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Govind Nihalani's Party: A Network of Confrontations

 | Review |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

Most individual revelations in the early Nihalani filmography (AakroshVijetaArdh Satya) are conducted privately, in a lonely, darkly-lit, grimy quarter somewhere, where the character wallows in and within himself, soaked in the sense of gratuitous self-pity that is a necessary accompaniment to every blooming rebellion. The Nihalani protagonist, an idealist-outcast who finds it difficult to ‘fit in’, will desperately seek sympathy from those around him, often laying his pathetic insides bare in front of another character – this act is as much as a helpless plea as it is a moment of utter honesty – where he, in spite ofhimself, will divulge wholesomely and completely. Such helplessness, however, will coagulate into last-resort rebellion when the other character will sympathise, but notunderstand the state of the lead protagonist’s mind. Left with no other chance of salvation, the protagonist will be compelled, eventually, to confront his own inner demons – such will be attained not through an interaction with anyone else, but with himself – the character will have to meditate upon the pragmatism of his feeble idealism, and having done so, will decide on his next move (or take matters into his own hands). 

As such, the Nihalani protagonist must arrive at his catharsis alone – no external agency will aid or influence him, no revelatory event will occur – for as an early-Nihalani will emphasise, the greatest event in a human existence is when one finally sheds naiveté about the nature of the world.

Such scenes-of-catharsis permeate through the first three films of Nihalani’s oeuvre. In Aakrosh (1980), a young apprentice lawyer Bhaskar Kulkarni, played by Naseeruddin Shah, perceives ‘justice’ as an object of endless romance – recently out of law school and assigned to defend a tribal accused of the rape and murder of his wife, he perceives ‘justice’ as the great leveler – a quantity that it is meted out to flatten all hierarchies, that in a suitably just world, only a single binary exists: the lawful and the unlawful. By the middle of the film, however, newer complications emerge in front of him, and he comes to finally understand the idea of ‘justice’ as necessarily a political one, or at its most trivial, the cause of entire power-struggle.

A man’s universe is a product of his own thought – the manner in which his immediate environment may appear to him is largely a summary of the disposition he himself projects onto it – as a result, when Kulkarni witnesses law being manhandled and mocked regularly by the powers to be, his entire view of the world transforms from the optimism so typical of youth, to the bleak cynicism of the worldly-wise. In the definitive scene of the film, as his world upturns quickly outside, he saunters to-and-fro in his modest, diminutive accommodation, as a song is broadcast on the night-time radio in his room.

The song itself is essential in two-ways : first, it reminds us of the obvious physical distance between the metropolitan from where the radio-broadcast originates and the unexceptional tribal village where Bhaskar Kulkarni might be abducted/murdered anytime, never to be found again – the distance, metaphorically, between law-school and the ‘real world’. Secondly, it allows him himself to approximate the utility of his idealistic endeavor – the song providing the floating-in-thin-air, out-of-body aural experience which is so crucial to the conduct of such introspection.

Nihalani makes the very crucial directorial decision to not allow us an access to the contents of his contemplation; allowing us, instead, only to see him in a long-shot, as the camera deliriously pans from left to right, always performing the rudimentary function of keeping him ‘in the frame’. In that, we are made grossly aware of the transformation the character undergoes during this song-sequence purely by the fact that finally, his expression is not vocal or verbal, but a meditative silence that sustains over the duration of the song itself. Nihalani, however, does not throw a direct challenge at us in any manner to take a wild guess at what he is thinking – we are not asked to indulge in either telepathy or second-guessing of any sort. Instead, Kulkarni’s actions post the song-sequence will reveal to us the lasting consequences (ideological and ethical) of the three-minute long rumination – slowly and slowly, we will realize that he is now ‘a changed man’.

During this entirely critical scene,  the film chooses to forego the conventional (and often-times, sloppy) techniques of the voiceover or dialogue that can often say a lot but mean very little. Kulkarni’s little own private moment is cruelly interrupted when the soundtrack severs the song on the radio abruptly with the sound of loud-late-night-knocking at his door. His solitude has been violated and he is no longer by himself, but by then, the catharsis is near-complete.

Party, Nihalani’s 1984 film is, however, a pertinent departure from this tradition of secretive self-discoveries, for in his fourth film, even if a character desires for it, no one is ever allowed more than a moment alone. The film, set in and around the event of le soirée– the eponymous ‘party’ which includes on its guest list a number of artists, writers, thinkers, journalist-revolutionaries, social butterflies and such – is one part chamber-drama, one part drama-production, one part Tati-esque crowd-chaos, one part ideology-Olympics and one part social-satire. Nihalani needs to adapt the manner of his filmmaking to these not entirely dissimilar forms, all of which involve the participation of a group of people, an ensemble if you must.

In a large deposit of humanity such as the party (which seems, in the Nihalani-view, the microcosm of the city of its occurrence: Bombay itself), individual identity gets a short-thrift, and is, at an alarming regularity, threatened with the prospect of imminent extinction altogether. The scene of the party resembles that of an old military dinner, where officials of all ranks commemorate a collective accomplishment, or that of an individual (in the case of the film, an author who wins a literary prize) – they all drink and make a noise together, they all seem happy – but like an ancient Roman temple, the passage of time renders the exterior surface useless – as the revelry develops deeper into the night; relationships crumble, hypocrisies are revealed and idols begin to seem all-too-human.

Crucially, however, such transformative disclosures never happen out-in-the-open, in front of the whole grand circus - instead, small portions of the larger ensemble drift off from the large mass of people, like debris from a sunk ship, in bands of two or three and recede to private quarters; where they can they conduct the rendezvous that will then lead to the dramatic realisation. As such, much like the equally scathing La Règle du jeu[1] (Jean Renoir, 1939) the floor-plan of the venue for the party (the manor in that case, the upper-class bungalow in this) assumes paramount importance.

As the party conducts itself downstairs in the living room, a relatively smaller group of people seeks the luxury of a room, a library, a bedroom or in more drastic circumstances, a bush in the garden to conduct their private affairs – amusingly, thus, while the Western dictates that characters who need to sort things out ‘take it outside’, the Chamber Drama demands that ‘they take it inside’. On the first floor, a group of youngsters engage a room for their own private sub-party – they play tawdry 80s pop-music and dance like ragdolls to it, they drink and commit other such ‘immoralities’; except for two scenes in the whole of the film, no one from inside the room goes outside and no one from outside comes in – it is as if the room in itself is a closed system, self-sufficient and absolute. But Nihalani slips in an occasional visit to the room now and then – between sequences of heavy, affected drama, post a dramatic monologue, or immediately after a scene-ending one-liner – he places a shot of the youngsters, kookie and high, disenchanted and lost, as they listen to yet another bad song.

Initially, the trick appears to be designed to inject dialectic between the events of the party downstairs – affected, formal, meticulously planned, and seemingly full of intimacy & warmth – and the events in the room upstairs – chaotic, impersonal, disenchanted and entirely unwelcoming.  As the film (much like the night) progresses, however, Nihalani reveals a grander sleight-of-hand at work: to somehow point out the resemblance of the party downstairs to the most fundamental quality of trashy-80s pop music – its absolute shallowness. Nihalani’s ambition, as we realize later, is not as much to pronounce the differences between the party downstairs and the party upstairs, but to point out this large, overriding similarity between them. In that, however, his conduct is not that of the plain half-assed mockery as practiced by Madhur Bhandarkar (whose manner of filmmaking may owe a large direct debt to Party), but of a well-rehearsed social commentator – his film is a bleak satire marked more by cynicism than humour – and unlike a Bhandarkar film where characters are callously hauled out of their private concealments and ‘exposed’ to the world, Party permits members of its ensemble the dignity and the time to slowly ‘reveal’ themselves.

The events in other privately reserved rooms are not as devoid of communication as the disco-room, however – as characters retreat to a room somewhere in the house, they make it a point to close the door behind them. Their dialogue, so far suppressed by the consistent din emanating from the collective downstairs, is now liberated, and like the life of a recently released prisoner, must resume now. The small group (a couple, maybe plus one in some case) settles down post-dinner, over-a-glass-of-wine to discuss matters relevant to the intelligentsia – high-culture, art, literature et al – but as it turns out, most of them are halves of curious binaries designed by Nihalani and Mahesh Elkunchwar (screenplay) : the award-winning playwright and the socialite host of the party, a wife deserted physically and a wife deserted spiritually, an ageing faux-Marxist unconfident of her ability at seduction and a young, talented poet-prospect who can recite revolutionary poems but has not had sex.

The members of these sub-parties are similar to each other – in that, they are going through a similar crises, faced with a similar moral conundrum or that they see themselves in the other ( in a ‘you remind me of how I was’ sorta-way). As such, their conversations, which are initiated solely with the purpose of discussing seemingly relevant but actually tedious topics, gradually turn into intimate affairs – they confess to the gravest flaws of their personalities, they discuss each other’s follies, admit to the speculation about them (‘I do not love my wife’, says the playwright to the party-host) and let their elaborate façade of being an artist drop. They converse little, but confront a lot – and unlike the first three Nihalani films, this confrontation will happen only in the presence of another person – if the elaborate lie of their exterior-self (a composite of their projected ideology, their ‘art’, their demeanor and their clothes) will disintegrate into a debris of their miserable selves, there must be a witness to the collapse.

Nihalani devises a very peculiar manner of shooting these one-on-one’s – the collapse and its witness. The two participating characters are placed at a considerable distance from each other across the room, never too close to each other. Nihalani then settles upon a definitive foreground for his frame, and then a definitive background – throughout the sequence, with the exception of perhaps a few seconds, only one character will reside in the foreground, and the other will reside in the background. Their confrontation will be staged thus, like a duel in the 18th century United Kingdom between disgruntled nobles. Nihalani does not place the camera in a manner that it stares over-the-shoulder of the actor in the foreground; instead, it is aligned parallel to the chest of the actor who stands, not facing the other character straight-on, but slightly sideways, in effect, turning his or her head to be able to look at him.

The more conventionally employed over-the-shoulder shot has a curious quality to it – that of an unwelcome guest, a trespasser who ‘takes away’ from a moment where he is not supposed to – who, in effect, has to ‘peep over-the-shoulder’ of the body closest to him in order to gain a view of the whole conversation – in a strictly pictorial sense, the shot has an inherently voyeuristic quality to it. In Party, however, the figure of the actor in the foreground is not as much a tangible obstacle that needs to be ‘looked over’ as it is a tumourous growth, a disturbance jetting into the frame from one side. Nihalani places the camera in a manner that it seems as if it has been summoned to the spot by the character in the foreground to document the imminent altercation. In order to further enhance the atmosphere of an impending confrontation, he uses a short-lens, thereby pushing the character in the background further away from us and evoking imagery from shoot-outs in Leone Spaghetti Westerns (character with gun in the foreground, opponent  ‘deeper’ into the frame).

The sign of a truly great filmmaker is also how well he veils his cynicism and presents it, instead as a malleable quantity that can then be presented in various forms : dark humour (as in Bunuel), human struggle (Chaplin), blatant lamenting (Guru Dutt) or courtroom theatrics (Lang). The filmmakers of the NFDC-fuelled movement of the 70s and early 80s were, in varying quantities, all cynics, but two of the first three Nihalani films – Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, both end on a peculiarly optimistic note – their protagonists both attain a private salvation. Party, however, is his most openly cynical film. It indicts its characters for their hypocritical definitions of art, their empty commitments to ideological discourse and their generally superficial nature – there is also the Bergman-notion of the cold, impersonal artist vs. the emotional, affected human being – but most importantly, its penultimate scene, the events of which finally bring the party to a close, features the news of the death of one of its characters. Which is very interesting too, because while the visible constituents of the ensemble are all put through a similarly unforgiving inquest – none of them, are infact, the Nihalani-protagonist.

‘He’ exists in Party, but only as an allegory, a myth that looms large over the humdum of the party like cigarette smoke that floats drearily above the event of any such social affair. People at the party discuss a certain ‘Amrit’ – they talk about his poetry, his revolutionary inclination, his erstwhile rejection of the prospects of fame and renown and as is the case of filmic-myths, his absence – but he is never ‘there’. Instead, the film tells us that he left Bombay for a small tribal village in some part of the country, in order to assist the local population in protecting their land against unscrupulous corporate annexing and the law-enforcement machinery that supports it in this endeavor.

He is idolised by the young poet-prospect, held in awe by the idealists, condemned by wiser men for his foolhardiness and resented by the hostess, for he abandoned her young daughter to go conduct a revolution. The wife, on the other hand, remains steadfast in her devotion to him, rejecting proposals of marriage from another, more experienced writer. Nihalani seeks to present the character of Amrit as not a living-person, but a certain quality, a kindred spirit – a symbol of all that is lost in the self-absorbedness of the upper-class social circle in the city – so much so that even when Amrit’s closest cohort, journalist Avinash returns from the tribal village in the third act of the film (in the film, like in a play, characters enter from the left,  but unlike a play, they never exit), everyone asks him for ‘news’ about Amrit – therefore, even his friends are allowed to discuss Amrit only in speculative terms.

In the scene that follows, Avinash (played earnestly by Om Puri) is made to sit in the middle of the library – with all the other primary characters surrounding him - the staging begins to resemble a wheel, with Avinash as the pivot. Having settled thus, the ambush commences, with each character seeking an individual audience with Avinash to engage him in an ideological debate and condemn ‘people’ like him and Amrit of inciting violence in the region. Avinash, up for the task, forces them to come to terms with their existence on their private island of ignorance – he shows them for what they really are – individuals who seek the comfort of illustrious company and educated conversation to blanket their hollow selves.  Throughout most of the scene, Nihalani shoots the two people involved immediately in the dialogue (Avinash and any of the other characters) as if they are the only ones present in the scene – as such, he adopts the shooting-schema employed to shoot the two-three character repartee in the other scenes of the film, with the examinee placed always in the foreground, and Avinash, always in the background (as he causes the collapse of yet another pretense). Therefore, this sequence becomes typical of the departure that Party makes from Nihalani’s first three films – in that there is not merely a single confrontation conducted privately, but a network of confrontations that is set-up in the company of other men.

In this crucial scene in the film, Avinash is confronted with questions from all diagonals

In the penultimate scene of the film, the action has now shifted to the party downstairs – the ensemble of characters which has now absorbed Avinash into itself, settles around modest furniture : a sofa, two comfy chairs and resumes their conversation when someone calls on the house-telephone for Avinash. He moves off-screen to pick up. When he returns a minute later, his face is pale and all blood has drained from it – Amrit has been killed. At this point, Amrit reveals the ‘actual’ series of events that led up to this murder – Amrit and he, he says, were attacked by a group of goons who rendered him unconscious and then, when he came to in the morning, he discovered Amrit in the vicinity, with his face all bloodied and his tongue severed.

Much like any other Nihalani-protagonist, Amrit is punished for his unwavering fidelity to an ideology (much like Mike Lobo in Ardh Satya (1983), or Dev in Dev (2004))  – the idea of ‘speech’ (or the spoken word) as a emblem of freedom is spread through the early Nihalani-filmography as well. Bhiku Lahanya, the unjustly accused tribal in Aakrosh (1980), does not speak a word throughout the film, until the end, when a loud cry (the eponymous 'Aakrosh') liberates him – the act of tongue-severing in Party is the most brutal manner in which Amrit’s symbolic freedom (or speech) can be seized from him. His death, as Avinash says, ‘liberates’ him. In the final scene of Party, its strangest, the young poet-prospect and the ageing award-recipient both have a common vision at night – the image of the bloodied, pleading, despondent and mutilated face of Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah) appears to both of them like the Ghost of Christmas Past – Amrit haunts them as a token of the sincerity that both of them have shred for different purposes (ageing writer : critical acclaim, young writer : fame). And much like his first three films, Nihalani returns his characters to seclusion in the last scene of Party in order for them to make their gravest personal discoveries.


1. Le Regle De Jeu – The Rules of the Game, a 1939 film by Jean Renoir considered, through general consensus, as one of the best films ever made.