Amitabh Bachchan, Ankur, Bertolt Brecht, Calcutta 71, Claude Levi-Strauss, Duvidha, Fareeda Mehta, FTII, indian cinema, Iqbal Masud, Italian Neo-realism, Kaali Shalwar, Karl Marx, Kasba, Kumar Shahani, Mirza Ghalib, Mrinal Sen, MS Sathyu, Naukar Ki Kameez, Premchand, Professor Bahadur, Rajendra Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Rosselini, Saeed Mirza, Satyajit Ray, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Shyam Benegal, Teshigahara, Uski Roti, Van Gogh, Woman of the Dunes
[Following my 3-part post on the Mani-Kumar duo in December-January 2013, I received a number of emails recalling colorful personal accounts with our ‘mavericks’. Put together in a collection they would have made a hugely entertaining read but unfortunately the writers were reluctant to go public.
That’s when I decided to dig deep into my own past and write this piece.
At first I seriously thought of calling it Mani-Kumar urf Santa-Banta after the Facebook name of a dear friend. But then decided the piece wasn’t that frivolous!]
“Well, what was it actually like in those days, sir,” asked a bewildered first year student after seeing one of Mani-Kumar films sometime in the early 90s. Clearly, she suspected an answer somewhat along the lines of, say, a ‘patriotic’ Hindi film doing well under the shadow of an Indo-Pak war. In which case, what ‘war’ was influencing the tastes and judgment of the people in the early seventies, which justified production of films such as those, she wanted to know.
This was FTII of course and we were in a class where once a week teachers and students from all departments assembled to see, and after a 10-minute break, discuss important films from the world cinema. Once in a while the titles were spiced up with Wave films. Great Dictator, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Intimate Lighting, Calcutta 71, Eight and a Half, Closely Guarded Trains, Where is the Friend’s Home?, Ankur, Through a Glass Darkly, La Joli Mai, Early Spring, Kasba…
The silence among the faculty that followed the innocent question was pronounced and embarrassing. Like many times before, it threatened to make cowards of us all.
“Well, I think we were made to feel as though we were in the midst of a revolution,” I began to say, recalling my years through the experience. “Some of us saw the game, but by and large the campaign beat everybody into submission. To my mind, it was one of the biggest con-games in the history of the Indian cinema.”
Never before had I made such a cogent formulation of my position in front of such a large body of students and teachers, about fifty of them. The effect was electrifying, for no one muttered even so much as a protest. It struck me that day that times must have changed, for not very long back could you have made such a sacrilegious statement and gone unchallenged, un-hackled, indeed unbeaten. Instead, everybody here was listening.
“There was suddenly a number of these films in production in those days,” I continued encouraged, “and the stance was that if you didn’t understand one—there was no question of enjoying it, for that was supposed to be associated with commercial cinema—take your chance with another. The medium itself was at long last changing and that if you didn’t board the bus, you risked being left behind. But, of course, as real students of cinema, your choice had to be between Mani and Kumar, because others were not to that extent truly cinematic. But certainly they could be well-meaning friends, those others, not outcastes since they were at least trying—with the handicap of their not having been the Institute students, that is—for a different kind of cinema. This last herd included Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, both Basus, Chatterjee as well as Bhattacharya, and many others.
“Of course, Mani’s and Kumar’s are difficult films but then you have your own capacities to blame, not doubt theirs’ to make. And they are there to explain the films all the time—hang around with them, eavesdrop under the wisdom tree if you are given to chicken-heartedness, or attend their sessions with the film appreciation groups like proper students. Question them by all means but the risk to be made to look like fools and laughed at was all yours.
“And then there was this scholarly dimension to this cinema. A number of names and references seemed to back the Wave—Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Claude Levi-Strauss, Upanishads, even Ramayana and Mahabharata. Once asked what kind of reading he wanted the students to be ready with for his classes in film theory a month hence, Kumar nonchalantly poured forth the last three titles. “Ramayana, Mahabharata and Upanishads perhaps?” Another name often called upon to serve the Wave was Van Gogh’s. Mani went about issuing caution, not much different in manner from a threat, that already once mankind had failed to recognize Van Gogh’s art during his life time and let them not repeat the same mistake in his own case…”
Being intensely subjective sometimes serves the ends of objectivity even better. Since that morning I have never been short of listeners to all my ringside accounts of how the whole thing was a sham, a manipulation of the timid and nothing but a form of cultural terrorism.
Here are some of my stories…
“Over its Uski Roti campaigns, Mani’s entourage once included a new character—a thin, long-faced Bengali, bearded and effeminate—who whatever he said or did, would send the whole group reeling with laughter. Soon however it was clear that you would be a fool to be fooled by his clownish conduct since he was none other than the editor himself of Uski Roti. We had just had a remarkable Japanese film come to the archives—Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes as it happens—and as a gesture of returning a matching compliment, had the visitors see that film. Afterwards, as the ‘masters’ spilled out of the main theatre, apprehensively we began to follow them for reactions. Playing safe, a group of editing students approached the Uski Roti’s editor and tamely asked him his views on the editing of Woman of the Dunes.
“ ‘Good! Rather good, I must say! Except—’ and we all waited for the historic pronouncement. ‘Except zara rhythm ka chakkar hai. But good! Rather good!’”
“Only very close friends of mine know that at one point I was to be immortalized playing the main character in Mani’s Duvidha!!! Looking back, however, what difference does it make as to who was under that oversized yellow turban as long as it wasn’t a Rajesh Khanna or a Rajendra Kumar! (It could even have been Amitabh Bachchan, mind you, because he was around and wasn’t yet a star!)
“One day a trunk call was received from Mani at the Institute main gate asking to speak to me. A number of messages goaded me over the day to wait for his call in the evening. That Mani had singled me out for the honors was bad enough, when asked if I would like to act in Duvidha, I almost fell off the chair. Me, act? With my chipped tooth, I managed to blurt?
“ ‘Well, I have taken all that into account,’ said Mani coolly at the other end.
“Suddenly a historic responsibility seemed ready to fall on my nacheez shoulders and would I be equal to the task? Let me not fail Mani—indeed the Indian cinema—by being the sole reason for the film falling short. But how could I say no? And quickly, for I couldn’t keep a low budget filmmaker’s telephone bill mounting as I searched for words. My fumble would be a butt of ridicule forever and ever anyway. After a long haze, I felt my focus returning as I put the phone down in relief. I had simply asked Mani what I would be paid considering I was no longer a student but a professional who had to begin to fend for himself. That settled the issue my way.
“Why me, indeed, for acting a role—in fact non-acting, modeling—I have often wondered? The answer came years later when after a long gap I happened to be seeing a Wave film. It’s noteworthy that all these films are low on the budget, but rich on credit titles. All the names with any kind of past, present or future are generously listed in a tail-heavy formation. And it becomes a way of proclaiming the commitment of all these individuals to the Wave, along with all the goodwill their names individually carry. Being included in such august company, being officially admitted to the very history of Indian cinema, was to be my remuneration, rather than some kind of petty cash that like an idiot I had broached to the Master.”
“In one of Mani’s films, a reel begins with an out-focus shot. Thinking it was focus-slip on his machine, the Institute projectionist began to reset the projector. When his efforts made matters only worse, he stopped and began to look for a cut. But for a long while there was no cut coming. Just then a high-rise building column entered the moving frame. Again the operator rushed to focus but even that was soon gone, leaving behind another stretch of open, out-focus sky. After a long hide-and-seek, it turned out it was a slow, long focus, 360 degree spiral pan—perhaps, twice over—of the Mumbai skyline taken from atop a high-rise where buildings would selectively keep coming in sharp focus as the view gradually descended aground. A good concept marred by clumsy reel division.
“ ‘You could have provided a sharp focus shot ahead of this one in the reel?’ I asked Mani after the screening. ‘Having confirmed focus after his switch-over, the projectionist would leave the rest alone as they do all the time.’ ‘Is it? But there was no problem when it was projected last week in New York?’ was Mani’s nonchalant response.
“I have no problem visualizing how Mani would explain something somebody found confusing in the film in New York. ‘Oh, that’s from Mahabharata, which everybody knows in India.’
“Once an ex-student having a say in Lucknow, late Vijay Saxena, had the state government host a film festival in the mid eighties. A good number of us from Mumbai and Pune were invited. It being a small airport, all crowded the place around the same time but the administration was eager to show that they had left nothing to chance. A number of youngsters received the ‘tired’ us and, virtually snatching whatever we were carrying as a gesture of exuberant hospitality, put us straightaway in hordes of ‘dazed’ taxis. Evidently in a mix of kabhi hum unko, kabhi apne ghar ko dekhte hain and who-knows-what-the-heavyweights-may-need-when, we had been ‘dumped’ care of the only five star hotel then available in the city. Food, drinks, and even cigarettes, it turned out, were on the house. Clearly, the irony of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, one of the films on show, had been lost on the organizers. This was truly Wajid Ali Shah’s Awadh trying to put its best foot forward.
“Providing the event with a scholarly core was a seminar on, what else but experimental cinema. Braving the aatankavaad of English, the organizers had roped in a cross-section of the city intellectuals to chair the proceedings by turns, one common responsibility of each being to sum up for the benefit of the audience the preceding speaker in Hindi. The intellectuals it turned out were doubly in awe, of English as well as the Cinema. Our audience, looking for bare initiation into the maze of film scholarship, wanted to hear as a first step nothing more than the sound of voice of the star speakers. A number of unknown us were floated between the likes of Saeed Mirza, Iqbal Masud, MS Sathyu, Prof Bahadur and, of course, Kumar Shahani. While in their presentations each of the rest had their moments of contact with this situation from India’s backwaters, Kumar was unforgiving as ever. In his impeccable English verging on French, he went to town talking about the Italian neo-realism, Rossellini and the rest as though he were referring to a mere Premchand. I stole a glance at the man on the dais who was to translate Kumar. He was the busiest, and most worried. No word Kumar used needed a dictionary to consult and yet what was the man saying?
“Mirza Ghalib kept me company that day with his Bak raha hoon junoon mein kya kya kuch, kuch na samjhe khuda kare koi.”
In the mid-90s we were once—but for the umpteenth time—trying to enforce the length of diploma films and one defaulting film came up for review. This was about three and a half reels against the prescribed maximum length of just three. Mani was on the campus and had been for days lobbying in support of the film. The lobbying continued even at the Steenbeck table where senior faculty had assembled to look at the edited footage and take a view for Director’s decision.
As the screening ended, we felt that a film such as that could go on for another couple of reels without making any difference. “Exactly,” said Mani, “so you should approve the film as it is.”
But we couldn’t agree to that facile and frivolous view and stuck to our position. The film remained at three reels. After a few months an invitation was received from an Italian festival for the same specific film by name. Needless to say, Mani was on the jury and later had the film win an award.
Afterwards both Mani and Fareeda Mehta—she had been the student in question—went on to make Naukar Ki Kameez and Kaali Shalwar under a program of support from the French government.
For one who had sold a whole Wave to one government, selling two films to another would have to be nothing more than a joke.