Planet Bollywood
Producer: Lalit M. Bijlani
Director: Shyam Benegal
Starring: Shabana Azmi, Anant Nag, Sadhu Meher, Priya Tendulkar
Music: Vanraj Bhatia (Background music- no songs)
Genre: Drama
Recommended Audience: Parental Guidance
Approximate Running Time: 130 mins
Reviewed by: Shahid Khan  - Rating: 9.0 / 10
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Public Rating Average: 5.11 / 10 (rated by 414 viewers)
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Shyam Benegal’s unforgettable debut, “Ankur”, has many of the classic themes that would figure often in his later movies. The conflicts within a village, the struggle of strong women against the patriarchal society and the difficulty of balancing between emotional happiness and tradition.

Anant Nag is Surya, a bored college student who whiles his days away obtaining mediocre but passable grades. He wants to go onto further studies but his father, a zamindar, senses that his son just wants to escape from the village. He refuses Surya’s request for further education and forces him into a marriage with a child bride, Saroj (played by Priya Tendulkar). Since she is a child, Surya has to wait until she attains puberty before she can move into his house and thus consummate their marriage. Surya moves into his own cottage where he begins to take control of a certain part of the land without the irritation of his father´s daily interference.

At his own house, there is a servant, Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi), an attractive young woman. She belongs to the untouchable caste so those of other caste never touch or eat the food that she cooks (except for Surya, who is attracted to Lakshmi). Widening the divide between them is Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher), the husband of the servant. He is deaf and mute, which makes the rather arrogant Surya feel a little superior and gives him confidence to pursue Lakshmi. She spurns his advances, showing a devotion to her husband even though Kishtaya is a drunk who spends whatever money they have on drinks and gambling. When Kishtaya is caught stealing from Surya’s land, he is given a most humiliating punishment. The hair on his head is shaved off and he is put on a donkey and taken for a ride around the village. Unable to face the daily grind of his life, Kishtaya walks away from home and does not come back. Lonely and insecure, Lakshmi gives in and responds to Surya’s affectionate feelings.

At first, their affair is passionate and intense. But the fire soon peters out as word spreads around the village and Surya’s father gets wind of it. Not long after, Saroj comes to stay at her husband’s house and reluctantly takes the place next to him in their bed, a place that was normally occupied by Lakshmi. Lakshmi’s problems do not end there. A missed period and violent morning sickness can only mean one thing. She is caught in a dilemma. Where can she go? Will Surya support her? Should she abort her child? Or should she keep it, seeing that she may never get a chance to be a mother again (she had difficulty conceiving a child with her husband)? The film goes down the route of these questions to its compelling finale.

The beginning of the film is about Surya’s desire to resist becoming the same as his father. He tries to run away from his fate… He rarely ever responds to the poor villagers who run about trying to please his demands. His response is of dismissive silence. His thoughts are that, “I do not belong here, I belong elsewhere”. But the people that he always ignores are his father’s mistress and his stepbrother (born out of wedlock). He is repulsed by his father’s hypocrisy and infidelity. At the wedding to his child bride, while taking the customary vows, he glances at his father’s mistress and then at his mother. This is the image of marriage that he has had his whole life- his mother having to cope with her unfaithful husband and being tied to him. It is not surprising then that with this role model of a marriage before him, Surya also goes down the same path.

Surya believes he is different. He does not believe in the caste system, he says. He treats the local priest, who pops round for a visit to lecture him on the ways of the caste divide, with disdain. It is kept ambiguous whether Surya has always had this belief from the start or it is just a new belief he took up in order to get closer to Lakshmi. Indeed, by allowing her to cook food for him, he does get the opportunity to slowly win her affections. By the end of the film though, it slowly appears that Surya is no better than his father. Indeed, his associates begin to suggest that he should do the exact same thing that his father has done i.e. give away a piece of the land to his mistress to keep her quiet. It becomes clear that while Surya may have briefly loved Lakshmi, he has exploited her vulnerability and her defenseless situation. {Spoiler ahead} This is why Pratiksha’s return upsets him so much. He may be deaf and mute but he has a lot of physical strength. Surya is unsettled by the sight of Pratiksha walking across the field towards him with a stick. He assumes that Pratiksha is out to avenge him for sleeping with his wife, so he quickly gathers his henchmen to beat him senseless. Lakshmi quickly runs over to help her husband and from her tirade of insults, it transpires that Pratiksha had actually come over to ask for a job. Guilty Surya locks himself in his house while his wife stares at him curiously. As a stream of tears roll down his cheeks, he is hit by a sudden epiphany. He has turned into somebody even worse than his father.

Waheeda Rehman was originally the first choice for the role of Lakshmi. She did not do the role (presumably because she had already played an adulterous woman in “Guide”) and neither did the other actresses that were on Shyam Benegal’s list. It is hard to believe now that Shabana Azmi would be a last choice for someone but at that time she had not yet acted in a film (“Ankur” is her debut). Benegal expressed reservations when Azmi turned up in his office looking like a model. He must have seen a spark of talent in her otherwise he would not have given her the role. Dressed authentically as a poor servant, Azmi does not look like a model in the film but her beauty captivates every frame she is in. Her performance is moving and heart-wrenching. Anant Nag also made his debut but his casting was definitely an impulsive on-the-spot choice as the actor who was originally meant to do the role did not show up. Nag is good but occasionally his acting is one-note (blank expression, monotonous voice, etc.). On the other hand, he is excellent when he has to portray the arrogance of his rich brat character and the fascination that his character has with Lakshmi. As a deaf-mute character, Sadhu Meher probably had the hardest role to enact. He is utterly convincing as an oppressed man who turns to stealing and drink to escape from his trap.

For all the students of film sound out there, “Ankur” is a classic example of a film where the sound plays an important part in making it a great viewing experience. Little focus is placed on the background score/music, allowing the natural sound effects to take center stage. Jayesh Khandelwal’s sound effects are beguiling. They are sounds of wildlife that form part of the everyday lives of Surya and Lakshmi. Khandelwal weaves into the story crisp sounds of birds chirruping, leaves rustling, the soft blow of the wind and the rhythmic pump of water flowing in the fields. While Satyadev Dubey’s dialogues are very good, it is Aziz Qaisi’s dialect input that makes a huge impact. His input ensures that the dialogues remain realistic and relevant to the area of India that the film is set in (Hyderabad).

Govind Nihalani was still very new to the world of filmmaking when he worked on the cinematography of “Ankur”. His photography lends a realistic and gritty touch to the film. At the same time, the photography also has a radiant whisper to it, tuning perfectly with the charming sound. One shot I particularly adore is of Shabana Azmi and Anant Nag standing in the foreground (shadowed) while the background is colorful sunlight. It gives a message that this couple are isolated from the customs and culture that the rest of the village operates in. When Azmi breaks out of the foreground and walks into the sunlit background, it shows that eventually they will have to return to that village for their lives are built around it. Shyam Benegal’s direction is superb but one thing that he particularly excels in is capturing and holding the emotional weight of a subtle scene. The camera lingers upon the expressions of the actors’ faces long after the point where most directors would stop (bringing to mind European cinema). To witness this, just watch the scene where Azmi’s character stands at the window and watches the funeral procession of a woman go pass the house. The film does not give even a glimpse of the goings-on in the street but lets the audience watch the reaction on Azmi’s face. All of a sudden, we feel we know her character so much better. We want to comfort her and stand by her side.

With a phenomenal debut, Shyam Benegal has never let the standards of quality slip from his hands and has gone onto make many more outstanding classics. He is part of the New Wave movement of Hindi cinema that occurred in the 1970’s and without him, Hindi cinema would be all the poorer.

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