The great director and screenwriter Shyam Bengal was a dazzling innovator and one of the harbingers of the film movement we know as ‘parallel cinema’. For those unaware, what this meant was that cinema in India took a simultaneous route that flourished alongside the glitz and glamour of Bollywood. Instead of focusing on unrealistic situations and outlandish plots which projected the sheer escapism of the movies, parallel cinema took viewers within a world of gritty realism. Like Italian neorealism of old and Iranian cinema of the present, parallel cinema was pure artistic talent captured on film and a celebration of beauty of the medium itself. Film makers of this movement were ‘keeping it real’ while wrapping it around highly talented actors and great stories.
Shyam Bengal was not the first innovator of this alternative form of filmmaking in the sub-continent. Satyajit Ray’s contribution to this visual style goes without saying, while great directors like Guru Dutt, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak all made incalculable contributions to this film movement’s development. Each of these directors made films that was partly a window into the complexities of society while at the same time criticised, what they perceived, were the hypocrisies and shortcomings that ran right through them. Their films were not highly commercial, in the sense that they did not set box office records. Nor did they run in a particular cinema hall for years on end. These were the type of movies that you would expect to win numerous awards at international film festivals and have a place on the movie critics lists as among the best of the year or of all time.
On of the best films in Shyam Bengal’s canon, was his classic movie ‘Mandi’ (1983). Based on the short story ‘Anandi’ by Pakistani writer Ghulam Abbas, it was a superb satire on the tussle between prostitutes in a brothel and holier-than-thou politicians. The prostitutes make no beans about who they are or what their background is. But the politicians project themselves as a morality task force in their community, while at the same time having numerous skeletons in their own closet. Bengal juggles with numerous themes in this film, including loyalty, hypocrisy, double standards and the two-faced nature within dwellers of society which does not always project the better angels of our nature.
The characters of this story are as diverse and bizarre as the underbelly of society in which they live in. A madam named Rukmini bai (Shabana Azmi) who is as strong-willed as she is shrewd. Alongside her, you have the various prostitutes who reside in Rukmini bai’s brothel. Each prostitute is calculating and shrewd and is loyal only to themselves, even though on the face of it they seem to be sticking together through thick and thin. Even the apple of Rukmini bai’s eye, Zeenat (Smita Patil) is not what she seems. Forever fluid in her emotions and loyalties, she is literally virgin territory in the brothel. No man is allowed to touch her, even though many of the men that visit the brothel lust after her or are in love with her.
Rukmini bai runs the brothel with a stern hand and is surrounded or aided by various assortments of characters, including a faithful houseboy Dhungrus (Naseeruddin Shah), a perverted photographer (Om Puri) who aches to take naked pictures of the prostitutes in the brothel and a policeman who does night duty work at the brothel. If that wasn’t enough, one of the prostitutes, who has been sold to the brothel by her treacherous husband, has to endure never ending mental suffering in that environment. Rukmini bai is cold and calculating at times but she is not wantonly cruel. For her, life is harsh but she chooses to endure it rather than escape it. Her motto is quite simple, as she inadvertently tells one unfortunate prostitute; “A woman’s life is like a stringless kite, the wind blows it away to unknown places.”
Rukmini bai may despise men, because she considers all of them to be treacherous, but nevertheless she knows how to deal with men and manipulate them for her own reasons. One problem that she is facing is the prospect of being forced out of town by a moral crusader female politician named Shanti Devi who feels that Rukmini bai’s brothel must be expunged from society. Devi herself has a rather shadowy secret. According to Rukmini bai she is having an affair with her own son-in-law, while publicly masquerading as a moral champion.
Two men, on the other hand are very useful to Rukmini bai. One is her wealthy landlord Mr Gupta (Kulbushan Kharbanda) the other is the seedy and buffoonish mayor of the town Agrawal (Saaed Jaffrey). Both men think they are utilising Rukmini bai, while in reality she is making quite good use of them. Gupta will pay her quite handsomely and help her relocate her brothel. While Agrawal will pay her to keep her mouth shut about his naughty secret, that being that the girl Zeenat is his illegitimate child. Unfortunately for both Rukmini bai and Agrawal, the latter’s legitimate son has fallen in love with Zeenat, thus opening the way for a rather disturbing incestuous situation. Add to this rather large fruit salad another fruitcake, this one being a devout but crazy holyman (Amrish Puri) who ‘helps’ Rukhmini bai see the light on how to extrapolate miracles and wishes from ‘holy objects’, thus showing her a better way to control her brothel and shoo away her problems.
The film ‘Mandi’ has a huge cast and really the entire deck of cards in India’s parallel cinema is stacked up here. With so many characters and themes running about, along with an unconventional plot and narrative, it was to Shyam Bengal’s credit that his skill as a director allowed the movie from becoming a rather bloated and haphazard mess. He gives us just the right amount of insight into each character without treading into the realm of the absurd and useless. All the characters, even those with the most limited screen time, are well connected and not out of place.
The driving force of this film is the cast, all of whom do a marvelous job in their performances, particularly Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Jaffrey, Neena Gupta, Kulbushan Kharbanda and the superb Amrish Puri. But Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil stand above the rest in this film. Azmi is absolutely mesmerising as the brothel’s madam and dominates the movie with her stellar performance. She is devious and caring, a drama queen and dead serious, all within the same breath, thus giving one of her best performances. Alongside her is the late but great Smita Patil whose role as the childlike and devious Zeenat is amazing. You never can tell her true nature in this film. She is sensitive, ungrateful, ditzy and treacherous all within a given scene in the film. It takes skill as an actor to be a giggling girl in one scene and then automatically turn about face into a cold person in the next. This movie is a must watch, if only for the above two mentioned performances. The music by Vanraaj Bhatia is also wonderful, which uses classical rhythms at just the right places.
‘Mandi’ may not be for everyone’s taste. It may be long for some while slow and endless to others. But it is a classic film, which balances black comedy, satire and social criticism with just the right amount of dosages.