STARRING Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Sadhu Meher, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Anant Nag, Mohan Agashe, Satyadev Dubey

Imbued with the soft hues of autumn, Shyam Benegal’s “Nishant” is based in the times before our lawmakers famously coined the expression “India, that is, Bharat”. A deeply disturbing film, it is unsettling, disquieting. Yet it is a film that stays with you long after it ends.

It might talk of the year 1945, it could as well be 2012 — such is the power of Benegal’s cinema, Vijay Tendulkar’s story and Satyadev Dubey’s dialogue!

In contrast to the caste and economic inequalities that he tackled in “Ankur” and “Manthan”, here Benegal talks of a social order which brooks no justice. Policemen are wimps, a school teacher lives with impotent rage and common villagers, all dark skinned and almost inevitably poor, look on helplessly.

All live — no, exist — at the pleasure of the feudal lord; almost predictably in such atmosphere women are meant for the pleasure of men, mere sex objects for the gratification of the feudal lord and his three brothers (Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag and Naseeruddin Shah in performances you could take to acting schools).

A line in the film compares women to cows! In the hands of Benegal it becomes a masterpiece, in the hands of a Dhawan or Shetty, it could have been outrageous.

It is a film rich with symbols: a thatched roof, a cowshed, unpaved roads, a brass tumbler for washing the face, misvaak for cleaning the teeth, lanterns hanging by the ceiling, a watch on the wall….all speaking eloquently about rural life.

A stick in the hands of the feudal lord, a horse carriage on hire for the teacher and fancy jeeps and mobikes for the zamindar’s ilk!

The most eloquent statements though, come from the most unexpected quarters: in the house where the teacher’s wife is ravaged after abduction, the wife of one of the assailants — Smita Patil in a debut performance promising many bright dawns — worships the tulsi plant! Later, the teacher’s wife, now reconciled to her status as a mistress to the haves, meets her husband in the temple — the law of the world has failed him, he has no option but to plead to the divine! Then come two sequences which speak a million words: in one of the early shots, Susheela — Shabana Azmi as the teacher’s wife, an author-backed role — is shown cleaning her kid with a mug in the morning; her sari neat, her hair well tied, her kohl quite distinct. Later, after she is kidnapped, her husband — Girish Karnad as a helpless teacher — cleans the baby. This time, his thick striped poplin drawers are clearly visible from under his crumpled dhoti! She hummed, he sighs!

Ostensibly narrating the story of a wicked feudal lord (Amrish Puri) and his family which controls the village so powerfully that even the local cop is often the recipient of rebukes, “Nishant” slowly takes the viewers to the time when darkness must end. Even as the master tries in vain to unite the villagers against the abduction of his wife, the woman herself finds solace from the wife of the man who had outraged her. A bond of sorority emerges, slowly, silently, challenging the established patriarchal order.

Of course, in the end the meek unite, the mighty fall by the wayside, but much before that Dubey’s trenchant dialogues, Vanraj Bhatia’s soothing music, Govind Nihalani’s engaging camerawork and some absolutely superb teamwork by almost all the lead actors, ensure that “Nishant” steers clear of all stereotypes.

With Karnad, Naseer, Shabana, Smita and the rest, was it a multi-starrer? No. It was a multi-layered actors’ joint venture with no false notes.

Miles removed from the work of everyday filmmakers, for many of whom cinema is nothing more than a hero waiting in eager anticipation of the heroine and post-dinner desserts, Benegal’s “Nishant” (Night’s End) is a dawn that did not come an hour too soon.

The National Award for the best film, the nomination for the Oscars were just rewards for a film that lived up to its name.

ZIYA US SALAM

A bond of sorority emerges, slowly, silently, challenging the established patriarchal order.