Shyam Benegal made ‘art films’. Many of his movies: Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Junoon, Kalyug, Mandi, Trikal are classics of Indian cinema. Not of course talked-of in the same breath as say Satyajit Ray’s movies; nevertheless he was the poor man’s Satyajit Ray, so-to-say. It was his immense good fortune that he was blessed to be around with a crop of excellent artistes in the peak of their prowess: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri, Amol Palekar, Kulbhushan Kharbanda being some of them. Probably never before and never after have we been blessed by such intense actors in Hindi cinema. Benegal extracted some of the best performances of these artistes in his films. No wonder people like Naseer rue the films of today.
This film is set in the backdrop of the year 1857: a very crucial year in modern Indian history. The British ‘East India Company’ had been ruling most of modern-day
This film is centered away from the main battles, in a small town in the north Indian plains. The prophetic pronouncements (Haq! Truth!) of a whirling Sufi dervish form the backdrop to the opening. He foresees a bloody future for the firanghis (foreigners).
The revolution comes to the peaceful dusty village, in church on a Sunday morning when the sepoys burst-in and murder the English soldiers. (Tom Alter, the Anglo-Indian actor, mercifully is one of them. His studious and labored acting in those initial 2 minutes thankfully comes to an end). Ruth Labadoor (played by Nafisa Ali) is the sensual nubile daughter of this English soldier who escapes the mob and runs home to her mother & grandmother. After an initial period of hiding from the free-booting mobs, aided by a loyal Indian aide (?): Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the ladies however fall into the hands of Javed (Shashi Kapoor) who even prior to the outbreak of violence harbored a lusty obsession for Ruth. And that’s the pivot of the story: his Junoon (Obsession).
Javed however, is already married to the character played by Shabana Azmi. Shabana is unable to bear any child to sustain Javed’s dynasty and doesn’t take too kindly to Javed’s two-fold intention of marrying Ruth and possibly having a child by her. Jennifer Kendal (Shashi Kapoor’s real-life wife) who plays the role of Mariam, Ruth’s mother tries to buy time to Javed’s offer of marriage by raising the condition: Ruth will be available for marriage only if the city of
Add Naseeruddin (Sarfraz) to this cauldron of characters. He is the rebel leader and brother (?) of Shabana. An intense character full of passion to freeing his ‘country’ and who for the life of him, cant understand Javed’s ‘junoon’ for Ruth (and preference for raising pigeons) and his resultant disinterest in the war for independence.
As Shyam Benegal’s stories (rather his handling of them) go, he pays a lot of attention to the building of characters and their interplay. The story itself may be very commonplace but the way it is told, doesn’t aim to be that.
And so we come to the end-play where
In a rather intensely emotional moment, Javed catches-up with the caravan of his fleeing family, only to ask his eager and relieved wife “Where are the firangis?” And the penny drops.
We are left with one last scene where Javed bids goodbye to Ruth but not before she betrays her softness of emotions to him. Shortly afterwords, their story its just another leaf in the wake of a storm.
Nafisa Ali as Ruth brings just the right amount of sensuality (of a budding youth) in her scenes. Her casting is apt. Nafisa brings just the right amount of vulnerability to the role. Although her propensity to go into hysterics is liable to drive you to one.
Whether its Shashi as a frenzied, obsessed Pathan, or Naseeruddin as the intense Sarfraz or Shabana as the guilt-wracken, pitiable wife of Javed who is not about to give-up without a fight, this film throws up some memorable characters to remember long after. Pearl Padamsee in a cameo of 2 minutes distinguishes herself.
The pacing of the movie and its tight link with the continuity ensures that there is hardly any slackness in the movie.
It’s the cinematography (its Govind Nihalani at the camera. GN went on to direct his own movies) that grabbed my attention throughout the movie. It is compact, very communicative and does very well to hide the imperfections of a low budget, modern ruins and less manpower in the battle scenes. The authentic location shoots are scenic.
Great literature, movies have one defining characteristic: they force characters to face situations which their abhor, philosophies which they dislike, people who are their antithesis and force an individual to churn his thoughts and put himself in the others shoes. This movie goes some way down that path.
- The open action in the village church could have been handled much better.
- The pact of Mariam with Javed to grant her daughter to him in a conjugal bond depending on whether
falls to the English was much more than a calculated risk. It just doesn’t seem convincing. Delhi
- Naseer’s way of venting out rage on the pigeons in the modern age would have brought out PETA and Maneka Gandhi out on the streets in protest.
- The act of a Nafisa in hiding feeding a beggar lady openly was rather thick given the circumstances they were in. This moment is an aberration in the movie
- The second aberration being that Ruth remained unwed ever after. This seems to be a peculiar Indian obsession I think. Remember Lagaan, too? Exactly the same.
And finally, one must mention Amir Khusrau’s song/ghazal ‘Aaj Rang Hai Ri Ma’ which graces the opening credits. Amir Khusrau of course, merits a separate blog-entry on his own and so we will have to wait another day for that.
Aaj Rang Hai Ri Ma
Adapted from a novel ‘The Flight of Pigeons’ by Ruskin Bond
Shashi Kapoor as Javed
Jennifer Kendal as Mariam
Naseeruddin Shah as Sarfraz
Tom Alter - seems rather studious in his approach to acting. Somewhat distracting
Nafisa Ali as Ruth Labadoor
Rafi, Asha, Varsha Bhonsle (surprise, this!!)
Dialogue: Pandit Satyadev Dubey
Add’l Dialogue: Ismat Chugtai
Music: Vanraj Bhatia
Photography : Govind Nihalani
Produced : Shashi Kapoor
Screenplay and Direction : Shyam Benegal