In Mandi, a reflection of Shyam Benegal's ambiguous yet nuanced perception of Indira Gandhi

·15-min read

In a way, all films are ultimately political €" either as a statement or as an evasion. If the large body of mainstream cinema is consumerist and decadent, then the films made outside this cinema are deemed to be cinema of social sores, dissent, and protest against various kinds of oppression that are political, economic, and social in nature.

Impelled by the momentum of its own rage as also by the need for articulation, the 'other' cinema (Hindi) often looks overtly "political". Ardhasatya, Akrosh, Damul, New Delhi Times €" beneath the radical postures adopted in these films, there was, perhaps, also an urge to cash in on the popularity of the cult of violence that is so thickly spread in popular cinema.

On the other hand, with the box-office success of Ardhasatya and co., popular cinema changed its tack to revise its formula, where now, instead of the traditional dacoit-smuggler template, the 'politician and the political' became the villain on the screen. Witness films like Aaj ka MLA Ramavtar, Inquilab, Yeh Desh, Andha Yuddha, Kanwar Lal, were instances of this emerging cultural shift.

If the one cinema glorified revenge and individual heroism, the other, then, prided itself on its 'expose' of the links between politics and crime. Both, nonetheless, dealt ostensibly in violence.

Seen in this context, Shyam Benegal's Mandi assumes significance for its subtlety, for the absence of overt violence and, therefore, its political label, and besides for also locating itself in a period identifiable with the recent past (the film was made in 1983).

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Prima facie, Mandi is the story of the constant uprooting and successive rehabilitation of a brothel 'madam' (played by Shabana Azmi). It is a tragicomic world in which the rhythms of lust and attendant sexual pleasures wilt you even in the face of an alert nudging by the private and the public moral censor. On another level, it reiterates the nexus between corruption (read here as sin), money and religion€¦ there are other layers too. But, essentially, it is a political allegory.

It is significant that Benegal's first film was called Ankur (seedling). The progression from Ankur to Mandi (market place) is both logical and €" though not very unexpected €" disturbing. From the radical postures of Ankur and Arohan, to the near venal conversion in Mandi, Benegal follows a trajectory already made familiar by a vast body of our intellectuals. Against the rising tide of a cinema of protest, here is a work by an important filmmaker, which some viewers might consider as preaching stasis.

Mandi is about something deeper, something more problematic about the present Indian political psyche where politics has become synonymous with the market in which everything is up for sale, where the legislature is a big brothel €" the ultimate in trading. Obviously, in the traditions of an allegory, this is never shown explicitly. The film is, nevertheless, conceived in a single incandescent curve that presses toward its goal without too much flickering.

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Much of cinema's meaning comes, asserts American film critic James Monaco, "not from what we see [or hear] but from what we won't see or, more accurately, from an ongoing process of comparison of what we see with what we don't see. This is ironic, considering that cinema, at first glance, seems to be an art that is all too evident, one that is often criticised for 'leaving nothing to imagination'. A comprehensive structuring, therefore, must take into account the mediations which intervene between 'reality' and representation".

The 'reality' that is being sought to be represented in Mandi is Indira Gandhi €" just before and after her traumatic years. Unlike some other artists and intellectuals who have 'moved up', Benegal tries but he cannot entirely bury his past in ironic disdain: he was charmed by Mrs Gandhi, and then he felt guilty about it. This guilt is then aggravated by his lack of courage to acknowledge his 'feelings'.

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As the 'madam' of the brothel, the protagonist has been drawn with a sympathetic palette. Yet, under the patina, there is a shrewd, crafty, opportunistic woman (who also knows the advantages of showing deference to various religions) €" deft in the art of gauged proximity, and living on quick connections.

Mandi is based on a 1948 classic Urdu short story Aanandi by the Pakistani writer Ghulam Abbas. While Aanandi is a story of the town elders deciding to throw the teeming brothels outside the municipal limits to rid the town of vice houses, and thus, save its men from committing sin, the relocation to a barren outpost of the prostitutes ultimately results in the birth of a swarming suburb, which in fact again rankles the moral guardians of the town. Once again, the brothels are ordered to be uprooted and relocate to an even remoter place. But Benegal weaves complex designs and contemporary concerns to the straight-forward narrative of Abbas'.

Central to the film's allegoric connection is the structuring of the narrative in detail around Indira Gandhi just before the Emergency in 1975, the 'state of siege' itself, its consequences, and her 'resurrection' as it were.

To many, this connection may seem odd; to some, odious. But I have Shyam Benegal's word for it. During the discussion on the film with the participants of the film appreciation course at FTII in the summer of 1983, Benegal conceded that the film could be interpreted as an allegory of the then contemporary political scene in India.

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On the eve of the 46th anniversary of the imposition of Emergency, a closer look at Mandi, to see how this has been achieved...

The first ripples in the smug environment of the whorehouse are created by the arrival of a mute girl (Sreela Majumdar). Instead of the hucksterish promises made to her of a happy, respectable marital life, the girl finds herself defrauded by the pimp-madam coalition. The girl refuses to be coaxed into 'toeing the line', and is then mauled, but still defies being subjugated, precipitating thus a 'state of emergency' in and around the bordello. A motley crowd of anxious, helpless onlookers watches in silence the battering of the girl. On the other hand, the madam keeps mouthing concern about the well-being of the mute girl, calling out to her to calm down while the minor is still being clobbered. Even though this scene can't quite live up to that earlier memory of the Turkman Gate demolitions in Delhi during the Emergency, its message is clear. "Cinema is nothing," as someone has said, "if not a medium of extensions and indexes."

Soon, a scandal erupts and turns into a vast public indignation prompting Shanti Devi (Gita Siddharth), a social worker and leader in the local municipality to stage a dharna in her bid to throw the prostitutes outside the municipal limits in order to cleanse the town of corruption. The duplicitous determination of the politician provides the necessary psychological spur to the smarting alecks in the Town Hall to vote Rukmini Bai (Shabana Azmi) and her clan out of the town.

Amid full public gaze and the trading of slogans, for and against, Rukmini Bai boards the police van with a fanfare and a cunning that turns adversity into an advantage, recalling Mrs Gandhi's arrest by the Morarji Desai government in 1977 on corruption charges.

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In a most unusual, daring, intriguing and incredible move, Benegal splits the persona of his muse between two actors: Shabana Azmi and Gita Siddharth. Geeta's Shanti Devi, donning a white handloom saree, a rudraksha mala dangling from her neck, is an obvious representation of the determined, imperious and ruthless avatar of Indira Gandhi. So as to leave no doubt over this representation, Benegal creates a scene in which the hapless president of the municipality accedes to Shanti Devi's demand to extradite the sex workers and gives the contract to Gupta to rebuild the vacated quarters and to name the new complex as Kamla Devi Bhavan (an obvious reference to Gandhi's mother).

On the other hand, Shabana's Rukmini Devi stands for the gentle, artistic, diplomatic, manipulative and the 'never say die' facets of Gandhi's personality. In this process, however, Benegal pits the two 'personalities' against each other, which is is rather confounding. The bewilderment gets further exacerbated when the Rukmini Devi side of Gandhi's amalgamates with the aam janta who suffered and were driven out of their homes by the said politician's writ.

Though desperate to cloak his real intent with a thesaurus of other bashful, idiosyncratic and commercially viable gestures, Benegal seems possessed to pursue the allegory further. Robbed of the easy certainties of an establishment, expelled from life as it were, and abandoned without dignity, the protagonist mourns the loss of her 'subject' €" the mute girl, to her rival's headquarters (the Nari Niketan which is also financed by the same capitalist) as her own 'empire'. (It is also interesting that the reason for first installing Indira Gandhi as the prime minister was because senior Congress party leaders had considered her to be a 'goongi gudiya'; in the film Kissa Kursi Ka €" an earlier take on Gandhi €" the janta too is depicted as a mute woman.) But not for long. She finds the wilderness of her exile turning into a thronging hub, with a whole township coming up; one also finds the followers returning on being starved of the physical sensations and the charisma of her presence.

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The triumphant rehabilitation, swollen into sugary superciliousness, gradually wanes to rankle the 'kitchen cabinet'. This time the tide rises from within; the mincing protests of her colleagues slowly acquiring a voice. This act of defiance culminates in yet another pointed allusion. During the course of the massive building construction work, a pert 'understudy' lures a mason into a brief 'unholy' alliance. Madam's raised eyebrows at this scandalous affair are met with a contemptuous indifference. (Echoes of AR Antulay's famous cement scandal of the period?)

On the secondary level, the allegoric element is reiterated by reflecting on the then contemporary power structure within a familiar democratic setup. At the outset, Benegal establishes this adroitly in the architectural design of the brothel.

In this house, a strict code of hierarchy is followed: on the bottom level lives the lackey, the Man Friday of the house (Naseeruddin Shah) who toils night and day to cater to the needs of all and sundry. On the next tier are the prostitutes whose premises are populated by the various exploitative agencies like a photographer (Om Puri) who aspires to catch the girls in stages of undress with a promise to take them to Bombay to make them a film star (perhaps a metaphor for the new wave filmmaker whose real aspiration is to make it big in commercial cinema), a policeman (more a guardian of corruption than of law), a pimp, customers et al. Enisled in the top storey is the singer Zeenat (Smita Patil), nubile, virgin and the prized possession of Rukmini Bai who alone can escort her to a wealthy client's home for a concert. It is, perhaps, a telling comment on how State patronage confers favours and confines art and culture to the chosen few.

But unable to resolve this dilemma, Benegal comes up with a facile solution: he makes the singer elope with the first man who declares his passion for her. Madam's own quarter within the house, on the other hand, has not been defined deliberately. For, having done so would have been tantamount to limiting her domain €" she has access to every place, to everyone.

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Shyam Benegal has shown in his films a consistent concern about the role money plays in shaping the political and social structures. From Kalyug onwards through Arohan and to Mandi, he has been hurling his pet hates (and that of the middle classes' as well) against the greedy entrenched vultures of privilege who seem to have become ubiquitous now, pinpointing, thus, to the inherent misanthropy of our system. In fact, his scorn for the injustices in our society were first showcased in his debut film Ankur where the 'vultures of privilege' were feudal landlords who held sway over the poor peasantry with sheer brute force. Most of Benegal's films with a rural setting displayed this characteristic.

Mandi opens with a real estate developer walking through a sprawling stretch of barren land with its owner. In a slow, measured beat, the former makes a deal for the latter's property, cutting down the price drastically, remorselessly, and inevitably with the practiced perfection of a predator. The next time we see him is when he goes to meet Rukmini Bai in the brothel, and we learn that he, Gupta (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is the new owner of the place. Both reach a tacit understanding immediately. This scene, coming early in the film, is handled with a certain economy and, at the same time, it is also invested with pregnant premonitions. When Rukmini Bai is evicted from this house, she is rehabilitated by Gupta on the same piece of land that he had clinched in the opening moments of the film. This is another allusion to similar incidents that took place in Delhi during the cited period.

During the Emergency, a lot of people were evicted from their homes, their houses demolished in the name of 'beautifying' the city (Turkman Gate area being one such example). These homeless people were thrown to far-flung areas with no civic facilities, into what came to be known as the resettlement colonies. In Mandi the same argument €" "we need to clean our town of this filth" €" is used to shift the brothel outside the municipal boundary. The same ruse, the same tactic.

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It is in such passages as these that Benegal's wavering sensitivity reasserts itself and the pieces become what the whole should have been: astute, taut and as touching as the period's bruises will permit. An occasion to sear the heart and mind.

The insidious control of life by money, the thumbnail summaries of the nefarious links between purse strings and politics are further thumb-indexed in the film with the tenacity of a thumbtack. The feudal, sentimental Agarwal (Saeed Jaffrey), once Rukmini Bai's financier, is doomed to insolvency because both his vision and praxis are anachronistic. The new breed of prospectors like Gupta who are not burdened with the trappings of old fashioned values, who venture outside of the traditional periphery of business and ethics are the ones to control the reins (rewind to Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar), with contractors, brokers, takeover artistes et al. It is Gupta who finances the rival parties €" the brothel and the Nari Niketan alike.

Later in the film, after Rukmini Bai has staged a comeback, only to find her authority being increasingly questioned within her group, Gupta makes a deal for yet another wasteland €" italicising the same penchant for manipulation. The verdict is clear; it always was, of course: signed, sealed and delivered.

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Yet, the film does not end here. Like an annoying tick, it nervously keeps opening to sudden bursts of irrational gaiety (as in the earlier passages), interpolations, some irritating fads that breed like Ionesco's chairs, ending ultimately in the real message being delivered, a la the final slogan in an ad film to reinforce the product image/pack shot. The mute girl runs back to Rukmini Bai in slow motion, as if from the horizon itself and as an act of heavenly deliverance from the Nari Niketan. Thus, Benegal uses his considerable experience in the advertising world to proclaim that the ultimate hope and succour of the poor, the mute, the helpless Indian was Indira Gandhi.

If there were conviction in such belief, then there would be nothing to cavil at. But Benegal, as observed earlier, is caught up in contradictions and ambivalence. Even as the final message is being delivered, he can't resist sniggering at the incorrigible idolisation of his icon. His attitude is equivocal; this ambiguity is never resolved. It was neither resolved in Arohan where he had used a similar promotional technique to publicise the leftist government of West Bengal, the sponsors of that film. The message of Mandi (more certainly with a slight shift in editing, like with Arohan) could be interpreted to mean the very opposite of what is perhaps intended €" that Mrs Gandhi was surrounded by the mute, the sycophant, the gutless.

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Is it, then, Benegal's style, where art as well as hope coax nuances out of hinted ambiguities and contradictions?

Indira Gandhi has served as a model for a few earlier films too, notably, Kissa Kursi Ka (another Shabana Azmi starrer), Andhi etc. Though aspiring to be allegories, one ended up being a farce, the other more as a romantic mush. Generally, the flaw in the mimesis in these films resulted from the obvious stereotyping and also from the structuring absence, not so much of the drama of the people involved but, as Raymond Williams would say, "with a dimension of that people's history." It is precisely in this respect that Mandi, despite its flaws and loose strands, is different from its predecessors. It is not a masterpiece, but it certainly is remarkable for the manner in which the implied textual meaning of its innocuous images is so totally different from its appearance.

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(Images courtesy: Screenshots via Amazon Prime Video)

€" This piece was written after seeing the preview of the film at FTII, Pune in June 1983 where this writer was a faculty member then.

Sudhir Tandon is former President, Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, Founding Executive Director, Lok Sabha TV, and Additional Director General, Doordarshan.

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