The intricate and real-world of Shyam Benegal often reminds me of the musty and barky petrichor that fills the atmosphere after it rains for the first time. It has a sense of nostalgia very similar in nature to the fictional town of Malgudi created by R.K Narayan. As if it pleads our “progressing times” to halt and appreciate the itsy-bitsy moments of life in its raw form, and his 1974 film, Ankur is no different.
Ankur “the seedling” marked the debut of Shabana Azmi as Lakshmi and Ananth Nag as Surya. Surya was the son of a wealthy landlord who after completing his 12th standard moves to his village to look after his father’s land. A childless Dalit couple Lakshmi and Kishtiya are send to look after Surya. Kishtiya is deaf and dumb and has a drinking problem. Moreover, his contributions to the economy of the house are more or less negligible. He is negligent and does not possess a sense of responsibility which leaves the whole onus of managing the house on Lakhsmi. She is often seen agitated by her husband’s behavioral attitude towards work and life in general. Kishtiya is caught stealing toddy from the farm of Surya and as a punishment shamed in front of the whole village. Unable to face the fact that he has brought dishonor to his family he just vanishes from the village leaving Lakshmi alone to fend for herself. The whole fiasco triggers the start of an intimate and forbidden relationship between married Dalit women and an uppercase landlord. What proceeds is nexus of socio-political norms, guilt, misplaced sense of manhood, and the vices of our society in general, casting an influence on the life of the characters.
The authentic and nuanced rustic feels, original locations, dialogues brimming out of the threshold of realism, and impactful women characters, are the things that add up to the highlights of the film. Through Ankur, Benegal tries to address various issues, one of which is industrialism. This progress of humankind in the form of industrialism fell like wrath on the indigenous craftsmen and artisans. How things in our life are just a perspective and relative in nature. And what might be progressive in nature for some may bring havoc upon another. Time and again we are shown that our norms our progress and even our religious beliefs are structured according to the needs of the rich and powerful. There is no god that favors socially and financially oppressed.
Ankur also inflicts light on the way we treat our women and the place they hold in our society. Women were always considered to be subordinate to their male counterparts. In the film, Lakshmi, upright women, was self-sufficient in every way possible but still, her deeds held no significance in the eye of the society. Instead, her respect and honor were associated with the actions of her male counterpart. Similarly in one of the scenes, Surya and people from the village are playing cards on the occasion of Diwali. One of the men drunk (inevitably in his misplaced sense of manhood) bets his wife when he had no money left. The next day, the one who had won the bet actually goes to his house and claims his wife. The women exclaim in anguish
“who is he to sell me?”
It was not just a dialogue, it was a loathsome slap on the face of the society soaked in patriarchy, and it was a warning bell telling us that it is about time. The thing you realize as the film progresses is that the suppressed people actually don’t have an understanding that what they are subjected to is predominantly unfair. Instead, they feel that because of the caste they are born in or the gender they belong to, they are entitled to such behavior and the injustice. For instance, Lakshmi herself hesitates to cook food for Surya as if abiding by some universal godly law.
Another amusing thing is that, after abiding by such irrational religious beliefs nonchalantly, one at least expects the so-called upper cast to have a moral high ground. But they were as corrupt as one could be. As if the religion was just used as a means to oppress and just for their convenience. The norms could be molded according to their whims and fancies, not even flinching once before indulging into something not socially or morally acceptable.
What Benegal rebelled in 1974, still exists in our contemporary society. Vote bank politics still finds its strongest basis on caste and gender equality is still a far-fetched imagination that lingers in the minds of intellectuals. Look around and see for yourself, how a girl child is always consciously or subconsciously forced to learn to cook food, doesn’t matter if she wishes to or not as if it is a mandatory quality for the holistic development of the female child. Doesn’t apply to the males though, they are freed from the obligation of entering the kitchen and preparing food.
Let’s indulge our conscious beings into the world created by Shyam Benegal, savor – the bittersweet moments of life, smell the freshness of rains, and most importantly try to see BEYOND.
Ankur is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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