Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) is based on a pre-independence uprising in Telangana. Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay and Satyadev Dubey’s dialogue capture a flagrant feudal system. More populous and complex than its predecessor Ankur (1974) and more obvious in its patriarchal structure, the pulse of Nishant is in the plight of its women – whether the wife and mistress of the main narrative or those who make up the smaller stories. Women are made wives, mothers, pawns, prey and catalysts; men are ravenous, inexorable maws.
Slow, repetitive and often ponderous, Nishant takes its time to acquaint the audience with the iniquities of an established, uninterrupted way of life. A band of self-indulgent zamindar brothers holds a small village and its neighbouring district in a death grip. Anna, the eldest brother-turned-patriarch (a perfectly cast Amrish Puri), sets the standard with low growls and a long stick. Land can be seized, livestock looted and women raped. For those who resist this brazen regime, there are beatings, evictions, pre-arranged jail sentences or all three. Still hoping for no worse than they already suffer, the deprived plead for the blessings of their exploiters.
Susheela (Shabana Azmi) is the somewhat discontented but spirited young wife of a dignified, middle-aged schoolmaster (Girish Karnad). Outsiders to the village and soon to be the unintentional agents of change, the couple arrive with their young son and begin life in shabby quarters. Secure and fearless, dressed in conspicuously clean sarees, Susheela swings her small bag as she sets about her errands outside the house. There is an unconscious sexuality about her, which attracts Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah, in his excellent debut performance), the youngest and least loutish of the zamindar brothers.
Vishwam’s window shopping amuses his brothers (Mohan Agashe and Anant Nag), an inebriated, debauched duo. They had once been husbands (one’s wife had committed suicide and the other’s fled) but now both are single and neither sorrier. Gleefully, they organise Susheela’s abduction, declaring her a prize for the mumbling Vishwam, though, needless to say, Susheela would service them too.
In the depiction of a traumatic rape where the brothers claim their pound of flesh, Benegal’s signature restraint provides nothing for the voyeur. Behind a half-open door we see one of the brothers grip Susheela’s ankles and we hear her moan piteously. We then see Susheela unable to even open her mouth.
When Susheela’s eyes flicker open, Vishwam is at the door moistening his lips in anticipation of pleasures to come. Susheela’s sob is now a weak plea, a defeated whimper as she turns on her side, curling herself in a foetal position.
Vishwam does not touch her that night and returns to his wife, Rukmini (Smita Patil). He doesn’t touch her either.
The most poignant moments in the film are when mistress and wife are in the same frame. Rukmini is initially gentle with Susheela, the wife who has been violated and the mother who is lost to her child. However, Rukmini’s tone changes when she discovers Susheela is Vishwam’s obsession. On the other hand, even as Susheela develops clout, she cannot forget Rukmini’s kindness. Prisoners of shared circumstances and slated for the same destiny, the women find themselves in a subconscious, indefinable amity. Superb performances from both Azmi and Patil illustrate Benegal’s understanding of women as survivors even when they are stripped of all dignity.
Lower down the social ladder, survival has to do with sycophancy born of fear. In his journey for justice, Susheela’s husband finds himself a lone crusader. No villager is prepared to give testimony, the words of the fatalistic priest are cold comfort, and a hierarchy of officials provides platitudes in tones of indifference or with misogynistic humour. Benegal finds unforgettable faces for minor characters – the maid of the manor, the nameless woman plucked off the fields by Vishwam’s brothers, the good woman next door to the schoolmaster’s quarters and even the officious magistrate who ignores the pleas of Susheela’s desperate husband.
It is possible to causally link the characters of Ankur and Nishant. The bullying young zamindar of Ankur could well be an urban sibling of the rapacious brothers in Nishant. The helpless onlookers of the brutality in Ankur could find themselves in the outraged rabble in Nishant’s final scenes. The child who smashes the zamindar’s window in Ankur has his counterpart in Nishant’s new generation, who learn that the dark era of subservience is over. However, as Anuradha Dingwaney Needham points out her intricate analysis of both films in New Indian Cinema in Post–Independence India: The Cultural work of Shyam Benegal’s Films (Routledge) the audience of Nishant may well wonder “what to make of a revolt that leaves behind such comprehensive destruction of both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, oppressor and oppressed’”.
While Ankur remains a milestone in Indian cinema, Nishant is the more problematic and compelling film.