Shahani’s melodrama, based on Chekov’s little- known short story, tells of Maniram (Singh), an old-style entrepreneur in a small township in the mountains of Kangra, who made his fortune adulterating food. His business is run by the canny Tejo (Vasisht), the wife of his mentally retarded younger son (Yadav) and the Shakespearean fool in the story. His elder son Dhani (Sinha) is doing well in a government- related business in Delhi which turns out to be the printing of counterfeit currency. Dhani is brought back and married, in local style, to Tara (Hansra); however, he gets drunk on his wedding night, scatters some counterfeit notes and leaves for the city, his marriage still unconsummated. Tara is impregnated by a local fixer (Raina) and gives birth to a son who stands to inherit the family property. News of Dhani’s arrest and the police crackdown on Maniram’s corrupt enterprise is accompanied by Tejo’s ruthless take-over of local power. She kills Tara’s child, builds an electric substation on her father-in-law’s land and seduces the vacuous son of a local industrialist into becoming her partner. Her machinations are intercut with the aimless travels of a benumbed Tara holding her dead child, finding solace among the wandering minstrels and the hill tribes. Much of the film deploys a savage irony, as e.g. Shatrughan Sinha, a major Hindi star effectively playing ‘himself’, is presented as a small-town braggart trying to imitate his own swaggering style, or the poignant ‘budha bhangda’ (dance for elderly Sikhs) playing over a drunken Maniram among the flashing lights of his son’s ostentatious marriage. The melodrama verges repeatedly on the satirical, chronicling a decaying nationalism and the end of modernist dreams of self-reliance, epitomised by Maniram’s manic second wife (Samarth) spouting religious mumbo-jumbo, which in no way detracts from these ideologies’ political power. The only characters who find their way out of the cultural quagmire are the ‘moonstruck’ younger son and the nameless fixer, in the song at the end when he clutches a tree in the nude. The film’s main generic achievement is to recall to the melodrama its original function, of integrating marginalised peoples and their languages into a mainstream culture. It also provides the film’s most crucial ironic edge in its implicit suggestion that in order to do so melodrama has to first invent a mainstream.
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This film is based on the short story "In the Ravine" by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Read More