Friday, May 18, 2012

Nishant (1975)

Zulm karna paap hai, par zulm sehna us se bhi bada paap hai

This line may be an oft repeated one in many of the old Hindi Masala potboilers from the 70s and the 80s. But few would expect it to be the most definitive and poignant lines from Shyam Benegal’s take on the curses of the feudal system, Nishant (Night’s end). Nishant is a story set in the pre-independent era when our country was no country at all, but an agglomeration of fiefdoms, kingdoms, and states- some tiny and non-descript, while some mighty and formidable. Benegal tells the tale of one of the many insignificant Indian villages from that time, which has a landlord family lording over it. This village remains unnamed throughout the film which implies that the story could have been an occurrence in any part of our country. Though from the dialect and the customs and traditions shown in many of the scenes, it can be inferred that it is somewhere in Andhra where the cruel Zamindar (Amrish Puri) and his three younger brothers exploit the poor and helpless villagers in a bid to sustain and further their dominance over them.

Like Benegal’s previous work Ankur, this one is a no-frills representation of an era and a place that we deliberately choose to glaze over while talking about our great nation. Written by noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar, the seemingly straightforward story has many contours and dimensions that cannot be missed. However, the first forty minutes of the movie are devoted solely to setting the context and establishing the characters. Through some cleverly handled sequences we are introduced to the terror of the powerful feudal lords, their blatant and brazen suppression of the villagers through their illicit ways, their intra-familial dynamics wherein the eldest brother is the commander, the next two (Mohan Agashe and Anant Nag) are his devoted uncouth followers, while the youngest Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah) is a sometimes reluctant sometimes eager follower of his elder brothers’ ways and means. This much confused youngest brother Vishwam later becomes the inadvertent catalyst of a violent revolution that sees the villagers take up the arms against their oppressive guardians, while his much affected wife Rukmini (Smita Patil) can be nothing but a silent observer.

Vishwam and Rukmini
While we have had movies that have dealt with the issue of zamindari, Nishant is unique as it mainly addresses the issue of carnal exploitation by the debauched men of the landlord family, while the other forms of exploitation are relegated to the backdrop. Unabashed in its treatment and unequivocal in its approach, the misdoings of the zamindars is clearly highlighted through the bouts of drinking and sexual gratification the brothers indulge in every night at the expense of one or the other innocent village girl. This world of moral depravity is shaken when the youngest brother Vishwam gets attracted to the wife of the village schoolmaster (Girish Karnad). The schoolmaster and his wife Sushila (Shabana Azmi) move in to the village and just as they slowly start to get attuned to the ways of the land, the Zamindar brothers’ forcibly take her away to their haveli, while her hapless husband kicks and wails watched on by the suppressed villagers. At the haveli, Sushila becomes a sexual object to the brothers, though the access to her is primarily given to the youngest Vishwam who is terribly besotted by her beauty. She is kept confined in the house, and slowly resigns to her fate. On the other hand her husband tries to appeal to all the official authority in this regard, but proves unsuccessful. But egged on by the village priest and spurned by an exchange he has with his wife in the temple (when she is allowed a visit there by Vishwam), the schoolmaster sparks a revolution in the villagers that takes a violent turn…

The reference to Ramayana is obvious in the way the narrative pans out. The Ravanas (Zamindars) forcibly take Sita (Sushila) as her hostage and keep her in Lanka (Haveli). Then Ram (schoolmaster) assembles a sena (villagers) to fight against the devil. However the similarities end here as everything else is a much stark departure from what happens in the epic. The treatment here is dark and disturbing, which makes the movie quite hard to watch (I saw it in two sittings).

It is tough to talk about performances in such a film where the written material is so strong. All the actors do a terrific job. In fact this movie is one of the early movies in the careers of all the major stalwarts of parallel cinema- Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, and Amrish Puri. However the two strongest performances are by delivered by Amrish Puri and Shabana Azmi. The latter is simply brilliant in the temple sequence when she meets her husband. The way she expresses helplessness, defiance, anger, and disgust is simply seen to be believed. Amrish Puri has the physicality and presence of the cruel villain, and the director fully capitalizes on it by giving him such a persona. 

Parting Note: Like Ankur, this one too is a disturbing watch that basically mirrors some uncomfortable truths about our society through an engaging story. These Shyam Benegal films are a study in contrast to the Rajshri films from the same time that dwelt on all the things that were happy, well, and bright in our villages. In my opinion each of these schools of film-making is as important as the other and should be treasured equally.


  1. Hi,
    Indeed as you say the film is a denounciation of the zamindari system, yet I wonder whether Benegal isn't also interested in its complex relationships for other more obscure reasons. Who knows whether this portrayal doesn't have something to say about India's (and humanity's) perverted desires even today?

    1. Hi,

      Glad that you added the 'and humanity's' in brackets! I agree with you when you say that Benegal wanted to make a comment beyond just the obvious oppressive facets of the zamindari system.