A strangely engaging film, Manohar & I is difficult to classify. Is it an abstract art film about loneliness, a mystery or a form of romance? Certainly it is not a conventional popular genre film. Instead it offers a very slow-paced narrative set mainly on the streets of central Kolkata and two homes in villages outside the city. Most of the film was shot on an iPhone and processed in black & white in a widescreen ratio of approx. 2:1. It has a running time of nearly 2 hours so patience is needed.
The film is book-ended by an image of stars in the night sky. A dialogue between an unseen child and father reveals to us that every person has a star that represents their loneliness. The ‘I’ of the title is a youngish woman working in an office in central Kolkata. We first meet her watching vultures circling high in the sky above a Kolkata street. She discusses the vultures with an older man who we will soon learn is called Manohar. What kind of couple are they? They aren’t related and the questions exchanged between between them suggests they do not yet know each other well. Eventually we realise that they meet simply because they are going home from work and travelling in more or less the same direction to catch their trains taking them back to homes outside the the city. We see them make several such journeys, often walking together and once taking a tram. We will follow both of them home. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative except to note that the woman has an older sister who seemingly never leaves the house and mostly watches TV with the sound turned low, though we can hear that it often seems to be a natural history programme with an English language commentary – we never actually see what is on the screen. We also follow Manohar home but his living arrangements are much less clear.
I was reminded of two other Indian ‘independent’ films while watching this one. 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981) was the first film directed by the renowned Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen. The link here is the loneliness of the central character and the setting which is in the centre of Calcutta around Chowringhee and the Anglican cathedral. I didn’t recognise any of the street settings of Manohar & I but it is very much a film about Kolkata and does feature some of the older buildings of the city. The other film I was reminded of was The Lunchbox (India 2013). In this case the links are to the presentation of an odd romance which involves lonely characters and the important plot point that sees the male character discussing his intention to retire from his Mumbai job and move to a smaller resort town. Manohar talks about his own imminent retirement to what he refers to as his ancestral home in Giridih, a small mountain city in Jharkhand, the state carved out of Bihar in 2000. Giridh has a history of both industry (coal mining) and tourism, especially for the middle classes of Calcutta. Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali filmmaker, spent time in Giridih as a child. Both these films are aesthetically quite different to Manohar & I but there is something about the lives of ordinary people who work in the big city which is common across all three titles.
I’ve never shot any footage with an iPhone so I’m hesitant to comment on how the look of the film was created. I assume that for the static shots, often held in long shot for long takes, the director Amitabha Chaterji and Madhura Palit, both credited for photography though she shot most of it, used a tripod. The images are often in strongly contrasted black & white. The footage was processed from colour but many sequences are at night (it is supposed to be winter in the city) and in the Kolkata streets the bright lights of street vendors help to create the contrast with dark shadows. The pace is slow and this is emphasised on a couple of occasions when a transition leads to a seemingly blank black screen held for what seems like a long time until details of a room slowly begin to emerge, much in the way that the human eye gradually adjusts to a dark room. There is a long sequence in which the couple talk on a tram ride and we see the crowds on the evening streets in the background. I think there are two extremes for presentation of dialogue in a film, both of which can signify the reality of everyday speech. One technique is rapid fire with lines from different characters ‘overlapping’ as in Hawks’ His Girl Friday (US 1940). The opposite as used in Manohar & I is speech in short sentences or phrases, broken up with long gaps and that’s what works here.
Mahonar & I is a film about lonely people in a big city and in that sense it is universal, but if you have any sense of Kolkata as a city then this is also a very personal film about India’s once premier city under the British Raj which has since lost ground to New Delhi and Mumbai. Much of the old central area still has tree-lined streets of Victorian and early 20th century houses and it’s interesting that a scene towards the end of the film sees the younger sister going up to the roof of her office building and seeing a huge crane on a building site where a high-rise block is shooting up not far away. Somehow we know this view signals a change in the narrative. Kolkata is also a city of railways and both central characters use the local commuter network to get to and from their work.
Omar Ahmed chose this film as one of ’10 great films set in Kolkota’ that he sets out on the British Film Institute website – well worth a read. He also includes 36 Chowringhee Lane. Manohar & I has been quite a successful ‘festival film’ both inside and outside India. It is currently available on MUBI in the UK. Manohar & I actually had its UK première at HOME in Manchester as part of the October 2021 ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Festival and you can read an interview with the director Amitabha Chaterji on the HOME website by Dr Sanghita Sen. The director tells us that he was originally an engineer and had his own business in software development. He wasn’t particularly interested in filmmaking until a friend took him to an Ingmar Bergman retrospective at Nandan, the state film centre in Kolkata. His viewing of Wild Strawberries (Sweden 1957) bowled him over and he began to watch a much wider selection of films. Kolkata has always been a city with an intense involvement in film culture and he gradually moved into filmmaking, determined to keep close personal control over what he made. This is his first film and despite the difficulties he faced in distributing the film because of the pandemic, he has been able to start making his second feature.
Manohar is the only named character among the principals. He’s played by Shyamal Chakraborty. The younger sister is played by Monalisa Chatterjee and the older sister by Senjuti Roy Mukherjee. These are the only credited actors. I did enjoy the experience of watching the film, partly because of my interest in Bengali film culture. I’ll certainly look out for future films by this director.
This year sees the centenary of one of the really great film-makers in World Cinema. The question is not whether to celebrate this but whether we will be able to do with the films he wrote and directed in their original format, 35mm prints. Will the pandemic allow audiences to visit cinemas to enjoy these fine films? In West Yorkshire there are a limited number of venues where this could happen. Unfortunately the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds will not re-open until 2022. The City Screen in York, like the company Picturehouse, has an uncertain future. This leaves the Media Museum in Bradford, the Sheffield Showroom and Hebden Bridge Picture House.
Happily the National Film Archive in Britain has a number of Ray’s finest films available in 35 mm prints. The condition of some of them is not great and it may be that not all are accessible for screenings. And the British Film Institute, which controls access to the archive, sometimes seems loath to ship prints outside London. The quality that comes from a 35mm print, even with scratches and jump cuts, make the efforts to screen such prints worthwhile. So these are the titles currently listed as held in the archive.
Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is a 1955 Bengali film produced by the Government of West Bengal. It was based on Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s 1929 Bengali novel of the same name and was Ray’s directorial debut. This first film in ‘The Apu Trilogy’ depicts the childhood of the protagonist Apu and his elder sister Durga and the harsh village life of their poor family.
I first saw this film in my early film society years. It was a wonderful eye-opener to a very different cinema. One impressive sequence shows a first sight of a train thundering and smoking across the landscape; a trope that I have seen again many times in Indian films.
Aparajito (The Unvanquished) is a 1956 Bengali film and is the second part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’. It was adapted from the novels ‘Pather Panchali’ and its sequel ‘Aparajito’ (1932). It starts off where the previous film ended, with Apu’s family moving to Varanasi, and chronicles Apu’s life from childhood to adolescence in college, right up to his mother’s death, when he is left all alone.
Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) is a 1959 Bengali film and.the third part of ‘The Apu Trilogy’, about the childhood and early adult life in the early twentieth century Indian subcontinent. The film is based on the later part of the novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.
Released in 1959, The World of Apu focuses on Apu’s adult life. This was the first Ray film that I saw on 35mm and it is the final part of the trilogy. It has wonderful sequences as Apu enters married life. There is a Tonga ride back from an entertainment: a scene of domesticity of Apu and his young wife: and finally a sequence of father and son which is a fine expression of the humanist values that inform Ray’s films.
Jalsaghar ( The Music Room) is a 1958 Bengali film based on a popular short story by Bengali writer Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay. The fourth of Ray’s feature films, it was filmed in a village in West Bengal. Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadent zamindar (landlord) in Bengal and his efforts to uphold his family prestige while facing economic adversity. The landlord is a just but otherworldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the government’s abolition of the zamindari system.
Devi (The Goddess) is a 1960 Bengali film based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. ‘Devi’ focuses on a young woman who is deemed a goddess when her father-in-law, a rich feudal land-lord, has a dream envisioning her as an avatar of Kali.
Rabindranath Tagore is a 1961 documentary film produced by Films Division of India in English about the life and works of noted Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. Ray started working on the documentary in early 1958. Shot in black-and-white, the finished film was released during the centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore.
Teen Kanya is a 1961 Bengali anthology film based upon short stories by Rabindranath Tagore. The title means ‘Three Girls’, and the film’s original Indian release contained three stories. However, the international release of the film contained only two stories, missing the second (‘Monihara: The Lost Jewels’).
Kanchenjungha (Kanchonjônggha) is a 1962 Bengali film. The film is about an upper class Bengali family on vacation in Darjeeling, a popular hill station and resort, near Kanchenjunga.
Abhijan (The Expedition) is a 1962 Bengali film. When a corrupt cop takes away Narsingh’s taxi license after an illegal car race, Narsingh finds himself reduced to poverty living in the outskirts of Kolkata. A practicing Sikh, he finds himself having to accept work from a dubious business man, Sukhanram, who employs Narsingh in dope smuggling.
Mahanagar (The Big City) is a 1963 Bengali film based on the short story ‘Abataranika’ by Narendranath Mitra, it tells of a housewife who disconcerts her traditionalist family by getting a job as a saleswoman. Shot in the first half of 1963 in Calcutta, this was also the first film directed by Ray set entirely in his native Calcutta, reflecting contemporary realities of the urban middle-class, where women going to work is no longer merely driven by ideas of emancipation but has become an economic reality.
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) a 1964 Bengali film. Charu lives a lonely and idle life in 1870s India. Although her husband Bhupati devotes more time to his newspaper than to their marriage, he sees her loneliness and asks his brother-in-law, Umapada to keep her company. At the same time Bhupati’s own cousin, Amal, a would-be writer comes home finishing his college education.
Chiriakhana or Chiriyakhana (The Zoo] is a 1967 Indian Bengali crime film, based on the story of the same name by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay. Rather different from many of Ray’s other films we follow Byomkesh Bakshi, a detective, is hired by a rich man to investigate the name of an actress appeared in a movie decades ago, who has eloped ever since. The case became complicated when the rich man is murdered by someone for that.
Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) is an Indian Bengali film released in 1970, based upon the Bengali novel of the same name by Sunil Gangopadhyay. The partly dramatic story is undercut by the treatment which often includes humour. A group of Calcutta city slickers, including the well-off Asim, the meek Sanjoy and the brutish Hari, head out for a weekend in the wilderness.
Jana Aranya is a 1976 Bengali film, based on the novel of the same name by Mani Shankar Mukherjee. It is the last among Ray’s Calcutta trilogy series, the previous two being, Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971). The film portrays the economic difficulties faced by middle-class, educated, urban youth in 1970s India.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players) is a 1977 Indian film based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. Wajid Ali Shah, King of Awadh, is a devotee of chess. This plays into the machinations of General James Outram and his empire-building designs. This is the first Hindi feature film of the film-maker..
Sadgati ( Salvation [or] Deliverance) is an 1981 Hindi television film directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story of same name by Munshi Premchand. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film [. . . ] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”
From his pioneering neo-realist films in the 1950s, through his more modernist and critical studies of his home culture, Satyajit Ray has been a dominant force, both in his home cinema and in the wider world of art and foreign language distribution. His films are generally both scripted and directed by himself. And, like many other key film-makers he regularly worked with certain actors and craft people. Their contributions are important and the majority of his films have a fine form, style and production delivery. I hope to see many of the above titles, and hopefully, prints from other archives in this year of celebration.
See Roy’s re-appraisal.
One of several revelations during my LFF visit, this is an excellent film that deserves wide distribution. Writer-director Rubaiyat Hossain was present with her lead actor and others for an intriguing Q&A and I was very pleased to discover a filmmaker who I had not known about before – certainly a weakness on my part. Ms Hossain has followed a trajectory familiar from those of some women in Indian independent cinema – education and training in the US alongside film production and ‘social activism’ back in Bangladesh. Her first film as a director, Meherjaan in 2011, caused a stir in Bangladesh with its story of the impact of the 1971 War of Independence on a woman’s life and was taken out of cinemas. Her second film Under Construction (2015) is concerned with a woman in an unhappy marriage and who is an actor appearing in a Tagore play. Researching her background, I’m now glad I didn’t ask a naïve question about the possible influence of Indian parallel cinema on Hossain’s work – Wikipedia tells me that she has been inspired by the work of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.
Made in Bangladesh, as the title hints, is concerned with the sweatshops of Dhaka where young women work to produce cheap clothes for customers in Europe and North America. But as the director stated, it isn’t about these women as victims, but instead about how they fight for their rights. Its origins are in the account of the experiences of a ‘real’ worker that have been translated into a fiction narrative featuring the actor Rikita Nandini Shimu as a young seamstress ‘Shimu’. The original worker also helped organise training for the women playing the factory workers. The director acknowledged that she needed this kind of input to ensure the authenticity of her presentation of the women’s stories. The narrative begins with a fire alarm in a factory which shuts down operations for a few days and raises questions about working conditions, safety and workers’ rights after one of the workers has died. During the closure Shimu tries to meet the managers and get paid her overtime which she needs to pay rent arrears. This is when she meets an NGO activist who offers to pay her for an interview about what goes on in the factory. She informs Shimu about how to form a union and offers to help her generally. The narrative then follows Shimu’s attempts to develop a political consciousness about rights among her workmates and to try to recruit enough would-be members to register a union for official recognition. The narrative presents a series of events that were once familiar in British, French and other film cultures in the 1970s before filmmaking lost much of its political energy in the West. Rubaiyat Hossain manages to resolve her narrative in an interesting way that I won’t spoil.
But there is more to the narrative on top of the important central story-line. In the Q&A Hossain revealed that wages for the young workers (most are aged 18-30) have improved over the last few years. The garment manufacturing sector is a crucial part of the Bangladeshi economy and these young women have some leverage. Like all young people who start to receive a living wage they find themselves in a situation which allows them to ‘have a good time’, but also puts them under pressure to help with other family members. In some ways the women are similar to the young British working-class girls of the 1960s who experienced economic improvement but still found themselves struggling in a patriarchal society which attempted to define them. The director stressed the idea of female empowerment and reminded us that Bangladesh has a history of female prime ministers and women in positions of power. I’m not sure that this has necessarily helped the mass of Bangladeshi women so far, but the general point is important. The freedom experienced by the young women in the factories is expressed through their clothing. The director commented that they wear salwar kameez rather than the saris favoured by most women in the city. This is more comfortable and functional in the factory but also allows more freedom as they move together through the streets where the colours of their costumes contrast with the drabness of the city.
The style of the film is a familiar form of social realism enlivened by music and the exuberance of the women themselves. Sabine Lancelin photographed the film. She was born in colonial Belgian Congo. Composer Tin Soheili was born in Iran and is based in Denmark. He has a long list of credits, many for documentaries. There were several women in other creative roles on the shoot and overall it is a good example of European producers supporting but not overwhelming a Bangladeshi production.
Shimu (the same actor who was in Hossain’s earlier films) is a young woman from a rural area who left home at the age of 14 and fled to Dhaka to escape an arranged marriage to a man she feared. She had received enough elementary education to become literate and this, combined with her native intelligence, makes her a potential activist. But she has married in Dhaka and though she loves her husband he is out of work. When he does find employment she may be under pressure to spend more time at home. When she is working, she is paying the rent. The narrative shows Shimu in a range of relationships with other women, several of whom exert different kinds of pressure on her activities in forming a union. Social class, traditional ideas about women’s roles etc. all make an impact.
The questions in the Q&A and the comments in various reviews always puzzle me. There are many assumptions made about people in countries like Bangladesh. Ms Hossain handled all the questions well. She explained that the film hasn’t yet cleared the Censors’ office in Bangladesh. She explained that she was prepared to make cuts to ensure the film was screened and that she wanted the widest release possible so the workers in the factories would get to see themselves on screen. I understand that discussions with possible distributors in the UK were possible during the festival. I hope something is organised as I’m sure there is a market for the film in the UK, both among the local Bangla populations and for many other UK audiences who are aware of and energised by campaigns to pay these women more and regulate the factories who make the clothes sold in UK stores. International sales are through Pyramide and the film will be released in France in November.
Here’s the (English subtitled) trailer:
For several reasons this film is key to an understanding of what ‘Not Just Bollywood’ might mean in relation to the history of film traditions in India and in particular, the history of filmmaking described as ‘independent’ or ‘parallel cinema’ which is the primary interest of the season’s co-curator Dr Omar Ahmed. I’ll try to explain.
The title of the film may not mean much outside India. The story is located in a ‘colony’ in the small hill town of McCluskiegunj (or ‘ganj’) in what is now Jharkhand state but which in 1979, when the story is set, was part of Bihar. The colony was originally set up in 1933 by a Calcutta businessman named McCluskie as a settlement for members of the then substantial community of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. The film represents the directorial debut of the celebrated actor Konkona Sen Sharma. She wrote the screenplay herself, based on a story written by her father Mukul Sharma and with assistance by Disha Rindani. Konkona’s mother, the equally celebrated Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen, has a small ‘voice only’ part in the film.
A Death in the Gunj received many nominations for the 2018 Filmfare Awards in India, winning some technical awards and the award for ‘Debutant Director’. The reviews were generally very good and the film played at Toronto and other major festivals. I was surprised that many of the reviews failed to mention that the story is about an Anglo-Indian family. This suggests to me that the drama (and, at times, comedy of ‘manners’) was perhaps not fully appreciated by some reviewers outside India. As Wikipedia helpfully suggests, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ has been used in three different ways. Historically it might refer to those British colonial administrators and soldiers who spent most of their lives in India during the Raj (and earlier) or the original communities of Indians living in the UK. Now, however, it tends to refer specifically to the families formed through mixed marriages whose members tended to form distinct communities in various cities, but especially in Calcutta, during the early 20th century. Anglo-Indians tended to speak English and to identify as Christians. Before 1947 they were mainly employed in administrative jobs but after Independence the communities declined as many families emigrated to the UK and other Anglophone countries.
Anglo-Indians appear in several well-known films. The Hollywood adaptation of John Masters’ novel Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956) stars Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers and was directed by George Cukor. It focused on a railway family (a key Anglo-Indian profession) living close to the partition line in 1947. Satyajit Ray includes an Anglo-Indian character in Mahanagar (The Big City, India 1963). This character, a young woman in Calcutta working for a new company in the early 1950s, enables Ray to explore a range of issues about modernity and prejudice and to contrast this character with the film’s protagonist, a young Bengali housewife attempting to start a working life outside the home. Anglo-Indians in Bengali narratives of the 1950s-70s invariably cue social issues. A Death in the Gunj features mainly English dialogue for the family members with some Hindi and Bengali used with the house servants (who are local tribal people).
A Death in the Gunj focuses on one central family who are hosting a New Year holiday gathering. The parents who live in a house in the Gunj forest are played by Tanuja and Om Puri as the Bakshis. Their guests include their son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and small daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). The other family member is their nephew Shutu (Vikram Massey). The other guest staying in the house is Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). But over the holiday period there are a number of other visitors who also have family in the Gunj. Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) who is a highly disruptive influence (and who seems to spend time away from his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan)) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) is hoping to leave for Australia are both present for many scenes. In this mixed group it soon becomes clear that there is a bully and a character who is bullied, but most of the characters are self-centred in their own ways. There are also clear conflicts in terms of class, gender, age and ethnicity. I’ve seen the film described as a critique of patriarchy, which may indeed be the case, but for me the central reference is to a couple of Satyajit Ray films and no doubt others I know less well.
I was immediately reminded of Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) in which a quartet of young (upper) middle-class young men from Calcutta spend a week in a forest resort area (forcing a caretaker to break rules and open a government bungalow) in Bihar. They insult the local tribal people and then team up with a family group from Calcutta, including two bright and socially confident young women. There is a direct link between this film and A Death in the Gunj in the form of Aparna Sen who has a small role in each film. I also think that Ray’s earlier film Kanchenjungha (1964) and Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) (in which Konkona Sen Sharma stars) offer clues about the scenario of urban sophisticates on holiday or travelling away from Calcutta.
I personally see this film as a critique of Bengali upper middle-class mores worked through by an Anglo-Indian family (i.e. without the same resources or social status). Perhaps they are struggling with the British legacy (why is the story set in 1979?). Shutu is suffering because he is not ‘manly’ and is also a ‘failure’ as a student. Mimi is ‘modern’ but struggling with her sexuality and independence, O.P. (the Om Puri father character) in one of his last roles is playing a character whose time seems to be up and Nandu and Bonnie are struggling to bring up Tani in a modern family set-up. The tribals are treated badly or are ignored by most of the house party except Shutu.
As well as the links back to the films of Ray and her mother, Konkona Sen Sharma also links to the new ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ and to the more radical strains in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. Ranvir Shorey has been a star of both commercial and Hindie films (he was married to Konkona Sen Sharma from 2010-2015). Om Puri straddled both sectors and Konkona herself straddles Bengali cinema, Bollywood and the independents. It’s no surprise that the film shares actors with three of the other films in the HOME season. Tillotama Shome stars in Sir and Kalki Koeklin in Waiting. Vikrant Massey has a supporting role in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Konkona Sen Sharma herself is one of the four leads in that film. The benefits of all these links include a strong sense of ensemble performance with support for the debutant director.
A Death in the Gunj is a remarkable début for Konkona the director and I was completely engaged throughout. The film isn’t a mystery as the death is represented at the beginning of the film, though in a rather oblique way, and then a flashback forms the main part of the narrative presenting the events which led up to the tragedy. I want to praise the cinematography by Sirsha Ray and the background score by Sagar Desai. I was in that forest, feeling the cold of December and experiencing the tensions in the family. The real tragedy is that the film was not released in the UK. It would easily stand up to comparison with any UK/US or European releases. However, I realise that the audiences who enjoyed the films of Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1970s in the UK are now much harder to find. Still, well done to HOME for giving us the chance to see the such a wonderful film.
The Leeds Film Festival showed the restored version of Aparajito in the 60th anniversary year of its appearance on the world stage. Satyajit Ray’s film, the second part of his Apu trilogy, received many prizes on its first appearance and much praise from cinephiles over the following decades. This was initially mainly from international rather than Indian audiences, though a balance has since been restored. As such a revered classic, there is a danger that an audience now might take it for granted. Personally, I found that the restoration, although it couldn’t overcome every aspect of the damage done to the original film following years of neglect, still managed to produce a print of startling clarity and I felt like I was watching a new film.
As the second film to be based on the original novels by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Aparajito (‘Unvanquished‘) bridges the two novels. Satyajit Ray did alter the narrative in significant ways. The young Apu has moved to Benares with his father and mother. Father works as a priest on the ghats, but quite quickly catches a fever and dies. Apu and his mother move back to the village of Apu’s great-uncle where the boy decides to abandon his apprenticeship as a priest and attend school. It is the final section of the narrative that Ray changed in terms of the relationship between widowed mother and son – and in doing so, alienated more traditional audiences.
The presentation of Apu’s development and his eventual estrangement from his mother is very subtle and effective. I admire and respect Ray for what he achieved in this film, but I was most taken by Subrata Mitra’s camerawork (and the accompanying music by Ravi Shankar). The early scenes of Benares in what is meant to be the early 1920s are beautiful and make an interesting comparison with the recent film, Hotel Salvation (India 2017) also set on the ghats of Benares (now Varanasi). The later images of the village recall the train on the horizon as it was in Pather Panchali, but I was delighted to see images of Calcutta, including shots by the Hooghly River and on the Maidan. What is surprising (and possibly a result of the very limited budget) is the complete absence of any evidence of the British Raj in a city which up until 10 years earlier was the capital of British India and still the major commercial city of India. Perhaps this absence is one of the factors which gives the Apu Trilogy its ‘timeless and universal’ appeal? Ray hints at the impact of modernity on the adolescent Apu as he sets off for Calcutta clutching the globe given to him by his village schoolteacher and wearing his first lace-up shoes. In Calcutta he is delighted to find his room has electricity for lighting. All this is very effective, but what are we to make of the presentation of Calcutta without the crowds? Was it really so sleepy and deserted in the 1920s? Or again, is it just a matter of budget, technology and learning what can be done with the available technology? Marie Seton’s Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray (1971) has quite a bit to say about the innovations made by Ray, Mitra and designer Bansi Chandragupta in photographing the studio sets and matching them to location shots in Benares. The key was the discovery of so-called ‘bounce lighting’ using diffused studio lighting and reflectors to simulate daylight seeping into the Benares house.
The outpouring of critical praise for the film in the West and the reluctance to recognise the ‘modernity’ of the relationships by the Bengali audience were indicative of the way Ray soon became institutionalised within the international ‘humanist art film’ movement of the 1950s. He also quickly became the kind of director who would be seen as an auteur, a ‘personal’ filmmaker. I haven’t read the original novels from which he took the Apu character but looking at the photos of the young Ray in Seton’s book, it isn’t difficult to see the young Apu (played by Sumiran Kumar Ghosal) as the same tall spindly young man who Ray was when going to Presidency College some ten years later in the 1930s. Apu even lives over a print shop where he works part-time. Ray’s family had once owned a printing and publishing business. I was also entertained by the university classroom scenes in which I finally learned how to explain the meaning of ‘synedoche’. But in the end, Aparajito‘s greatest gift for me is to set the scene for Ray’s 1960s films set in Calcutta and before that the third film in the trilogy, Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959).
The print shown in Leeds is the restoration distributed on Blu-ray by Criterion in the US: https://www.criterion.com/boxsets/1145-the-apu-trilogy
These notes were compiled for a Day School earlier this year that looked at extracts from various Indian films/films about India in an attempt to understand how the issues surrounding the Partition of India in 1947 have been represented on screens.
The ‘partition’ of India was the final act by the British colonial administration working through the India Office and the Viceroy (i.e. the King’s representative) in August 1947. The Viceroy then became the Governor-General of India still representing the King as the Head of State in the independent ‘Dominion’ of India. In Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah became Governor-General.
The Labour government in London faced many severe problems in the immediate aftermath of war. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the worst on record in the UK and the heavy snowfalls in January severely disrupted industry and agriculture. As much as 10% of industrial output was lost, energy supplies were severely restricted. Public spending with the foundation of the National Health Service and the expense of military activity abroad (15% of GDP) created pressure on sterling and subsequent devaluation from $4.00 to $2.80 as the dollar exchange rate. Historians see this as the first stage in the UK’s decline as a superpower. Despite the enormity of the Partition of India as an event, it was only one of the problems facing Prime Minister Attlee’s cabinet (withdrawal from Palestine was also a priority). Mountbatten was given considerable powers and the government was prepared to accept a swift retreat from India. Communal conflict has been a feature of life in India at various times throughout recent history (much of it caused directly by British policies) and in August 1946 around 4,000 people lost their lives in Calcutta during clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The lack of action by the colonial authorities at this point is inexcusable, but the British state was increasingly running out of resources to police India effectively. Mountbatten was appointed Viceroy in February 1947, charged with achieving a British withdrawal by June 1948 at the latest. He accelerated the process of withdrawal in an attempt to avoid further violence – but instead probably exacerbated the conflicts.
The leaders of the Indian Independence movement, including Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, had been pressing for independence since the 1920s and earlier. (The Congress Party and the Muslim League had origins in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th century.) The emergence of a ‘two state’ solution is generally accepted to have happened because of the position that Jinnah and the Muslim League adopted in the early 1940s. Jinnah argued for a division according to religious affiliation because of fear that an independent India would be dominated by Hindus. Ironically, Jinnah himself was not a ’religious Muslim’ and the British had encouraged separate political constituencies for Muslims and Hindus and other religious groups as early as 1932 with ‘The Communal Award’. Congress could reasonably argue that Jinnah did not have the support of the majority of Muslims across India as shown in local elections, but he convinced the British that he was the Muslim leader they should negotiate with.
Once partition appeared inevitable (i.e. when Jinnah and Gandhi /Nehru could not agree on how to negotiate with the Viceroy), the fundamental problem became how to divide the three provinces of British India in which there were roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Punjab was further complicated by the presence of the home base of Sikhism in Amritsar. Bengal had already experienced a very unpopular earlier partition by the British along religious lines in 1905 (rescinded in 1911). Jammu and Kashmir was actually a ‘princely state’ – not under direct British control. India and Pakistan had to negotiate a partition arrangement after independence and this proved extremely difficult – leading to future military confrontations.
Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir will be the focus of our study of how Partition has been represented on film.
Who was actually responsible for creating this inevitability of Partition in 1947 is the most contentious issue in the history of the period. The most recent British film focusing on Partition, Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (2017) lays much of the blame on the wartime British leader Winston Churchill and his attempts in 1944-5 to prepare for the threat of Soviet influence over an independent India. Nehru was seen as most likely to adopt a non-aligned but friendly position vis-a-vis Moscow and Churchill saw the possibility of an independent Pakistan as a Western ally, allowing British bases to remain in place. In a documentary screened on British TV in August 2017, Chadha explored this evidence further (referring to wartime documents held in the British Library). This programme suggested that Jinnah had met privately with Churchill and that the idea of Pakistan as a future ally against the Russians was widely shared by what Chadha termed as “the British establishment” – including the Royal Family and the military. The suggestion is, therefore, that the Attlee government was faced with a fait accompli policy that they were unable to alter. Indian historians and Indian filmmakers have tended to blame Jinnah and the British – either separately or together.
‘British India’ referred to what were in effect British colonies, locally administered by colonial civil servants and the India Office in London. In 1947 there were seven major provinces administered in this way and developed from the original ‘presidencies’ of Bengal, Bombay and Madras.
The British Crown also had ‘suzerainty’ over some 500 plus ‘princely states’, ranging from large states such as Hyderabad and Mysore to tiny states of a few thousand. Each local ruler had to make a separate arrangement with the newly established dominions of India and Pakistan.
The directly ruled colonies and the princely states together comprised the ‘British Raj’ established after the 1857 Indian Mutiny. It also became known as ‘the Indian Empire’.
Languages and local cultures
Religion was just one of the potentially divisive factors in India in 1947 and its impact was felt most strongly in the North. In much of Southern India, language differences and ethnic differences (i.e. the Dravidian South’s mistrust of the Aryan North) were more important. During the 1950s and 1960s, Indian government was re-organised to produce states based on linguistic groups. In the states of West Pakistan and East Pakistan after partition, the fact that the mass of the population in the East spoke Bengali and not Urdu was a major issue for any sense of ‘national identity’.
Indian film industries
We are concerned with representations of the events of Partition and its aftermath on film. One of the important issues for us is to identify which film industry has produced a film and who the ‘creatives’ (writer and director in particular) might be. There are many films about Partition issues as well as many filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. For this reason, I’ve tried to include something from each of the following categories (they are overlapping categories, so some films and filmmakers appear in more than one category). There is no ‘ranking’ in this list.
- Popular (mainstream) Hindi cinema – often now retrospectively termed ‘Bollywood’.
- Popular international or Hollywood ‘studio’ films.
- Indian art films and ‘parallel cinema’ films
- International art films
- Films by Indian diaspora directors
- Indian ‘regional films’ – films in languages other than Hindi (or English)
(Because of difficulties of availability of films, I have not included Pakistani or Bangladeshi films that might address Partition issues)
From the list above, it would be useful to distinguish between a film like Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s biopic, as an ‘international’ Hollywood studio film and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House as an independent British film (with some Hollywood support) directed by a diaspora director – someone whose grandparents left Rawalpindi in 1947 and who now lives in the UK.
The so-called ‘parallel’ or ‘middle cinema’ of India is difficult to define but it is clearly distinguished from the popular Indian cinema of multi-genre narratives and choreographed song and dance sequences. Parallel cinema was/is more ‘serious’ in its social concerns and character development. It is more difficult to distinguish between parallel and ‘art’ or ‘avant-garde’ cinema, the latter being in formal and narrative terms more experimental.
What follows is an attempt to select extracts from films which represent Partition and in some cases its aftermath in Pakistan, West Bengal, Kashmir and Punjab. In some cases, longer posts are available discussing the films in more detail and I have included links where appropriate.
Jinnah (1998, UK-Pakistan, (English) dir Jamil Dehlavi)
This unusual biopic of the Muslim leader stars Christopher Lee in the title role. Director Dehlavi is a diaspora figure based in Europe and he used mostly British-based actors alongside Indian star actor Shashi Kapoor in this co-production with Pakistan that was controversial at the time of its release but has since been accepted in Pakistan.
Subarnarekha (Golden Line, 1962, Bengali, dir Ritwik Ghatak)
Despite being one of the most important filmmakers of his generation, Ritwik Ghatak’s films were not widely appreciated when first released. But when he went on to become one of the first tutors at the Indian Film Institute in Pune, he soon became an influential figure for younger directors. He was very much affected by partition, being forced to move from East to West Bengal. His trilogy of films in the early 1960s uses music and politics to explore the heartbreak of partition. (The other two films in the trilogy are Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961).
In Subarnarekha, Ishwar, a man in his late twenties and his younger sister Sita find themselves in a refugee camp in Calcutta where they acquire a stepbrother – a young refugee boy Abhiram who has lost his mother. This trio then find themselves in the western part of Bengal by the Subarnarekha River. The children grow up and fall in love, but the older brother can’t cope with events and breaks down, unable to escape from his past. In the clip above, the landscape is expressive of the despair and sense of exile and loss experienced by Ishwar.
Roja (1992, Tamil, dir Mani Ratnam)
An important film for Indian cinema, Roja is an example of Tamil language popular cinema. Unlike Bollywood, which in the early 1990s preferred stylised fantasy films, Tamil cinema, and Mani Ratnam in particular, created romances set in ‘real’ situations. Roja (‘Rose’ – a symbol for Kashmir) sees a Tamil cryptologist working for Indian intelligence being sent to Kashmir with his young wife. Visiting an area close to the ‘line of control’, he is captured by a Muslim guerrilla group who want to exchange him for one of their own members imprisoned by Indian forces. The film won many awards and was hailed as a ‘patriotic film’, being dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Malayalam. It encouraged Bollywood to think of more serious issues as the basis for entertainment features.
In this clip the cryptologist tries to talk to his captors.
Lakshya (2004, Hindi, dir Farhan Aktar)
This mainstream Bollywood blockbuster was written by the director’s father, Javed Akhtar, one of the most acclaimed writers in Indian cinema. A young man (Hrithik Roshan) from a wealthy Delhi family attempts to give up his aimless life and eventually passes out of the Indian Military Academy. He is posted to Kashmir and given the opportunity to prove himself in action against Pakistani insurgents. The various conflicts on the Kashmir border/line of control feature in several Indian films, often associated with the ‘Kargil War‘ of 1999.
The film shows Hindi cinema attempting to merge a romance (Pretty Zinta is the hero’s ‘lost girlfriend’, a TV reporter) with a story about young India’s indifference towards guarding its border. Ironically, the Colonel of the regiment is played by the supreme Bollywood hero Amitabh Bachchan. At the time Roshan was one of the young hopefuls attempting to replace Bachchan.
The clip below is a ‘music video’ featuring the title song with scenes from the film. We see the hero in training and the role of the Army officer is shown as both heroic and glamorous. It’s worth noting that both the Indian and Pakistani Armies were created out of the British Indian Army in 1947, a situation which initially created the possibility of a civil war situation in which officers and men who had trained together might find themselves on opposite sides in a conflict. The Bollywood presentation suggests that today there is an American influence on how the image of the Indian military is constructed.
Garam Hava (1973, dir M.S. Sathyu)
This film, in Urdu, is one of the first examples of the ‘parallel cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s. The title translates as ‘Scorching Winds’. They are mentioned in the first few lines of dialogue as threatening the flowering trees of the city of Agra (the city which is the home of the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, two major symbols of the Muslim Mughal Empire in India). If not uprooted, the trees will wither in the heat. ‘Scorching Winds’ is also metaphorical and refers to the violence of communalism sweeping through India in 1947-8. The film deals with a Muslim owner of a small shoe factory. He decides to stay in Agra, but his brother moves to Karachi and gradually life becomes very difficult for the brother left behind. Garam Hava proved controversial even after more than 20 years since the events depicted. It had a delayed release because of fears of communalist violence. It was supported by the government agency, the NFDC and submitted as India’s entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar.
In the interview above the director and scriptwriter discuss the film and its legacy in some detail. The interview in 2014 was conducted at the time of the film’s re-release. (You need to click on the link and watch the interview directly on YouTube).
Earth (1998, dir. Deepa Mehta)
Earth is an adaptation of an autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, first published as ‘Ice Candy Man’ in the UK in 1988. The director Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar in Punjab in 1950. She moved to Delhi as a child and graduated from the University of Delhi. In 1973 she migrated to Canada and started a film career as a writer and documentarist. She directed her first feature in 1991 and as well as English language features in Canada she has returned to India to make four features. Earth was the second film in her ‘Elements’ trilogy after Fire (1996) and preceding Water in 2005. All three films were controversial (Fire addresses lesbianism and Water, the treatment of widows in traditional Hindu culture). They were also highly praised and won prizes. Her 2012 adaptation of Midnight’s Children was less successful (but still well worth watching).
Although this is a film from a diaspora director with photography by Giles Nuttgens from the UK, it is also a film deeply rooted in Indian cinemas. The music is by A. R. Rahman and the actors include the current Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in an early role. Nandita Das is a star of Indian parallel cinema and other cast members are well-known in India.
The film is part of the group of films, like Garam Hava that deal with the personal tragedies of Partition rather than directly with the political machinations. Like Train to Pakistan its focus on Punjab means that the complexity of religious, social and cultural relationships are explored in some detail.
The film is set in 1947 in Lahore in Northern Punjab. The city has a Muslim majority but the household at the centre of the narrative is Parsee and the little girl who in effect ‘narrates’ the story has a Hindu nanny/maid (Nandita Das) who has a circle of friends that includes Muslims and Sikhs. The clip below shows the girl and the maid during the kite-flying festival and the maid is being wooed by the Aamir Khan character, the Muslim known as the ‘Ice-Candy Man’, one of his several identities. The kite-flying is a joyful competition which ironically underlines how the community will later be divided by the violence of the communal violence in the lead up to Partition.
Train to Pakistan (1998, dir. Pamela Rooks)
This is another film that received backing from NFDC as a later example of a parallel film. Pamela Rooks was a filmmaker born in Calcutta to an Army family, but the film (in Hindi) is set in Punjab. It’s an adaptation of a 1956 novel by Kushwant Singh, himself a major cultural figure in India post 1947.
The trailer above does not have English subtitles but a subtitled DVD is available in the UK. The story is set in an Indian village in 1947 close to the new border with Pakistan. Despite the conflict all around them, the villagers, mostly Sikh landowners and a minority of Muslim labourers, live a peaceful life. The film explores, through various characters, how the peaceful village is drawn into the conflict. The village money-lender is killed when he refuses to open his safe for a band of Sikh dacoits. The local magistrate, befuddled by whisky and a young prostitute, sanctions the arrest of two men – one is a Communist Party member just arrived from Delhi and the other a local dacoit who never robs in his own village and who was sleeping with his Muslim girlfriend when the murder was committed. The magistrate and police attempt to frame both men, meanwhile a train filled with dead Sikhs arrives in the village and a little later, Muslim refugees on foot from India.
Other Partition narratives
The films discussed here are by no means the only examples of film narratives exploring Partition. Here are two other examples not discussed on the day:
Partition (Canada-UK-South Africa 2007)
Another diaspora director, Vic Sarin, made this film in English starring Jimi Mistry, Irrfan Khan and Neve Campbell in Canada. It takes the Sikh perspective on partition in Punjab.
Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (India-Germany-France-Netherlands 2013)
I didn’t see this fine film by Anup Singh until after the Partition Event. Please follow the link on the title above for more details. The film again stars Irrfan Khan as a Sikh in the Punjab at the time of partition. Anup Singh is also a diaspora director with a similar but also slightly different background to Gurinder Chadha.
I used the following two books alongside web searches in preparation for the event:
Akbar, M. J. (1985) India: The Siege Within, Harmondsworth: Penguin
Tunzelmann, Alex von (2007) Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, London: Simon and Schuster
The films from which extracts have been taken have all been available in the UK on DVD except Garam Hava (which is available on YouTube or from India/US as a Region 0 DVD).