THE TRUTH TELLER
Possibly the most ‘mainstream’ filmmaker of the Parallel Cinema movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Govind Nihalani was certainly the easiest to connect with and is a personal favourite. His narratives, often built around contemporary socio-political issues and sometimes presaging trends, were seeped in realism but rarely marred by abstraction or stiltedness. Displaying an innate honesty of purpose, these films spoke of human frailty and the inability of individuals to withstand forces of corruption and coercion, manifest in the garb of the establishment. His protagonists, though raging idealists, could never win the day unlike their counterparts in commercial cinema and rarely found catharsis.
Nihalani's films displayed an innate honesty of purpose. PIC COURTESY USMAN GHAFOOR
Throughout his career, Nihalani collaborated with writers and playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Satyadev Dubey, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Bhisham Sahni and adapted literary works—a key to the rich texture and depth of his cinema. He shot all his films himself (but brought in mentor V.K. Murthy to collaborate on his epic Partition saga Tamas) and although he worked with measly budgets, even his most dialogue-heavy, stagey productions such as Drishti and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa displayed a distinct cinematic quality—notice, for instance the exquisite close-ups of Dimple Kapadia’s emotional stirrings in Drishti, or the handful of establishing outdoor shots in Hazaar Chaurasi that evoke Calcutta of the early ‘70s, even though the rest of the film was shot at a studio in Mumbai. Best of all is the recreation of pre-Partition Punjab complete with elaborate sets and props in Mumbai’s Film City for Tamas, a project he wasn’t even sure would get a release—but more on that later.
Ardh Satya (1983), Nihalani’s most popular film, was perhaps the only legitimate ‘blockbuster’ of Art Cinema. Sub-Inspector Anant Welankar (Om Puri) is conscientious, but he’s also angry, obsessive and weak-willed. His commitment to his job isn’t enough to save him from the wrath of a ruthless system where goons masquerade as politicians and the police force oscillates between paying obeisance to the mighty and crushing the poor. Welankar is a tragic hero in the Shakespearean tradition because the seeds of his destruction lie within him. He understands his own weaknesses at one level and confesses as much to Jyotsna (Smita Patil), the woman he loves and loses.
As a key motif, a poem by Dilip Chitre, explains towards the end of the film, he is like Abhimanyu who managed to penetrate the ‘chakravyuh’, but having entered, has no way out of it. He is neither feeble enough to submit to the forces of corruption, nor audacious enough to take them on systematically. The only way out for him then is a futile, if valiant death.
Nihalani masterfully builds this dynamic, racy narrative piece by piece—putting a young officer at its centre, adding complexity to his personality by giving him a back-story about a violent, abusive father and feeble, oppressed mother whom he has been unable to protect. The genesis of his incomplete manhood is in his first failure. He’s unable to articulate his feelings for Jyotsna, but when he gets drunk and calls her, he comes dangerously close to imitating his father’s intimidating posture.
Like the portrait of the father, the director throws in another minor character who anticipates Welankar’s slide. Mike Lobo (brilliantly essayed by Naseeruddin Shah) is a suspended cop, an alcoholic destroyed by his addiction. Welankar feels sorry for him and gives him money now and then. But Lobo is already doomed and Welankar is only a few steps behind him.
Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) is unarguably one of Hindi cinema’s best-etched villains. His wry humour is laced with menace; his body language callous and intimidating in the vein of a cocky tyrant who knows he can’t be touched. He humours Welankar initially, tries to appease him; but even when he’s polite, it’s obvious he is merely toying with the inexperienced young man. Ardh Satya proved to be Om Puri’s breakthrough performance and his ticket to popular cinema. It is his most accomplished act, alongside Tamas, My Son, The Fanatic and East Is East.
A poster of Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh
But Nihalani had already tapped Puri’s enormous talent in his debut film Aakrosh (1980)—after years of working as Shyam Benegal’s cinematographer on films like Ankur, Bhumika and Junoon, he finally took off on his own with this saga of rural oppression where a tribal is charged with the murder of his wife. For most part of Aakrosh, Lahanya Bhikhu (Om Puri) doesn’t speak a word. He is silenced by the outrageous injustice of his situation and can only express his anger thus. It’s an obvious metaphor for the voiceless dispossessed.
The woman has, in fact, been abducted, raped and killed by the pillars of society—those who were meant to protect and serve the citizens have become the perpetrators of the worst crimes and are secure in the knowledge that the law can’t touch them. The filming of the rape is chilling without being graphic. By the power of suggestion, he brings us face to face with the horror of her fate and Lahanya’s helplessness as the entire scene is shot from his point of view.
Nihalani puts an idealistic defence lawyer, Bhaskar Kulkarni (Naseeruddin Shah), at the heart of this story. Like in Ardh Satya, those above and around him have already succumbed to corruption and it is impossible for Kulkarni to survive in this swamp. He may escape death by the teeth of his skin, but is unable to prove Lahanya’s innocence. The educated middle-class is but a mute spectator to the murder of justice, while many become willing accomplices.
As for Lahanya, his salvation lies in self-destruction and at his father’s funeral, he grabs a gun and kills his sister before letting out the scream of anguish which gives the film its title. Interestingly, Govind Nihalani won the Best Director Filmfare Award for Aakrosh. Those were certainly more innocent times, before satellite broadcasts and star power had firmly pushed off beat films out of contention for popular awards.
A companion piece to these two films is Aghaat (1985), another example of Nihalani’s leftist-humanist-realist worldview. The setting is Bombay’s factories and trade unions and the tenuous relations between the workers and mill owners, and the politics within unions. The film was made not long after the crippling textile strike of 1982 when hundreds of thousands of workers were rendered jobless. The battle between the mild and the aggressive union bosses and the predictable apathy of the management is witnessed, yet again, by a junior level manager (K K Raina) and the splinter that sets off the fire is an accident involving a worker who gets maimed and eventually dies.
Rohini Hattangady is devastating in Party
Party (1984) is amongst my favourite Nihalani films. Sadly it never got a theatrical release. For the craftiness of its staging—it was adapted from a Mahesh Elkunchwar play—and its indictment of the hypocrisy of Mumbai’s ideological and social elite, this film is exceptional. It is the real exposé of Page 3, made years before Bombay Times and Page 3 were born, and infinitely superior to Madhur Bhandarkar’s salacious and exploitative work which, curiously enough, went on to win the director a National Award.
The film is peopled by writers, intellectuals, journalists, socialites, activists and strugglers, each of whom is deeply insecure and all of whom ultimately stand exposed. But the narrative has an ideological core in the form of Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah), a poet-turned-activist whose voice and presence is felt throughout the film even though he is seen only in one disturbing shot right at the end, his dark, bloodied face and muffled scream rattling the viewer’s conscience. Meanwhile, there is incessant talk about Amrit, how good or bad a writer he is, whether his idealism is reckless, the primary role of an artist in society, the possibility of a revolution led by intellectuals and so on. All of it is fashionable idle chat.
The party has been thrown by socialite Damayanti Rane (theatre veteran Vijaya Mehta) in her sprawling bungalow, to celebrate a literary award conferred on a successful (but highly cynical) writer called Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh). It is a dry comedy of manners but also a scathing social critique. Although the ideological pontificating now seems affected and verbose in places, particularly towards the end, the pathos of individual characters is still very relevant, most specifically in the case of Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi) the aging actress and Barve’s companion who, faced with a loveless life of oblivion, takes refuge in drinking. Hattangadi externalises the humiliation and degradation of this woman with such supreme control, you can scarcely bear to watch her. Nearly as poignant is Mehta’s portrayal of the aging socialite whose only claim to fame is her ability to entertain and bask in reflected glory.
CONTINUED IN PART 2