Monday, November 14, 2011

DEOOL (Marathi; 2011)

When abzee initially recommended that we go see Deool, I kept my hopes modest, and for one reason above all others. At least based on my experience with Indian films, we don’t seem to do political films – that is to say, films set in the world of politics and politicking – very well. Even otherwise celebrated directors have faltered (I’d pick the Gulzar of Mausam over the director of Aandhi any day of the week), when they aren’t busy falling flat on their face (Prakash Jha in Rajneeti is a good example), or using it as a vehicle for masala entertainment, where politicians can simply be one kind of villain.

There are several reasons for this failure, but a common thread runs through these films, be they “high-brow” (Gulzar’s Hu Tu Tu); low-brow (Shankar’s Nayak/Muthalvan); chauvinistic (Avdhoot Gupre’s Jhenda); or just plain pretentious and awful (Madhur Bhandarkar’s Satta): in virtually all of them, the purpose of the film is to pander to our prejudices about politics. These films never tell us anything new about ourselves, about the milieu that enables the politicians we all love to berate, because the films are so busy regurgitating what we already know about our leaders. Worse still, many of these films demand the mantle of courage as well (for “exposing” that which no-one has been able to hide to begin with), further confirming the audience in its own complacency.[Mani Rathnam's sublime Iruvar is indeed very special, but what makes it so is not its engagement with politics or ideology, so much as its representation of cinema, memory, and a friendship sundered by politics -- a Tamil archive, but not an archive of Tamil politics.]

Umesh Kulkarni’s Deool ("temple" in Marathi) has no such problem, and is, to put it simply, the finest Indian film set in the world of politics that I have ever seen. It is so, in the first instance, because “the world of politics” is nothing separate and apart from our world, and is not inhabited by caricatures and gangsters worlds removed from the “us” of the audience. Rather, Kulkarni’s film is acute – and acerbic – enough to appreciate the ways in which our reality (our poverty or prosperity; our venality; our religiosity; and our commerce) is already political.

This is certainly true of the village where nearly all of Deool is set: early on in the film, the modest farmer Kesha (Girish Kulkarni, who also wrote the script) tracks down a runaway cow near a ficus tree; worn down by the heat, Kesha goes off to sleep, only to be woken by a vision of Lord Dattatreya (a tripartite deity combining Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva especially popular in the Deccan and Gujarat). Kesha is wonder-struck, and goes around shouting about what he has experienced to the entire village. No-one takes the simple farmer seriously at first – his own mother and much of the rest of the village can barely stir from the TV (the film has several disturbing visuals of people reduced to zombies before their televisions); and Bhauji Gadande (Nana Patekar), the seasoned local politician who owns the runaway cow, is more interested in worthy practical pursuits, like ensuring the village do-gooder Anna (Dilip Prabhavalkar) gets a hospital built. At first. But very soon, Bhauji is at risk of being undermined by the most ambitious of his own men, who see in Kesha’s vision an opportunity, not just for themselves but also for the village (to be fair to them, they might even believe in the vision, as Bhauji’s wife Vahini (Sonali Kulkarni) does); and Bhauji survives the challenge by coopting their enthusiasm; succumbing to pressure from his boss, the local MLA (Mohan Agashe); and embracing popular opinion in the village, coming out in favor of a temple at the now-sacred site. The unnamed political party Bhau and the MLA belong to has not, we were told earlier, hitherto been trafficking in religion. That changes rapidly: a temple is built, and before long the village is transformed into a bustling commercial center, with religion the chief commodity for sale.

The villagers we have been introduced to over the course of the film have all become much wealthier when we see them after the film's intermission, as have the political players. There is no suggestion that any of this wealth has been illegally gained, but Kulkarni is clear that it is ill-gotten, based on the merchandising and consumption of religion (a sequence featuring customers who want bhajans to the tune of the latest Bollywood hits is especially funny). Who’s to complain, if no one is harmed? Here and there, however, we see glimpses of warped priorities, of hospitals not built as land is developed for hotels and entertainment centers. Anna, and in time Kesha, appreciate that the village, more importantly the village’s god, have lost their soul.

If the above makes Deool sound crude and preachy, it does this magnificent film a grave injustice. The Kulkarni brothers are nuanced, even at their most explicit: the final meeting between Bhau and Anna, when the former reminds the Samaritan of how miserable the old days were for the village, is a case in point. In the beginning, Bhau reminds Anna (and us), he wasn’t in favor of this sort of thing. But a few compromises aren’t so bad if they mean electricity, better roads, and greater prosperity. Bhau with his compromises cannot be the hero of this film, but there is chastisement here for Anna too: the sort of man who will do anything rather than get his hands dirty, the village has passed him by, and he has abdicated his responsibility to try and make a difference in the life of his village. From that point on, it is up to the disillusioned Kesha to try something desperate, inspired by a stranger (Naseeruddin Shah) who might or might not be god himself. This isn’t the sort of film where the end means victory: the status quo is jolted, adjusts, and continues.

If Mangesh Khadke’s score had consisted solely of the background to the opening credits, it would nevertheless have been one of the year’s better pieces of film music for me. But there’s more: a soulful, throaty bhajan; and excellent background music throughout the film; not to mention a sleazy item number that gleefully wallows in mediocrity, ramming home the manufactured tawdriness that is about to replace the intimacy of one man’s religious devotion. I could have done without the repetitive “Dutta Dutta” track (with its obvious lyrics) accompanying visuals of devotees performing the pilgrimage, but it is a minor blemish in a very good album.

The acting in Deool is of a uniformly high standard, and just about everyone plays a part in vividly etching the characters to life: Nana Patekar was no surprise, but it must count as an achievement to steer clear of caricature when essaying the role of a politician; Sonali Kulkarni is also superb as his wife, skeptical of her husband’s religious skepticism, and used to lording it over those around her by virtue of her husband’s position (I do wish the script gave her more to do in the film’s second half, although the one scene of her as hostess, in a much spruced up home, to a number of guests eager for the Dattatreya darshan, is very well done). Bhau’s boisterous, loutish underlings are all memorable, effortlessly drawing laughter from the audience (in a notable scene, a casually venal schoolteacher boasts that he has been able to get donations for the temple by threatening to fail his students). As is the initially diffident sarpanch: when we first see her, presumably a beneficiary of reservations for women (and perhaps for “backward” castes?) at the panchayat level, she’s a quavering mess, taking a back seat to Bhau and Vahini – over time, we see her grow in confidence and stature. No dialog announces this – Kulkarni’s modus operandi is to show the audience – and a stance here, a gesture there, complicate the picture: she might well have been a beneficiary of a quota system, but even quotas can help complicate and disturb established power structures.

For me, the most memorable character of all was the landscape: harsh, desolate, and beautiful; and never more so than in the film’s closing sequences. As cinematographer Sudhakar Reddy’s camera follows Kesha through cliffs, caverns, and ending at the sea, the Deccan landscape seems timeless, underscoring (as did the isolated village setting, and even the virtuoso “sand art” performance that accompanies the opening credits) that the Kulkarnis’ classic is a modern-day fable – but also, more darkly, that one man might be (as Anna tells Kesha) no more than a freckle in the cosmos. A freckle, not a speck – because man leaves a trace. Deool fittingly opens with an archaeological dig, and periodically returns to the site: surveying the village’s landscape by film’s end, one is tempted to ask the same question that, as Anna tells Kesha, propels archaeology: centuries later, what will they make of us from our debris?


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