Saturday, September 22, 2012

A page from Maratha cultural history: Ramshastri (1944)

A truncated version of this post first appeared as "Of truth and politics" in The Hindu on September 21, 2012.

Actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar as Ramshastri

Ramshastri (1944) is considered to be one of the most significant Indian films of all time—in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is thought to be one of the greatest American classics ever made. The two have more in common: both feature exemplars of the legal profession. In their respective contexts and very different time periods in which they are set—the political intrigue-ridden world of eighteenth-century Maratha India and the racism-ridden world of early twentieth-century Southern America—Ramshastri and Atticus Finch boldly epitomize the ideal of judicial integrity. Finch, played by actor Gregory Peck, unshakably adheres to the truth at all times and helps shape public sentiment the way Ramshastri, played by actor-director Gajanan Jagirdar, does in the eponymous film from Prabhat Film Company in 1944.

The very successful Ramshastri, made in Marathi and Hindi, was Prabhat’s swansong of sorts—despite later films such as Dev Anand’s first starrer Hum ek hain (1946) and the Khurshid-Dev Anand starrer Aage badho (1946)—with co-founder V. Damle’s death in 1945 leaving a void that resulted in the company’s decline and eventual bankruptcy in 1953. V. Shantaram, one of Prabhat’s co-founders, had clearly laid down the company’s motto at the start in 1929: "art for life’s sake," as opposed to art for art’s sake. Prabhat’s films tackled social problems head-on, thus hoping to improve the day-to-day quality of life for its viewers. With Ramshastri, Prabhat traveled back in time to the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire, although highlighting issues of contemporary relevance, such as the importance of fairness of judgment and the indispensability of ethics in administration.

Keshavrao Bhole composed the music for the Marathi version, with lyrics by S. A. Shukla and Shantaram Athavale, while the Hindi version (which, woefully, seems to have vanished) had music by G. Damle (relation of V. Damle?) and lyrics by Qamar Jalalabadi.

Anant Marathe as the young Ramshastri
Baby Shakuntala? as Ramshastri's child-wife
Based on the life of Ramshastri Prabhune (1720-1789), the legendary chief justice at the court of Peshwa Madhavrao, the film starts with the young Ram (Anant Marathe), eager for knowledge, battling odds to educate himself in the face of adversity. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to the boy who will not lie, no matter what, much to the annoyance of his greedy uncle, who hopes to make money off the lie that his nephew is attending scripture school for Brahmin children. Ram’s widowed mother and his child-wife, Janaki (Baby Shakuntala?), are pleased by his integrity, but times are tough. Ram leaves home for Benares in search of a teacher but is turned down for not knowing enough to start with. This only fuels his desire to learn, and in Ekalavya style, he educates himself by overhearing the teacher’s lessons—the big difference here being that the guru is nowhere as unkind as Drona. Impressed, the teacher accepts Ram as his student. Twelve years roll by, and Ram is now Ramshastri. Ram’s mother is dying, and she is happy to see her scholar son before her death.

The scene then shifts to Pune, where Ramshastri settles down as a religious scholar. This part of the film appears rather disjointed, and that is probably because the film had three different directors (Raja Nene and Vishram Bedekar other than Jagirdar) at different times, with the result that there is a jerky feel to the narrative.

Hansa Wadkar? as Shyama
The film suddenly cuts to a slave market, where Shyama the slave girl (possibly Hansa Wadkar) is being auctioned off. Ranoji, a poet-singer, and an employee of the ruling Peshwa Madhavrao, falls for Shyama—together they sing the lovely "Hasoon Bolna," my most favorite song in the Marathi version—and runs away with her to get married. There is opposition from Ranoji’s rival at the auction, Tulaji (an employee of the peshwa’s wily uncle Raghunathrao), who argues that since slaves don’t have the right to marry, the marriage is invalid, and that Ranoji’s hands must be cut off. The peshwa, not very imaginative in such matters, agrees.

Meenakshi as Ramshastri's wife
Ramshastri intervenes on behalf of the newly-weds, and argues that the slave market is in itself an illegal institution, and can neither be authorized by religion nor by the state, and that marriage under Hindu law cannot be invalidated because the girl is a slave. Ramshastri’s earth-shattering conviction wins over the peshwa, who then appoints this fearless advocate of human rights as the chief justice of his court. It is jubilation back home, where Ramshastri’s wife (actress Meenakshi I would guess from the resemblance to her granddaughter Namrata Shirodkar) looks on fondly as her son sings "Me Kaashila janaar"—he, too, will go to Benares like his illustrious father—with Shyama and Ranoji joining in, as the royal guards bring in the newly appointed chief justice’s regalia. A note about the music: Keshavrao Bhole's compositions are irresistibly beautiful and have a simplicity that cannot be ignored.

Soon, Ramshastri becomes famous for his impartial judgments that are based on the case’s merits, as opposed to his favoring the mighty and the influential. In one instance, he condemns the peshwa’s governor who has swindled the plaintiff, a foreign contingent, much to the dismay of the peshwa’s chief secretary who had slyly granted the governor a reprieve.
Lalita Pawar as Anandi, oozing villainy

At this point, the film abruptly and somewhat jumpily cuts to Anandi (Lalita Pawar oozing villainy), the wife of Raghunathrao, colluding with General Sumersingh Gardi—buying his loyalty rather—against Peshwa Madhavrao. The sickly peshwa is dying, and Anandi is busy hatching a plot to ensure that her husband will be the next peshwa. Just before he dies, the peshwa gets Ragunathrao to promise that he will protect the former’s younger brother, the heir, Narayanrao, which Ragunathrao does, carried away by the emotions of the moment.

Pomp and splendor of the peshwa's durbar
On coronation day, the pomp and splendor of the peshwa’s durbar come alive as the film recreates the pageantry of bygone days: there is the swish of swords and spears, as the cavalry rides by and the royal flag flutters, while flower petals are strewn at the feet of the monarch-to-be. Prabhat’s co-founder S. Fattelal, the film’s art director, was known for his keen artistic eye that he had honed under his mentors—the famous artist brothers, Anandrao and Baburao Painter.

In keeping with protocol, Ragunathrao, as guardian to the new ruler, is supposed to offer the first salute to his nephew Narayanrao—a fact that has the uncle wincing. Ramshastri insists that Ragunathrao, regardless of his guardian status, offer the first salute since there is only one occupant to the peshwa throne. Ragunathrao complies but an irate Anandi stomps out of the court. She mocks her husband for not staking claim to the throne; the meek Ragunathrao then promises that he will listen to her.

During the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, Anandi gets a chance to put her evil ideas into action. Without her husband’s knowledge, she rewords a royal order, thereby instructing the generals to kill Narayanrao, who is mercilessly slaughtered in front of a stunned Ragunathrao who then becomes the peshwa. Orders are issued that the public celebrate Raghunathrao’s ascendancy and the people are forced into merrymaking, which Ramshastri denounces.

Meanwhile, the faithful Ranoji manages to bring to Ramshastri the royal order that had Narayanrao executed. Ranoji’s wife, Shyama, also tells Ramshastri that she had heard Anandi commanding Sumersingh to finish off the young peshwa. Outraged, Ramshastri confronts Ragunathrao on his coronation day, and calls him a coward and a sinner for abusing the custodianship of Narayanrao. When Ramshastri produces evidence in the form of the royal order, Ragunathrao’s bad conscience pricks him and he is willing to atone.

Away from  power mongers
An uncompromising Ramshastri pronounces that death is the only atonement for such a sin. Ramshastri is hailed for protecting the honor of the peshwa throne, but, having exposed the truth, he decides to leave the power-mongering world of the court once and for all. He walks away with his family as people sing, “Till sun and moon shine in the sky, your praise will be sung everywhere.”

A concluding thought: The choppiness in the film does not, however, detract from the powerful characterization of Ramshastri, who comes across as an emblem of rectitude, indeed as the very personification of truth. Given the context of India’s independence movement, and Gandhi’s overriding belief in the ultimate triumph of truth, the iconic figure of Ramshastri must have been, undoubtedly, reassuring to viewers. During a period when the national imagination was in search of glorious, idealized visions from the past, the heroic figure of Ramshastri could very well have been that.

P.S. Please help fill in the blanks/confirm the names of the cast members whom I have not identified/am not sure of.

Disclaimer: My screencaps from the film are used for academic/discussion purposes only; they may be reproduced only if accompanied by a link to this blog.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reflections on K. A. Abbas’s Rice and other stories, 1947

I recently chanced upon an old, yellowed copy of writer-journalist-film director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s Rice and other stories, published in 1947 by Kutub, Bombay, with a preface by writer Mulk Raj Anand. Having seen most of the films that Abbas (1914-1987) wrote—all classics in their own right—such as Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), his own Dharti ke Lal (1946), V. Shantaram’s Dr. Kotnis ki Amar Kahani (1946), and Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), and Jagte Raho (1956), I was curious about Abbas the short-story writer.

The book is a thin volume of ten short stories that can be read in one go. The stories are about ordinary people in ordinary situations— with candid glimpses into life’s extraordinary moments. Every now and then the veil lifts to reveal life’s surprises, its splendors, its ironies. Reality is what we see on the outside, but it is also what we fleetingly see on the inside, made visible through cracks and gaps. And it is those cracks and gaps that Abbas draws our attention to—although I distinctly felt a certain predictability about Abbas’s style, which kind of dampens the reader’s attention. The same does not hold true of his films, which are vastly more imaginative. Halfway through many of the stories, I correctly guessed what the ending would be! For me, maudlin is the word that describes the treatment of many of the stories.

The title story, “Rice,” is about Durga, a poor mill worker’s wife who delivers her baby when she is out standing in the long queue to buy rations. It is stark and grim, and yet represents the joys of new beginnings. The queue is relentless, but hungry mouths have to be fed, and hundreds of women patiently wait their turn outside the government grain store, miraculously open after many days, during a period of grain shortage (which is reminiscent of the darkness of the Bengal famine of 1943 captured on celluloid in Dharti ke lal, 1946). As the crowds teem around and bags are filled with rice, birth—at once mundane and magical—unfolds.

In “Sylvia,” a nurse is elated at the thought that it is her last night of work at the hospital, but then as dawn approaches, she confronts a mind that goes in loops. The more she looks forward to her new life, the greater her wavering. Expectedly, the stories have a certain cinematic feel about them, and it is not difficult to imagine the characters playing themselves out before the camera. In “Sparrows,” Rahim Khan, who is callously indifferent to his family and fellow beings—he is constitutionally incapable of amicability towards his kind—is like moldable clay in the company of the chirpy sparrows that make his hut their home. There is a certain self-destructiveness about Rahim that he is unable to help, which makes the reader at once loathe and pity him. He has a touch of Thomas Hardy’s Henchard about him.

In “Twelve hours,” Vijay, a revolutionary leader released after sixteen years in prison is briefly freed for a few hours—and in that time, he goes to see a film, a talkie, in the company of Bina, a female comrade. It is 1943 and, as Abbas says, Vijay, having missed out on the arrival of the talkie in 1931, has neither heard Saigal’s songs, nor seen stars such as Joan Fontaine, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Ashok Kumar or Kanan Bala. Vijay and Bina go to the screening of a rather outdated action movie called Toofan Mail (1934), famous in its days, produced by Ranjit Studios, starring Billimoria and Madhuri. (For the vintage-film buff in me, these references to big names from the past were most entertaining.) Vijay is absorbed in the picture for a while, but then it triggers certain emotions that he has not known in a long while. Restless, he leaves midway. Having been a prisoner for so long, Vijay has forgotten the pleasures of life, and the reawakening is painful.

The most filmi (if I may use that word) of the stories is “Flowers for her feet,” where a prostitute called Chandra purposely spurns, in the end, the kind young man who loves her because she has lost her legs, a fact that she hides from him because she does not want to ruin his life (somewhat like Deborah Kerr trying to throw off Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, 1957); and while he still brings flowers for her feet as always, Chandra pretends that she favors somebody else.  “Saffron Blossoms” is a figurative tale, though no less melodramatic, of the blood from a dying Kashmiri bride, shot by soldiers putting down anti-establishment protests, giving the saffron flower its red color. “Three Women” takes a look at three women, all disillusioned for various reasons, dying on the train tracks, and the reactions that the deaths evoke. It is the least sentimental of the lot.

In “The Umbrella,” a man, on his payday, gets ripped off a by a woman, a petty thief, during a bus ride on a rainy day: this was a giveaway from the start. “Reflection in a mirror” is about Radha, a beautiful nautch girl who briefly becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, only to realize that a mistress can never take the place of a wife, and decides to return to her courtesan life. That familiar, age-old wife-mistress divide of Hindi films, beaten to death. Finally, “The mark of an Indian” is about an Indian bravely taking on a drunken British cop, and earning the latter’s respect in the process.

In his preface, Mulk Raj Anand praises Abbas’s lyricism, but I would qualify that. There is a certain lyricism but, unfortunately, the soppy treatment of many of the stories detracts from that lyricism. Anand also mentions that Abbas has captured both the strengths and weaknesses of his characters: while this may be true to some extent, one puts down the book with a feeling that the characters are not as well rounded and fleshed out as they ought to have been. And, finally, as I said before, the predictability of the stories kills it for the reader. One had rather read Abbas’s script of Shree 420 (1955) or his other films—that is inspired writing—than wade through this insipid stuff.