Circuitous churning of Benegal’s film Manthan - Hindustan Times
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Circuitous churning of Benegal’s film Manthan

May 23, 2024 10:05 PM IST

Manthan creates its own dialectical landscape of words and images. Its recent premiering at Cannes and the ongoing elections make it politically interesting

When, on May 17, India’s Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) presented Shyam Benegal’s 1976 restored classic, Manthan, at one of the Cannes Film Festival’s auditoria named after legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, the image that surfaced on my mind’s screen was that of the cow in Buñuel’s surrealistic film L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930). Buñuel’s big fat healthy cow leisurely sitting on the bed of a wealthy woman’s bedroom, when driven out of the room, in my imagination, joined the community of the cows in Manthan. Such a strange Buñuel-Benegal jugalbandi is, in fact, surrealism-realism’s vulnerable equation. As its credits mention, Manthan is based on a story idea by Verghese Kurien and Shyam Benegal, turned into a screenplay by the playwright Vijay Tendulkar that is suffused by dialogues penned by the poet Kaifi Azmi. Both Tendulkar and Azmi were eminent presences in India’s progressive realist-dramatic literary traditions but sadly didn’t survive to witness the Cannes Classics event at Salle Buñuel. Physical restoration of a film also, essentially, restores histories and memories — social, political, cultural, personal, and universal.

Made at a budget of <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>10 lakh, Manthan was the first crowd funded Indian film. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Made at a budget of 10 lakh, Manthan was the first crowd funded Indian film. (HT Archive)

As much as the film was anchored in the real, there was also a fantasy, a yearning for utopia — evident in the song sung by Priti Sagar and composed by Vanraj Bhatia that presumably projected the interiority of the film’s young female lead, a Dalit woman named Bindu (played by Smita Patil): “My village on the river bank / Where milk flows aplenty / As the nightingale sings / Do not forget to visit my house […] My village of such happiness and joy / Where peacocks dance / And there is milk for all / Where cows graze under / Shade of banyan trees…”

As we listen to these beautiful lyrics, we see on screen a dusty landscape dotted by cacti and a Dalit basti (art direction by Shama Zaidi), except for a farm somewhere with water and some foliage for flirting.

Manthan creates its own internal dialectical landscape of words and images. Its recent premiering at Cannes and the ongoing elections make it temporally and politically interesting. For the first time in the history of Indian electioneering, references to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar and the Indian Constitution are so abundant. Benegal has also made a 10-episode series titled Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India.

Ambedkar, a Dalit by birth, was responsible for drafting the Constitution of India. In Manthan’s protagonist, Manohar Rao (essayed by Girish Karnad), an idealist, uncompromising veterinary doctor who wanted to set up a milk cooperative in a village in Gujarat’s Kheda district, we feel the implicit but definite presence of the Ambedkarian spirit. Rao, as an alter-ego of the pioneer of White Revolution in India (Kurien), wants a milk cooperative that just cannot exclude the poor, oppressed Dalits. Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah) is an illegitimate child born out of a sexual relationship a pardesi (city-bred) engineer had with a local Dalit woman. In his impassioned submission to Rao, Bhola narrates the history of exploitation in a society where rigid caste and class hierarchies dominate, and how city men exploit poor village women.

The implicit presence of Ambedkar in the film and in India of now is not a mere coincidence. The vocabularies of the film and contemporary Indian realpolitik still match. Half a century ago, Manthan’s Rao had asked Bindu to enumerate castes in her village. She counted five plus “us” (the so-called untouchables or Shudras). In my mind, Benegal’s realism somewhere intersected with Buñuel’s anti-bourgeois surrealism at Cannes’ Salle Buñuel. The image of Baba Ramdev Pir (from Rajasthan) hanging on the wall of Dalit Moti’s (played by Rajendra Jaspal) house distinguished itself from the gods and goddesses the crooked upper caste owner of Shri Ganganath Dairy, Mishraji (Amrish Puri), revered.

Milk also churns myth. Incidentally, Benegal was born in 1934, when the V Shantaram-directed bilingual (Hindi, Marathi) classic Amrit Manthan (The Churning of the Ocean) was produced. This 90-year-old history is a fascinating manthan (churning) in itself. Out of the mythical churning of the ocean, several objects had appeared. One was Kamdhenu, the divine cow fulfilling all desires. Perhaps, we are all in search of that Kamdhenu.

Around 1934 in France, Andre Breton, the principal theorist of surrealism, described it as a “method creating a collective myth”. And right now, the Indian political lexicon has added a new term “Samvidhaan Manthan”!

When the FHF presented Manthan at Salle Buñuel, it was midnight in India. Godhuli bela (dusk, when the cows return home after grazing) had already passed. But one of the end scenes in Manthan has stayed in my mind — amidst clouds of dust kicked up by their hooves, a herd of cows is returning home against the setting sun, so effectively captured by Govind Nihalani, Manthan’s cinematographer.

In the process of churning, the shubhra (whiteness) of milk gets dissolved into shyam. Bhola has inherited the legacy of indomitable hope; the subaltern will survive with its strength. A teenage Dalit boy has joined Bhola to continue with the cooperative milk sisoti (society). Metaphorically, the churning remains chiranjeevi (undying). If the vested crookery can brutally burn the Dalit basti, a Bhola can rise from its ashes.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, curator, and historian. The views expressed are personal

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