Cinema on the Critical Edge

Shyam Benegal's Seventh Horse of the Sun and Kehtan Mehta's Maya Memsaab reviewed
By Ameen Merchant and Yasmin Jiwani

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The flutter surrounding the debut of The Burning Season unfortunately caste a dampening shadow on some of the other Indian films screened at the recent Vancouver International Film Festival. Bhaji on the Beach by Gurinder Chada, The Seventh Horse of the Sun by Shyam Benegal, and Maya Memsaab by Kehtan Mehta were among the richest, most deeply textured and insightful films to be screened. These films represent the critical edge of the parallel Indian cinema, and of diasporic cinema, for they testify to the subtlety of human interactions and the complexity of emotions that propel our journeys through life and love.

The following review concentrates on the work of Kehtan Mehta and Shyam Benegal. And, while most film reviews tend to evade the detailed imagery of the works being examined, we prefer to privilege these details as they exemplify the well crafted symbolism of the films and the weaving of narrative forms that Mehta and Benegal use to communicate their messages.

Maya as Illusion, Mehta's metaphor of Reality

This innovative ‘who dunnit' traces the absence of a presence that never was—of Maya, an illusory creature who liberates herself from the various fetters of middle-class existence.

The film begins with a visual of rippling water which gradually congeals to form the words—Maya; the image resonates with the archetypal story of creation—of illusion/society emerging from the primeval soup of creative energy. Illusion stands in sharp contrast to the grounded historicity of social institutions, of the material reality that is society. This poetic beginning shifts abruptly to a shot of a woman in a darkened haveli. Against a haunting soundtrack which refers to "Mayajagi" — maya awakened, the camera follows the woman as she dons her finery, red and gold embroidered clothes, evoking the grandeur of the past and inscribing the class-status of her existence. Against the pale waning moon outside, she carries a lantern, the candle-light reflecting and visually merging with the moon outside. She appears like a ghost as she glides her way through the cavernous haveli, her face taking on an other-worldly hue. Suddenly an elderly man appears at the top of a staircase, "Maya" he calls out, and as she turns to face him, he falls down the stairs, his body gathering momentum until it crashes on the floor. So begins Maya Memsaab.

True liberation can only occur when the act of imagination translates into the materiality of action.

This dramatic beginning sets the stage for the investigation that forms the core of the story. Two detectives whose character traits evince a collage of archetypal detective figures, become the narratorial links, piecing together remnants of information to mould our understanding of what has happened. They become the tools by which we come to know that the investigation concerns Maya's disappearance, and not as the beginning would lead us to believe, her father's death/injury. What ensues is an investigation that uncovers the fleeting relationships that constituted Maya's life—relationships with her ailing father, her physician husband, and her two illicit lovers—one an underworld crime figure, and the other a bumbling romantic buffoon. Their memories and recollections make up Maya's life, showing us her struggles against the normatively sanctioned world of the middle-class wife, and her constant search for liberation through romantic escapes fashioned on the paradigms of love as proffered by two-penny romances and popular hindi films.

Maya's quest for the illusion that is romantic love, paves the way for her personal bankruptcy as she wholeheartedly engages in a spending spree, purchasing the latest of fashions and attempting to decorate her house to suit the latest ‘look.' Every scene reveals her in garments that appear as if they have materialized from the pages of Vogue and Cosmo. Gauze, chiffon, silks in white, black and purple spill over the screen as Maya becomes more and more of an enchanting/enchanted illusion.

As with most illusions, Maya disappears into the stark light of (un)reality. After ingesting a potion that promises to grant eternal realization of one's inner desires, she disappears into thin air. All that is left of her is a black chiffon and silk dress, a sign of a presence that has become an absence. In semiotic terms, Maya as a sign, liberates herself from the entire sign system that constitutes Mehta's narrative.

Obviously, Mehta is taking a jab at the constraining structures that define and hamper women's lives in middle-class Indian society. Not surprisingly, the film itself is an Indian adaptation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary , yet another treatment of middle-class drudgery and the various forms of escapes and fantasies that provide moments of relief. Maya then is the sign emblematizing the ambivalences of societal definitions of woman, the dichotomies of conformity and non-conformity, where the former makes existence real or meaningful within the sign system that is the sanctioned social reality, and the latter refers to a contesting world where the definition of a good woman is countered by the definition of a loose woman. These binary gendered creations testify to the social constructions of woman that are tailored for male consumption and control. Caught between the interstices of these worlds, Maya chooses to liberate herself completely—removing herself from both these worlds. She absences herself.

However, while caught between these constructions, Maya goes through a process whereby she internalizes this dichotomy for she refers to herself in the third person. She herself identifies her liberation seeking counterpart as an ‘other'—as someone who will lead her to her doom. At a superficial level, Maya appears as a schizophrenic or a manic depressive, caught between the euphoria of mania and the nadir of depression; between herself as a moral, conventional housewife, and herself as a free-spirited heroine of some romantic fiction. Through her, Mehta shows the pathology of societal institutions and patriarchal power as they work to imprison woman as a gendered construction within a binary framework—present and absent at the same time.

The film ends with a scene where Maya's diary is thrown into a lake. The visual of the ink dissolving and blending with the water lingers as if to symbolize the disintegration of an illusion. The only document that provides any material evidence of Maya's existence is lost. Her version of her self writes itself into absence.

In keeping with the shaping dynamic of the film which problematizes the colluding and conflicting definitions of reality/illusion, the ending lends itself to just this doubled reading. On the one hand, Maya's disappearance signified by her dissolving words can be seen as liberatory where woman writes herself out of the dominant paradigm of meaning and signification. On the other hand, the dissolution of identity can be seen as a triumphant act of patriarchal erasure - where woman becomes an aberration that consolidates the rationale for male-defined gender roles.

The Seventh Horse of the Sun

Set in the 40s/50s, The Seventh Horse of the Sun is a departure of sorts for director Shyam Benegal. Unlike his other films, such as. Trikal , Kalyug and Mandi, Seventh Horse is a tragicomedy. Not unlike Maya which traces the space between reality and illusion, Benegal's film is an exploration of the interstices between truth and fiction. What on the surface seems like a simple tale of (un)requited love takes on a layering that inaugurates issues of narratorial authority, metafictionality and the whole act of story-telling.

At the centre of the film is Mannek Mulla, a young railway clerk who, over an informal gathering of friends, recounts his numerous encounters with love. As the synopsis of the film suggests, rather than defining what love is, with every story he tells, Mannek ends up describing what does not constitute love. In intricate detail, Benegal uses Mannek to describe one man's experience with three different women, Jumna, Lily and Satti.

Much like an origama sculpture, Benegal begins the film with a portrait shot of a painting. As the film moves from one frame to another, he teases out the complex layers of life and love that weave in and out of Mannek's narrative. Each layer reveals what was omitted before, and at the same time, the shifting angles expose a different perspective on the same issue.
Interestingly, Mannek has been involved in the lives of all three women at virtually the same time. The interweaving of the tales makes it unclear as to when one affair ends and another begins: Beginning with Jumna, Mannek outlines her unrequited love for the boy next door, Tanna, and her subsequent marriage to a wealthy man old enough to be her father. Mannek assumes the role of confidante and inserts himself into Jumna's life, following her into marriage and widowhood, and alluding to her affair with her husband's coachman. In the meantime, Mannek picks up the strands of Tanna's life, tracing the latter's marriage to Lily, with whom Mannek has erstwhile had an affair. Mannek instructs Lily to go ahead with her marriage to Tanna rather than make a commitment himself. He then goes on to describe his relationship with Satti, yet another woman who has succumbed to his charms. He betrays her when she tries to run away from a lecherous old man (Tanna's father). Thinking that Satti has killed herself, Mannek concludes his tale.

What is revealing about this seemingly implausible narrative is Mannek's choice of detail and his insertion into the lives of these women. The women represent three different strata of society. Jumna is the middle- class girl next door, Lily is the upper-class, educated woman, and Satti is the working-class, migrant woman. In the layering of these stories, it becomes evident how these women define each other's subjectivity and yet are without any autonomy, for it is finally Mannek who controls their lives through his narrative and imagination. He becomes the principal actor in their lives, orchestrating their actions, and telling their stories.

Despite the fact that Mannek has the authorial power, his renderings of these tales, casts him as a highly dubious character; a man with no scruples, commitment or moral courage. He uses the women to satisfy his own whims and fulfil his repressed fantasies. At the same time the women are portrayed as seemingly strong, resilient and active. The truth of Mannek's stories is questionable, and this is where Benegal exposes the unreliability of both the narrator and the narrative. In other words, how much of Mannek's narratorial forays are we to accept as truth, and how much are we to interpret as a past reconstructed—a past retold with much male imaginative licence.

Benegal's main point in this film is to demonstrate the power of the male authorial voice, and its assumption of its right to penetrate in other lives.

Benegal's main point in this film is to demonstrate the power of the male authorial voice, and its assumption of its right to penetrate into other lives. Not only are these other lives primarily those of women, constructed around and within Mannek's narrative, but they are used to enhance his status. Outwardly expressing his marginality in these lives, Mannek in the process of retelling, consolidates his centrality in the narrative. That Benegal manages to twist this structure to foreground Mannek's own weaknesses is the essential subversion within the film. As Benegal himself put it in a response to an irate audience member's complaint regarding the negative representation of men, "that was the main point of the film."

In part, Benegal seems to be saying that it is the social structure/system that perpetuates inequalities which are detrimental to both genders; both men and women lose in the end as they conform to prevailing social dictates and normative rules. Yet, the brunt of the present system is most harshly felt in the lives of women. For no matter how strong they are, they are still contained within an oppressive system, their potentialities smothered by that system. And this is where the title of the film takes on another layer of signification.

The seventh horse of the sun refers to the mythology of the Indian Sun god—Surya—whose chariot is pulled by seven horses, each horse representing a day of the week. The seventh horse signifies the end of the cycle but also the beginning of another—the future. Benegal's film draws on this parallel in the ordering of Mannek's stories, and in particular, the ordering of his affairs. For the last affair which presumably ends with the fictionalized death of Satti marks the beginning of a new cycle. She reappears, years later, in a mist-filled market place just at the point when Mannek is expressing his regret over his inability to save her. Fiction becomes reality as suddenly Mannek sees her and chases after her. Following Satti into the mist points to the beginning of yet another story, only this time, one located in the here and now and signalling the promise of a new social order.

In bringing to crisis fact and fiction, narration and realization, Benegal reveals the hope that resides in the corridor where these merge, shading into one another. True liberation can only occur when the act of imagination translates into the materiality of action.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ameen Merchant
Ameen Merchant is an author.
Yasmin Jiwani
Yasmin Jiwani is a cultural worker, a writer and a student of Communications in Vancouver.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre