BOOK EXCERPT

Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ and the beginning of a film movement

A script written during the filmmaker’s college years became the foundation of his sparkling career as one of cinema’s greatest realists.

Shyam Benegal touted the story of Ankur for 14 years, knocking on the doors of several producers who turned down his proposal. Many of them had the same question for him: ‘Who wants to see a film about the landlord and his mistress?’ He finally secured independent financing from Blaze Films, the largest distributors of advertising films in India. Mohan Bijlani and Freni Varavia were far-sighted producers who convinced him to make the film in Hindi and not in the regional language of Telugu, which was the director’s original plan.

Soon after World War II, Bijlani realized the importance of advertisements in cinema halls – his company, Blaze, made advertisement films and slides which reached the furthest corners of the country. Benegal has already made commercials for the company which was to back his subsequent works as well. Set firmly within the realist aesthetic, Ankur deals with feudal oppression in the microcosmic rural world of a village in Andra Pradesh. The film contains explicit reference to the peasants’ movement, initially led by the CPI (M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]), which acquired a national dimension following the failure of the 1971-72 harvests. Shyam had written the script in his college years, basing it loosely on a true story.

Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal used professional actors in Ankur, some from the Film Institute as well from the National School of Drama. He was very keen to cast Waheeda Rehman – a top actress from popular films, best known for her roles in Guru Dutt’s films and in Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965) – as his heroine, but she turned down the role after a bad experience in a regional film in Kerala. Shabana Azmi cast as the heroine Lakshmi was a fresh graduate and gold medallist from the film institute. The style of the film was considered alien to the Hindi film industry. The actors wore no makeup and were dressed in realistic costumes. The languages used is the dialect of Dakhni Urdu, commonly used around Hyderabad. The blend of Dakhni and Telugu folk songs located characters through the use of language. Both Azmi and Nag introduced a new style of natuaralised acting using regional accents.

Ankur has been defined as deploying psychological realism and regional authenticity to the accepted narrative style of Indian films. Yet Benegal tells a story and tells it well. The narrative base line is one of the strongest features of his films. Here he creates a detailed microcosmic world and its characters in which the macro forces of feudal power structures and gender oppression are played out. Ankur is not an overtly didactic film, but in the Brechtian sense it does ask the audience to react to what is represented, rather than telling the viewer what to do.

Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.
Anant Nag in ‘Ankur’.

Benegal’s first trilogy – Ankur, Nishant and Manthan – combined the contemporary stage of pleasant revolution with the consolidation of the development aesthetic (the Nehruvian vision of socialist and egalitarian society, which included five-year plans as development models). The three films comprise a trilogy in the sense that they deal with contemporary or neo-contemporary situations in India. They deal with the changes that are taking place very slowly as India moves from the feudal systems that prevailed and continue to prevail. The change has much to do with ownership and power. Ankur and Nishant – based on real-life incidents in Hyderabad – and Manthan – about the development of the milk colony in Gujarat – are rural stories about change. They were immediately hailed as a trilogy, even though Benegal had not set out to make this consciously. By using regional dialect, the new cinema was able to ‘forge a new aesthetic of statist realism’. Ankur became ‘a symbol of new cinema’.

Benegal himself attributed the success of the new cinema to the existence of a demand. ‘Political cinema will only emerge when there is a need for it,’ he observed.

Ankur has also been termed a ‘politically inflected melodrama’. Benegal himself has commented that political films are made when the need for them arises. The Indian Constitution set up in 1950 was a social contract on paper, but this did not immediately bring to an end the prevalent feudal order. In the early 1970s, the audience of new cinema was well aware of the post-independence peasant struggles against feudalism, especially the rise of the Naxalite movement, a peasant uprising which turned to armed insurrection in the Naxalbari district of Bengal and spread to Andhra Pradesh. Ankur is set in 1945 in a feudal state, but the background of 1970s peasant insurrection gave it a contemporary edge.

Ankur’s ending was immediately read as a powerful statement of the awakened consciousness of the oppressed peasants. The absence of closure and the act of defiance by a silent witness (in this case, the young boy) effectively point to future developments and subversions of the power equation.

The strength of the film lies in the detailed exploration of characters and their motivations, the contradictory impulses they are governed by, the stray glances and gestures, landscape details, marvellous use of folk music and natural sound. Benegal comments on the open ending in Ankur:

It would be ridiculously dogmatic and simplistic to think in terms of simple solutions. There are no simple solutions to complex problems. Besides the solutions would have to be in the outside world. But it is interesting to explore the problems in Indian society, so that at least one can become aware of the forces that are at work in it and the way those forces combine and interact. The point is to clarify the directions one must take if these problems have to be sorted out.

When asked whether he considered himself part of the new wave, Benegal predictably replied:

I am not sure if there is such a thing as a new wave. Let me put it this way, some people now attempt to make films of their own choice, different from the industry’s mould, everything gets cast in that mould, films come out of that fantastic sausage machine. Now there is a wide range of people, from one end of the scale to the other, who want to make their own kind of films. So I certainly would think of myself as a part of this group.

Excerpted with permission from Shyam Benegal, Sangeeta Datta, Roli Books.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.