By Papri Sri Raman
There is something new about the shifting sands of Indian cinema. At last, it has begun to show rural realities, diversity, artforms and injustices. Mani Ratnam’s new film Ponniyin Selvan (The son of the Ponni) is a Tamil historical drama, with some parts being shot in Hyderabad. It is a film that will showcase nearly 170 folk and tribal artistes and forms of Telangana.
A new Bengali documentary is creating ripples on social media. Rajaditya Banerjee’s Dying Art of Bahurupis of Bengal is a film that its maker says, expands ‘to the aspects of social behaviour, religious practice, cultural revolution as well’. Rajaditya made his mark with Death Certificate. This new film is, however, a documentary, not a docudrama, it adopts an interview format recording the artiste, his art and his travails. It is like the film Cobra Gypsies by Raphael Treza which documents Rajasthan’s Kalbelias; this film too focuses on displaying a lost art or rather, a fast-vanishing art form. However, like the documentaries produced by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training, Gypsies and Bahurupi are both in danger of limited accessibility as they are not on OTT platforms. If the idea behind the making is to tell the public about these near-extinct diverse arts of India, they need to be accessible at the click of a remote, subtitled duly, like Mani Ratnam’s film surely will be.
Rajaditya’s film is a journey through rural Bengal where this polymorphic artform is still practiced. Remember Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Srikanto and the Bahurupi that appears out of the darkness. With an involved narrator, one never forgets the thrill and awe the telling inspired. Now a television series, Sukanto’s is also the story of journeys, through villages and distant lands. Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnorekha, a 1965 film, had a reference to Bahurupis, Shreyas Talpade as the kind-hearted and lovable Bahurupi-turned-conman in Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Dor again is about Bahurupis in Rajasthan.
Some sociological studies say, there are still 300 practicing Bahurupis in Bengal. Nepal and Bangladesh too have Bahurupis, masked performers who roleplay certain social and religious practices. In Kerala characters play their roles during ancient Thiruvaathira rituals; characters defined by the Panan singers of Tulu, Tamil and Malayalam cultures or actors acting the part of village guardians, the Aiyanars or Banobibi in Bengal. Bahurupi also reminds one of a 2011 Marathi film, Gajaar. It is the story of self-discovery and transformation of a young filmmaker during his 18 days journey, a pilgrimage (Waari). Warkaris chant nonstop and celebrate music in the name of Mauli (Mother of the Universe). This is, however, not a documentary, it has a story, takes a cinematic journey capturing a traditional art form. What it tells us is how superb a medium the cinema is to take journeys into rural India and catalogue our various artforms, still extant, despite all that has happened to us historically and in spite of rapid urbanisation.
For example, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are the country’s most urbanised states. Yet, young filmmakers from here have successful provided box offices hits in recent times with their stories of rural India. Last year’s Oscar entry Visaranai is set in the small town of Guntur. Both Asuran and Jai Bhim are Dalit stories from rural India, Tirunelveli and Athiyur. Asuran’s plot is influenced by the Kilvenmani massacre of 1968. Jai Bhim’s by the 1993 Irula case.
Besides playing Asuran, Dhanush gives a startlingly realistic performance of a village boy in the film Aadukalam. One interesting thing about all these films is that they include scenes where real rural dances, music, death rituals etc are shown. The 2007 film Paruthiveeran is one of the best rural action dramas in the last decade. In the film Karuthamma (1994), a farmer in a rural hinterland decides to kill his third born, a girl child. This film dared to showcase a social ill in rural India some twenty years ago. Tamil films today have taken up with vengeance, social issues, more visible in rural Tamil Nadu than in cities, though here both, villages and cities, collase.
In the Malayalam film Maheshinte Prathikaram, the village comes alive with the authentic dialect and cuisine, local tourism, fishing, indigenous music bands, community and hand ball games. So long, Malayalam films had focussed on giving the feel-good positive village experience, but that is changing now. Golanthara Vartha, Oral Mathram, Thooval Kottaram, Rasathanthram, Manassinakkare (all Sathyan Anthikad films) are about good Samaritan heroes in villages. The 2017 film Rakshadhikari Baiju has a lead who symbolises kindness and generosity in the village. The hugely successful Kumbalangi Nights a few years ago is about four dysfunctional brothers from a coastal village. Even the film Maara with Madhavan in the lead is a rural story of the local arts, as in narrow coastal states like Kerala, villages spill into cities into villages in continuation when it is difficult to differentiate urban and rural. Lijo Jose Pellisery’s Ee Ma Yau is set in a coastal village in Kerala, and is a story of the Syrian Christian community, exploring their ceremonies and rituals in detail. So is his Jallikattu, the story of a village mayhem.
Of course, the most iconic rural setting is Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchaali. Ashani Shanket, again, is about the 1943 famine in rural Bengal that affected three million people. Ritwik Ghatak’s most celebrated movie is Meghe Dhaka Tara, again a film of journeys, through villages physically as well as spiritually. This film also shows the beginning of the Naxal movement in rural Bengal. Padma Nadir Majhi and Shankho Chil are two beautiful films with rural landscapes by Gautam Ghosh. These are collaborations with Bangladesh. This cinematic collaboration has ended since 2017. However, one needs to remember, Bangladesh has the same language, same musical inheritance, similar rich diversity and artforms and cultural practices. Filmmakers in Bengal need to press for collaboration with Bangladeshi filmmakers to draw out the richness of Bengali – ethos, language and the beauty of the land. It is one sentiment for the global theatre.
Marathi cinema too has several outstanding films set in villages about the rural community Deool, Gabhricha Paus and Jhing Chik Jhing.
This is not to say that Bollywood does not have films set in rural India. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India are village based, though Mother India’s village was studio-based. However, it was more rural India than the village in Lagaan, curated only for the box office. Sunil Dutt’s other films like Muje jeene do, Heera and Kache Dhaage also showed village backgrounds. Then there are films like Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live, the Wasipur films, Jamtara which too are a kind of rural-setting films. However, more unforgettable are Shyam Benegal’s classics Ankur and Manthan, made in the 1970s. In a media interview at the time, he said, ‘urban people, by and large, don’t seem to show any interest in rural India, particularly in the entertainment media. There are very few rural subjects, unless it’s for an exotic effect’.
Today’s films are not so much about urban India vs rural India, the settings are incidental to real-life stories depicted, like Shankho Chil or Jai Bhim. And they also showcase the local artforms, in an attempt to preserve them in conscience memory. Audiences too have shown a great deal of maturity, moving from made-up villages like in Lagaan to real villages like in Asuran, hankering for real stories rather than the made up. (IPA Service)