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.

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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.