IN the passing away of Sumitra Bhave on April 19 in Pune of COVID-19 complications, the world of creative and meaningful cinema has suffered a serious loss. She was 78.
Perhaps, more than anywhere else in the country, it is in Pune-based contemporary Marathi cinema that the original spirit of New Indian Cinema resides today. In this connection, the words of the journalist and author Asha Kasbekar-Richards hold great meaning: “It is regional cinema that is at the cutting edge of New Indian films. It is evident that nowhere is the renegotiation of the Indian identity in this new age of consumerism being better analysed than in the low-budget regional cinema.”
The best films of Sumitra Bhave, who worked in tandem with her long-time collaborator Sunil Sukthankar, were important attempts in expressing popular disquiet in a strikingly restrained language. At least four ambitious journeys through the Marathi experience need to be recalled— Vastupurush (Guardian Spirit of the House, 2002), Ek Cup Chya (A Cup of Tea, 2009), Astu (So Be It! 2013) and Kaasav (Turtle, 2016).
In a real sense, these films showed what can be achieved if the artist knows the difference between ‘sight’ and ‘vision’; in other words, the difference between the genuine, home-grown product and the hybrid, frequently hollow luggage produced by the Mumbai assembly line, not to mention its pathetic imitations in the different language cinemas.
Vastupurush , a 160-minute family saga, is both a period piece and a contemporary tale which takes the viewer gently by the hand, so to say, into a vanished world of idealism and strong family ties; of suppressed stirrings of adolescence and early manhood; and of thwarted longings to break out of the old into a brave new order. Truth to tell, Vastupurush has nothing in it to endear itself to the mindless gallery or the powerful manipulators of popular taste. It has no spectacle, no gimmickry, nothing loud or clever. Instead, it moves slowly for as long as its astute directors feel necessary to build a pervasive mood of melancholy, relieved now and then by a glint of humour or a sliver of hope and happiness. But it is the beauty of melancholy that rules the day.
The film begins in Mumbai where a pensive, middle-aged doctor comes to know that he has received an international award for his work among the city’s slum-dwellers. The news makes his mind drift back to his adolescence, his ancestral village, his early friendships, the village mansion where he grew up, the closely knit yet stratified society complete with caste and class differences, his mother’s strict but loving ways, his idealistic Gandhian father’s failure to make it in the world; but most importantly, his mother’s dream that one day he would go to the big city, become a doctor and return to the village to be of some use to its poor inhabitants. In effect, Vastupurush is about memory, about loss and remembrance, about the interplay between times past, the present, and possibly the unborn future. The mind, here, is an incurably restless creature, refusing to be tamed or contained in any way.
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Sumitra Bhave and Sukthankar’s evenly paced, minutely detailed, richly textured, and movingly acted film fuses individual histories with the destiny of a rural society caught in both change and conformity. The film is an act of faith—the directors’ faith in themselves as artists unwilling to bend before the demands of a philistine market; faith in the possibilities of the medium, how it can still be explored with imagination, skill and a sense of purpose to fulfil the needs of an ambitious narrative; and, finally, faith in a necessarily small but steadfast audience sure to recognise merit where it is found to exist. This is the kind of film that is precious for the simple reason that it is so rare these days. To resist popular pressures in an era of rabid consumerism and intense rat race is no mean feat.
Vastupurush is longer than the average Indian film. Its makers articulate a range of impressions on such pressing issues as feudalism, caste and the spiritual blight that they have caused since long. The need for urgent release from economic exploitation and emotional suffocation as felt by sensitive and fair-minded individuals is also among the subjects of the film. But, however pressing the issues, Sumitra Bhave and Sukthankar would not have been able to hold the attention of viewers if they had not chosen to speak in a language of details to give life to the rural ethos sought to be evoked through a family history embracing several generations, complete with Brahmin masters, faithful retainers and other ‘lesser mortals’.
‘Ek Cup Chya’
Seven years after Vastupurush , the Pune duo came up trumps once again with Ek Cup Chya , a story of modern India showing the helplessness of an honest individual pitted against a polity gone to seed. It is told more in hope than despair, albeit laced with sadness at the systematic damage caused by diverse elements to the promises enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Kashinath Sawant, a State Transport bus conductor, lives in reasonable contentment in the lap of his smiling family consisting of an old mother, a wife who is still young, and four grown-up children, in a small village. The rural idyll is, however, broken when the family is wrongly slapped with a huge electricity bill. Kashinath runs from pillar to post for redress but nothing can get the ‘babus’ to admit their mistake and restore the electrical connection to his house. Literally and metaphorically, everything looks dark for the family until hope materialises in the shape of the Right to Information Act. How an unfeeling bureaucracy is humbled and Kashinath, aided by the exertions of a driver-friend and the sound advice of a social activist, regains his honour, is the stuff of which Ek Cup Chya is made.
Sumitra Bhave had said: “A cup of tea is a symbol of hospitality. Unfortunately, it has now become a symbol of corruption. A citizen who has every right to have information about decisions affecting his life in a democratic country, is made to offer A Cup of Tea. This is the story of a happy and adjustable family who accept bureaucratic decisions as ‘fate’ without grumbling and who try their best to cope with life. They are tolerant and non-violent but they are not cowards. Their honour must be protected. The faceless systems in democracy need to learn to respect citizens as individuals and not just treat them as numbers. A Cup of Tea salutes those who refuse to offer ‘a cup of tea’ but choose to fight their battle in a non-violent way.”
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One dare say that in a country given more to slogans than substance and violence than vision, this is a wise comment harping on inner conviction, outward dignity and the need to seek the solace of the family nest when one’s wings get hurt in the course of an unavoidable flight over a risky terrain. In a real sense, this is a Gandhian story told in an appropriate grass-roots idiom at a time when the nation and society are showing increasing disinterest in the teachings and practices of Gandhi. Even the ‘toothless’ humour of the grand old man seems to have been resurrected in the similarly toothless, occasionally risque and constantly wise humour of Kashinath’s mother who holds the family together in its worst moments of undeserved aggression from without and grave doubts from within. If she is one of the principal sources of the family’s emotional strength and solidity, strangely, she is also the source of a certain hilarious verbal boisterousness which lifts the black clouds whenever they threaten to rob the house of its usual resilience and love of fun.
Talking of representations of the family in Ek Cup Chya , Kashinath, the bus conductor, is shown belonging to another family as well—the working class. At a time when there are few, if any, life-affirming portrayals of the working class in films made in Indian languages and large sections of the polity are given to behaving as if that class has ceased to exist, here is a film that takes note of the complexities and contradictions of those who earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. The film’s social philosophy can be read as a blend of Gandhian moderation and Marxian vigour. When someone in the film says that the poor have nothing to lose save their poverty, he is of course echoing Marx (not to mention traditional common sense), but his awareness of this grim reality is expressed in a visual language that has more to do with a culture of resolution through negotiation rather than a call to class conflict. It is debatable as to how far this approach is valid or efficacious in a country like ours, ridden as it is with horrendous socio-economic inequalities perpetrated by a succession of capitalist governments, often hand in glove with corporate and other vested interests. Be that as it may, experience has shown that the fruits of amicable settlement, such as they are, are more lasting than those gained by coercion and worse. In a sense, violent methods act in the long run against the interests of workers and peasants pitted against industrial oligarchs and feudal landlords whose strength in every sphere is incalculably superior.
Four years after Ek Cup Chya , Sumitra Bhave and Sukthankar directed Astu (short for tathastu , meaning ‘so be it’), a moving study of an elderly Sanskrit scholar slowly losing his mind. Prof. (Dr) Chakrapani Shastry has written books, guided research students, sired two daughters, and once possessed a memory that must have been the envy of many. One of his daughters is married and well-settled in Pune, the other is single and lives in Mumbai. Prof. Shastry’s wife is dead, so he lives alone in his Pune house, temporarily looked after by a young student-caretaker. But, very soon, he must be shifted to his daughter’s apartment. It is whilst living with her and her family of doctor-husband, a growing daughter and a small son, that the professor shows signs of growing dementia. Out with his daughter to a local market one day, the old man leaves her car and gets lost in the melee. It is with this act of disappearance from the family’s view that we, the viewers, are slowly drawn into the history of this once radiant personality. Whilst exploring an individual life in inexorable decline, the directors come up with a document the kind of which they are especially goo d at producing—juxtaposing snatches of the basic goodness of man with dark social conditions characteristic of the times.
In an anthropomorphic sense, Astu is a meaningful text where man and animal are not opposites and enemies, but equals and friends supplementing and complementing each other. When yesterday’s professor and today’s robot-infant starts pursuing an elephant and its keepers in a crowded marketplace, viewers become increasingly fascinated by a spectacle of bizarre contrasts and comparisons. A crop of questions invade the perceptive/curious viewer’s mind. What can boastful humans possibly do once they are robbed by decay or destiny of their intelligence, their knowledge, their wisdom and their powers of judgement, their very memory? Without our memory, aren’t we just a lump of carbon and a few drops of water, pathetically counting time and waiting to be erased off the face of the earth? Is there any point in comparing an elephant, proverbially famed for its memory, with a great scholar who has forgotten his past and has no sense of his present? At such a point of time and turn of circumstance, as we come across it in Astu , isn’t the lumbering hulk, possessed of its own dignity and grace and willingness to accommodate the weak and the fallen, a superior creation of Nature?
Where coexistence between supposedly bright and even brilliant human beings is difficult to come by, with what ease an old man deserted by his grey cells, a little girl of sprightly intelligence, and a huge elephant glorying in its ability to shelter the disadvantaged, come together—all three are shown in deep, profound slumber together. It is as if the scriptural story about the creation of the world and its inmates has been turned topsy-turvy, and the travelling elephant’s awesome shape and size has made it the Noah’s Ark, providing safety and space for human beings in danger, including a grown-up one who has become small and a little one in pigtails. In one corner of a sprawling open space in Maharashtra, a strange sense of harmony is realised for all to witness and wonder, by converting an animal into god or a divine spirit. This god is strangely equipped to take under its wings a fateful creature who does not know what causes him to do the unthinkable, like wetting his clothes in full view of others and feeling no shame for the same. In ‘civilised’ society, on another day, for such an act, the man would have been abused or, at best, avoided, but now the narrative is entirely different.
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Astu can also be read as an astute political document suffused with contemporary meanings. One is referring to the ‘familial’ relationship that develops between a Marathi gentleman, an intellectual elite, and the unlettered but in no sense inferior elephant-keepers who are from neighbouring Karnataka and have arrived in the Pune region in search of easy alms from traditional believers in the powers of Ganesha. It is common knowledge that for decades and generations now (ever since the reorganisation of State borders along linguistic lines in the mid-1950s), the Kannada- and Marathi-speaking peoples of disputed territories in northern Karnataka have been locked in battle over the question of territorial/cultural/psychological ownership of the same. Sumitra Bhave’s scripting of the fascinating relationship between the ‘excluded’ elder and the travellers with no fixed itinerary, reveals her confirmed belief in attempting to provide both practical and philosophical answers to contemporary problematic questions in a land of many languages and cultures, through peaceful mediation and creative compromise rather than through threats and conflicts, which unfortunately seems to be the preferred route to many if not all people caught in a controversy.
The trained sociologist in Sumitra Bhave entered her film scripts easily, frequently leaving the mark of an artist well aware of the infirmities afflicting her society, especially in diminished times. In the present instance, she showed the courage to construct a whole two-hour film around a Sanskrit scholar in decline spouting sloka s and mantras invoking the gods and legendary heroes of the majority community, yet without using a single image or spoken line or facial/bodily expression that might benefit upholders of religious sectarianism. When the ‘forgetting, forgetful’ professor is shown paying obeisance to surya devata , only those harbouring strong sympathies for a certain divisive ideology are likely to look upon it as a religion-centric image. Others might well read it as an expression of a long-practised habit to revere and honour Nature as the source of energy sustaining all forms of life on earth. The sun is charmingly ‘secular’ in that it makes no distinction whilst distributing its warmth among human beings, the lesser animals or plants and trees. Fish, fowl, flower or worm, none can complain of having been left out of the democratic solar scheme of things.
Astu is modern in the sense that it is relevant to the times in which it is situated. It is unfashionably humane in its treatment of an issue increasingly besieging the old when those above a certain age are looked upon as expendable material; as an unnecessary burden on society in general and the family in particular. The old, even when they are firm of body and clear of mind, are nothing but, to use an expression currently in vogue, ‘condemned maal ’ that younger elements could do without. In its own way, Astu reminds the viewer that those who are no longer in currency like the professor, are also deserving of honour for they, too, had a past, complete with achievements of one kind or another. In that sense, Astu is a chronicle devoted to the wholesomeness of remembrance, as also to regrets surrounding erosion and loss.
In the evening of their distinguished career together, Sumitra Bhave and Sukthankar made Kaasav , arguably their most philosophical work, subtly stressing the difficult yet loving relationship between Man and Nature. The film’s deep humanity and artistic worth combined to win it the Golden Lotus Award (Swarna Kamal) for the best feature film at the 64th National Film awards in 2017. The citation stated that the recognition was “in appreciation of the perfect blending of an environmental behaviour and personal one in a poignantly beautiful cinematic way”.
Sumitra Bhave, a mother and a grandmother herself, could think of no more ancient and delicate a metaphor for the love needed to produce, protect and preserve, than a turtle, which is said to have made its appearance even before the dinosaur.
About Kaasav , Sumitra Bhave is on record: “A mother sea turtle has to return to the waters leaving the eggs for nesting on the shore… the nests are to be protected so that the new born turtles can go into the deep waters on their own!”
In the turtles’ comings and goings, the pioneer of the most recent round of New Marathi Cinema ‘read’ the essential need for non-violence and non-aggression if both human beings and Nature’s other creations are to be preserved.
Vidyarthy Chatterjee is a film crit ic based in Kolkata.