Shahani’s extraordinary but controversial debut feature marks both the culmination and the end of the brief NFDC-sponsored renewal of Indian cinema. With great formal rigour and beauty, the film extends Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960; quoted on two occasions on the soundtrack), making female sexuality and the very textures of living the focus of a conflict between oppressive feudal norms and a changing industrialised landscape. Taran (Aditi), the younger unmarried daughter of the zamindar (Kaul) in a Rajasthani mansion, violates the social codes dictating class and gender segregation by her sexual encounter with an engineer (Pandya). Shahani, who later evolved a theory of epic cinema, develops a uniquely cinematic orchestration of time and space through e.g. the rigid cyclical rhythms of lyric poetry: cf. the tracking shots through the ancient house while Vani Jayaram sings the lullaby Lal bichhona or the repeated reading of her brother’s letter about fertile Assam as she walks through the arid industrial landscape around her home. In the end, the circular form is broken as the Chhou dancers, dressed in black and red, are shot with gigantic tilt-down camera movements and the film closes with a linear flight-line (fantasy escape) towards a green shore, but filmed through the constricting portholes of a boat. Taran moves through a landscape that mirrors her state of mind: a barren desert that was once owned by a warrior caste now reduced to effete rituals of self-purification, and handed over without protest to a new era of technological colonisers. The effects of capitalist modernisation are presented as both ruthless and incomprehensible, reducing an articulate cultural landscape into a mere natural resource. Taran’s fantasies of Assam are contrasted with the engineer’s radical notion of change as he quotes Engels’s famous line ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’. Images and soundtrack are at times punctuated by violent eruptions of anger at the suffocation of desire: e.g. gunfire, war (in an explosion of yellow), the hushed reference to working-class agitations. Taran’s own rebellion is prefigured by a breathtaking shot of herself annointed with the ultramarine blue of Kali against an urban skyline. Her recognition of ‘necessity’ is followed by her absorption into the Chhou performance as the dancers invoke fertility on the desert sand. The film also constitutes the only successful colour experiment of New Indian Cinema.
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