Shyam Benegal’s first feature film, Ankur, released in 1974 which also marked the debut of Anant Nag and Shabana Azmi disentangles the intricacies of caste, class and gender in both rural and urban settings in a really simplified yet enlightening way. Today, after 45 years of its release, let’s take a look at the movie keeping in mind the caste, class and gender elements still prevalent in our society.
Surya, played by Anant Nag, is forced to give up on higher studies to look after his father’s property. He has to shift to the village in order to take care of the farms and crops. Before shifting, he gets married but does not take his wife along with him. In the village, he falls in love with the domestic worker, Lakshmi played by Shabana Azmi and promises to take care of her forever, after her husband apparently abandons her.
Finally, Surya’s wife Saru played by the late social activist Priya Tendulkar returns to be with him in the village. Meanwhile, Lakshmi gets pregnant. Surya pleads her to abort the child because he cannot take the responsibility. She refuses to oblige him. Lakshmi’s husband Kishtayya played by Sadhu Meher, returns back to her during the ending of the movie and hands her the money that he earned, while he was away. He also thinks that the baby is his and Lakshmi’s. However, the story does not end here, but has more than the eye can see.
The only order of system he breaks is when he orders Lakshmi of the potter Dalit caste to cook for him, instead of the priest. But in this sphere too, he constantly dominates her and shows sexual interest towards her, as is clearly indicated by his male gaze.
The Intersections of Caste, Class and Gender
In the film, Ankur, the villagers of the potter caste are shown to celebrate a separate festival for themselves. This segregation on the basis of caste is also shown towards the end of the film when Kishtayya takes Lakshmi to their own village god’s temple, to pray for blessing them with a child. Industrialization that paved the way for capitalism has only led to exploitation of the working classes is proved by the fact that Kishtayya, Lakshmi’s deaf and mute husband has lost his job because the villagers now buy only aluminium vessels and not the ones made of mud or clay.
Although Surya proudly claims that he does not believe in caste system, his attitudes and behaviour hint at just the opposite. The villagers are always shown to be in a subordinate position to him. They always salute him and the local police Sheikh Chand, also lights the cigarette for him. There is a clear cut division of labour shown amongst the barber, farmers and priest. The only order of system he breaks is when he orders Lakshmi of the potter Dalit caste to cook for him, instead of the priest. But in this sphere too, he constantly dominates her and shows sexual interest towards her, as is clearly indicated by his male gaze. Thus, he ultimately exploits and oppresses her, both on the basis of caste and gender.
The village head is depicted as the ultimate decision maker of the community. He forces Rajamma, who wanted a divorce from her impotent husband, to go back to him. Further, he rebukes her for having relationship with a man from another village and caste. Not only that, he clearly mentions that a woman does not only belong to her husband but the entire household, caste and community. So, even if her husband cannot satisfy her, the brother in laws can compensate for it. Hence, it’s implied that a woman’s choice of a sexual partner cannot be taken into consideration. She has to be the passive recipient in any sexual relationship, leave aside her emotional satisfaction!
The festival of Diwali marks the ultimate capitalist exploitation. The poor village children could only have a glance of the display of pomp and splendor by Surya. On the eve of Diwali, he engages in gambling and drinking with other upper caste men of the village. One of the men even puts his wife at stake during this foul play.
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In spite of being a moderately educated guy, Surya had agreed to marry a child bride. Further, while waiting for her to grow up, he involves in an incestuous relationship with Lakshmi to fulfill his sexual urge. Instead of trying to change the system, Surya succumbed to the pressure of masculinity. He readily agreed to his wife when she refused to let Lakshmi cook on account of purity and pollution.
Saru also mentions in a scene that since she was of the lower caste, she would better be falling sick in her own house. He also pressurizes Lakshmi to abort their illegitimate child and bluntly refuses to take its responsibility, if born unlike his father. Although he had promised to take care of Lakshmi forever, he finally abandons her and verbally abuses her in front of his wife Saru.
It is this guilty conscience that made him profusely whip Kishtayya at the end of the film. While Kishtayya was coming to Surya with a stick in his hands just for getting back his job as a bullock cart rider, Surya thought that he was coming to thrash him for impregnating his wife on account of his greater physical strength. This is the most vivid scene of class oppression on the basis of the caste in the film.
In spite of being a moderately educated guy, Surya had agreed to marry a child bride. Further, while waiting for her to grow up, he involves in an incestuous relationship with Lakshmi to fulfill his sexual urge. Instead of trying to change the system, Surya succumbed to the pressure of masculinity.
What is most interesting in the film is the depiction of Surya in the process of repeating his father’s deeds. Although, it’s portrayed from the beginning that he questions his mother for tolerating his father’s concubine and their son for 20 years, he repeats the same thing. But instead of taking the responsibility of Lakshmi and their unborn child, he bluntly shuns off. Although the caste of Kaushalya and her son Pratap is not clearly shown, it’s confusing as to why the father lectures about caste hierarchies in the society to his son, because in reality Surya is just redoing the history.
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Movies can play a very vital role in enhancing and challenging the realities of our society. I believe true revolution will only come when movies like Ankur, will become a part of our mainstream cinema and not only parallel cinema. Also, every profession, every actor, every director has some social responsibilities which must be fulfilled. Especially, today when we watch movies like Kabir Singh being hit in the theatres among masses, one can’t help but applaud actors like Shabana Azmi who were bold enough to take up such socially important movies, like Ankur, in their debut.
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