One of the most significant DVD releases in the last few years has been NFDC’s (National Film Development Corporation of India) issue of three Mani Kaul films under the “Cinemas of India” label. The package includes Kaul’s brilliant debut film Uski Roti (His Bread) along with Duvidha and Nazar. The release was a landmark because until that point Kaul’s films were either unavailable or available only as scratchy prints with poor sound. Mani Kaul is one of the most significant Indian directors yet his name is absent in the Western world. Even worse, most in India have not heard about him or if they know his name, they have not seen his films. Therefore, a brand new release would certainly help raise awareness in India and hopefully around the world.
It is even more delightful to learn that NFDC didn’t stop with re-issuing Mani Kaul’s films and have continued to release many excellent films from India’s famous “parallel cinema” or arthouse phase from the 1980’s to early 1990’s. The prints are cleaned up with better sound allowing one to enjoy the films in their glory.
Film preservation in India has long been neglected with stories of many 35 mm prints in unhealthy shape. However, this NFDC label is a step in the right direction and some of this work also has led to theatrical release of few older films. A lot of these films can be seen online for a small fee, $1.99 for a single film or $7.99 for a monthly subscription. This “Cinemas of India” will enable cinephiles to discover some excellent Indian films or revisit works they had long seen on uneven VHS prints.
My first foray has led to me to revisit some precious works and finally view films I had only heard about, such as Kamal Swaroop’s cult classic Om Dar-Ba-Dar. Here are the first few films I have seen under this label and I plan to view many more over upcoming months:
Om Dar-Ba-Dar (1988, Kamal Swaroop)
Dharavi (1992, Sudhir Mishra)
Party (1984, Govind Nihalani)
Ek Ghar (One House, 1991, Girish Kasaravalli)
Aranyak (1994, A.K Bir)
Godam (Warehouse, 1983, Dilip Chitre)
The film gives the illusion of a linear story yet manages to incorporate dreams and stream of consciousness seamlessly within its structure. The end result is a dizzying film that is ahead of its time and still does not have an equivalent in Indian cinema. Kamal Swaroop made this film in 1988 and the rest of Indian cinema has still not come to terms with it. Although, one can see others paying tribute in their own way. Anurag Kashyap managed to use a song from Om Dar-Ba-Dar as a reference for the “Emotional Atyachar” song in Dev D. It is not surprising to know that this film has a cult status in India and I had only heard about this film for years. Now, I am glad to have finally seen it. Although, I immediately revisited it after finishing the film to absorb as much as possible. Another revisit will happen in the upcoming months.
Sudhir Mishra is one of the most underrated Indian directors out there and his name is hardly known outside of India, despite making three of the best Indian films in the last two decades. Dharavi, Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (This Night has no Morning) and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A Thousand Wishes Like This) are essential films which incorporate social and political commentary on state of things. Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin unfolds over the course of a single night after a young man is chased by a bunch of gangsters. The film is shot in a verite style with little of the melodrama that plagues most Bollywood films. It is gripping and features honestly crafted characters with memorable dialogues. One such dialogue exchange happens after the gangsters find themselves in a middle class household. The gangsters hold power in the form of guns but one of the gangster remarks to another that despite their power, they will never attain the respect that middle class residents have. A simple dialogue but one that underlines the social economic hierarchy that most gangsters find themselves in. Such hierarchy and honesty about gangster life was further explored by Ram Gopal Varma in Satya (1998) and subsequently became a key feature in Bollywood gangster films from 1998 onwards. But Sudhir Mishra had beaten Ram Gopal Varma to the punch yet no one mentions Mishra’s name when talking about contemporary Bollywood gangster films.
Similarly, Dharavi is the only movie about slums worth talking about. It is a masterpiece that shows hardships faced by slum residents and also their dreams for a better life. In his brilliant book, Arrival City, Doug Saunders looked at the dynamic nature of slums and described that the word ‘arrival city’ better served to describe these spots. The book showed how these locations were not static but places where people arrived to get a foothold in a vast city before leaping for a better future. In that regard, Dharavi embodies the characteristics that Saunders talks about in his book. In the film, Rajkaran (Om Puri, brilliant as always) drives a taxi while living in a Dharavi shack but dreams of owing his own business and moving to a concrete house. Staying in Dharavi is only a temporary state for him as he is constantly working hard to save money. He eventually gets to start his business but through a series of events, he loses it all and is forced to start over again. As the film shows, such setbacks are not new for him yet he is constantly hopeful for the future. His fantasies about Madhuri Dixit and alcohol give him sustenance to endure the bitter pill of reality. Rajkaran may be stuck in a perpetual state of transition in an arrival city but his dreams, fueled by his taxi trips around the city, help provide him a virtual home across Bombay.
I used to believe I had seen all of Govind Nihalani’s essential films but somehow his 1984 film Party fell through the cracks. I had not previously heard or read about this film which is why this NFDC release is critical. Party is a masterpiece which is as relevant today as when it was released three decades ago. The film’s title has a double meaning, with the title referring to the party where majority of the film takes place and also to the political camps that the guests in the party find themselves in. The guests in the party feature writers, poets, actors, journalists, artists, activists and wealthy urban class. As a result, there are many fiery dialogues and the film is not shy to dive into political banter related to the different ideologies that various guests hold. Most guests are urban residents and have no idea about the political struggle going on in the rural areas. In a way, this film can also be seen as the precursor to the Naxalite struggle that Nihalani elaborated in his incredible 1998 film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (Mother of 1084). This is one of those rare Indian films where the dialogues are not wasted but instead lead to many thought provoking ideas.
Ek Ghar (A House)
I remember seeing this film when I was younger but the beautiful irony and Kafkaesque nature of the plot went over my head. A young couple (Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, both excellent) move to the city and finally find the house of their dreams. But shortly afterwards, they find their lives disturbed by various noises, such as that of the creaking bed, and then by mysterious men who move across in an abandoned warehouse across the street. The husband wants the men to stop their noisy construction work and his attempts lead him down Kafkaesque territory of Indian bureaucracy. When all fails, the husband turns inwards and questions what he really wants. It turns out that he desires both a quiet village life and the comforts of a big city. These two things are a contradiction which explains why the husband finds himself in a state of anxiety and unhappiness despite being in a comfortable state compared to those around him. Once again, a film that is relevant to modern Indian life.