enter image description hereThe 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at rsayeed1984@gmail.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (24)

Yamla JaTT
June 21, 2013 10:31 pm

Dear author, the last name of this famed director is Benegal, not Bengal. Please correct it throughout the article!

June 21, 2013 10:35 pm

It is great movie.

Yamla JaTT
June 21, 2013 11:49 pm

The correct name of the famed director is Shyam Benegal, not Bengal!

June 22, 2013 4:03 am

The director is Shyam Benegal and NOT "Bengal". Yes it is one of the cult films of the parallel cinema movement.

Birbal Singh
June 22, 2013 4:29 am

The great director's name is Benegal, not Bengal.


Rajiv Kaushal
June 22, 2013 8:43 am

This was the movie which almost brought parallel cinema to the mainstream public... Here, let me ask you Raza... do you really think we can categorise the place a brothel as you did in your article... look at it... the woman sing and dance to entertain... i dont think west would call it brothel... infact the songs and dances shown are highly respectable manner... nothing vulgar... i kind of differ to call it brothel... rest great article...

zafar Iqbal
June 22, 2013 9:23 am

I have read this wonderful urdu story , but unfortunately i did not watch this movie.After 30 year of this film ,I will try to watch this movie at my home theatre.

June 22, 2013 9:25 am

I believe the name is "Benegal" not "Bengal." Otherwise good writeup!

June 22, 2013 10:41 am

One of the BEST movie and only Shyam Benegal could do it like his other masterpiece KALYUG. He should have entered this movie for Oscars or at the Cannes. He is the best and a real cinematic genius.

Atikh Rashid.
June 22, 2013 12:35 pm

Mandi is a really insightful film with scintillating performances from Rekha, Smita Patill, Naseer-ud-din Shad, Om Puri and others.

Regional Indian
June 22, 2013 2:32 pm

@MAK: There are a dozen like him in regional film industry in India who remain unknown to hindi-speaking belt and to Pakistani audience. Local malayalam and tamil and marathi films are mostly very realistic and do not pedal absurdity for the sake of entertainment. Not even make-up or costumes in many southern pictures so no wonder most national awards went to them. Many good and practical bollywood pictures are re-makes of regional films. But there were once good hindi pictures that were so meaningful and were still commercial successes. Wish those days return.

zafar Iqbal
June 22, 2013 3:43 pm

unfortunately I missed to see this movie. but much earlier I have read this short story as Anandi which is appreciated in our society.

M. SaleemRaikodi
June 22, 2013 3:52 pm

Its not Bengal, its Benegal. Since proper noun is grammatically exempted, His name is written thus originally. Shyam Benegala, in Telugu, A product of the illustrous Nizam College of Hyderabad

Muhammad Farooq
June 22, 2013 5:48 pm

Ghulam Abbas produced a masterly piece of prose in Urdu Literature that was so aptly converted into the movie by legendary Shayma Bengal. Excellent review.

June 23, 2013 7:04 am

Undoubtedly one of the best film. Shabana was absolutely superb.

June 23, 2013 7:07 am

Shyam BENEGAL was great director who gave us memorable films like Khandar, Nishaant, Mandi.

June 23, 2013 9:19 am

After reading your review I just finished watching the movie. It is indeed a classic. Somehow I had missed it. It is available free on YouTube.

June 23, 2013 9:17 am

@Atikh Rashid.: Not named the legend 'Saeed Jafri' ...

gee kay
June 23, 2013 1:43 pm

It is easy to get mixed up the spellings of 'Benegal' with Bengal. Your piece is quite nice from not only covering the background of paralled cinema to the story 's origin (Pakistani connection etc), the wonderful details about subject(politics, prostitution), cast (big stalwarts from yore, heroines etc.). All in all it takes back to a wonderful time.

hamid ansari
June 23, 2013 3:26 pm

Great movie,very insightful and keeps you interested in to plot till end. Another interesting feature is Vanaraj Bhatia's music,Chubhati hai,shamsher badhe na,songs r classical treats

June 23, 2013 4:37 pm

No it wasn't brothel

June 23, 2013 9:10 pm

@Atikh Rashid.: Rekha wasn't part of film Mandi

June 24, 2013 11:01 am

@Avtar: thx for the review - i always loathing to watch this movie -given its classic status - i like benegal - kalyug- welcome to sajjanpur etc. - but and arth - i was not in a mood to watch - but now after ur review i will -

June 24, 2013 2:56 pm

@Regional Indian: Very true. Somany of the other regional film makers are unknown to the outside world. But then, India has unfortunately projected Bollywood as the national cinema, ignoring the regional fields. The Ritwik Ghataks, Aravindans, Adoor Gopalakrishnans, Girish Kasaravallis are always ignored no mattter what. If they are next to unknowns in their own land, i am not surprised, if any one outside India have ever known these guys......

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