Master and Slave (Masculine) Morality: ‘Nishant’ (1976)

I wrote an article for Ultra Dogme on Nishant (1976). Here’s a small excerpt from it:

The temple jewels have been stolen. The villagers are dumbstruck, apprehensive of the vengeance of the gods. A villager remarks that this is a job for the police, and there is a cut to a gun hanging on the wall of an ancestral home, next to a photo of a model lifting her pants teasingly. The finger of a man resting on the frame of his furniture can be seen, albeit blurrily, and clamours of the villagers calling for their master can be heard. The camera then pans to a life-sized portrait of an older man, modestly dressed to lend a degree of respectability, before gradually descending to reveal the feet of the subject, with a man, presumably a servant, entering the frame. The servant is massaging the body of a heavily muscled man, who turns his gaze towards the clamouring populace.

This powerfully ambiguous sequence is from Shyam Bengal’s Nishant, a film which more explicitly chronicles the entrenched slave morality of a village oppressed by the terrifying zamindar (village head, and the muscled man in the aforementioned sequence), and observes their gradual conversion from servility to murderous rage. The story deals with the arrival of a new schoolmaster (Girish Karnad) to the village, whose wife, Sushila (Shabana Azmi), is abducted by the zamindar’s brothers, and how he galvanises the villagers to rebel against the zamindar. Multiple variations of this plotline have been filmed and continue to be filmed, but Benegal’s sensitive handling of this material channels both rage and disgust, drawing attention to the plight of the female while critiquing commercial Indian cinema as well.

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