At a time when brutal oppression is a way of life, when a girl gets molested on the street by a mob while civilized society watches in mute submission, it’s befitting to remember the celebrated finale in Ankur when after watching a mute-and-deaf peasant being whipped by a bratty Zamindar son, a little boy picks up a stone and hurls it at the glass windowpane of the oppressor.
It was a decisive moment when Hindi cinema resolved to turn revolutionary. Shabana Azmi ,Sadhu Meher and Anant Nag , all new to the movie camera, were brought in to play out a triangular drama where the peasantry gets the kind of sensitive heartbreaking treatment that Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy had earlier attempted in Pather Panchali and Do Bigha Zameen.
The New Wave in Hindi cinema brought its own surge of new hope. Shyam Benegal could be justly called the father of New Wave Cinema in the 1970s. Prolific in his output , Shyam Babu, as he is affectionately and reverently known, hasn’t stopped making films with a social relevance that touches a deep chord in the human heart.
Ankur, his directorial debut, remains to this day his most searing indictment of oppression set within an extended feudal system in Andhra Pradesh where the Zamindari system is gone. Zamindars are no more. Though abolished, the feudal mindset lives on.Carrying forward the tradition of cinema set in the poverty of the Indian heartland , Ankur took forward the feudal fable of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen, though the language used to convey the sharp cutting contours of socio-economic oppression in Ankur are far removed from the way Ray and Roy envisaged it.
Benegal turns the parable on poverty and subjugation into a sexually charged tale of lust jealousy insecurity and brutality in a village of Hyderabad. The camera(Govind Nihalani) follows the rituals of the Andhra village closely.Ankur is rooted to the Andhra soil. That is why initially Benegal wanted Waheeda Rehman to play Laxmi. The fact that the role finally went to Shabana Azmi is providential.
The story of Laxmi(Shabana Azmi)’s incredibly doughty efforts to look after her deaf-and-mute husband Kishtayya(Sadhu Meher) and the sexual dynamics that evolve as she gets intimate with her employer, the Zamindar’s educated son Surya(Anant Nag) are woven into the rites and wrongs of the small Andhra village. We see the principal plot , the seduction subjugation and exploitation of Laxmi by Surya,in relation to other happenings in the village. For example a village woman is dragged to the panchayat for refusing to stay with her husband. When reminded that the husband had provided her with ample amenities and food the woman retorts, “Bhookh sirf pet ki nahin hoti hai”, drawing attention to her husband’s impotency.
In contrast Laxmi’s deaf-and-mute husband is perfectly capable of providing her with every kind of sustenance. Yet after being humiliated by Surya , Kishtayya leaves the village and his wife to fend for herself.The coast is cleared for an adulterous liaison between Laxmi and Surya. Interestingly there’s no coercion involved .Once Laxmi is rendered spouseless she knows her best option is to become the Zamindar’s mistress.
The dynamics in the cosy village home of the Zamindar change radically when Surya’s child-bride Saru(Priya Tendulkar) arrives and takes charge. Laxmi is first marginalized in the household and then banished with the approval of Surya who is a curious blend of masculine arrogance and spousal cowardice.
Anand Nag and Sadhu Meher turn in perfectly pitched performances as the Zamindar and the husband. Sadhu so effortlessly empathetic as the husband , won the National award for Best Actor. But the film finally belongs to Shabana Azmi. From the protective wife of an economically and physically weak husband to a deserted woman who sleeps with her employee for self-preservation to finally the oppressed under-dog whose voice rises in protest against gender tyranny and social inequality, Shabana owns the role of Laxmi.
No wonder Satyajit Ray had commented, “In two high-pitched scenes she pulls out all stops and firmly establishes herself as one of our finest dramatic actresses.”
The two scenes Ray refers to both occur in the film’s culminating portions when Laxmi’s husband walks back into her life. Shabana’s breakdown on seeing him is gut-wrenching. So is her final rant of protest against the powerful man who slept with her and beat up her husband out of guilt and fear.
Outwardly Ankur is an immensely tranquil film.The green stretches of land are barely able to hide the vast acres of pain and angst of a society built on inequality and injustice. Nothing has changed over the years. The seedling(Ankur) of social protest is still to grow into a powerful collective protest . Equality on every level is still a dream. But yes, the seedling of cinematic excellence planted by Benegal has grown into a flourishing tree Ankur Trivia
Shabana Azmi was the fifth choice after Waheeda Rehman, Sharda, Anju Mahendroo and Aparna Sen.
Shabana again played the character of a woman who conceives another man’s child during her husband’s absence in Kalpana Lajmi’s Ek Pal. Lajmi is related to Shyam Benegal.
Shabana to this day cringes at her tweezed eyebrows that she kept for her role as Laxmi.
The film was shot in the same village where the actual incident on which the film is based, had occurred.
Shyam Benegal On Ankur
Ankur seems like the successor to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen?
Yes, perhaps. It’s too difficult for me to say.If you say so I accept gracefully.
Do you feel the seedling that you planted 38 years ago has grown into a tree that you can look proudly at?
Oh yes. A new kind of cinema had happened in Bengali, Malayalam and other regional languages earlier on. Prior to Satyajit Ray they were making mainstream films in Bengal. That’s bound to happen when any art form becomes an industry. When somebody comes with a radical idea it takes time for it to make a mark.In Hindi cinema there was a moribund situation for many years.No one wanted to take a chance.And you can’t blame them. It was at the end of the day a business.And the risk factor was enormous since back then when I made Ankur, cinema was not recognized as an industry.And people who gave you money to make movies were traditional moneylenders. So whatever changes happened in the way we made movies had to happen within the given situation. One had to go rigidly by rules of commercial cinema.
So would you say Ankur was a breakthrough film?
Long before me Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali got the urban middleclass interested in cinema.Earlier they found little of interest in cinema. But Ray showed that the language of cinema doesn’t have to be one particular way.The change also happened in Malayalam and Kannada. Then in Hindi cinema talent began to emerge from the Film & Television Institute Of India. The government also began to show some interest in funding. There was a Film Finance Corporation(FFC). Mrs Indira Gandhi, a follower of Satyajit Ray, was keenly interested in seeing our cinema evolve. She got FFC interested in a different kind of cinema. B K Karanjia who headed FFC favoured cinema based on literature. That’s where there was a glimmer of hope. Films of Basu Chatterjee, Garam Hawa , etc happened.Otherwise there was only Bimal Roy trying to make a different kind of cinema.
I was advertising in Mumbai twiddling my thumb waiting to make my film. I was carrying around the script of Ankur for 13 years which no one would listen to.Finally the person who picked up the gambit of producing my film was a major advertising-distributor Lalit M Bijalani and his partner Freni Variava. I used to meet Lalit socially. In what was probably a drunken outburst Lalit told me at a party, ‘Listen, you’ve been saying you want to make a film for so long. But why don’t you make it?’ I asked if he would put money in it. He said yes. Lalit was not a film producer at all. Because I made Ankur for him he started Blaze Productions and produced my next four feature films.
How did Ankur make such an impact?
I had this great advantage that others who came in with an alternative cinema like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahane did not have. I had a readymade distribution network. Lalit Bijalani had a big network of cinema halls.He could release Ankur extensively.Also this was the time after the Indo-Pak war. The movement of foreign exchange out of the country was being discouraged.Instead of getting American films into India she encouraged the production of the kind of cinema that the sophisticated middleclass would like.Ankur filled that lacuna.The mainstream media was hugely supportive.It was a success. So was Nishant after Ankur although it was a much darker film. If I made Nishant today it would fail .In fact my only film that failed when it opened was Bhumika.
Coming to the casting…
To start with I wanted Waheeda Rehman. She was not only a star but also very fine actress. I used to meet her frequently because she was Guru Dutt’s heroine.(Guru Dutt is related to Benegal). So she was the first actress I asked. I don’t think she had the confidence that I could pull it off. So she said no. Then I started to look around. I approached the famous South Indian actress Sharda .I went to meet her in Chennai. She seemed interested. But she finally said no. I think the role was too daunting. The character has an extra-marital affair and she doesn’t regret having a baby out of wedlock.After that I thought of Aparna Sen .She didn’t say no because of the character but because she felt she wouldn’t be able to carry off the Andhra dialect. I also asked Anju Mahendroo.She used to be my model, very lively and entertaining. I don’t know how these actresses would have played the character. Because one can’t imagine anyone but Shabana doing it.
How did Shabana come into the picture?
I was wondering what to do next whom to approach, when my assistant came to me and suggested Shabana Azmi. I didn’t even know who she was, though I had met her father Kaifi Azmi a few times. I knew her mother Shaukat, a fine theatre actress.A meeting was set up. When I saw her I knew immediately that she was correct for the part, although she was dressed in model-like clothes. She didn’t know what kind of film I had in mind. She was sure of doing the part. But her mother was not. You see, I offered Shabana another part in Nishant along with Ankur. Shaukat wondered what kind of a fraud filmmaker I was. ‘He hasn’t made one film and he’s talking about another,’ Shaukat said.
Sadhu Meher and Anant Nag are also brilliant in Ankur.
All of them except Govind Nihalani were new to cinema. Sadhu used be my assistant on my documentaries.
You shot on location?
I went to the same area where the actual incident had happened . I developed the script from the short story that I had written. Shooting on location was easier back then because hardly any film was shot on location. They shot in studios.Now everyone shoots on location.
Whom would you consider your true successors?
I can’t say. After Ankur, a lot of good work started to be done. But the movement didn’t go beyond a decade. In the 1980s television happened. People preferred to sit at home and watch television.A whole new society of migrants emerged.And their definition of cinema entertainment was very different . There was low investment in cinema.The big multi-starrer blockbuster movies took over in the 1980s except for Amitabh Bachchan who was a one-man blockbuster. The alternative cinema went into hibernation.In the late 1990s television became even bigger and people started wondering where the alternative cinema was. Multiplexes came into being.Corporates came into business. They’re now interested in all kinds of films. Today you have Shoojit Sircar making Vicky Donor, Sujoy Ghosh makes Kahaani and Habib Faizal makes Ishaqzaade. Then of course there is Vishal Bhardwaj. I see this as a period of renaissance. Filmmakers are unfettered today.