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.
Not Today is the enigmatic title of a film that is difficult to categorise. Writer-director Aditya Kripalani’s first three films all focused primarily on women’s lives and the misogyny they face, especially in India’s major cities. Exploitation as sex workers, targets for rapists and domestic abusers are all dangers for women and seen as contemporary social issues. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (2017), The Incessant Fear of Rape (2019) and The Goddess and the Hero (2019) don’t shirk from violent confrontations. Not Today is also in a way a ‘social film’, announced as being about ‘suicide prevention’. However, although the narrative is concerned initially with a call to a suicide prevention centre, it develops into a more complex kind of drama acted out between the caller and the young woman who answers the phone. It is also a calmer and more reflective form of drama than the earlier films for much of its running time, though it does have moments of suspense.
The narrative opens with Aliah, a young woman who has secretly applied for a job as a counsellor with a Suicide Prevention Team, being put through a role play by a supervisor (Vibhawari Deshpande who appeared in two of the the earlier films). The credit sequence then shows us Aliah in her bedroom, decorated with vinyl discs and posters of Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Amy Whitehouse and Ella Fitzgerald. She has sophisticated tastes for a young Muslim woman. Jazz-tinged songs in English on the soundtrack run throughout the credit sequence. We see her slip out to visit a graveyard across town late at night and peer through the gates. Outside her bedroom, Aliah wears the ridah, a two piece garment covering everything except her face, hands and feet and this is how she faces the world each day.
Aliah starts her trial period on the phone lines and after a prank call (which she correctly ends, blocking the caller), she gets one from an older man on a rooftop, threatening to jump. As the call continues it becomes an increasingly tense and emotionally-charged exchange and the supervisor intervenes. Aliah is not prepared to abandon the caller and leaves the centre, calling the number on her own phone as she makes her way across Mumbai. What follows is a two-hander between Aliah (Rucha Inamdar) and Ashwin (Harsh Chhaya). Both performances are very good and we gradually learn about their backgrounds and what has motivated them – in Aliah’s case to apply to join the suicide prevention team and in Ashwin’s case to go up to the roof and threaten to jump. There are surprises in what is revealed, but the narrative becomes more about their personal engagement and what we learn about the two individuals rather than an exploration of the social issue itself, although there is a form of commentary on the ‘rules’ designed to guide the suicide prevention team.
Out of interest, I researched the figures for suicide worldwide. I was surprised by the differences between sources so I can’t be sure about the data but India doesn’t appear to be one of the countries with the highest suicide rates, though it is certainly not towards the bottom end (i.e. the lowest rates) either. Rates can be affected by religious and other factors such as illegality which means cases might not be reported. Anecdotally, suicides among farmers in parts of India are seen as constituting a social issue. I’m not sure anything in the stories that we hear refers to a specific issue associated with suicide and on that basis I think this is primarily a drama about two people. I’m not going to spoil the plot development. But I will say it is refreshing to see a long conversation between a young woman and an older man which is not about seduction or sexual power. We do also discover the precise meaning of the title.
This is a narrative that takes place over about 30 hours. It is particularly interesting in terms of mobile phone use. Personally, I don’t use my mobile much so I was fascinated and intrigued by the possibilities offered by video phone calls and merging calls. The script is well written and although there are passages when the connection is broken or one of the pair remains silent, the narrative drive and the sense of engagement remains. This is an independent film offered in Hindi. I think the visuals are well presented through the photography of Aditi Sharma and the film editing of Rachita Singh. With the performances and the music, the whole package directed by Aditya Kripalani is impressive. I did find the film difficult to watch at some points because of the fear that the man might jump. Watching it on my computer, I broke off several times but that’s probably a bad habit I’ve developed during the last two years away from cinema screens. I don’t think I would have had any trouble in the cinema and it is relatively short for an Indian film at around 90 minutes.
If you get the chance to see this film, I would certainly recommend it. In India it will become available on various ‘OTT platforms’ – what in the UK are usually referred to as ‘streamers’.
(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)
Shanghai was released at the height of interest in the new Independent Indian film production cycle. Though the film managed a commercial Indian release it did not reach UK cinemas and I was frustrated not to be able to see it at my local Cineworld in Bradford. I recently unearthed it from deep in the bowels of MUBI’s catalogue. I’m not sure that MUBI has known what to do with some of its Indian acquisitions since this film has not been given the full treatment with reviews and extra material. In the end I was glad to be able to see it before it disappeared from the streamer.
My interest in this film was sparked first of all by its director Dibakar Banerjee. I had enjoyed his first film, the comedy Khosla Ka Ghosla! (India 2006) and then found his contribution to the compendium film Bombay Talkies (India 2013) to be the best of the four short narratives on offer to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema. Banerjee is an intriguing character whose career began in advertising and by Indian standards he has made relatively few feature films, having started in his late thirties. He seems to have continued making advertising films so perhaps that is how he gets his funding (but I note that this film also had some support from the NFDC – National Film Development Corporation). His films are generally received as being at the more commercial end of the Indian Independent spectrum. Shanghai seems placed as more controversial and ‘edgy’. The location for the film suggests a city blessed/poisoned by modern capitalist exploitation, something like Shanghai and its depiction as the great postmodern global city. It also occurred to me that the narrative includes elements similar to those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008) which gained recognition in the UK after winning the Booker Prize.
The film’s story actually has a rather different source, the 1966 Greek novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that was adapted a couple of years later for the Costa Gavras film Z (France 1969), a film made in Algeria masquerading as Greece that was a significant commercial hit and awards favourite. The original was based on the story of a Greek opposition politician during the period of the military junta in power in Greece from 1967 to 1974. This more recent Indian adaptation by Urmi Juvekar and Dibakar Banerjee features several scenes which match exactly those in the Costa Gavras film, but also some different themes and a slightly different tone I think. It feels authentically like an Indian political thriller – i.e. it is familiar from other Indian films. In the fictitious city of ‘Bharatnagar’ (or is it a smaller district/town in a wider urban sprawl?), presumably a state capital, a large business development project known as ‘IBP’ is being pushed through by ‘The Front’, a coalition of political parties on the right, headed by the state’s chief minister, ‘Madamji’ (Supriya Pathak). The project is clearly damaging for several groups of the poor and lower caste peoples whose land is being illegally re-possessed. A leading leftist figure Dr Ahmedi (Prasenjit Chatterjee) comes to the city to speak to his supporters but the local ‘goons’ in the pay of the The Front are being organised to sabotage the meeting. When Dr Ahmedi comes out of the meeting hall where he has addressed his followers, a small truck is driven at speed knocking him down as he faces the mob. He will spend the rest of the narrative in a coma.
The Chief Minister institutes an investigation into the ‘accident’ and appoints an ambitious civil servant, T. A. Krishnan (Abhay Deol) to head the enquiry. Meanwhile, Shalini Sahay (Kalki Koechlin), Dr Ahmedi’s former student in New York and his most ardent follower, is outraged and determined to uncover the corruption and the conspiracy that has put her leader in hospital. Her response to the hit-and-run soon brings her into contact with local videographer Jogi (Emraan Hashmi) who has captured aspects of the events on a disc. Shalini also meets Dr Ahmedi’s wife (Tillotama Shome) at the hospital and the two women don’t immediately get on. These are the six principal characters of the narrative and the six lead actors. There is also a group of secondary characters who are the paid disrupters and in effect murderers/assassins. I won’t spoil the plot directly any more and I’ll turn instead to analyse the kind of film Shanghai develops into and how it creates meanings. It’s a film that does have some problems, at least for me, but overall it is very successful.
I struggled with the narrative a little because of the six lead actors I only know the work of Kalki Koechlin and Tillotama Shome (who has very little to do, but don’t miss her at the end of the film). Both are associated for me with the ‘Independent’ sector of Indian cinema and at this time in 2012 Kalki Koechlin was in many ways the ‘poster girl’ of this new kind of cinema, partly because of her relationship with Anurag Kashyap, the leading writer-director of the Independent production movement. In his blog posting on the film, Omar Ahmed suggests that Koechlin is miscast in the film and she is indeed an odd character, especially because she seems to have been given a peculiar hairstyle (is it a wig?) that doesn’t suit her and she is required to be quite volatile in the frustration she feels in trying to uncover the truth. This means some almost melodrama acting is required that is sometimes even more disruptive than might be intended. I think part of the problem is the background information about her character which I found confusing. She is introduced as the daughter of a General who has been arrested and kept in prison on remand by the government. Dr Ahmedi is taken to her house as his base for the visit and there is clearly a strong attraction between the two of them. Later on, during her investigation, Shalini is assumed to be a foreigner or an ‘outsider’. (Kalki Koechlin is the daughter of a French couple living in Tamil Nadu but she is an Indian citizen and speaks French, English and Hindi.)
The most intriguing character is Jogi. Emraan Hashmi, like Koechlin, is a well-known actor who is given a beer belly and other distinctive features to turn him into a ‘disreputable’ character. The character has a back story forcing him to leave home and move to Bharatnagar where he is now a videographer making money from filming anything that pays. His ‘bread and butter’ is cheap pornography made with his friend Vinod. He has got some work filming Front politicians and is always sniffing round any action. Jogi and Shalini will make a strange pair. Initially he wants to sell his evidence but later he will have other motives. Krishnan plays the Jean-Luis Trintignant role from Z, except that he is a very Indian figure – a career civil servant who takes his investigation seriously but is also drawn into playing dangerous political games.
The biggest difference between Shanghai and Z is arguably the former’s exposure of the corruption/incompetence of the police and the exploitation of the poor. Those who carry out the attack on Dr Ahmedi include one character who needs money to pay for the English lessons which might help him get a better job. Many of the poor will be removed from their homes and shipped to a re-settlement development out of town. They will not advance economically since it will become more expensive to commute back in for any service jobs that might become available. The poor who resist or who cause problems are easily eliminated by more paid thugs with the police turning a blind eye to the crimes. Although it is set in 2012, Shanghai seemed remarkably on the nose when it refers to corruption within the governing party – contracts going to friends of those in power without proper contracting bids. Now, what does that remind me of in the UK during the COVID pandemic? Several current British ministers need to be investigated on that score. Things in India have seemingly got worse in India as well since Modi won the 2014 general election and increased his majority in 2019.
Shanghai is only 102 minutes long but it packs in an enormous amount of plot – possibly too much. When I thought back over what I’d seen, I realised that there were aspects of the plot that I had forgotten. Included in that running time are two extended musical song and dance sequences. No subtitles for either I’m afraid, but one within the politicians/senior police officials etc. and one within the poorer community: I wish I had had more time to think about what they contributed. Whatever its minor flaws, I think Shanghai is an important film showing real ambition to present the genuine evils of the current political situation in India. The world really is a shitty place right now and this kind of narrative of exposure is needed more and more. If you can find it, Shanghai is well worth investigating.
Here’s the Hindi trailer (no English subs):
The third film from the Indian author-turned-director Aditya Kripalani was well received at the Kolkata International Film Festival in late 2019 where it won the NETPAC Award (Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema) but was then stalled in distribution by the impact of the COVID pandemic. It is expected to be available on streaming services in the near future.
The ‘Goddess’ and ‘Hero’ of the title are Kaali Ghosh (Chitrangada Chakraborty) and Dr. Vikrant Saraswat (Vinay Sharma). She is a young woman trapped by a history of abuse and he is a practising therapist suffering from a form of sex addiction. She needs his help but he is told by his own therapist that he must try to keep practising for both male and female clients but must not become emotionally involved with his female clients. He must focus on his work.
Compared to the earlier two films Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) and The Incessant Fear of Rape (India 2019) this feels like a different kind of narrative though elements are shared across all three films and the main theme is again the misogyny of contemporary Indian society. One of the main common elements of the three films is another notable performance by Chitrangada Chakraborty and Vinay Sharma is also making a return after his role as the male hostage in The Incessant Fear of Rape.
Kaali Ghosh is a young woman from Kolkata now living in Mumbai and seemingly trapped as a sex worker. As a teenager she was abused by her father and subsequently became the sex slave of the son of a wealthy industrialist. When we first meet her she is clearly disturbed but escapes from Mittal Jr’s apartment, sees and advert for Dr. Vikrant and sets out to meet him. During this introduction intertitles are used to emphasise ‘The Problem’, ‘The Hero’ and ‘The Goddess’. I’m not sure if this is intended to present the narrative as a form of ‘Psychiatric Case Study’. Later we will get ‘The Resolution’ but I didn’t notice/remember other titles.
I did find this opening sequence less engaging than those of the other two films but whether this was to do with my reading failure or the difficulty of constructing the introduction of the two characters, I’m not sure. There is a long history of film narratives dealing with the psychiatrist-client relationship, with several well-known Hollywood films released in the 1940s and 1950s when Freudian practice began to become better known in the US. I’m not sure if representations of psychiatry have appeared often in Indian cinemas. In this film we have two therapist-client relationships and then when Vikrant and Kaali meet he will struggle to establish a professional relationship before diagnosing her condition as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In the past this was sometimes known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and it is characterised by moments of blackout and loss of memory associated with the appearance of different distinct identities. The sufferer may see and hear these alternative ‘selves’ and take action according to what the voices are saying. DID/MPD may be brought on by traumatic experiences, including childhood trauma. It can sometimes last just a few weeks, but may last much longer and require extended therapeutic treatment.
The relationship between therapist and client/patient is key to successful treatment and the premise for the narrative involving Kaali and Vikrant is doubly problematic because of his sex addiction. She needs his help and he needs to develop a working relationship with her both for her sake and his own. The sensible option would be for him to refer Kaali to another therapist, but to do so would be to ignore his own therapist’s advice – and anyway would not make such an interesting dilemma. The set-up that does develop leads us into a form of melodrama with plenty of action. ‘Kaali’ is presumably a name which refers to ‘Kali’ the Hindu goddess seen as one of the ‘aspects’ of the mother goddess Parvati. She is associated with defeating evil and often depicted
I’m a little out of my depth here but I did note that twice Kaali alters the name board outside Vikrant’s office. She moves the letter ‘i’ of the clip-on characters so that it appears at the end of Vikrant’s family name which now reads Saraswati, the name of the goddess of learning and wisdom. Kaali is an intelligent young woman and she appears to have an interest in art and in martial arts. Once Vikrant has established that Kaali hears voices and these are activated via tex messages and audio, the narrative moves into action sequences as the pacing of the narrative increases. By this stage I was very much engaged and overall I thought film was successful.
I noted a couple of issues around the sexual content in the film. A couple of times the camera focused on parts of the action rather than showing the whole scene. I wasn’t sure if this was a form of self-censorship. Deciding how and what to show in a sex scene is tricky and in this case visualising Vikrant’s compulsion to fantasise about Kaali and her red nails is a real challenge. It is necessary I think for the plot, but it isn’t pretty. My other concern is that as in the other two films, all the men (apart from Vikrant and his struggles) are shown to be misogynistic. Of course there is no real reason why a filmmaker can’t choose to write/direct characters like this but it does make me wonder about the differences between social realism, various forms of genre cinema or a character-driven drama. At times this film has elements of all three. I will be intrigued to see if this kind of mix carries through to the next film by Aditya Kripalani.
From the few comments I have seen this film does speak to audiences and they are prepared to listen. The central story is intriguing and there are other pleasures including the use of Mumbai locations and several music tracks. I would recommend the film as a sensitively handled and thought-provoking action melodrama.
(Thanks to Mumba Devi Motion Pictures for access to a preview print.)
Independent films set in Jammu and Kashmir seem to be appearing more often on the festival circuit. This is an unusual film that draws inspiration from various sources. It presents a folkloric tale in a modern context with a narrative divided into seven chapters, each titled with a song. The songs are from a variety of sources around the Himalayan region and the film is influenced by Sufism. The focus is on a community of shepherds who range across a wide area from Northern India and Kashmir and Ladakh to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now recognised as a ‘scheduled tribe’ in India, the Bakarwali are Muslims. As is common in South Asia, they are also seen as part of a bigger group that includes Gujjars, more associated with North Indian states such as Rajasthan. The writer-director of the film is Pushpendra Singh. He was born in Agra and attended FTII in Pune, initially training as an actor but later moving into direction and this is his fourth feature which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was shown in festivals in Calcutta and Kerala before lockdown denied an expected run in PVR multiplexes. The director was able to introduce his film and to offer a Q&A at Borderlines.
He explains how the original idea came about:
I had read the folktale in 2010 and was fascinated that Vijaydan Detha [a well-known Marxist writer from Rajasthan] wrote a feminist story in the late 1960s which also dealt with desire and exploitation and how a woman in a conservative feudal society asserts herself and makes her own choices. The idea to adapt it to contemporary times was also a strong drive to choose the subject. (Quoted in a Variety piece by Naman Ramachandran, 26 November 2020)
Pushpendra Singh decided to rework the story in a contemporary political context by locating it in Kashmir and he also decided to take inspiration from the the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded.
The Barkarwali are nomadic shepherds and goatherds who practice annual transhumance, taking their flocks up into the Himalayas in the summer months and returning to bed down in the winter. Their traditions don’t recognise boundaries, but in the contested territory of Kashmir they find themselves being harried by Indian security officials who demand more stringent forms of identity. This is personalised when, during the summer move, the shepherd Tanvir finds a bride in the form of Laila. Tradition demands that he show his strength as a future husband and then ask for her hand. It is when the group return from the mountains that they realise how much has changed. Tanvir is accused of bringing a wife across the border illegally. The Barkarwali don’t recognise borders or ‘lines of control’ – or at least they pay them lip service – but the local police chief demands that they get proper ID cards. He also has designs on Laila. She will have none of it. Both the crossing borders and the potential ‘possession’ of Laila are metaphors for the control of Kashmir as well as male power directed towards women.
The narrative then moves into a kind of folklore farce. The police chief’s assistant Mushtaq assures his boss that he can ‘tame’ Laila and bring her to his chief. Or does he simply want her for himself? She is quite prepared to play a game, but only on her own terms and leads the men on, fooling her husband and frustrating Mushtaq. The Seven Songs take us through the stages of a kind of marital comedy. The folklore elements also produce moments of symbolism. A large tree bursts into flame from a gaping hole in the trunk as a sexual symbol. The end of the film makes a dramatic reference to the 14th century poet and the clear inference is that Laila will not accept the identities that men attempt to force upon her.
The film is very beautiful and I wish I knew more about the music. Navjot Randhawa gives a strong performance as Laila. Most of the other performers are local and non-professional apart from Shahnawaz Bhat who has appeared in other films. I’m not sure if the film has got UK distribution, but if it does appear it is recommended.
Party is one of several ‘parallel cinema’ films that are now available for streaming in the UK via MUBI’s Library. It has been very difficult to see these films in anything like a decent print for many years and it is good to have this new opportunity. It is nearly 20 years since I last tried to summarise what was meant by ‘parallel cinema’ and ‘New Indian Cinema’ in the 1970s/80s. Since then, Omar Ahmed has worked hard in the UK to find film titles and scholarly work around them. His blog at ‘Movie Mahal’ and his writing and PhD research is now a very useful source of both background and reviews of specific titles. His review of this film is here. I’ll try to approach the film a little differently in an attempt to use it more as an exemplar.
Party is a film by the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani. Born in Karachi in 1940, Nihalani’s family moved to independent India after partition and he later attended one of the first film schools in India in Bangalore. He then began work as an assistant to the legendary V.K. Murthy, the cinematographer who worked with Guru Dutt in the 1950s. Nihalani took on cinematographer roles on the parallel films of Shyam Benegal in the 1970s before his own directorial career began in 1980. Party is based mainly on a Marathi theatre play with a script by Mahesh Elkunchwar and it was financed by the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). This public funding and Nihalani’s background are two indicators of parallel cinema and a third is an extensive ensemble cast list including several names associated with this type of cinema.
In some ways, Party is a familiar genre narrative, a form common in many developed societies where discussion of politics and the arts meet in middle class gatherings. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally Potter made The Party (UK 2017) and there are other films discussed on this blog which share similar elements. However, the mix of Indian literati and journalists, actors etc. takes place in a Bombay house under circumstances that are significantly different to those in the UK and where demographics are very different. The politics of inequality, the persistence of caste, communalism and the very real violence of political resistance set up an environment in which an upper middle class drinks party is not the same in Bombay as it might be in London or Paris or New York. (It is difficult to discuss Indian society using the socio-economic class definitions familiar in the UK. The hostess of the party is the daughter of an eminent lawyer – a national leader and ‘Cabinet Minister’.)
Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) is a widow who hosts a party in honour of a playwright, Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has won a literary prize. She has invited a range of other writers and their spouses. She has inveigled her daughter, who has a small baby but not a husband, to join the party. Meanwhile her son invites his own friends to a smaller party upstairs where they drink and listen to Western pop/rock music (including the Irena Cara track ‘What a Feeling’ from Flashdance (US 1983) – I wonder what or if – this might have cost?). It soon becomes apparent that there are several conflicts waiting to erupt among the party guests, some of which are sexual/marital but most of which involve politics. There is also a considerable intake of alcohol. Inevitably this is a very ‘talky’ film with relatively little chance to develop an expressive visual style. There is a short section at the beginning of the film setting up the party that finds the various characters in their ‘home’ environments and the house itself is a useful location with staircases, mirrors and a garden which allows some possibilities such as a classic mirror set up in which a character might look at their multiple reflections in adjacent mirrors.
The two major pressure points in the film seem to be firstly the status of women – the writer’s wife who has turned to drink and given up her career, the hostess and her daughter who clash painfully, a young woman who oscillates between flirtation and Marxist dialectics. These conflicts are also connected to the central discourse of politics and the purpose of art. The central character of Barve is revealed as egotistical and something of a fraud whereas the young poet Bharat (‘India’ in Hindi) is passionate but weak and naive. In the last third of the film, these various conflicts are thrown into relief by the late arrival of the journalist, Avinash, played with enormous energy by Om Puri. He has been injured during a protest by tribal peoples against an illegal central government development and he has news of the character everyone has been discussing – the poet Amrit who has done something practical in attempting to help the tribal community in their resistance.
Om Puri is remarkably powerful in these scenes, privileged by the camera, with a compelling speaking voice and his iconic rough and ‘lived in’ face. Everyone has to listen to him. I don’t remember Puri from the small group of parallel/’New Cinema’ films I saw in the 1980s and I only became familiar with him in the last 20 years of his career across independent and mainstream Indian and global cinema, so this was a highlight for me. Similarly, Amrit makes only a fleeting appearance in Party, but it is significant that he is played by Naseeruddin Shah, like Om Puri, an actor who began in films like this and who has over time become an iconic Indian actor, thankfully still with us.
Party is a well-written play with an array of interesting characters. I would pick out the hostess as perhaps the central role. Over the course of the narrative she is criticised and becomes more self-aware. She is a tragic character bit she comes across as more sympathetic than the writer who recognises that he is a fraud but is still prepared to milk his position.
MUBI’s print of Party is a restoration of a film in colour and Academy ratio – common for many films of this kind, some of which might have gained their best audiences via screenings on the Indian PSB TV channel Doordarshan, another indicator of parallel cinema since relatively few cinemas would take the films. The film’s dialogue is in Hindi most of the time but there are significant exchanges in English which would limit the TV audience I suspect. In recent years the same level of English dialogue is found in some more mainstream Hindi films Generally it looks OK. It’s very pleasing that MUBI has made its Library available in this way and I look forward to re-engaging with more of the history of the ‘alternative cinemas’ of India.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs):