Thought Box



by Sharad Raj April 5 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 18 secs

Sharad Raj explores the evolution of realism in Indian cinema, its many forms and structures, and the deviations in its style through the lens of Kumar Shahani’s “Tarang”.

Pelva Naik, one of India's rare female Dhrupad singers, provided profound insight into my film's essence when she remarked, "Your film delves into the theme of the absent mother." Her observation resonated deeply with me as the maternal figure stood as the focal point of my cinematic interpretation, weaving together narratives inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Munshi Premchand. In this adaptation, the absence of the mother permeates each character's existence, casting them into oppressive and tumultuous environments.

Anita, portrayed as a sex worker, exits the narrative immersed in water, symbolizing a visceral baptism akin to the immersion of Durga during Puja. Despite being a Muslim, Anita embodies the archetype of motherhood, ultimately meeting a tragic demise. Gomati, the second female lead, assumes a maternal role towards her adoptive father, echoing the dynamic seen in Ritwik Ghatak's "Meghe Dhaka Tara," only to be objectified and subjugated by a paternal figure. However, in a departure from the expected narrative, it is not Gomati who faces death, but her son-father. Liberation for this mother figure comes through the power of love.

The connection between Anita and Gomati, symbolized by Gulmohar, is devoid of maternal influence, mirroring a world rife with violence and alienation in the absence of mothers. The archetype of motherhood remains timeless and universal, yet its manifestations continually evolve.

Reflecting on the recent passing of Kumar Shahani, a luminary of the Indian New Wave, I am drawn back to "Tarang," a film that resonated with me deeply during a time when my connection to my own motherland was still strong. As the nation embarked on a journey of transformation, transitioning from reliance on state funding for cinema and broadcasting, the symbolism of the Nation and the State as maternal entities shifted and evolved. Watching "Tarang" on Doordarshan, the state broadcaster, was not because of any prior knowledge of Kumar Shahani but rather due to the allure of its esteemed cast, including Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, Girish Karnad, and Dr. Shriram Lagoo, figures admired by my family. This nostalgic recollection serves as a poignant reminder of the changing tides of both personal and national identity, woven intricately with the threads of maternal absence and presence.

During the zenith of the Hindi Parallel Cinema movement, the educated middle-class found themselves navigating between the allure of Amitabh Bachchan's star power in mainstream blockbusters and the burgeoning alternative cinema scene. Realism became the mantra of the day, a trend that unfortunately persists till today. Phrases like "This is so realistic" or "bilkul natural" have become so commonplace that they no longer elicit a response from me.

The roots of this emphasis on social realism can be traced back to the State policies of the Stalinist Soviet Union, where it was embraced as an official artistic doctrine. Indira Gandhi's inclusion of "Socialist" in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution during the Emergency of 1976, purportedly under pressure from the Soviet Union, further cemented the influence of socialist ideologies.

This period also witnessed a transition from Nehruvian non-alignment to overt alignment in the midst of the Cold War. State-sponsored filmmakers of the new wave aligned themselves with this state policy, in stark contrast to rebel artists like Wladyslaw Strzeminski in Soviet-occupied Poland, who vehemently rejected social realism as an aesthetic choice. However, it's worth noting that Strzeminski was a painter, not a filmmaker.

While photography liberated painting from the constraints of realism, it inadvertently shackled itself to the same aesthetic for generations to come. Hence, filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, and Kumar Shahani were often painted with the broad brushstroke of "realistic filmmakers." The actors in "Tarang" were luminaries of Hindi Parallel Cinema, symbolizing the movement's commitment to social realism, introduced by Shyam Benegal.

Expectations were high as we settled down on a Sunday evening to watch "Tarang" on Doordarshan, the state broadcaster. However, the film left us sorely disappointed. Parents questioned why actors like Smita Patil chose to be a part of it, finding the film tedious and obscure, a departure from the familiar "realistic" formula they had grown accustomed to. Elements like Hansa's (Kawal Gandhiok) song and dance sequence, the prolonged absence of Karnad's character, and the enigmatic last scene between Janaki (Smita Patil) and Rahul (Amol Palekar) only added to their dissatisfaction. Our disappointment mirrored theirs, leading to the unanimous rejection of "Tarang" and Ketan Mehta's "Holi," both films accused of tarnishing the reputation of burgeoning parallel cinema.

There was an inherent sense of alienation surrounding "Tarang." While I pursued my undergraduate studies in biological sciences, my passion for cinema burgeoned, leading me to delve into film literature. During that era, publications like National Film Development Corporation's (NFDC) "Cinema of India," Bangalore's "Deep Focus" quarterly journal, and my subscription to "The Journal of Arts & Ideas" introduced me to the profound writings of luminaries such as Rashmi Doraiswamy, Geeta Kapoor, Madan Gopal Singh, Ashish Rajadhyaksh, and Amrit Gangar, among others. These readings not only ignited my curiosity but also deepened my understanding of the art of filmmaking, unveiling a captivating world that was gradually unfolding before me.

I vividly recall picking up Aruna Vasudev's "The New Indian Cinema," wherein she briefly mentions that filmmakers like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani abandoned realism. However, this assertion left me more perplexed than before. If acclaimed works like "Uski Roti," "Satah Se Uthata Aadmi," and "Tarang" were not realistic films, then what genre did they belong to?

The answers to my myriad questions lay within the hallowed grounds of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, often regarded as the Mecca of Indian cinema. Stepping through its gates, I was immediately struck by a sense of reverence, yearning to immerse myself in the director's chair akin to Guru Dutt in "Kaagaz Ke Phool." Yet, what awaited me surpassed all romanticized expectations. FTII unfolded a cinematic universe a hundred times grander than the cinemascope screen, revealing the vast expanse of my ignorance regarding the art form. Under the tutelage of Suresh Chabbria, I was introduced to the ground breaking works of auteurs like Godard, Truffaut, and Antonioni within the first few weeks, leaving me utterly shell-shocked.

However, it was Ritwik Ghatak's "Meghe Dhaka Tara" that delivered an unparalleled cinematic experience, unlike any Indian film I had encountered before. As the credits rolled, my cheeks were damp with tears, and as I traversed the quiet hilly road to the boys' hostel at FTII for dinner, the only sentiment echoing within me was a fervent declaration: "Cinema, ami bachte chai…" ("Cinema, I want to live!")

With the guidance of Saghir Ahmed, I delved into the realm of the epic cinematic form, particularly exploring the works of Ritwik Ghatak and two of his disciples, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Ghatak's profound words during his tenure at FTII resonated deeply: "I pin my faith on Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. Mani Kaul is there too, but he has a tilt in his brain, slightly astigmatic, just like boys like you - always falling in love with words. Kumar Shahani is my best student."

Under Saghir's mentorship, we embarked on a cinematic journey through the masterpieces of Ghatak, Miklós Jancsó, and Kumar Shahani, delving into the epic form, episodic structure, Brechtian alienation, archetypes, Jungian concepts of individual and collective consciousness, and the reinterpretation of myths, among other themes.

The impact of Ghatak's teachings was profound. Inspired by Saghir and the films of Kaul and Shahani, my initial attempt at a continuity film was a disastrous endeavour to reinterpret the myth of Kunti and the sun God. Nevertheless, this failure only fuelled my determination to delve deeper into the poetics of these visionary filmmakers. It was during my time at FTII that "Tarang" began to unravel its significance to me. While I may still find it slightly disjointed, I couldn't overlook the importance of its structure, form, and the portrayal of Janaki. For the first time, I grasped what Aruna Vasudev meant when she asserted that Mani and Kumar had abandoned realism.

In "Meghe Dhaka Tara," Ritwik Ghatak intricately weaves the dynamics among three central female characters: the mother, the sensuous younger sister Gita, and the elder sister Nita. Ghatak's narrative resembles a game of musical chairs, with these women constantly shifting roles and responsibilities. The mother, portrayed as more of a child in need of nurturing rather than a nurturing figure herself, exhibits tantrums and demanding behaviour, leaving Nita to assume the role of provider and caretaker for the family. In the backdrop of post-partition trauma and migration, the archetype of motherhood transcends generations, with roles reversing as Nita becomes the breadwinner while still grappling with exploitative societal structures.

In "Subarnarekha," the mother figure Sita, a precursor to Janaki in "Tarang," also shoulders the responsibility of caring for her elder brother. Alongside her consort Abhiram, representing a Shiva-like incarnation as opposed to Ram's Vishnu incarnation, they endure poverty as migrants in the city. Following Abhiram's demise, Sita/Janaki is driven to prostitution, having fulfilled her duty of nurturing her brother to the extent that she can no longer satisfy his carnal desires or tolerate his moral decline, ultimately leading to her tragic demise.

The passing of Kumar Shahani prompted me to revisit "Tarang" (1984), still grappling with the discomfort and desire for deeper understanding that lingered from my initial viewing.  

In Janaki's story, echoes of disruption resound—a Tarang resonating with the legacies of Nita and Sita. The trauma of post-independence partition and migration now evolves into the upheaval of rapid industrialization, labour strikes, student unrest, escalating prices, corruption, unemployment, and the failed promises of the JP movement advocating for a just and socially sensitive society. Against this backdrop, Indira Gandhi's return to power, the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, the global rise of terrorism, and the peak of the Khalistan movement further contribute to the tumultuous times. Despite the State's avowed preference for socialism, capitalists tighten their grip on society, with profits increasingly overshadowing all other concerns.

In this historical crucible, Janaki emerges as a working-class woman, her late husband having toiled in the factory of Sethji (Dr. Shriram Lagoo), alongside his contentious son-in-law Rahul (Amol Palekar) and nephew Dinesh (Girish Karnad). Unlike her predecessors, Janaki's Ram or Abhiram are absent from the outset. While she may not succumb to prostitution like Sita in "Subarnarekha," Janaki becomes an object of desire for both the working-class men in her neighbourhood and Rahul, the capitalist heir vying for control of the factory.

Janaki reluctantly surrenders to Rahul's carnal desires, eventually becoming his willing consort, albeit with a covert agenda endorsed by Hansa, Sethji's wife, aimed at leveraging Rahul's support for a particular faction of the workers' union. However, Rahul proves to be a cunning and ruthless capitalist, driven solely by personal gain. He exploits the communal divisions within the working class, making Janaki a scapegoat once again. Yet, in the face of adversity, Janaki undergoes a transformative metamorphosis, revealing her true strength and resilience.

Shahani's portrayal of Janaki transcends the conventional resolution of the crisis depicted in "Tarang" between factory owners and the working class. Instead, she unveils her ethereal essence, her true self, which eludes Rahul's comprehension, akin to the mythological Urvashi. Janaki embodies Urvashi, making Rahul mourn her departure. Kumar Shahani skilfully weaves the myth of Urvashi and Pururavas into the narrative, contextualizing it within the framework of class struggle. Janaki doesn't merely adopt the role of Urvashi; she embodies her essence.

While Rahul remains unable to truly grasp Janaki's essence, she, in turn, gains insight into Rahul and his ilk by the story's conclusion. She transcends their materialistic worldview, gaining a deeper understanding illuminated by the flames of the factory explosion. The class conflict, depicted as a dialectical process of thesis-antithesis, synthesizes into a phenomenon that is both material and metaphysical. Janaki emerges not only as an apsara but also as the harbinger of a new dawn, akin to Usha's Kiran.

In a scene reminiscent of the original myth, Janaki leaves Rahul by the water, prompting him to reflect upon his actions and motivations. This Tarang of formal experimentation, despite the challenges posed by digitization and AI, hopefully will continue to inspire future filmmakers.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.