STARRING Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anant Nag

An idea of Dr. V Kurien gave birth to a film that stays with you some 36 years after it was released. If you watched Shyam Benegal’s “Manthan” in childhood you would probably only remember “Mero Gaam Katha Parey”, a Gujarati folk song in the film, sung so beautifully by Preeti Sagar. Yes, the same girl who gave us “My heart is beating”. She walked away with the National Award for “Mero Gaam…” putting an end to the stereotypes of parallel cinema directors not having an ear for music!

If you were an idealistic youth when you first watched “Manthan”, the film would have made an instant impression: the very first shot of the doctor, no, a vet, alighting from a train in rural India, then refusing to board an overloaded horse carriage is hard to forget. As indeed are the unpaved roads, the huts with thatched roofs and actual farmers in the background. Of course, if you paid attention to detail you would have realised that the film was presented by five lakh farmers of Gujarat. Incidentally, the film itself was to cost around Rs.20 lakh when Benegal discussed the project with Kurien, the man who made the White Revolution a reality. Hard to believe in this age of the Rs.100 crore club, the film was funded by five lakh farmers donating Rs.2 each, making it the rarest of rare examples across the world of a film being financed at the ground level.

Keep an ear out for fleeting moments of understated humour. As the locals arrive to receive the doctor who has already got down from the train, the first sentence we hear is, “Maaf kijiye, gaadi time par aa gayi”. A scathing comment on our trains, a nice wisecrack all rolled into.

If you were a seasoned man back in 1976 and watched “Manthan” because you desperately wanted to catch up with cinema that offered you more than an angry young man or candyfloss romance you would not have been disappointed. As a woman fiercely protective of her space, Smita Patil comes across as an artiste with a thousand expressions. As Bindu, one moment she leaves you speechless with a tongue-lashing she gives to Girish Karnad’s Dr. Manohar Rao who has come to collect a milk sample for the cooperative dairy project. Another moment, she is all simmering sensuality as she bathes outside her hut. Dressed in a one piece, off-shoulder gown — a lecherous old man looks, greed written over his face — she conveys it all with not a single line, no pouting lips, no suggestive camera angles.

Then there is Naseer. The way he tends to the buffaloes, the way he uses his arms to communicate, the speech modulation, the fear, the raging anger against city dwellers….everything is so remarkable that Karnad with his own restrained and effortlessly malleable performance can only hope to come off second best.

Not to forget Mohan Agashe as the doctor’s friend. His shrugging shoulders, his gestures accurately portray an urban man in a small village. Or even Amrish Puri, the village strongman who controls the milk business. His piercing eyes, his drawls, his stern face all convey a fine depiction of a vile man untouched by the pooja he performs every day. The little asides, half expressed fears of intermingling with the lower castes all stay with you long after the credits roll. Sad but he was, in later years, lost to the larger-than-life villain of Hindi commercial cinema.

So many virtues of “Manthan”, a film that seeps through silently with its wonderfully slick camerawork, the interplay of light and shadow in indoor shots, the long shots outdoors, and the clothes of the villagers with just the right folds in dhotis and pagdis. Not to forget the use of birdsong to lend a touch of authenticity. It is very Bimal Roy like, very beautiful.

That is fine. But what if you are watching “Manthan” for the very first time in 2012? You would still love it. After all, the film’s timeless message scores: It is set against the backdrop of Operation Flood which replaced the era of measly milk production and restricted distribution with one of plenty and depicted the bargaining power of the collective. In the film, it is shown through Dr Rao who comes to a Gujarat village to set up a dairy cooperative, which upsets all existing socio-economic equations. At one level, the economy is jolted out of stagnation, at another, the caste system is scoffed at. At another, feudal traditions are done away with. All this is done with fine performances, minimal dialogue and Vanraj Bhatia’s soothing music.

Above all, “Manthan” is a director’s film. Benegal was earlier making Amul ad films and had made a documentary on Operation Flood. He uses his research here to devastating effect: the caste politics shown here is a result of a ground level work, and the district cooperatives in many States watched the film. Later, they went on to have their own cooperatives. Power of cinema, power of the vision of one man. A legend answering to the name of Dr Verghese Kurien.