Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ankur (1974)

India lives in its villages. It is unfortunate that people like me, born and brought up in India’s rapidly developing metropolitan cities soon transforming into world centers for commerce and quickly imbibing a culture to match that of their western counterparts, don’t really have much of an idea about the way things were (and still are) in what still forms more than 70 percent of our country- i.e. our heartlands- our roots. It is only through books and texts that we get a perception of this world that exists alongside us, but is largely unknown. Unfortunately, most of our movies paint a rosy picture of it- with farmers singing away happily through the seasons of harvest, and the village communities living like large families- tackling challenges, and subsequently celebrating together- in unison. Hardly any movie touches upon the social dynamics, the caste system, and the stigmas prevalent in that world. Shyam Benegal’s first feature- ‘Ankur’ is an exception to the norm. It is the stark reality that a part of us knows about, but refuses accept. It is an award winning movie that opened the doors for independent thought in Indian cinema- one that is uninhibited, courageous, and bold.

The film opens with a traditional village ceremony on a cloudy day, and the sequence ends with Laxmi asking God for an offspring...It is a story of Laxmi (Shabhana Azmi is a role for which she won the National Award), wife of a drunkard, jobless, deaf, and dumb 'kumhaar' (someone who makes mud utensils) who looks after the estate of a wealthy village personality.  Then one fine day Surya, the son of this wealthy person, comes to stay over and manage the estate. Surya is a young man who has just completed his schooling and has taken the marital vows (though his wife is still too young to be staying with him).

Laxmi spots an opportunity and on her request Surya gives her jobless husband the job of manning the bullock cart. Soon, Laxmi takes full responsibility of the household chores for Surya, who does not refrain from having the food cooked by her (an untouchable), much to the chagrin of the village priest who repeatedly asks the young man to have food from his house. Her involvement in Surya’s life attains greater proportions when her husband, found to be stealing stuff from the estate, runs away abandoning her and the small hut they shared. Surya starts getting attracted to Laxmi, and after her initial hesitancy, they get into a physical relationship. Things take a turn when Surya’s wife comes over to stay with him at the estate, and immediately starts to detest Laxmi’s presence in their lives. The tension escalates, and soon reaches a crescendo when Laxmi discovers that she is pregnant with Surya’s child and is forced to retreat to her hut.

Slowly the village folk get to know this fact, and things start going around in the air. Just when Laxmi starts fearing that there would be nothing left for her in life, her husband returns back- happier, and determined to make amends for his disloyalty. The scene when Laxmi discovers her husband’s return and starts bawling her heart out, overcome with guilt and remorse, is one of the most powerful ones in the movie and superbly performed by Shabhana Azmi (I guess it would have been this scene that would have clinched the National award for her). The climax too is heart-wrenching and really thought provoking.

The performances in the movie are top-notch, with Shabana Azmi leading the way, and Anant Nag (as Surya) too pitching in with an earnest act. But it is essentially a director’s film and Shyam Benegal handles his vision with supreme confidence and utter disdain for the norm. He speaks his own language, and does not refrain from keeping the dirty words out to please the eye. This movie, though essentially a story of a woman’s longing for love and acceptance, touches upon and comments on many social issues afflicting our society. It is a film that has the power to arouse debate- and that is the key winning of the attempt.

Suitably lauded at that time, Ankur won a lot of awards, and more importantly opened the doors for many directors to progress their vision without looking for commercial acceptance, and caring for footfalls in cinemas. Shyam Benegal himself followed up this movie with Nishant and Manthan- equally powerful movies that were made with similar fearlessness and clarity of purpose.

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