By MK Raghavendra
A great deal of effort has been made celebrating the centenary of Indian cinema, but those who have studied the body closely and have tried to judge independently cannot but be struck by the asymmetry in the celebrations. Too much is made of Hindi cinema – and a handful of regional art filmmakers – and not enough effort has been made to identify the truly original voices. It is not easy to exercise personal judgment in the arts and most people go by the awards bestowed and rely on the publicity apparatuses that increasingly mediate. If an Indian cinephile were asked to list out the most important Indian film directors, those immediately acknowledged would be several from Hindi cinema ranging from Bimal Roy, V Shantaram and Guru Dutt to Ramesh Sippy and Yash Chopra, a handful of Bengalis – Ray, Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Goutam Ghose – two from Malayalam cinema – Adoor and G Aravindan – and one or two from Tamil – K Balachander and Mani Ratnam. While contemporary Hindi directors like Anuraag Kashyap would be widely known, few would recall Raj Khosla – with films like CID (1956) and Kala Paani (1958) – who was one of the best storytellers that Hindi cinema ever saw. Regional cinema would languish even more because talents like P Padmarajan (from Kerala) and J Mahendran who worked in the Tamil film and made the highly regarded Uthiripookkal (1979) are unknown across India. Few people trust the national awards any more to guide them on what is essential viewing and technology does not appear to serve Indian cinema. For some reason, while cinema from every other country is available for download on the internet, the best Indian films are often inaccessible and the film society movement is also in too bad a shape to take the initiative to bring unknown films to the public. Recognizing the less known but more talented film-makers becomes necessary because the arts are an essential component of the nation that the citizen imagines and it will be necessary to make this imagined Indian nation an inclusive one – at least through the example of cinema.
This is a brief look at three of the greatest talents ever produced by Indian cinema, three film-makers who, although they are regarded with reverence by those in the know, are not accorded their rightful place, nationally. It is not enough to assert that these filmmakers are among the most important and this piece tries to argue for their importance through the evidence of cinema. The first of the three film-makers is Aribam Syam Sharma from Manipur who made three outstanding feature films seen across India – Imagi Ningthem (1981), Ishanou (1990) and Sanabi (1996). Imagi Ningthem won him the top prize at Nantes in 1982 but he is barely acknowledged. Both this film and Ishanou were based on stories by Maharajkumari Binodini Devi.
Imagi Ningthem begins with Dhani taking employment in a rural school far away from Imphal and being drawn to Thoithoi, the grandchild of the caretaker of the government guesthouse. The child is an orphan and his mother died in childbirth. Dhani learns that Thoithoi’s father is actually a high-ranking bureaucrat Dinachandra whose wife Ekashini is her relative. Dinachandra is ignorant that he has sired a child because his ‘father-in-law’ has hesitated to approach someone of his high rank on such a delicate matter. The rest of the film is about Dhani approaching Ekashini in the matter and the latter, who is childless, taking the initiative to adopt the child; the child Thoithoi, therefore, eventually finds parents. The story of the film is deceptively simple and, given the way I have narrated it, may even be taken to be ‘feel good’ but this is hardly indicative of the impact it has. What the film actually does is to give an understated portrayal of the privilege that Delhi breeds in distant places like Manipur.
The caretaker, who has brought up Thoithoi, loses him and becomes a tragic figure – helpless against those who seek to appropriate his grandchild and do ‘the best’ for him. Since the child is now secure in the privilege enveloping him, he is effectively estranged from the man who brought him up with love, because this man belongs to a class that the privileged may use at will – but without acknowledgement. The film is shot with very primitive equipment but is still able to provide a complex picture of childhood and family relationships, which while being as lyrical as that in Pather Panchali, is also more complex in its political implications.
Ishanou is set among the Maibis of Manipur, a sect of women who once led normal lives until they were possessed by the divine spirit of the ‘Lai’ and they left their homes to be initiated. Maibis are important performers at the annual Lai Haroba festival, which is an important one for the followers of the Meitei religion. In the film Thampa lives a middle-class life with her affectionate husband Dhanabir and little daughter Bembem until she is possessed and runs away to be initiated as a Maibi. There is a myth that a Maibi’s daughter will herself become a Maibi and Bembem is therefore not told about her mother. When the child grows up she meets Thampa as a holy person without knowing that this is her own mother. Thampa knows but she is now in a different role and can only respond to the young woman prostrating before her as a devotee. Ishanou neither treats the phenomenon it is dealing with as a ‘superstition’ nor tries to look at Dhanabir’s middle-class existence – and his yearning after a second-hand scooter – as ‘materialistic’ and superficial, and this is what makes it deeply affecting. The film steadfastly deals with a religious practice in human terms, refusing to exoticise it and exploit the touristic impulse.
If Aribam Syam Sharma works in the territory of the regional art film, the second figure SR Puttanna Kanagal was a popular film-maker in Kannada whose works are largely variations of melodrama. Kanagal is well-known for being a ‘star’ director in as much as he used new/ unknown actors, sold his films entirely on the basis of his own standing as director and produced a series of hits. He attracted attention for dealing with subject matter which was forbidden or scandalous in some way – a girl born to a devadasi / courtesan and the tragedy of her love for a Brahmin boy who is her moral inferior (Gejje Pooje, 1969), a housewife who is tempted into adultery (Edakal Guddada Mele, 1973), a woman who suffers from hysteria and is shunned by her husband, and the incestuous feelings of a young man for an older woman who happens to be his own mother (Ranganayaki, 1981). A recurring thematic preoccupation in Puttanna Kanagal’s films is the notion of feminine desire, a subject which has perhaps never been tackled so boldly in Indian cinema. A reason for why Puttanna Kanagal’s films have remained local in their appeal is that they address an audience which owes its cultural roots to the ethos of Princely Mysore. Ranganayaki, for instance, is about a drama troupe performing in the small towns of Mysore state and being forced to shut down. The actress-heroine then joins cinema and becomes renowned and her transition becomes a dirge to the end of Mysore after the linguistic reorganization of the states in 1956.
Unfortunately, the only film of Kanagal’s which can be fully appreciated by a wider audience is a segment in a collection of three short-story based films called Katha Sangama (1975) and the short film in question is Munithayi. In this film, a good-hearted man marries a blind girl and she becomes a dutiful wife to him. This man is compassionate and takes in a mentally challenged young man as a household help. Unknown to him, this youth runs small errands for a group of village ruffians and overhears them talking about bathing women in films. This provokes him into hiding in the bathroom when the blind lady of the house is bathing. Soon, this young man is also allowing each of the ruffians the same privilege for a small fee and this leads to even more horrible consequences. Munithayi is a deeply disturbing film and is transgressive as Indian art cinema has hardly ever been. Puttanna Kanagal’s films have, by and large, not been subtitled in English and this may also have resulted in his lack of exposure to a wider public but that he was a master, there is little doubt.
The last director I am writing about – JP Dutta – is better known to Hindi audiences than the first two because he is a Bollywood film-maker who is associated mainly with big budget war films made in the 1990s and after like Border (1997). But Dutta deserves a place in film history more for the four films he made in the 1980s – Ghulami (1985), Yateem (1988), Batwara (1989) and Hathyar (1989). These films are not well-known but they are generic exercises in the ‘daku’ film. They explore the notion of caste identity and are all about what being a kshatriya means. In Batwara a policeman declares that he is a Thakur first and a policeman afterwards and this is not the kind of dialogue one hears in Hindi cinema, which is careful to be uncontroversial. Ghulami gives us Naseeeruddin Shah in his most frightening role – as a kshatriya police officer who acutely relishes the job of killing. He will go to any lengths to punish the guilty but cannot be trusted to protect the innocent. In Yateem a daku’s child is adopted by the police officer who kills the daku and, despite expectations that his ‘bad blood’ will show up, he remains a dutiful son and a conscientious police officer. This, it must be explained, is a much more progressive view of heredity than that of Raj Kapoor (Awaara, 1951) and Mani Ratnam (Nayakan, 1987) who overtly or covertly assert that blood will prevail. Hathyar (1989) is a gangster film about a kshatriya protagonist (Sanjay Dutt) in whom gallantry has been cultivated at the expense of other virtues like fairness. Dutta is also one of the best action directors in Indian cinema and may even be described as the Indian Sam Peckinpah.
The three film-makers dealt with in this short piece are not alike but if they share one quality, it their inclination to stretch the boundaries of film narration to include a degree of complexity that Indian cinema – whether art or popular – has been wary of. They evidently deserve to take their places right at its top.
(MK Raghavendra is a film critic and the author of Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford, 2008), 50 Indian Film Classics (Collins, 2009), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film (Oxford, 2011) and Director’s Cut: 50 Major Film-Makers of the Modern Era (Collins, 2013))