Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nishant (1975) & farewell to Akbar Ali Khan

Based on a true story, Nishant was avant garde filmmaker Shyam Benegal's sophomore effort (after Ankur) and with it he brought back what would be his favorite muse for her second movie as well, Shabana Azmi. If you are looking for the prototypical Bollywood naach-gaana fest then this is not your type of film. It is (at times) difficult to watch, has no songs, contains very little music and has a feel as bleak as the dusty village where it was shot. But as I have said before, I appreciate it when a film challenges the viewer and though you may not like what you see on screen, 'Nishant' delivers an emotional wallop like few films do.

A virtual 'Who's Who' of Indian cinema star in this movie including the aforementioned Shabana Azmi, Nasureedin Shah (in his debut), Kulbushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Girish Karnad and a smoldering 19 year old Smita Patil appearing in just her second movie. Nishant went on to win the prestigious National Award for Hindi Cinema in 1975 and was officially selected as a nominee for the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The story is unsettling and at times infuriating but the film itself is compelling if only for the fact that it shows something different and gives the movie fan a chance to see so many living legends of Indian cinema in their early days.

We are introduced to the character of the Zamindar (a surprisingly buff Amrish Puri) early on in the film as someone who is not to be taken lightly. He takes whatever he wants from whomever he wants without any disregard to how his actions affect others. Ironically he is shown to be a highly religious man and the very villagers who loathe his presence are forced to seek his blessings on all auspicious occasions.

The underrated Girish Karnad plays the new schoolmaster of the village who arrives with his beautiful wife and young son but soon comes to see the ugly truth of his new surroundings. The Zamindar has 3 younger brothers who all share his sense of entitlement and in this scene are explaining how the schoolmaster can make extra money by letting them 'borrow' his wife for the evening.

Shaken by the brazen disregard for societal norms, he spends that evening sitting with his family in their modest surroundings. Having told the brothers that he is not interested in their offer he does not suspect (nor does the audience) that his wife would soon be kidnapped in full view of the entire village from his home. Unable to stop them on his own he begs the villagers to help him and then goes to register a complaint at the local police station.

Patel (Kulbushan Kharbanda) is the policeman who feels for this man but knows he is powerless to do anything about the abduction. It would have been easy to make the cop a caricature and dismissive of any complaints against the powerful family. But Kharbanda's take on the role is to make an almost sympathetic character who at the end of the day is a coward but one who the audience understands is just a cog in the powerful machine that is the Zamindar's world.

Rape scenes in any movie are difficult to watch but few of them convey the feeling of bleakness so subtly as this movie does. The morning after Sushila (Shabana Azmi) is abducted and brutally raped by the brothers of the Zamindaar begins with the aerial shot above. No words nor any music accompany the scene and the silence is what makes digesting what has just happened even more horrific.

Shushila is kept as a prisoner in the house for most of the movie while her husband tries in vain to get her out. Watching his attempts to help her by talking to the police all the way up to the government officials fall on deaf ears all while she is getting brutalized night after night is numbing. I almost wanted the schoolteacher to bust down the door of the house Amitabh-style and teach them all a lesson with a good thrashing but unfortunately Bollywood doesn't always work like that. Much of the story takes place during this part of the movie - the schoolteacher finally taking his story to the priest who, as a man of god, decides there is a limit to evil, Sushila's resentment towards the husband that is letting her languish in this house of horrors every day, the youngest brother's Vishwam (Nasureedin Shah) growing infatuation with Sushila and his wife Rukhmani's (Smita Patil) disgust with everything that she is witness to.

Nasureedin Shah's first film role introduces us to a spineless character (Vishwam) that we are not used to seeing him play. Not entirely comfortable with the way his brothers treat women as objects he nonetheless joins in the fray the first time he sees Sushila. As his feelings for her grow stronger it puts an enormous strain on the relationship with his wife Rukhmani and it is through this deft ability to hold his own ground around these two powerful actresses that a star is born.

And last but not least we have Smita Patil in the role of the long suffering wife Rukhmani. Her presence in the film elevates it into art every time she appears onscreen. Her transformation from a passive wife who tolerates what goes on around her to one that eventually becomes disgusted with what she is witness to is powerfull and proves as another reminder that she was taken from us entirely too early at the age of 31. Watching the movie hurtle towards it's powerful and controversial ending is not easy but then again, real life never is.

Ali Akbar Khan, the foremost virtuoso of the lutelike sarod, whose dazzling technique and gift for melodic invention, often on display in concert with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar, helped popularize North Indian classical music in the West, died on Thursday at his home in San Anselmo, Calif at the age of 87. His father was a stern, sometimes brutal taskmaster, rousing his young son at dawn for several hours of practice before breakfast and continuing well into the evening of what were often 18-hour days. Allauddin Khan had elevated the status of instrumental music, previously regarded as inferior to vocal performance, by synthesizing various regional styles into a modern concert style. His son absorbed his encyclopedic knowledge of North Indian music and eventually outstripped him as an instrumentalist. The song for today is Water Lady (Panihari) from the album 'Garden of Dreams'. Ustad (honorary title meaning master) Khan and a thirteen-piece East/West orchestra perform classical ragas and Rajasthani folk songs. Combining sarod with Western classical instruments such as the cello, violin, bassoon and oboe, Khansaab brilliantly merges Eastern and Western musical traditions to produce an album of astounding beauty.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful review!

bollyviewer said...

Lovely review, Sanket. I love Shyam Benegal's films and the way his brand of "parallel cinema" usually involves fairly realistic characters but in a very interesting, socially-relevant plot (Mandi and Junoon are two of my favorites), that has you hooked on from the word go. I have yet to see this one, though. It sounds pretty disturbing, but your review is tempting me to check it out!

Daddy's Girl said...

Wow, this sounds like it would be very hard to watch, but your review is so compelling that I now feel I have to watch it... the screencaps are great too.

What a great cast, by the way... I could not recognise Amrish Puri in that picture...

Sanket Vyas said...

Sindhu - thanks for stopping by and the kind words!

BV - agree with you whole-heartedly about his films. My mom got me into them back when I was in high school but I didn't really appreciate them back then. Making up for lost time now and just rediscovering a whole world of Hindi Cinema. Hope to see a review of it on your website one day.

DG - I am usually too lazy to do screencaps but always happy with the result when I do. Plus, with all the great actors in the movie it would be just a crime not to with this one. There are several scenes of Puri without a shirt and the guy is just solid!

anand vyas said...

Hey brother great reviews. And the track off ofUstad Ali Akbar Khan's Garden of Dreams you mention is called "Water Lady" - this is important because one is supposed to be able to imagine the ladies with the "matlas" (clay pots filled with water) on their heads balanced perfectly while weaving gracefully through their village. It is based on Raga Pahadi. A mountian Raga. Please dedicate this month to Khansahib's memory. Play "The Emperor" and "Two Lovers" next. The former is based on Raga Darbari Kannada and the latter on Raga Mand from Rajasthan.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great movie. I'm going to watch it soon! I love Shyam Benegal's movies, and just now starting to watch some of his older ones. You must watch "Mandi" if you haven't already. Great movie with cream of the crop actors.


Sanket Vyas said...

I am doing the same as they were always too serious for me when I was younger. You are the 2nd person to tell me about 'Mandi' and thus I just put it on my netflix queue. Thanks for the suggestion!