Shyam Benegal’s highly influential first feature sees actress Shabana Azmi bursting into the limelight in this anguishing tale about the injustices of India’s caste system and gender subjugation.
Dir. Shyam Benegal
1974 | India | Drama | 124 mins | 1.78:1 | Hindi
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some mature themes
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Anant Nag, Priya Tendulkar, Sadhu Meher
Plot: The ne’er-do-well son of an absentee landlord is dispatched to oversee his father’s land, whereupon he takes as his mistress the poor housekeeper Lakshmi, igniting a series of devastating complications.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin); Won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best 2nd Feature Film (National Film Awards)
Source: Shemaroo Entertainment
Subject Matter: Moderate – Gender, Class
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Some have regarded Ankur’s impact on the Indian film industry as equally seismic as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), particularly in the continual progress of its ‘Parallel’ alternative cinema.
Like Ray’s work, Ankur is a debut feature by one of India’s greats, Shyam Benegal, whose Hindi-language film here also became a vehicle for actress Shabana Azmi to shine for the first time.
The legendary actress burst into the limelight as Lakshmi, a lower-caste woman who serves her wealthy landlord’s sometimes impudent son, Surya (Anant Nag).
Surya moves to a remoter part of his father’s estate to take care of operational matters and prepare for a new life as a newly-married husband, but whilst waiting for his bride, he idles his time away and begins to feel attracted to Lakshmi.
Ankur is an anguishing tale about the injustices of India’s caste system, where society’s lowest ranks labour endlessly to make a living, often without the proper dignity accorded to them.
Through Lakshmi’s agonising journey and other brief incidental experiences of female characters, Benegal takes pains to reflect the emotional trials that women face in light of gender subjugation.
To make matters more complicated, Lakshmi’s husband is a deaf-mute who has lost the motivation to work and is unaware of escalating ‘domestic tensions’.
Benegal’s filmmaking style is at once realistic and poetic, particularly his earthy compositions of muddy villages and large swathes of privately-owned land where labourers grow crops, tend to animals (a few of them cross over ‘illegally’ to Surya’s property in a rare amusing moment), and fetch water from a large underground well (an eye-opener!).
These images of bucolic countryside life may be beautiful to savour, but Benegal wants us to consider that such beauty may not exist in the minds of the aggrieved.