“Vishvam (Naseeruddin Shah) is one of four brothers who rule their feudal village in pre-independence India with an iron grip. They execute various criminal schemes to increase their own wealth at the expense of the villagers, with the village priest and constable powerless to stop them. However unlike his brothers he tries to lead a relatively restrained life, and at the start of the film we see him married and refraining from drinking and smoking. His brothers regularly exercise their “droit du seigneur”, ordering villagers to send their wives and daughters to the haveli so that they can be raped at leisure. At first Vishvam, restrained by his wife (played by beautiful and brilliant but tragically short-lived Smita Patil), refuses to join them. However when the new school teacher arrives with his young child and lovely wife he finds himself tempted, and the brothers abduct her.” (Thanks to Jez Humble on imdb.com for this short summary of the film’s beginning)
The few viewers who have commented about Shyam Benegal’s Nishaant (or Night’s end, 1975) on Imdb all marvel at its excellence and explosive nature: they’re damn right. This movie shatters all comfortable expectations us spectators might have upon watching the story. Naturally after this abduction, we sympathize with both Sushila (Shabana Azmi), the teacher’s pretty wife, victim of a savage and immoral greed, and with her husband the honest teacher who has just arrived in the village. But the movie will deny us the satisfaction of seeing wrongs righted (well, this will be granted up to a certain extent, but…) and victims compensated. The film’s power comes from this deflection of our fantasies towards a more sober reality: that of human nature and historical fact. Indeed the film is apparently based on an actual incident which took place in Andhra Pradesh in the 1930s. Then for us who are accustomed to see famous actor like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi play roles where their persona is built from inside, so to speak, by the strength of their acting, it is somewhat of a shock to see them here at the mercy of a director who subjects them to a ruthless drama.
The same thing happens for Amrish Puri’s character. He plays the zamindar, the egoistic and proud feudal lord of the place. One would perhaps have appreciated a moment when the viewer could place himself above him, morally speaking. But we aren’t given that pleasure. We too follow submissively his iron rule; we too must undergo the ordeal of seeing the old order trample the peasant’s hopes and livelihood. Shyam Benegal does not want us to feel the comfort of being aloof by referring to other cinematic examples: we are in reality; this isn’t a story one can sleep on or fantasize about. An additional disturbing element is made up of the zamindar’s respect of tradition and religion: one day he will quash the peasants’ prayers for mercy; the other, he will dress up with all his family to welcome newlyweds at his door who come to ask for his blessings. He applies to himself a discipline which one could admire; he tones his body and leads what almost looks like an ascetic life. One might even say that power has made him benevolent, and when you compare him to his two degenerated brothers who spend their life drinking, scheming and raping, he is like the noble magistrate of his people.
If we now turn to his younger brother, Vishvam, we have one great Naseer character. Vishvam strikes one as ambiguity incarnated. As the virtuous brother who, married to a beautiful wife (Smita Patil) resists the jeering offers of his two disgusting brothers, we tend to admire him, and sympathise with him, even if he doesn’t treat his wife any better than other men of that time would do on an everyday basis. Then one day his eyes meet the slender shape and proud mien of the teacher’s wife, and we know mischief has settled in. Once she’s abducted and at the landlords’ mercy, and has been raped by the two elder ones, we half hope she’ll be spared by Vishvam, even if only because of the distance of forbidden desire. But he will impose himself in a brutal way all the same. Having started to drink – perhaps because of her presence, in order to change his shier character, or because it numbs his sense of responsibility – he enters her cell one day, holding a rope tied in a noose, and we half feel he’s treating like some cattle, ready to whip her or worse. Sushila balks at first, and tries to cower him, but he asserts himself: “You have no right to stop me from coming, I’ll come here a thousand times if I choose!”
In between takes place the scene where she meets her gentle husband (Girish Karnad) at the temple, and where, perhaps out of desperation or to goad him, she accuses him of being a coward, and not having stormed the zamindar’s house to free her. So when she’s back in her prison, she gives herself to Vishvam’s lust, in a move that is one of the most sickening I’ve seen in Indian cinema so far. Because even if such an act of unfaithfulness can be described as desperate, it forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we had understood about the relationships between teacher and wife. Indeed there is a scene where the two of them are in bed, and the schoolmaster clearly wants to make love to her, but she shuns him: “I’m tired”, and he gently moves back, patting her on the shoulder. What a fortunate woman, I thought, whose husband understands she cannot always be ready to satisfy him, and who doesn’t criticise her or brutalise her for refusing! Such an attitude is indeed immediately rewarded, because she then turns around, and asking him for a mirror and a new sari, embraces him, and the light fades on their intimacy…
But Sushila seems to have forgotten what a precious husband she had: having not been rescued at once, she has nothing but harsh words for him, and satisfies the desire of another man, whose more violent nature she seems to regret in her husband. She once or twice whimpers about her child, whom she clearly loves and needs dearly. Yet she accepts Vishvam, whose own wife is all bristles about her rival. What must be said for her (Sushila) is that she is told that she won’t be able to return to her husband without bearing the stigma of having been possessed by other men: he will now reject her, she is told (cf. Sita’s legend in the Ramayana); she has no other choice than find herself another man, and perhaps this is why she accepts Vishvam’s lust for her. So even if this is awful in terms of our western vision of love and womanhood, perhaps Indian values and traditional practices make it less difficult to understand. Stalked by the villagers’ anger (stirred up by the teacher who acted, but tragically too late) she dies with Vishvam in a scene which looks like a disenchanted orgasm.
Nishaant contains a lot of interesting material for those who wish to understand popular and archaic Indian practises. For example there is the role of the priest, who at first is nothing more than a fatalistic pawn on the zamindar’s chess-board: having found Vishvam’s locket at the temple after the sacking of the temple’s jewels (performed by Vishvam), the only courage he can summon is to give it back to Amrish Puri when the latter comes to pay a visit, and asks for it! Mind you, the local police officer is so powerless that there is perhaps nothing more to do. Until the roused teacher manages to convince him to let go of his defeatist stance and stir up a revolt against the landowners. I think the film’s coherence suffers here, for we don’t really believe in the priest’s change after one conversation only with the teacher.
But the movies strikes on the whole a realistic note of freedom and inspiration which is very rewarding. Shabana Azmi plays superbly, indeed perhaps too well, because it is hard to reconcile her role as a loving (if vain) mother and wife, and that of the Bonnie of the Bonnie and Clyde ending. A little less care, a little bit more vulgarity in her role as the schoolmaster’s wife would have bridged her dual persona more satisfactorily. As it is, her choices (or the director’s) create a mystery, that of feminine desire, and this element, disturbingly unusual as it is in Indian films, certainly belongs to what Shyam Benegal wanted to deal with. Certain reviewers even wonder whether the film doesn’t explore homosexual tendencies: I’m not sure about that, but it’s a possibility, considering the movie’s original patterns.