Starring Anant Nag, Shabana Azmi, Sadhu Meher, Priya Tendulkar
Like its name, here is a film that grows on you gradually, taking you into a world you and I almost forgot: a world where chillies are pounded, goats are tethered, the poor live in huts and the word of the landlord is law. Made way back in 1974 — for some 14 years before that Shyam Benegal had taken the story to different producers before finding help from Blaze — “Ankur”, it seems, was made the other day. There is a bewitching familiarity to the film that allows no rust to settle; more like a family album that you open once every few years, dust and admire. Smiles never fade. It is like yesterday never died.
On the surface, it is yet another landlord-mistress tale. However, the essence comes when one goes beyond the surface. Then it becomes an indictment of the socio-economic order. Without ever resorting to polemics, Benegal talks of social inequities, a world where the village landlord with nothing more than a high school certificate is ‘mai-baap’, a city boy who has the entire village at his service: masseur and maid, barber and priest all minister to his needs and whims. At one time the zamindar looked after his mistress giving her some cash, some crops and a plot of land. Not so anymore. Now only one principle applies: show me the man, I will show you the rule. Yet it is in such an atmosphere that the seedling (ankur) for change is laid. Again, it is done without a sermon or a diatribe: advised strongly by the young landlord Surya (Anant Nag) to abort his child to avoid infamy, Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) merely asks, “Must I alone feel the shame?” Winds of change blowing in the quiet village!
Shot in a hamlet called Yellareddiguda near Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, the film is replete with symbolism. In the opening sequence we have a nat (acrobat) performing in front of a long procession which includes the heroine seeking to propitiate the deity for fertility. All around we have cows happily nibbling away, birds chirp in the background and the grass is green. Under her feet though is an uneven field full of thorns, stone and mortar! The symbolism continues with the introduction to the hero: one moment he is a happy young man who has cleared his school exams, next moment as his father puts a brake on his ambition to study further, he stands behind a window, its grills appearing more like the bars of a jail. Benegal explores fine details here: the young man’s plan is conveyed to the father by the mother — quietly, mother is shown to be the bridge between a headstrong husband and a youthful son, a throwback to the age when a son did not speak in the presence of his father. Similarly, even as the young man seethes at his father’s extramarital relationship, he is advised against voicing his opinion by his mother who feels she can protect her space. Appropriately, she is winnowing all the while. She is the real stuff, the chaff can just go away!
Similarly, when the young man, who is earlier shown sharing moments of camaraderie with his city-bred friends, arrives in the village, he is greeted by a bleak house: no electricity, discoloured walls, peeling plaster and soot-laden entrance. All is calm, all is quiet. No complaints, no expectations. It is a timeless world with no signs of change. It is here that Govind Nihalani brings all his expertise into play; his camera captures the unsaid: when the young landlord sits on the chair, his maid, Lakshmi, sits on the floor. The corridor of their coexistence highlights the gap in their social status. Similarly, when the young man deals with Police Patel, the latter, a Muslim who speaks Dakhni Urdu, welcomes him by immediately giving up his smug posture. A little later, when Surya gives a temple donation, he gives it with his left hand, not aware that all such things are done with the right hand. The priest points out the anomaly. Much later in the film, when Surya advises Lakshmi to leave the village, darkness envelops them even as the grass appears verdant in the background.
Yet, Surya, himself is a harbinger of change: to the dismay of the pujari, he eats food cooked by Lakshmi, who is the wife of Kishtiya, a kumhar (Sadhu Meher). There too lies a little tale. Kishtiya is unemployed today because people no longer eat in earthen pots, preferring aluminium utensils! Also, though Surya marries a girl yet to come of age — Priya Tendulkar in a debut role — he agrees to bide his time till she grows up. Later, when his wife joins him, she quietly ousts his mistress from the house! History repeats itself, with a difference though: his father had given his mistress a plot of land to look after herself, Surya asks her to vacate the village itself.
On such quiet comments, little asides “Ankur” grows to be a story of change in gender equations. And a veiled criticism of private enterprise which leaves the multitudes behind. It is one-of-a-kind cinema, Benegal’s first foray into direction, Shabana’s first released film, Anant’s first film, and the forging of a fruitful partnership between Benegal and Nihalani until the latter became a director in his own right. Interestingly, Benegal had offered Shabana’s part to Waheeda first. Shabana, in turn, had met Benegal for the role wearing a sari against her customary western attire. Suitably impressed, he asked her to wear the saris she was to use in the film throughout the shooting. She learnt to pound chillies. And perfect a quaint Dakhni accent in her Urdu.
Result? The best of arthouse cinema, a film that won three National Awards, 45 international awards. And a film that proved a precursor to a new wave of cinema. The best seed of them all.