The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) would surely find a special place in the cinematic tableaux engraved in the minds of many Indian cinephiles. In the pre-multiplex era, it almost single-handedly financed the Indian nouvelle vague (art cinema). However, for all the critical acclaim its films received, they were preserved in low quality prints, many of them accessible only through Doordarshan.
Against this backdrop, the NFDC, in partnership with Shemaroo, recently decided to digitally re-master and release such films in home video, under the appellation ‘cinemas of India’. Done recently to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema, it was certainly a watershed moment, at least for parallel cinema aficionados.
I had a chance to revisit two of these films recently, both being dialogue-driven. In both cases, the effort involved in making dialogues more intelligible and background score clearer is appreciable.
The first film Kamla ki Maut (1989) had director Basu Chatterjee taking a detour from his successful middle-of-the-road path and exploring the darker shades of his usual lower middle-class characters. However, by presenting them in self-introspective mode, he made them relatable, in the process, provoking the viewer to contemplate the darker elements in his/her own personality.
The narrative unfolds in a lower middle-class residential chawl , perhaps located in Mumbai. In one of its time-worn homes, a desolate Kamla (in her early 20s), rushes to the common balcony and tears up a letter. Then she takes a painful leap down and the shreds of her letter, perhaps representing some dark secret concerning her past, fly away. As the shreds scatter and settle in different corners of the mohalla, her life goes still.
The discerning viewer raises questions: Who is Kamla? Why does the young girl decide to give her life the short shrift?
These are precisely the ones Basuda is not interested in exploring. The letter Kamla so mercilessly tore apart could have been her suicide note. With the death of the letter, the director forecloses any door to resolving the mystery behind her murder.
He wants to show the plight of characters in a neighbouring home, in the same chawl . Sudhakar (played by Pankaj Kapur) lives there with his wife Nirmala (played by Ashalata) and two daughters, of more or less of the same age as Kamla.
The family creates its own hypothesis about the death in which their own repressed subconscious plays no small part. It acts as a trigger to their individual pasts. Could one of them have been in Kamla’s position? What path would he/she have chosen? What if one of the two daughters faces Kamla’s predicament?
In the process of introspection, the characters recollect some of their past incidents and possibly reconstruct them to reconcile themselves to their present. Basuda attempts to bring out the voyeur, the speculator, the inner voice in each of the four.
Just like the shreds of Kamla’s letter lying in different corners, shreds of their own dark memories lie in the dungeons of their conscience, shreds the four have, hitherto, hidden from each other.
If the characters of Kamla ki Maut wrestle with their past selves, the lead character of the second movie — Shyam Benegal’s S uraj ka Satwan Ghoda (1993) — Manik Mulla (played by Rajit Kapoor), treats the reality of his past selves as parts of a single kissa (tale) and narrates them to his friends. He is a k athayogi (if one could ever be), a master raconteur who can hold his friends spellbound for hours together. This he does without the assistance of any prop; in fact, he even quotes Anton Chekhov in a scene to make his point that only someone who doesn’t have substance takes recourse to style.
As Manik gets introduced, standing a few feet away from a Rabindranath Tagore portrait in his room and cutting a watermelon, we realise that he is fan of good literature. Right from the opening salvo, where he uses imagery of the fruit to explain his take on romance, Benegal paints him as a pied piper, if a wordsmith could be one, who can enthral the audience, here his three friends.
What makes him tell stories even though he has not written anything in his life? Or, more importantly, how can he not write when he has so many tales to tell? The viewer is left guessing.
In Manik’s heart, sings a virahani naari (a woman who carries pangs of separation and longing). Just like Tagore took inspiration from the virahani naari residing in his own heart, Manik’s naari expresses herself through his stories. And, just like Tagore, whenever the nest becomes a jealous rival to the sky, his mind, ever a migrant bird, tries to take flight to a distant shore.
He is attracted, more to the pull of the unknown than the certainties of the known. And with the pull of the unknown comes dilemma on what could be considered the truth: Perhaps some of his tales are too surreal to be believed?
The unknown acts as a beacon, guiding him toward the future, giving hope to the virahani naari inside him that truth is approachable. It guides him just as the seventh horse, horse representing the future, guides the sun. Forever a migrant bird, he remains keener on exploring the reality of the future rather than myth of the present.