In this bimonthly series, Jai Arjun Singh recommends Hindi films from the fifties and sixties. In this instalment, he tells you why you should watch Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) starring Rakesh Pandey, Madhu Chakravarty, Tarla Mehta, Dina Pathak, AK Hangal, Nandita Thakur, Mani Kaul. You can watch the film on YouTube

Because it helped bring in a New Wave. And shows a glimpse of what the “Middle Cinema” could have looked like

Released as it was in December 1969, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash is eligible for inclusion in this Flashback series by just a whisker. But there are other reasons why it is an outlier here: the other films discussed in this column are mostly old-world Hindi cinema, but Sara Akash is often hailed, along with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, as a progenitor of a bold New Wave. 

Just as interestingly, given the subsequent work of its prolific director, this film offers an early but distorted-glass view of what we now call the Middle Cinema – a waystation between glitzy commercial films and self-consciously inward-looking “art” cinema. Chatterjee would soon become among the three best-known practitioners of this middle path, along with Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. But Sara Akash is startlingly unconventional in its telling of a simple domestic story (about a couple who, because of the man’s obstinateness, don’t interact with each other for a long time after getting married). Along with Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), this film offers a view of what the cosy Middle Cinema might have looked like if its directors had channeled the spirit of experimental international filmmakers like Godard. 

It also helps that the two leads – Rakesh Pandey and Madhu Chakravarty – never became stars (or even “non-mainstream stars” like Amol Palekar or Vidya Sinha). These factors, along with the monochrome palette and lack of catchy songs, means that Sara Akash feels grittier than later Chatterjee works such as Chhoti si Baat or Baaton Baaton Mein. Result: it’s a genuinely hard-to-classify film (is it Middle, is it Parallel, is it Avant-Garde?) – this can leave some movie-lovers and film historians confused, but I personally consider it a good thing.

For bringing formal inventiveness to a story that could have been made into a sweet little tele-drama

The playfulness is on show from the opening-credits sequence, with its long tracking shots that offer street-level views of Agra – and little inserts of the Taj Mahal, looking like a queen or goddess atop her throne, surveying her kingdom from a regal distance. (It’s an effect both similar to and very different from the shots of the Eiffel Tower peeking out from over buildings in the opening-credits scene of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.) Cinematographer KK Mahajan’s restless camera moves first right, then left, then right again, following the rhythms of the town. A non-diegetic music score is mixed with real street sounds; the nervous energy of the sequence is just as compelling as a more famous opening scene from 1969 (also shot by Mahajan), the train tracks of Bhuvan Shome.

Immediately after this we arrive at the film’s crux: a wedding procession in one of those narrow lanes. Samar (Pandey) is getting married to Prabha (Chakravarty), and he is clearly unhappy about it, unprepared for such a responsibility. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, waking dreams…these are all used to capture his state of mind. In one scene, he recalls being with his (all-male) friends, talking about breaking free of societal expectations: “Inhi baadhaon ko kuchalkar humein aage badhna hai.” The friends start to cheer and clap, and there is an immediate cut to a surreal shot of Samar and bride sitting together in their wedding garb but in a classroom surrounded by the same friends, now jeering: “Samar, abhi se hee paaltu bann gaye?” It is a classic image of a young man who sees himself as tethered, and is ashamed of it.

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In another scene, as Samar sits brooding on his bridal bed (with Prabha standing in a corner of the room), the camera starts swiveling wildly, there are close-ups of his face with the play of light and shadows over it, there are even upside-down shots… these are moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern “found footage” film like The Blair Witch Project (but don’t tell Basu Chatterjee I said so).

How much fun it is to see this kind of story (with a supporting cast that includes later Middle Cinema familiars like AK Hangal and Dina Pathak) being told in this off-kilter way. There are freeze frames, stream-of-consciousness voiceovers, contrapuntal use of music, an unexpected scene when Samar strikes Prabha and the camera adopts the Russian tilt as it looks up at him. There are even some shots that feel like they are being experimental just for the sake of it. And that’s okay.

Because it’s an adaptation of an important Hindi novel – and for a look at the inner life of a young man who has no idea what he wants

Sara Akash is based on part of Rajendra Yadav’s debut novel, originally published as Preet Bolte Hain, and is a reminder of a time when there were intimate connections between literature and cinema without the need for carefully monitored contracts or battalions of lawyers supervising copyrights. (Most of the film was even shot in Yadav’s Agra house!) There is a body of mid-20th century Hindi literature that centres on a young man’s coming of age, including the process of getting his head out of his books and learning about real-world responsibility, and this story belongs to that tradition. While Samar’s conflicts dominate much of the film, we are also allowed glimpses of the personalities of his sister-in-law (a fine performance by Tarla Mehta) and his sister Munni, who shape him in different ways. 

We see that Samar is caught on the tightrope between the idealized life of the mind, the mundane life of a householder, and his own yearnings. He dreams of being a Bhagat Singh, a Vivekanand, a Netaji (and we might contemplate that these are all men without a significant female presence in their lives). “Shaadi ke baad saare adaarsh thanday ho gaye,” he broods. He dreams of being an adarshwaadi and a revolutionary, but he is also denying himself his other feelings – the desire to have someone to share his life with, the excitement of a physical relationship. A subtext is that he might also be insecure – suffering from a sort of intellectual “performance anxiety” – because Prabha is well educated.

 

Rakesh Pandey’s bland features are put to good use in scenes like the ones where he is unnerved by the wedding rituals, or where his family’s giggling women lead him to the bridal room while making ribald remarks. The acting is raw, but this is apt given that the character is half-formed, at unease with himself. There is a marked contrast between his dream-self (he imagines himself entering the house with a smile of “Prabha!” as she walks towards him smiling, dressed in different clothes) and his mundane self who sullenly says “What should I do if she has come?” when his sister tells him Bhabhi is here. The gap between the interior life and the surface, between idealisation and pragmatism, will also be a theme of Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha a few years later. 

For an echo of Apur Sansar

There’s a little moment where Samar finds Prabha’s hairpin – she is visiting her parents’ house at the time – and, irritated, tosses it away. But later he uses it as a bookmark, and it feels like a suggestion of things to come: he has found place for something of her in his life. The scene felt like a nod to another scene, also involving a hairpin – and in a more romantic context – in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar. That film was also about a young man, a student with his head in the clouds, moving from a textbook-centric life to one involving family responsibilities. There are obvious differences between the two stories (in Apur Sansar, love and affection develops between the couple much faster than it does here), but the little nods to Ray are hard to miss – there is even a sequence involving Prabha on a swing that recalls Charulata.

For Mani Kaul the actor

In the same year that Kaul’s Uski Roti was released, he played a small, almost dialogue-less role here, as Samar’s elder brother, befuddled by all the goings-on in the family. In one scene, while shaving, he mutters something like “What are you all going on about? You keep squabbling.” It’s an amusing moment for anyone familiar with Kaul’s own much more abstract cinema: here is a genuinely avant-garde director who seems annoyed by having to put up with any sort of narrative at all!

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