classic film

Classics revisited: Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ burrows deep into the consciousness

A nameless child, the hope of the future, serves as the voice of justice in the director’s stunning debut movie.

The obscure village Yellareddiguda, 25 kms from Hyderabad, stands awaiting director Shyam Benegal’s fade-in in Ankur (The Seedling). The year is approximately 1945. As drum beats grow louder, a skein in the distance unwinds a procession of village pilgrims threading their way to a shrine. They are an unsmiling stoic company, following an exaggerated young acrobat whose virility is set in immediate contrast against the low caste deaf mute of the village – Kishtaya (played movingly by Sadhu Meher). Kishtaya’s young wife Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi in her stunning debut) stands before the mother goddess and prays for a child.

When she conceives, it is after an illicit relationship with the sharp-eyed, sharp-nosed and sharp-tongued Surya (Anant Nag), the landlord’s son who arrives at Yellareddiguda with his gramophone, cigarettes, film magazines, inbred arrogance and impotent fury. Surya’s father had put an end to Surya’s squandering in the city, refused him graduate study, and arranges his marriage to a child bride before exiling Surya to a landlord’s life at Yellareddiguda. After the news of Surya’s misdemeanors in the village – including his affair with the lower caste Lakshmi – reaches his father, there is a confrontation between the dominating father and his upstart son. Surya’s wife Saroj (Priya Tendulkar), is sent to the village to ensure stability. This is when Surya’s character is given more dimension than that of an overbearing bored brat throwing his weight about. In essaying the weakness of Surya’s character, Nag turns in a commanding performance.

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Ankur (1974).

Ankur (1974) depicts endemic social contradictions that trundle alongside the main narrative. Surya’s father has a mistress and a son in the village, both of whom are accepted even by Surya’s mother. The priest of the village barely convinces anyone that he is a man of God, yet holds a secure position. An overseer is allowed larceny in broad daylight while Lakshmi is driven out for stealing a few fistfuls of rice.

The resignation of the subservient to their lot is never highlighted for sympathy. But Benegal gives his characters time, reason and context to find their voices.

“Hunger is not merely a call of the stomach,” says a woman with a knife edge to her tone when she is summoned before the panchayat for taking a lover and deserting her unproductive husband. Another wife refuses to be gambled away by her drunken spouse. Lakshmi will not abort her child, distressed though she is and disgusted that her landlord-lover cannot stand up to his tall pledges of protecting her forever.

Reality in Benegal’s world means that even though resilience may not immediately be rewarded, truth will win out. In Ankur, it is a nameless child, the hope of the future, who serves as the voice of justice. He squeals to Surya about Kishtaya stealing from the fields and watches his disgrace – Kishtaya is shaved and then paraded around the village on a donkey – and at the end of the film, it is the same child who delivers the metaphorical master stroke against the landlord and his ilk.

An eye-opening moment is when Lakshmi dispassionately narrates the circumstances of her marriage to Kishtaya, once a skillful potter, now defunct, thanks to the availability and preference for aluminium ware. In private, Lakshmi yearns for sexual fulfillment and berates Kishtaya for his drunkenness. But she cares for Kishtaya as she would for a helpless animal and even in her vulnerable position, resists her master’s sneers at Kishtaya’s worthlessness.

Shabana Azmi and Sadhu Meher in Ankur. Image credit: Blaze Film Enterprises.
Shabana Azmi and Sadhu Meher in Ankur. Image credit: Blaze Film Enterprises.

“The faces of the cast – particularly the ravishing Shabana Azmi as the peasant girl – are a landscape in themselves,” remarked Nigel Andrews in a Financial Times review. This adds to the unvarnished, spare look of Ankur, with its carefully constructed set design and costumes. Guided by Benegal’s objectivity and lack of pontification, Govind Nihalani’s camera subtly offsets poor and plenty – the sun-bleached hay of Lakshmi’s little hut and the verdant green of zamindari acres; the meagre mouthfuls of rice that Lakshmi serves at home and the bulging burlap sacks from which she steals – tropes which, over the years have become less nuanced types in post-Ankur cinema.

Lakshmi’s inchoate and conflicting emotions – relief and despair, trust and guilt, attraction and repulsion – could never have seen better light or faded less gently into darkness. Sound editor Jayesh Khandelwal brings Yellareddiguda’s days and nights to life – drum beats of different rhythms announce events of consequence, human voices sing in the distant fields, a bird, trills distinctly above others, a curtain of silver rain is washed out by only a few strains of music. Finally, there is the bitter, hate-filled, anguished cry of a single woman that resonates against hegemony for all time.

Tendrils of Ankur have spread through Benegal’s work over the ‘70s and grafted themselves into the bedrock of Indian cinema. Critics and academicians will argue over content, style and treatment, whether parallel cinema germinated from Ankur and whether Benegal did indeed bring on the Indian New Wave, but viewers will remember the slow penetration of Ankur deep into the core of their consciousness .

Shabana Azmi and Anand Nag in Ankur. Image credit: Blaze Film Enterprises.
Shabana Azmi and Anand Nag in Ankur. Image credit: Blaze Film Enterprises.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.