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SHYAM BENEGAL
Related Reading: The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema by John W. Hood.


Ankur, 1974
[The Seedling]

AzmiAnkur opens to a surreal shot of a modern day feudal village in rural India, as an attractive young peasant woman named Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) participates in a ritual pilgrimage to the shrine of the mother goddess bearing offerings for the tribal ceremony in the hopes that the goddess will answer her prayers to have a child. The scene then cuts to a group of university students comparing the results of their final exams - among them, a zamindari (feudal landowner) heir named Surya (Anant Nag) who barely makes the grade with a "pass class". Returning home to announce his successful completion, he is angered by the brazen appearance of his father's longtime mistress Kaushalya, and their grown son Pratap in the house, and retreats to the kitchen in order to enlist his mother into cajoling his father to allow him to continue with his studies despite his mediocre grades. His father remains unmoved by his selfish request, and compels him to go through with a pre-arranged marriage to an underaged young woman from a privileged family named Saroj (Priya Tendulkar) and assume responsibility for managing the family's neglected feudal estate. Unable to bring his new wife to the zamindari until she comes of age, the lone Surya arrives unexpectedly at the gates of the farmhouse and is greeted by the housekeeper Lakshmi, and her unemployed, deaf-mute husband Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher) who live in a nearby hut. Surya soon disrupts the dynamics of everyday life in the village by flouting tradition and local custom: asking the lower caste Lakshmi to brew his tea and cook his meals (a task customarily reserved for a Brahmin priest); denying access to the reservoir used by villagers to fill their water vessels; redirecting the water supply to Pratap's adjacent farm; ordering the overseer to actively pursue thieves and exact severe punishment in order to dissuade others from a similar act. However, despite Surya's seemingly progressive ideas on the irrelevance of the caste system, his moral integrity proves suspect when he develops an irrepressible attraction towards his enigmatic and beautiful servant.

Shyam Benegal creates a sublime and provocative examination of hypocrisy, economic disparity, and the social status of women in Ankur. Capturing narrative realism and understated, naturalistic imagery and sounds, Benegal underscores the dichotomy of rural life in contemporary India, as the inequitable and exploitative legacy of outmoded, but deeply ingrained repressive traditions continue to pervade daily life, despite encroaching urbanization, enactment of laws, and assimilation of Western education: the father's socially tolerated mistress that is contrasted against the public spectacle of a tribal court judgment against a woman who deserted her husband; the inconstancy of punishment for pilfering by the overseer, Lakshmi, and Kishtaya; the class stratification that bounds Lakshmi and Kishtaya to a life of poverty and subservience under an omnipotent zamindar. Through compassionate, yet objective observations of the country's inertial progress towards modernization, Benegal chronicles the subtle, ideological shift of the villagers under an unfair and opportunistic hierarchical society. Inevitably, it is through Lakshmi's exposure and condemnation of the culturally tolerated hypocrisy that the proverbial catalytic seedling of social revolution is germinated.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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