Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Meeting Govind Nihalani

Govind Nihalani is a huge man. He literally towers over you. And, also overwhelms you with his thoughts which he verbalizes, though, with remarkable simplicity. But there is such strength in his words that they leave you in awe of a man who is still better known as a cinematographer than a director.

A well-known cartoonist once quipped that Nihalani was an excellent cameraman, but a rank bad director. He cited other examples to prove his point: often a great cricketer turns out to be a poor captain; a versatile actor could fail as a director. Indeed, we have seen these.

But, in Nihalani’s case, I would hesitate a little to agree with the cartoonist. For, I have seen some great cinema from Nihalani. We all have. “Aakrosh” in 1978, “Ardh Satya” in 1983, “Tamas” in 1987, “Deham” in 2001 and “Dev” in 2004.

Yes, he has brilliantly photographed some films, notably Shyam Benegal’s early work, including the unforgettable “Bhumika”. Girish Karnad’s “Kadu” is another trophy on the cinematographer’s mantle shelf.

Yet, it is quite another game, quite another experience to wield the megaphone. As the skipper of the movie vessel, you are not just in command of a sea of cinema, but will be ultimately responsible for any crack that may show up.

As for Nihalani, he has captained his ship with near admirable skill. What is more, his choice of subjects has been apt. “Ardh Satya” speaks of police brutality, and the politician-criminal nexus that surfaced in the 1980s India. Nihalani returns to this mockery called bureaucracy, post Godhra, in his latest “Dev”. What I particularly liked about this movie is the positivism that runs along with conscience and fairplay having an upper hand.

These human traits, Nihalani tells me during an interview in Chennai (April 2006), go beyond “material achievement”, which in India is now synonymous with “globalisation”. A sense of well being now emerges out of a sense of possession. “People have begun to feel that unless you have this or that, you are neither complete nor happy”, he says. “The ethical and the moral dimension are right now on the back-burner. Since most people hanker after materialism, caring little for principles, social acceptance of such want and the often questionable means to achieve this is hardly a factor.”

Contrary to this, “there is another stream that is developing. There are some who feel that certain values, such as justice, must survive. The Jessica Lal case is a good example of an awakening urban conscience”, Nihalani remarks.

It is this thread that one sees and feels pleased with in “Dev”, where one friend kills another, but is so overcome with remorse and guilt that he commits suicide. Om Puri plays this pivotal part, with Amitabh Bachchan as his friend who is murdered. At the end of the film, a strong sense of right and wrong is messaged to us. More important, Nihalani gives Puri’s character a multidimensional feel. “If I had let him live, he would have been like a cartoon, absolutely flat”.

Nihalani’s cinema often deals with such thought provoking images. His “Deham” (made before “Dev”) is a powerful movie that shows “how a certain kind of colonization is taking place with the help of technology”. “Deham”, loosely based on Manjula Padmanabhan’s play, ‘Harvest’ is about organ sale and transplant, and we see technology-rich countries trying to colonise the developing world through illegal and immoral acts of organ theft.

The story is straight: a man is asked by a multinational company to sit at home and is paid a fabulous salary. In return he has to donate his organs, one after another, and these are replaced with artificial implants!

Nihalani -- who was in Chennai to participate in the “Lights On” programme, conceived and curated by Prassanna Ramaswamy at Sathyam Cinemas – says, “this is the vision of the future. It is speculative, but it is a vision as valid as any other. Suddenly, it may change.”

He asks, “do we need this?” And he answers himself by saying that “there is one word that gives us dignity as human beings, and that is ‘No’. We can always refuse.”

Nihalani’s movies are in some ways solution driven. At least, we find an explanation for the violence and hatred he portrays, and in this lays an answer, perhaps to society’s current ills. “Brutality does not stand on its own. It is brought about by some institutions being in some situations. There is always a trigger point. We are all prone to anger...”

Nihalani says that he lets events overtake him, guide him towards the choice of a subject. “Ardh Satya’ came at a time when the police-politician-criminal nexus was rearing its ugly head, and ‘Dev’ was a continuation of ‘Ardh Satya’ in spirit. In term of concerns, I would say ‘Dev’ followed ‘Tamas’ (his five-hour epic on Partition). ‘Tamas’ underlined communal violence egged on by unfeeling political processes.”

Barring a few, most of Nihalani’s films tackle extraordinarily serious themes. They could be personal and intimate, like in “Takshak”, where the protagonist views his weapon as a toy to manipulate the world, suggesting a link between today’s generation and organised crime. Or, they could be broad, encompassing wider issues: “Dev” is indicative of this, where Nihalani uses an abiding friendship between two men to pan towards a large canvas of deep-rooted social malaise.

Nihalani chooses the complexities of truth and loyalty, and tries to define what they really are in the present context. Where did Puri’s loyalty to Bachchan in “Dev” transform into loyalty to the State? The director skates on thin ice when he is attempting to answer this and many other questions. But he simplifies his content and sticks to traditional narrative forms to present a cinema of substance that is, above all, immensely enjoyable.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated May 12 2006)