasina to take on a maid's job at Zuleikha Beghum's house. In the meanwhile, she makes agarbattis by the hundred, helped by her daughters, and saves every rupee that she can put by, only to have it all snatched by Yakub who continues to exercise the `rights' of a husband even though he has deserted the family.
It is Zuleikha - an educated, rich divorcee - who educates Hasina about her rights under the Shariat law. Yakub must return the meher (the money settled on the bride at the time of the wedding) and pay maintenance. Thus begins Hasina's struggle against the all-male Jamaat and the Muthavali who presides over it. When her petitions go unheard, the heavily pregnant Hasina stages a satyagraha of sorts at the masjid, determined not to move from there until her demand for justice is conceded.
Kasaravalli structures the film in five segments, to match the five namaz hours, beginning with dawn and ending at night. The dramatic device makes the intervening flashbacks fully realised acts in the five-act structure. This introduces the other characters of the community, but they are sketchy, representing certain situations rather than individuals in their own right.
This is the film's weakness because we care about only Hasina (Thara) and her two older daughters. Yakub is a one-dimensional villain who not only abuses his wife but is heartlessly cruel to his young daughters. Only a monster can behave the way he does to the bright, cheery Munni who ends up as the heartbreakingly innocent victim in Hasina's tragedy. The political struggle within the Jammat, the present Muthavali suspecting Hasina to be a pawn of the ousted predecessor, is convincingly depicted. Two other women emerge out of the shadows. One is the Muthavali's wife, who is reduced to a baby-making machine because her husband will not allow her to have a tubectomy. Hasina's lone fight emboldens her to assert the right over her body. Zuleikha represents the well-meaning woman who cannot rise above class differences to turn an activist. All she can do is draft petitions.
Kasaravalli is too gifted a film-maker to rest content with a simplistic narrative. There is a moment of epiphany when a swarm of burkha-clad women swoop over Hasina in a balletic circle, like protective angels who draw inspiration from the lonely figure in the centre. It is a potent image of expressionist cinema - a choreographed dance that rises to a metaphor.
It is remarkable that when actors turn producers of Kasaravalli's films, they end up with the coveted Best Actress award. It was Jaymala with Thai Saheb. This time it is Thara who deserves the award for the gritty realism and emotional truth of her performance. Incidentally, Hasina won the award for best film on social issues and also costumes.
RITUPARNO GHOSH shows a Chekovian tenderness for the women he creates. Ghosh is an adept pupil of the Satyajit Ray school, as is evident from the complexly structured Dahan, the deliberately discordant harmonies of Unishe April, the exquisite poignancy of Bariwali and the astonishing control over intricate family relationships in Utsav. The ornate inner chambers of Antarmahal resonate with echoes from Devi and Charulata to underline the loneliness of its imprisoned women. Strains from Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam mingle with these other echoes, in the way the presence of the humble outsider acts like a catalyst to bring to surface the seething frustrations under the pervasive decadence. Ghosh is unafraid of comparisons and one suspects he rather revels in this deliberate evocation of classics.
He is equally intrepid in making radical departures from well-loved literary works. Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya's celebrated short story Protima shimmers with innate cinematic quality that Ghosh enlarges to accommodate an outsider's voice: a British painter's observations of late 19th century Bengali mores and morals while he is painting the zamindar's portrait.
Bhubaneswar Chowdhury (Jackie Shroff) is a study in decadence: a wealthy, whimsical tyrant with two obsessions. One is to beget a son at any cost. So he consigns first wife Mahamaya (Roopa Ganguly) to the lonely fumes of opium to alleviate her cynical bitterness while he perpetrates marital rape every night on the young new wife Jashomoti (Soha Ali Khan), a delicate beauty crushed into cowering submission. He also has a mistress in the garden house, but none of the women conceives, and none of the fawning hangers-on would tell him that he could be sterile.
Ghosh underlines the grotesque distortions of Hindu rituals practised by lascivious priests who con the credulously foolish Chowdhury. A priest, present in the bedroom, recites "holy" texts while the couple is engaged in sex. Mahamaya disrupts this dark comedy with her own teasing strip tease to torment the salivating priest.
The priest plots his own revenge, giving a bizarre interpretation of the ancient Ashwamedha Yagna, where a group of presiding priests will act as surrogate studs: according to them, the chief queen of the king performing the yagna has to engage in sex with the sacrificial horse, as expiation for the equine sin of traversing lands of untouchables and mlechchas during the journey of conquest.
Chowdhury's other obsession gets fused into this bizarre scenario. And that is to humiliate a fellow zamindar with a unique Durga image for the next puja. He fires the old family potter, hires a new import from Bihar who has apprenticed with Bengal's traditional potters and has the brainwave, assiduously encouraged by his oily estate manager, of making the Durga image with Queen Victoria's face. This is expected to win the favour of the colonial masters so that they may grant him the Rai Bahadur title! The Bihari potter (Abhishek Bachchan, cast as the hunk who is eyed by the cloistered women) has the gift of making life-like images of creatures such as lobsters and lizards. The satirical subtext yokes this animal imagery with that of the British Queen in the zamindar's twisted mind, to convey in a nutshell the love-hate dependency India's colonised feudal class had with the colonisers. Antarmahal simmers with these subversive suggestions and sexual excess.
The most daring departure - for a film-maker who might have to contend with demented Hindutva zealots - graphically links the body of the goddess, as she is being sculpted by caressing hands, to the sexual longings of the young sculptor who has left a new bride behind in the village.
The British painter voices the Westerner's bafflement at the mixing of the sacred and the profane, worship and voluptuousness. Ghosh also hints at the latent bonding between two artists - the English painter and the native sculptor - who seek each other's endorsement of their art. Ghosh relies on these sub-textual strengths for the overall impact of his film.
He also creates a memorable character in Mahamaya, of a woman who will mount her own quiet rebellion that the world and her husband may not see. She is a survivor who has no illusions about the wretched depravity of her husband. She even has the generosity to sympathise with the hapless Jasomoti, who cannot overcome her degradation. Roopa Ganguly is magnificent in her many moods while Soha Ali Khan replicates the dainty look of her mother Sharmila Tagore in Devi, but without managing to imbue her role with the complexities of the Ray classic.