Friday, November 05, 2010

'A Film By Jabbar Patel'

Jait Re Jait: A minor masterpiece

Jait Re Jait, the 1977 Jabbar Patel directed, Smita Patil-Mohan Agashe starrer is kind of an oddball film. The soundtrack by Hridaynath Mangeshkar was an instant hit, even before the days when audio cassettes democratised how you listen to music. Even today, every Marathi-speaking ‘literate man’ knows the songs — ‘Mi Raat Takli’, ‘Ami Thaakara, Thaakara...’ and my favourite ‘Tujha Rupacha Bashinde...’

And the film? I have asked a lot of Marathi-speaking people, who watch Marathi films (sometimes out of obligation, for example, at film festivals, sometimes out of love, for example, recent films like ‘Valu,’ ‘Natarang’...) and none have seen the film. Which is a pity actually, because ‘Jait Re Jait’ is an important film, perhaps not in the same league as ‘Umbatha’ or ‘Simhasan’ (or for that matter, ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’), it nonetheless is a minor gem from Jabbar Patel’s oeuvre. The film is important because it is rooted in the ethics of filmmaking of the time — the leftist movement, the parallel cinema, neo-realism (even though at time all these are obscured by the incessant songs, the ‘anthropologist’s eye’ that Patel masters in the film is unmistakable). Today, you cannot even imagine making a film like this, a film located at the heart of community — the Thakars — and told from the inside point of view. There is no clash of cultures, there is no pressure of ‘civilisation’ as most movies about indigenous communities tend to do. Instead, it’s a loving, tender look at the community and its life, and the rituals. The director seems so much immersed into the lives of the community that at times, the film turns into a documentary, with the camera gawking at the action from a distant, without a comment, without a judgement. This is one of the many triumphs of ‘Jait Re Jait,’ (which literally mean ‘win, win’) and this is why it is one of my favourite Marathi films, despite the fact that I did not like how the film ended, and how the second half of the film dragged at stretches.

I call Jabbar Patel Maharashtra’s (can we make it India’s) Martin Scorsese. Like the American auteur, Patel also spreads a love of cinema which is infectious and inspiring. He was one of the important figures of the Marathi experimental theatre movement, along with people like Mohan Agashe, Satish Alekar and others, who championed Vijay Tendulkar, and established the uniqueness of modern Marathi stage, away from the ‘classic-ness’ of sangeet nataks, and going to the roots of the folk tradition.

Likewise, his forays into cinema was unique, and revolutionary for the time. When other filmmakers were busy doing cinema as entertainment, with comedy and melodrama as presiding deities (Dada Kondke’s name comes to mind, and his place in Marathi cinema is indisputable), Patel took the route of social criticism. He brought the parallel cinema movement of the 1970s to Marathi cinema with political and socially relevant films like Samna (1974), Simhasan (1980), Umbartha (1982) and others.

And his contribution to film movement will need another post to discuss. Suffice to say that he has been successfully running the Pune International Film Festival for nine years now, and it’s not a mean feat.

Yet, ‘Jait Re Jait’ is something else, it’s may be socially-relevant, it’s never political. Even the social relevance is not examined in depth. There is only one outside character in the entire film, a Brahmin, whom the protagonist Nagya asks, how to become a ‘Punyawant’, the pure one. And the Brahmin scoffs on him saying that someone who eat meat can never be pure. And that’s it.

Otherwise, the film is resolutely focused on a small community, the Thakars, who call themselves the birds of the forest (‘ya rana chi pakhar’). It’s mostly a hunting-gathering society, who subsists on selling firewood in the nearby market, which we never see in the film. They also do some farming. They believe in the spirit of the forest, and a deity, a version of Lord Shiva, called Lingoba, whose temple is on the top of the hill. And, music, the drum, the songs and the dances play an important role in their lives. That’s why the film has more songs than the dialogues.

Among them is Nagya, the village bhagat’s son. A bhagat is sort of a religious head, but not quite a bhahmin. One day while he was still young, Nagya is chased by a herd of bees. When he complained to his father, like all fathers, he tells Nagya a story, the story of Lingoba, and how the bees protect the deity, and how the queen bee is the most beautiful among them all. How can I see the queen bee? Nagya asks. You cannot see the queen bee, he father tells him, only the ‘pure one’ can see her. Nagya grows up to be handsome Mohan Agashe, with a single-minded obsession. He wants to see the queen bee. “Mala punyawant hoyase (I want to be pure), he tells his father, I want to see the queen bee. His father tries to distract him, but to no avail. Appears Chindhi, a village girl, who has run away from her husband because he is ‘useless.’ She sees Nagya and instantly falls in love. But they cannot get married unless she returns the bride price; which she does and they marry after a lot of trial (With Nagya losing a eye.). But his obsession won’t leave him. He must climb the lingoba hills, he must see the queen bee. This time he has support in Chindhi. They go all out in their quest; but to what end?

It’s a tragic story of obsession, and a desire to understand what is probably beyond understanding. Chindhi is more practical. Her desire for Nagya has a goal, and after much hardship she achieves it, but for Nagya, his desires are destructive from the very beginning.

The story is told in the form of a traditional play, with two ‘sutradhar’ narrating the story and taking forward the action. Like the ‘sutradhar’ of the classic Sanskrit plays, they also take part in the action, mostly to sing — so we have songs, and songs, and frankly, we are not complaining. If Hridaynath Mangeshkar did nothing else other than the songs of ‘Jait Re Jait,’ he would still be considered one of greatest music composers of India. He is extraordinary.

But what pays for the film, despite all its flaws (and there are flows, starting with Mohan Agashe’s wooden acting; other actors are brilliant though, especially Smita Patil), is the love with which the film is constructed. When a filmmaker goes to the jungle to make a film on the tribes, there are chances of voyeurism creeping in; there are always chances of the director telling us how ‘we’ are better than ‘them’, and see ‘their’ customs and tradition with the curiosity of a kid going to the zoo. Patel’s camera also observes the customs and traditions of the community, but not as a voyeur, but as someone for the inside. And this, by no means easy task. Look at the actors in their consumes, which is actually bare minimum by today’s standards, and how they own it. They become the characters.

And, finally, the film contains the most erotically-charged song and dance routine I have seen in Indian cinema, especially when the erotic gaze is directed at a man. Nagya, with a red head-gear and a garland of flower beats the drum passionately. The sutradhar sings: Gorya dehat barati kanti / Nagini chi kata / Are zhalo ami taybi....

Such beauty in the fair body, as if the snake’s skin
We all went mad when we saw the sight in the night...

It goes on and on... (‘When your body is made of coral who needs any other jewel’), and Chindhi looks at Nagya, and the camera regards him with as much passion as the lenses can manage. It’s a beautiful piece of art. (If you see the film, look out for the reference to snake imagery, there are abundance of it, and it’s very interesting.)

In an unrelated note, there’s another similarity between Patel and Scorsese: Making documentary on musicians. While Scorsese has done several like ‘No Direction Home: Bob Dylan’ and the Rolling Stones saga ‘Shine a Light’, Patel has directed a documentary on Pandit Shivkumar Sharma.

View: Mi Raat Takli on You Tube

1 comment:

  1. very insightful. would like to discuss more on narrative of the film and semiology, as i am writing a paper on the film.