(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)
By Banhi Sarkar
“Cinema is a social medium, unlike the medium of painting. And because it is a social medium, somewhere along the line, a sense of social responsibility does creep into it.”Shyam Benegal (Benegal, 2017)
Cinema as a medium has various tools in its hand to narrate a story – from screenplay and set design to background score and costume – if thought out well, each element can act as an indispensable unit to drive the narrative forward. Being a predominantly visual medium, framing of a shot perhaps plays the most unconscious role in establishing the context and relevance of a particular scene or sequence in a film. Framing not only comprises of shot volume (primarily long shots, mid shots, and close-ups) and scale (aspect ratios like the predominantly used 1.85:1 for feature-length films) but also aspects of blocking and perspective. It reiterates the fact that how a certain scene is visualized is just as important as what is visualized in it.
American film critic Andrew Sarris, in relation to his proposed definition of auteur theory, had remarked, “The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels” (Sarris, 1962, p. 562). The ‘look’ of a film refers to both its aesthetics (in terms of setting, props, and lighting) and its framing. Shyam Benegal’s iconic feature Ankur (1974) deftly uses the lexicon of framing in each sequence to continuously establish and reinterpret the inherent power dynamics in a complicated nexus of caste, class, and gender. The Telengana peasant rebellion of the mid-1940s reportedly had a considerable influence on Benegal as a young boy growing up in Hyderabad that inevitably informed the way his unofficial trilogy – Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), and Manthan (1976), all set in rural communities against the backdrop of a fading feudal system and a growing peasant consciousness to revolt against the feudal oppression – shaped up. Ownership of land lies at the core of the power hierarchy in a patriarchal zamindari system, and it also forms a crucial aspect of caste and in extension, gender oppression. Belonging to the kumar community, a lower caste in the village of Yellareddiguda, Lakshmi (played by the indomitable Shabana Azmi) is well aware of her location at the intersection of triple alienation of oppression – she is a poor, uneducated woman from the lower caste who is dependent on different agents of the patriarchal system to sustain her survival. However, from the very first time when her character is introduced in the film, Benegal chooses to frame Lakshmi in a way that subverts the stereotypical predilections of contextualizing her character in the victim’s light and rather empowers her with agency throughout the film. Her daily chore of dusting and cleaning her Sarkar’s house is mostly captured in long or mid-shot, while the only time she’s ever framed in close-up while performing one of her daily chores is when she grinds spices in a rhythmic motion.
While in the former scene Lakshmi performs the role of the one who serves the Sarkar, her landlord, she holds agency in the latter, which is also vital as it foregrounds Surya’s (a subtle and effective Anant Nag) attraction towards her. The camera closing in on Lakshmi almost moves at par with her bodily rhythm as she’s immersed in her activity of grinding spices; it embodies Lakshmi in her own usual environment, oblivious to Surya’s gaze, and confident in her control of the situation. Surya also looks at Lakshmi dusting the floor with an unflinching gaze through the door frame every morning. The camera is focused on Lakshmi here, but instead of a close-up on her body or movement, Benegal frames Surya in tight close-ups, his face holding an unfailingly bewitched expression. However, Surya’s close-up is not Lakshmi’s point of view, as she hardly steals a glance at her master despite feeling his gaze over her. She lacks the agency or the authority to challenge Surya’s unwarranted attention owing to her caste, class, and gender location. But at the same time, the male gaze is not celebrated here from the point of view of the male onlooker protagonist, but is rather objectified from a neutral scrutinizing perspective. Benegal doesn’t uphold the ‘object’ of the gaze by capturing Lakshmi in the vulnerability of her being looked at, but rather examines the gaze itself by focusing on the one who is looking.
However, the table is turned when their affair starts. Even at the cusp of their affair beginning, Lakshmi doesn’t readily give in to Surya’s solicitation despite his façade of city-bred modernity where he doesn’t abide by the strict boundary of caste practices and nonchalantly accepts food and tea prepared by a kumar woman. Lakshmi’s precarious situation is not unbeknownst to anyone in the village; as a childless lower caste woman whose deaf-mute drunkard husband has absconded after being charged with theft, she is at a conundrum of a Sophie’s Choice. She inherently does not have the place to refuse Surya, for it may threaten her survival under the tutelage of her landlord, especially in the absence of her husband. But by not giving in to the unsaid arrangement readily, she asserts her sense of self-worth beyond that of servitude and sexual availability. When Surya asks her to come back to work, Lakshmi is seated in her mud thatched house while Surya stands at the entrance. Despite the point-of-view low angle and high angle shots in which Lakshmi and Surya are framed respectively, the camera focuses on a close-up of the characters, eliminating all other spatial elements and highlighting the interplay of their facial expressions alone. Surya holds the authority to drag her out of her house, but here he is not demanding for her paid service but rather pleading for her wilful consent. He stands at the doorway, with hesitation and discomfort written over his face as Lakshmi nods in affirmation with the hint of a knowing smile at his request.
Lakshmi is not fooled by his claims of her indispensability in his life; she’s cognizant of her debilitating position which will be threatened by the arrival of Surya’s legally wedded wife, Saroj. She knows it’s not her essentially that Surya needs to cook, clean, and be in bed with, but someone, a woman, to fill up these roles in his life. But for the meantime, Lakshmi holds the reins of their carefully orchestrated cocoon and it shows in her use of language and framing. She reduces the use of her regularly punctuated Sarkar while addressing Surya, and the camera now frames her walking in and out of the same door frame (from where Surya would surreptitiously notice her cleaning the floor) with agency and familiarity. She has crossed the threshold, even momentarily so, and now also looks at Surya in a non-fleeting manner. For the first time, the camera pans a peeking Surya from Lakshmi’s point of view as she walks up to him, carrying a basket of flowers, shortly after their mutual agreement to the affair. Similarly, in the next scene, the camera slowly dollies backward and fixes its perspective on Surya in his bed from behind the doorframe, asserting Lakshmi’s presence inside the house. It’s not explicitly Lakshmi’s point of view, but it’s not entirely neutral or objective either. As she sits on her hunches and talks about herself, the camera frames Lakshmi and Surya through the record player in Surya’s room – the city stamped device hinting at the stark evident distance in their lifestyle and class position that can never fade away, no matter how much they converse or try to understand each other.
Benegal remains cautious to never portray the women of Ankur in a victim’s light. When Surya’s father visits and throws questions about the blasphemous nature of their illegitimate affair, the camera moves the focus from the two men to Lakshmi standing near the doorframe, listening in on their conversation and choosing to walk away. Comedian Hannah Gadsby had said, “You learn from the part of the story you focus on” – by framing Lakshmi walking away from a conversation that brings out the power imbalance in their caste dynamics, Benegal focuses on the choice one has to conform to or rebel against such casteist afflictions despite being at its mercy. Like the promised spark of rebellion towards the last shot of the film where a young child throws a stone at Surya’s window, Lakshmi’s action here is not that of a radical protest but a quiet determination to stand her ground and own her side of the story.
In another scene, a similar focus remains fixated on the village woman, who is accused of cheating on her husband with a man from a different caste – subverting the temptation of turning the village panchayat scene into a debate of honour, tradition, and respect from the men’s point of view to questions of sexual needs, marital satisfaction and the desperation of motherhood from the woman’s perspective. It helps one contextualize her position, and thereby understand her decision away from the lens of morality and through the lens of empathy. In a famous scene which has often been used as a poster for the film as well, we see Lakshmi walking up the stairs at the riverside carrying collected wood on her head as Surya tries to persuade her to abort her pregnancy from behind. Here also, the camera puts Lakshmi into focus, and refuses to debilitate Surya’s predicament regarding the situation. It is the subtlety and nuance of such seemingly inconsequential moments of framing in certain shots that lends Ankur the realist vision it’s known to evoke as part of the Indian New Wave. According to Hungarian philosopher György Lukács, the intricate relationship between individuals and their environment form the central core of any realist vision. Cinematic realism as seen in Ankur brings that out through the use of tracking camera, pan and staging of in-depth multi-planar composition, while through its much discussed powerful ending, it stays true to a Bazanian definition of realism called the ‘continuum of reality’ – one that extends beyond the immediate framing of the image. Due to the use of mostly non-dramatic daily conversational style throughout the length of the film, the birth of a rebellion and the subversion of oppressive boundaries are only hinted at in Ankur, and doesn’t really take on a full-fledged narrative unfolding. There’s a lot that remains explicitly unsaid but generously poked, invoked, and challenged through minimalist measures – framing of each shot being one of the crucial elements in that respect. The realist intention here ‘penetrates the laws governing objective reality and … uncovers the deeper, hidden mediated, not immediately perceptible network of relationships that go to make up society’ (Lukács, 1980, p. 38). The power dynamics between Surya and his father, Lakshmi and Surya, Lakshmi and Saroj, are inherently complex and shifting. The story doesn’t set out to resolve the complexity of the caste-class-gender hierarchy, but Benegal’s carefully thought-out use of framing builds a subtle challenging reference of agency, perspective, and subversion throughout the film.
Benegal, S. (2017, June 24). Shyam Benegal talks about his film Ankur. (W. F. India, Interviewer)
Lukács, G. (1980). Realism in the Balance. In R. Taylor (Ed.), Aesthetics and Politics: Debates between Block, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (R. Taylor, Trans.). London: Verso.
Sarris, A. (1962). Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962. In L. Braudy, & M. Cohen (Eds.), Film Theory and Criticism (8 ed., pp. 561-564). Oxford University Press.
Banhi Sarkar is an accidental Chemistry major from Kolkata, who is currently pursuing Master’s in Media and Cultural Studies at TISS. She is a confused soul at heart but is passionate about all things cinema, books, and art.
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What a nuanced reading of the film! Gave newer insights to (re)watch the film.