Friday, January 18, 2008

Shyam Benegal's Ankur

My interest in cinema is only a few years old and I am admittedly a novice in understanding its grammar and its aesthetics. My attempts at making sense of film are mostly grounded in the social philosophy that they articulate to me. In this regard Shyam Benegal's early film Ankur is very interesting. I had seen the film in India one or twice when it aired on television. But the impact of a film (or for that matter anything else) is proportional to your capacity to absorb the material. As Ghalib says,

girni thi ham pe barq-e-tajalli na toor par
dete hain baadah zarf-e-qadah-khvaar dekh kar

The lightning of glory should have fallen on us not on Mount Toor
They only give wine after seeing the capacity of the wine drinker

[F.Pritchett's translation]

click here for Frances Pritchett's annotation and explication of this verse.
So the gist of it is that when I saw the film again several years later, my capacity for drinking the wine of social commentary was greater! I wrote the following after seeing the movie.

A still from Ankur

Ankur is the film that shot director Shyam Benegal to fame and in my opinion it is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of contemporary social dynamics in rural India. I say contemporary in the long-historical sense since 32 years have passed since the making of the film. I think that the most prominent conflict the story depicts still remains important. The two characters of central importance are the kumhar woman Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) and the landlord’s son, Surya (Anant Nag). Lakshmi’s husband, Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher) is also an important part of the puzzle. I understand the kumhar couple (Lakshmi and Kishtaya) as articulating, through their acts more than their words, the central problematic of the twin evils of feudal-capitalism and industrial-capitalism. This is not the place to go into an elaboration of these two concepts but briefly, I construct these categories to capture, in very abstract terms, what has also been referred to variously as the Bharat-India or the bahishkrit-paschimikrit divide, the dual economy etc. “Feudal-capitalism” (a contradiction in terms for many Marxists and perhaps even for non-Marxists), but a concept well-developed by World-Systems Analysts, is meant to convey the idea that those social formations that are routinely labeled “feudal” in the Indian context (for e.g. the type of rural society depicted in Ankur) are themselves, in the form that we know them, a product of the development of the capitalist world-economy. Thus the “feudal” rural economy is a vital part of capitalism. “Industrial-capitalism” refers to social formations that are mostly labeled simply as “capitalist” or “industrial” or “modern”. In the film, this world enters the story via the character of Surya, the city-educated, feudal lord.

If Lakshmi and Kishtaya constitute a (feminist and subaltern) critique of the central problematic, then Surya epitomizes a “worst of both worlds” distillation of the same problematic. As noted in the film’s review on the Strictly Film School site, “Surya soon disrupts the dynamics of everyday life in the village by flouting tradition and local custom: asking the lower caste Lakshmi to brew his tea and cook his meals”। Thus, when Lakshmi expresses disbelief at Surya’s request to cook for him (“aap mere haath ka khana khayenge?”) Surya asserts that he does not believe in caste-prejudice (“main jaat-paat nahi manta”). So far Surya seems to behave as the stereotypical city-educated, modern young man over whom the “customs and traditions” (riti-rivaaz) hold little sway. However, Benegal makes the story a good deal more interesting by exploring the limits to Surya’s “progressive” qualities. Here I disagree with the analysis presented at the Strictly Film School site. It is stated there that “despite Surya's seemingly progressive ideas on the irrelevance of the caste system, his moral integrity proves suspect when he develops an irrepressible attraction towards his enigmatic and beautiful servant”. I think that blaming Surya’s crimes and misdemeanors on lack of “moral integrity” misses the other half of Benegal’s civilizational critique. Having shown us the evils of feudal-capitalism, through Surya’s vacillating nature, Benegal is showing us the sexism or patriarchy of modern-capitalism. To put it another way, if we can blame Surya’s failings on lack of moral integrity why not credit his “progressive ideas” to moments of high moral integrity? Or conversely, why not portray all the myriad crimes committed by agents in the feudal-capitalist social formation as resulting from individual moral failings? We do not do the later because we recognize the systemic nature of abuses such as caste exploitation. Well, the failings of industrial-capitalism are systemic as well. If we credit progressive ideas to it as a system (of values imparted via education etc) we must debit the failings of its product (Surya) as the system’s failings as well.

Thus through Surya’s blunderings and moral cowardice, Benegal, in my opinion, shows us the devil (feudal-capitalism) and the deep-blue sea (industrial-capitalism) between which women (Lakshmi) and the subaltern (unemployed, ex-artisan Kishtaya) are trapped. The deeply symbolic ending shows a little boy, who we have previously seen observing the film's climatic moment of violence (which itself symbolizes the clash between industrial capitalism and its hapless dispossed victims), hurl "the first stone" crashing the window of Surya's home. It is the innocence that we attribute to a child that makes this action something more than a venting of anger at the local tyrant and yet the film's ending leaves something to be desired. Of course I do not expect Benegal to "offer solutions". His job as a socially conscious artist is to hold a mirror (as in the shot above) which reflect his own understanding of social processes.

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