Haraamkhor and Other Tales from Small-Town India

Pop Culture

Haraamkhor and Other Tales from Small-Town India

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Last weekend Shlok Sharma’s Haraamkhor finally released after a protracted battle with the Central Board of Film Certification. The movie, which won the Silver Gateway Award at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2015, was stuck with the board because of its provocative theme: The “love story” of Sandhya, a 15-year-old girl, and Shyam, her 35-year-old school teacher, set in a small industrial town in Madhya Pradesh. The CBFC’s major objection was that Haraamkhor portrayed its titular character, the teacher played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in a poor light.

Yet, the teacher-student relationship is only a loose backdrop for an incision into small-town India. The duo’s relationship is reflected in several other odd pairings: In the friendship between Mintu and Kamal, Sandhya’s tuition mates; in her father’s affair with a nurse he wants to marry; in the marriage between Shyam and Sunita, also his former student.

Haraamkhor goes on to address statutory rape, teenage pregnancy, parental alienation, and love, taking the context out of our overexposed metros. Its most convincing vignettes are set at the open drinking water station in a sarkari school, against the fading distempered walls of the schoolteacher’s quarters, on unpaved roads where the protagonists are forced to ride a dated Luna, and in the dusty, flat plains where windmills churn on.

It’s a small film with a short story told on a large canvas. It’s also a heartening reminder of how far we’ve come in witnessing a kind of film that, during the ’80s, could not even have been classified as “parallel cinema”. These are films helmed by producers and directors convinced that their actors, their script, and their firm grip on their contexts – not their budgets or their stars – are enough to pull in an audience.

Haraamkhor is a part of a conversation started a decade and a half ago by Gulaal, by Haasil, by Dor, by Khosla Ka Ghosla. It is possible to make and release a film like Haraamkhor today because it has predecessors like Manorama Six Feet Under, Peepli Live, and Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi. This mainstreaming of the small Hindi indie has been possible because of directors like Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Dibakar Banerjee.

But this isn’t a class-mass divide anymore as much as a toss-up between whether one wants to escape that weekend or whether one wants to think.

In a freewheeling chat with Arré last year, Banerjee spoke about two kinds of films (and two kinds of audiences) that exist in India, drawing a parallel with two movies that stood on opposite ends of 2015’s filmic spectrum. The one, Bollywood, has one purpose alone: to entertain, to provide an escape, “like Bajrangi Bhaijaan does.” “The other, which we may call anything ranging from indie to art cinema, makes us think,” he said. “Masaan is an example. I’d go watch both films – Masaan because I’d like to be engaged with it and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, out of a sense of curiosity.” Banerjee noted that a large number of people, mostly the urban elite, within the small audience for Masaan will also watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan. But only a minuscule portion from the huge audience for Bajrangi Bhaijaan would go in the reverse direction to seek out Masaan.

But this isn’t a class-mass divide anymore as much as a toss-up between whether one wants to escape that weekend or whether one wants to think. As Banerjee pointed out, he never thought his films would find favour in smaller towns. “I found bigger fans of a political film like Shanghai among business people,” he said. “I don’t think we have fully tapped the depth and breadth of the potential of our market.”

He went on to discuss why Bollywood has so special a place in our minds. “Its religiosity is bigger than Hollywood,” he said. “Abroad they have weekend activities: they go fishing or take up adventure sports. And we? We have cinema. It’s everything perhaps because we are a poor country. Our escape is often an image.” Escapist fare usually offers the comfort of familiarity and easy ingestion, said Banerjee. Earlier, Bollywood’s tropes were family, patriarchy, and a woman’s chastity. “Now, the new tropes are teenage love – never mind that a 40-year-old actor will still play that teenager,” he said.

But there are silver linings even to such a reticulated star system. Aamir Khan, said Banerjee, has at least attempted to explore a range of films and directors. “He was in Raakh, for Christ’s sake. He was also in Dhobi Ghat,” said Banerjee. “Bollywood has a number of intelligent stars who are willing to experiment. But often, their experimentation is limited by the talent and ingenuity of the directors that they find and the ability of the audience to accept new, provocative, challenging, and exciting cinema.”

That might be changing, with Haraamkhor’s acceptance. Banerjee remains sanguine about the future. “One of the best statements to come out of Bollywood is what Adi Chopra told me one day,” he recalled. “He said that he fervently believed that ‘what is niche today will be mainstream tomorrow.’ And that is my hope for Bollywood.”

With inputs from Shaikh Ayaz