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It’s about cabaret time in Pune

It’s about cabaret time in Pune

THE late Omar Sharif anchored a documentary about the filming of Dr Zhivago. The Russian winter with its thick carpet of snow was shot in the sweltering heat of Spain, using beeswax to create the freezing aura. It was Franco’s Spain and communists could be shot at will, Sharif recalled.

In an early scene, scores of Spanish extras sang the Internationale, the song of communist solidarity. As they marched through the streets of make-believe Moscow their enthusiastic singing triggered two opposite reactions. The police came in, suspecting left-wing activity and were persuaded with difficulty to vacate the sets.

The other reaction came from ordinary neighbours, who mistook the singing as a sign that Franco was dead. They uncorked the wine bottle and joined in the chorus from their homes.

Not unlike the rumour of Franco’s death, cinema can conjure powerful images of hope and failure. All stripes of political formations thus need it, use it. Talented leftists like Howard Fast and Charlie Chaplin mocked capitalism, and the McCarthy era in turn had them in its talons. Right-wingers like Charlton Heston and Ronald Reagan said their lines too and walked into the sunset.

The Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (Ipta) manufactured cosy dreams and occasionally offered the Communist Manifesto as a user’s manual. The Indian state never belonged to the dream vendors. It co-opted and subverted Ipta. Saeed Mirza was among the few that dodged the trap. He is currently supporting the resistance against a right-wing takeover of Indian cinema.

The theatre of this battle is Pune, formerly called Poona. The city became a cultural and political hub with the ascent of the Peshwa Brahmins as prime ministers of Maratha chieftain Shivaji’s empire. They administered a vast stretch of India from Pune’s verdant landscapes while Mughal rule began to decline around the 18th century. ‘Pooneri’ describes not just a gaggle of elite castes that came to hold sway over the city but also an aesthetic sense they flaunted with a penchant for satirical humour, theatre and above all music. Bhimsen Joshi lived there.

The Films and Television Institute of India (FTII) founded in 1960 was shifted from Delhi to Pune in 1976, partly because Pune was a culturally vibrant city. Its geographical proximity to Mumbai was also a factor in the move. Mumbai has been the hub of Hindi, Urdu and Marathi cinema for decades.

In its most energetic phase in the 1970s, the FTII produced some seriously talented men and women. The greater talent for acting thrived in Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Saeed Mirza was an exceptional film director the institute produced. Not everyone who came out of the institute was gifted though. One of Naseer’s classmates was Shakti Kapoor, a rank bad actor and a distinguished ham. Subhash Ghai and David Dhawan became commercially successful film directors from the FTII stable.

If I am right Rajkumar Rao who played Shahid in Hansal Mehta’s haunting movie about state-sponsored communalism is a more recent FTII talent. All in all, the institute has been a mixture of blessing and mediocrity.

Why does Mirza sound hurt and angry? The FTII, of which he was the adored director until recently, has been handed a nondescript actor for the job. Gajendra Chauhan is better known as a C-grade actor with several horror movies and some Hindu religious roles to his credit. Considering that the FTII bragged of legends like Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Chauhan’s appointment doesn’t make sense. That he is an active supporter of the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party may have won him the job.

What goes against Saeed Mirza and the huge liberal constituency of former and current FTII alumni that supports his anguish is the fact that the BJP is in power not only in the country but in Maharashtra too, where Pune happens to be. This is the hard reality. Mirza, as I said, is a rare Marxist filmmaker in today’s crop. He naturally opposes the BJP.

In the old film industry, left and liberal dream vendors were a major force. Today, Mirza can count his soulmates on his fingertips. He repeats one point, that a transparent decision to select the new boss would have required the government to show the reasons for the choice. This, of course, is not how it works when a party with an unambiguous right-wing agenda takes power, worse when it takes power legitimately, with the people’s vote.

The right-wing slide in Pune reminds me of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin in the gathering shadows of Nazi resurgence. Pune’s post-independence progress, or decline, has not been eye-catching. However, from the unhurried town it was for old Parsi entrepreneurs and retired Indian army generals, it slowly turned into a globally celebrated hub of free love and spiritualism under Osho’s watch.

Then Gen Vaidya, who led the army assault on the Golden Temple, was shot dead by Sikh militants. They had tracked him near his Pune home. The journey of horror has seen the senseless German Bakery blasts that killed innocents, the cold-blooded murder of a leading anti-superstition activist and the recent lynching of a Muslim boy by suspected Hindu nationalists. The FTII stand-off is of a piece with the larger picture.

The movie Cabaret was inspired by Isherwood’s accounts of the lurking death wish of a nation that saw a future in racism and militarism. It was also a movie about the resolve of cabaret artist Sally Bowles who performed every night at Berlin’s intriguingly named Kit Kat Klub. The way she continued to sing and dance with candour in the face of Nazi terror offers a great lesson for the FTII students. They should be mindful, however, that their song of solidarity does not kindle false hope as it did on the sets of Dr Zhivago.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn ,July 14th, 2015

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