Master and Slave (Masculine) Morality: ‘Nishant’ (1976)

by Anand Sudha

‘The oppressor would not be so strong if he did not have accomplices among the oppressed.’

– Simone de Beauvoir

The temple jewels have been stolen. The villagers are dumbstruck, apprehensive of the vengeance of the gods. A villager remarks that this is a job for the police, and there is a cut to a gun hanging on the wall of an ancestral home, next to a photo of a model lifting her pants teasingly. The finger of a man resting on the frame of his furniture can be seen, albeit blurrily, and clamours of the villagers calling for their master can be heard. The camera then pans to a life-sized portrait of an older man, modestly dressed to lend a degree of respectability, before gradually descending to reveal the feet of the subject, with a man, presumably a servant, entering the frame. The servant is massaging the body of a heavily muscled man, who turns his gaze towards the clamouring populace.

This powerfully ambiguous sequence is from Shyam Bengal’s Nishant, a film which more explicitly chronicles the entrenched slave morality of a village oppressed by the terrifying zamindar (village head, and the muscled man in the aforementioned sequence), and observes their gradual conversion from servility to murderous rage. The story deals with the arrival of a new schoolmaster (Girish Karnad) to the village, whose wife, Sushila (Shabana Azmi), is abducted by the zamindar’s brothers, and how he galvanises the villagers to rebel against the zamindar. Multiple variations of this plotline have been filmed and continue to be filmed, but Benegal’s sensitive handling of this material channels both rage and disgust, drawing attention to the plight of the female while critiquing commercial Indian cinema as well.

The above sequence at the beginning of the film is a stellar example of Benegal’s nuanced critique of heroism. Some aspects of the sequence hark back to the classic hero introduction shot in mainstream Indian cinema, a rousing invitation to establish his mettle to the excited audience whose appetite has already been whetted by the opening scenes of injustice. However, the same set of shots can also be easily applied to the villain, a man of towering monstrosity befitting the mythical hero. The differences lie in the colour scheme, music, the tone of the clamouring voices and the ultimate reveal of the actor’s expression through the movement of the camera. Benegal skewers both formulae here, opting for naturalistic lighting, eschewing any non-diegetic music, rendering the voices with a tone of servility, and deflating all expectations with the casual, mildly frustrated expression of the zamindar (Amrish Puri), thereby blurring all the boundaries between heroes and villains. 

Considering the premise, there might be a temptation to look at the schoolmaster as some sort of hero, but the film never accords him that status. His introduction shot is rather ordinary, showing him and his family arriving in the village in a bullock cart, to the idyllic strains of flutes and strings. One could argue that while this isn’t heroic, the film still views his family with a lot more warmth, thereby elevating him over the villagers to emerge as an ideal instigator of rebellion. However, the main reason for this sentimental portrayal is because of his outsider status, the only man whose notion of social institutions and relations hasn’t (yet) been disabused, thus making him less inured to the atrocities of the zamindar family. Many of the women in the village are raped by the zamindar and his two hedonistic brothers, and these women are subsequently discarded by their husbands for being ‘defiled’. This hypocrisy serves to mask their meekness in the face of the zamindar’s demands, as they were the ones who slavishly sent their wives without consent.

The zamindar’s third brother, Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah), is the most sensitive of the brothers, and the only one who is married. He doesn’t possess the brash machismo of his brothers, and he could even be considered tender, stuttering his words as he speaks, pouting his face apologetically even if he tries to assert himself. However, he tries to bring out his inner macho by wielding the zamindar’s gun and drinking beyond his capacity to match his hedonistic brothers, as his surroundings teem with an excess of testosterone. He doesn’t participate in rape, unlike his brothers, out of a sense of loyalty to his wife, Rukmini (Smita Patil, in her debut). This is until he sets his eyes on Sushila and is smitten with love, awkwardly staring at her until his brothers notice his desire. His hitherto suppressed entitlement finally comes to the fore, acquiescing to his brothers’ plan of bringing her to him. This entitlement is also meek and apologetic, but it nonetheless participates in and perpetuates oppression.

Benegal’s fascination for the irresolute among the privileged began in Ankur (1974, his debut) and continues in this film, where beta male-ish characters who distance themselves from their entitlement suddenly realise the benefits of that entitlement, with the enslaved woman, often played by Shabana Azmi, always taking the fall for them. I may be in the minority, but I find Nishant to be far better realised than Ankur, which portrayed its working-class characters as (somewhat) clichéd salt-of-the-earth types as it neglected some of the aspirations of its privileged character. Perhaps the presence of Vijay Tendulkar, a famous playwright, as the screenwriter might have allowed Benegal to hone his characters and themes, sustaining a multiplicity of emotions through his unflashy visual grammar. 

Benegal’s use of long shots is particularly striking here, both in daylight and at dusk. While most filmmakers use oppressive acts to stir our rage for the oppressed, Benegal makes the film more excruciating by directing our attention to the self-imposed powerlessness of the oppressed. The abduction scene of Sushila is a prime example of this duality. The two brothers arrive at the schoolmaster’s house and abduct Sushila as soon as she opens the door. The schoolmaster runs after her, trying to fight them off as she screams. More and more villagers gather near the house, staring helplessly as her screams reach their highest pitch. Benegal films all of this in one long shot, as the brothers push the schoolmaster and drive away in the car. The schoolmaster slowly walks back to his house, accusing the villagers of not helping him, only to be met by the slavish stillness of the villagers. Their muteness is powerfully indicated through the intricate use of off-screen sound which interweaves the exaggerated chirping of crickets with the softer, mournful chants of a lone woman that almost function as a Greek chorus.  

The film abounds with such depictions of the complicity of the oppressed, who run to the zamindar for every small issue in the village and sheepishly accept his brothers’ commands. The zamindar always views the villagers through the iron grills of his window, looking down at them. The frequent visualizations of his objects of power: the gun, his window grills and his chair, conjure his terrifying presence even in his absence, imprisoning the villagers to a slave morality of their construction. An actor of Amrish Puri’s calibre essaying the role of the zamindar is also a major bonus here, as his terrifying, wide-eyed gaze is more powerful than any gratuitous display of villainy. These frequent allusions to the oppressor’s insignia are also shown in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1994), a penetrating exploration of the master-slave dialectic, and these visualizations instil a sense of rage in the viewer out of sheer repulsion.

Even as an outsider, the schoolmaster is no hero, and he first resorts to the law as he doesn’t yet know that it won’t work. After his futile efforts, he wallows in his depression, taking refuge in the dilapidated walls of the temple and listening to the priest’s counsel, who tells him to remain faithful and do nothing. He even dreams of trying to kill the zamindar, only to meekly weaken as he’s met with Amrish Puri’s immobilising gaze. The zamindar has colonised even the minds of the villagers, and through an outsider, Benegal effectively shows why the villagers turn to the zamindar for everything.

Only when Sushila visits the temple does the schoolmaster actually realise the extent of his fear. She chastises him for not burning down the mansion to rescue her, and not being enough of a man. Spurred by her appeal to virulent masculinity, he turns towards the priest for help. On all ‘logical’ counts, this might appear as a shock, as the priest is traditionally a symbol of power, one who upholds the status quo even amidst its injustices. But this is where the writing comes to the fore, and the reason why Vijay Tendulkar’s role mustn’t be understated. The film’s opening sequence observes how religion keeps the masses tethered to the status quo, being more concerned with petty curses than their large-scale oppression. However, it also takes care to show the priest in paralysis, burdened by the iron grip of the landlord, able to project only his despondency. It’s why the schoolmaster’s words trouble him so deeply, stirring him to talk to the villagers. Both the schoolmaster and the priest frequently draw upon myth and religious texts to galvanise the villagers to rebel against their overlords. If the first set of scenes shows how religion can be an opiate, the final set of scenes explore how the same religion can be used for revolt too, as it is the only thing which is as entrenched as their slave morality.

One could argue that the role of religion, particularly the Hindu religion, might be too simplistic as this doesn’t take caste into account. The film calls the village a feudal society in the opening titles, but this feudalism is more in terms of landlords and peasants than a rigid hierarchy of castes. However, I think this allows the film to speak in more universal terms, and this is not necessarily caste denial. The film seeks to explore rage through repulsion, and while the caste angle might be welcome, I suspect it wasn’t included purely to prevent the film from crumbling under the weight of multiple socio-political narratives. The establishment of the priest’s own discomfort is the key here, as the exclusion of this arc could warrant (justified) accusations of blinkered idealism. Benegal and Tendulkar don’t exclude caste completely here, and they hint at its presence through the character of the beggar, an easy patsy for all the crimes in the village. The film, however, tries to opt for the broader outlook of understanding the mechanics of revolt, and the role of the priest in this worked for me.

The villagers, in their all-consuming rage, kill every member of the zamindar’s family, and also the very Sushila whose kidnapping sparked the revolt. This is not a platitude on how rage devours the individual and non-violent protest is necessary. The problem lies not in the violence of the protests, but in how masculinity is encoded into the fabric of Indian society. This is a sharp riposte to the Indian films that glorify such heroism, even when they advocate for justifiable causes. The introductory shot of the zamindar might be one such instance, but Sushila’s urging of her husband to burn the house is another. Revenge has to be spectacular, otherwise it’s a mere pinprick.

The same patriarchal logic that discards the raped women for being raped also leads to the deaths of Sushila and Rukmini. For all the talk about rebellion, the plight of the women was never discussed. It’s why the film showers its maximum affection on the bond between Sushila and Rukmini – victims of patriarchy who also somehow manage to understand each other in spite of the vilification. But if patriarchy penetrates the minds of women as well, as illustrated through Sushila’s urgings and Rukmini’s anger at Sushila for receiving more affection from Vishwam, there’s no limit on what it can do to the villagers. As long as patriarchy exists, women are the biggest victims of oppression and remain so even after revolution.

Anand Sudha is a PhD student in applied physics who actually has the gall to think that he can write about art. Fortunately, he pieces his reviews off others’, just as William Blake assembles his blank personality in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and it has worked on some outlets like Senses of Cinema and Film Companion.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider tipping the author and/or supporting Ultra Dogme on Patreon, Ko-fi, or Substack, so that we may continue publishing writing about film + music with love + care.

One thought on “Master and Slave (Masculine) Morality: ‘Nishant’ (1976)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *