In spite of Bollywood

Print edition : October 20, 2006

CHITRA PALEKAR WITH Nandita Das on the sets of Maati Maay. - PICTURES:BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Marathi cinema has been producing a range of serious films notwithstanding the frivolous influence of Bollywood.

CAN a regional language cinema with an enviable legacy of excellence and liberalism survive under the stifling banyan that is Bollywood? Marathi cinema, both mainstream and offbeat, was in decline. Amol Palekar and Jabbar Patel were the only two filmmakers with an all-India reputation. The vibrancy of Marathi theatre and the sustained quality of Marathi television somehow did not spill over to Marathi filmmaking, until Shwaas breathed life into the ailing industry. The fact that Shwaas was selected as India's Oscar entry - even though it did not make an international impact - was sufficient to recharge those who were ploughing a lonely furrow and enthuse others into making films that explored a range of themes. That Shwaas won over Mumbai's non-Marathi audience was recognition and encouragement enough.

The latest debutant is a veteran scriptwriter - Chitra Palekar, with a distinguished career of writing for cinema and television: Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaye, Kairee, Dhyaas Parva, and the well-loved television series Kachchi Dhoop and Naqab. She was additional scriptwriter for Daayra, Amol Palekar's subversive film on gender identity and sexual politics. Chitra Palekar's first film Maati Maay (A Gravekeeper's Tale) was recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and has been invited to quite a few others, including the London festival. The film is based on Mahasweta Devi's gritty short story Daayen. The grim heartbreak of a spirited young woman branded a ghoul has been transplanted to a Maharashtrian setting without losing its stark, ironic conflict between motherhood and the woman's traditional occupation of tending the graves of children.

The lives of the most marginalised have ceased to engage many of our filmmakers, who have migrated to more `happening' urban issues. Chitra Palekar has chosen to resuscitate the neglected theme of mutually reinforcing oppressions: even among the exploited castes groaning under the pyramid of the hierarchical structure, women are vulnerable victims of patriarchy and superstition. Mahasweta Devi's vision of the condition of tribal society, and particularly women who internalise the message of their own victimhood, is unsparingly truthful, even brutal when the occasion demands. This is true of large segments of Indian society, not just the tribal belt of Bengal that the writer has made so uniquely her own.

Chitra has translated her admiration for Mahasweta's writing into stark yet poignant images. The land is arid, rock-strewn. Relentless heat bends spiky trees into submission. Bare trunks are twisted into surreal shapes. An old abandoned structure stands sentinel atop a plateau, its massive stone walls bearing mute testimony to the many tragedies that might have happened in this inhospitable land. It is here that Narsu Gangaputa (Atul Kulkarni) decides that his adolescent son Bhagirath (Kshitij Gawande) is old enough - more importantly, intelligent enough, given the fact that he has been picked out for praise by the visiting school inspector though there are upper-caste children in the class - to know the truth about the ghoul, with her matted unkempt hair and tattered sari, who announces her approach by beating a battered tin with a stick. This abhorred figure, believed to devour children with her evil eye, was once the lovely Chandi (Nandita Das), his wife and Bhagirath's mother.

Maati Maay opens with this shunned figure condemned to live in a rundown shack. A villager leaves rations outside the shack with the plea to spare the children. Later, the children playing by the railway track - the symbol that connects this backward place with the world outside is also the site of the climax - scatter in panic when they hear her approach. The stark narrative comes alive with Chandi's agony of being banished to the living death, fused with the subtext of caste relationships and the psychology of passive male complicity in a woman's double exploitation.

Mahasweta Devi's short stories are described as `documentary fiction' and form a critical antidote to our collective complacency. Her most-quoted lines about her work are worth quoting again: "I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations.... The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing."

Maati Maay keeps this spirit of the original intact in tone, colour, images and integrity of intent. It belongs to an honourable tradition of filmmaking that explores serious issues without falling into the trap of didacticism. Chandi's fate is depicted as a human tragedy, of a mind breaking down under the combined weight of ancestral occupation and blind superstition. Authenticity of milieu is integral to this genre.

The story is set in the Dom community and Chitra Palekar's meticulous research with Census records showed that a sub-caste of the Doms moved to Vidarbha from the banks of the Ganga. That is why Chandi the protagonist addresses her husband Narsimha as Gangaputa (son of the Ganga) and traces her lineage from the Dom who gave shelter to Raja Harishchandra. Maati Maay emphasises the fact that the Dom gravekeeper regards her work as divinely sanctioned, a legacy that was granted to her community by Harishchandra in gratitude when he regained his kingdom. The sanctity sought in legend for work that is considered lowly, even abhorrent, by not only the upper castes but other Dalits is shown in all its ironic ambiguity. Henry Schwarz's critique of Mahasweta Devi in Postcolonial Performance makes this observation: "The author herself sees no separation in message between the distinct class, ethnic and regional levels at which her texts circulate." Maati Maay proves how powerfully the author's text lends itself to interpretation.

There is a certain inevitability about the events that lead to the death of Chandi's best friend's little daughter. Chandi feels the pain of burying young children even as her breast overflows with milk for her infant son. This is a recurring image in Mahasweta Devi's work. The fact that some milk spills on the grave of the little girl is the final "proof" the community wants that there is something strange about Chandi. They brand Narsu a henpecked husband under the spell of a pretty wife. What torments Narsu now is his wilful blindness to Chandi's emotional conflict, her nightmares (a potent image of many small bodies lying under the banyan tree with flickering little lamps and two men prancing about in a macabre dance) and a deep, inarticulate fear.

Chandi's unhappy life ends on the rail tracks on which a local gang has placed huge tree trunks, to derail the train carrying money from the government treasury. As the railway official, who comes to present a medal of appreciation to her family, says, she spilt her blood to save the lives of others. Amid the collective silence about the brave woman's identity, Bhagirath steps forward to announce that he is Chandi's son. In the short story, he calls himself the son of Narsu, but Chitra Palekar underlines the boy's identification with the mother he has never known.

Commuter rage is a fashionable phrase these days. Mumbai's own version of the Marathi Manoos' despair and anger powers a thought-provoking film that touched a collective chord in the overcrowded metropolis. Dombivli Fast is a disturbing film with which every Mumbaikar can identify; but it also speaks eloquently to others who might be living in havens of peace. It is the slow build-up of frustration over the deadening pettiness of eking out a livelihood, the search for identity and meaning in a world devoid of idealism, of the ordinary man's patience snapping violently after years of suffering the daily grind of living in a squalid suburb where the water mafia holds people to arbitrary ransom and travelling like a crushed sardine in a packed train to a bank where his scruples are not appreciated. This is Madhav Apte's (Sandeep Kulkarni) middle-aged, mind-numbing existence, until he goes berserk one day. The trigger is laughably petty: the roadside stall owner charges two rupees more than the MRP printed on the soft drink bottle. Madhav snatches a cricket bat from a bystander, smashes the stall, and goes on a spree of righting wrongs he sees all around.

Nishikant Kamat's script zooms in on the rules that are broken all the time. A mobile eating joint littering the environs of a nursing home with the connivance of policemen, the rudeness of hospital staff to an old couple who have trudged all the way from a distant suburb, the encounter with a dismissive sex worker on a dark street, the self-serving municipal councillor pontificating at length - all fuel Madhav Apte's growing rage, until he knifes the councillor, is on the run as a hunted man chased by the media running instant polls, and becomes an unlikely hero to people as oppressed as himself. Kamat establishes an unspoken sympathy for the hunted man on the part of the inspector (he seems a harsh, implacable sort to begin with) who understands his prey's motives.

Dombivli Fast has won a clutch of awards. The Pune film festival (January 6) subjected the newly resurgent post-Shwaas Marathi films to the scrutiny of an international jury and Dombivli Fast sped past the competition. The more recent Indian Film Festival at Los Angeles awarded the main prize to this tale of urban angst.

Films like Maati Maay and Dombivli Fast have come in the wake of two remarkable films that signal the revival of Marathi cinema. Devrai, the clinically researched exploration of a schizophrenic (played by the brilliant Atul Kulkarni), and Vastupurush, the multi-layered epic about a doctor, took Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar to a higher notch of cinematic achievement. They graduated from earnestly progressive but cinematically plodding tracts like Doghi and Zindagi Zindabad.

Vastupurush was a quantum leap. It is full of resonances, evoking the adolescence and young adulthood of a doctor who has won a Magsaysay award. The background of a crumbling feudal order, the disillusionment of a nationalistic freedom fighter father, the caste politics of rural Maharashtra and the young Brahmin youth's burning ambition to study medicine, supported by his strong, practical mother are woven into a textured narrative in which the personal and the political are perfectly fused.

Devrai darkly focusses on the troubled psyche of Seshashayee, a dreamer who is left stranded in the backwaters of the ancestral Konkan village by his inability to translate grandiose and amorphous dreams of original research into any concrete action. An intuitive ecologist who has nothing but contempt for institutionalised research, Sesh believes that the grove of ancient trees around the village temple - the Devrai of the title - is alive and divine. It is a mystic-erotic quest for wisdom. Sesh is attracted to a cousin who lives with the family, but his anxious mother sends her away to prevent any romantic misadventure. Sesh transfers his erotic longing to the young bride of a hefty, overtly masculine farm worker. Sesh's sister, who had followed her scientist husband to the United States, comes back to India, takes charge of her troubled brother and gets him treated in Pune. She also has to cope with the demands of an unsympathetic husband and her duties as a wife and mother.

The film skilfully traverses the real world and Sesh's hallucinatory world, presenting schizophrenic delusions with empathy. Loneliness, sexual frustration, bitterness of unrealised ambition, escapes into an alternative reality, outbursts of rage followed by awkwardly expressed contrition - Atul Kulkarni makes every shift of mood and perspective real.

After such remarkable achievement, the directing duo experimented with the peppy optimism of a contemporary musical in Dahavi F, with its own version of rap Marathi style, to delve into the inequities of a school system that discriminates overtly and covertly against disadvantaged students. The subsequent rebellion and somewhat easy resolution through the intervention of an understanding teacher who himself had passed through the rebellious stage (Atul Kulkarni again) sugarcoats a problem doomed to be intractable given the rigidity of our system.

The irony is that the serious films did not get the audience they merited but the musical was a commercial success. Operating under Bollywood's looming shadow is a tricky business. The Marathi audience seem ambivalent about their cinema even as committed filmmakers wait hopefully in the wings.

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