Covering Silences: Close-Up on Govind Nihalani's "Party"

The 1984 film, with its liberal women who sacrifice nothing at the altar of family, continues the nontraditional spirit of Parallel Cinema.
Bedatri D.Choudhury

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Govind Nihalani's Party (1984) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.

“Oh, Mrs. Dalloway. Always giving parties to cover the silence.”

—Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway begins with the line, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” In Govind Nihalani’s Party (1984), Mrs. Damayanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) does not buy the flowers herself; she is a minister’s daughter living in a mansion in Mumbai, so she asks her servants to do it instead. She does, however, lay them out in vases. Like Woolf’s Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Rane is throwing a party to celebrate a friend, in this case, Diwakar Barwe (Manohar Singh), a playwright who has just won a national award for his work. Even before the party begins, she has had a sedative, a shot of brandy and is anxious about things going wrong at the event. Mrs. Rane has a premonition something bad is about to happen, one is reminded of Mrs. Dalloway’s preoccupation with an impending tragedy.

Party emerged out of the Parallel Cinema movement that started in the 1950s as Indian filmmakers strived to create an alternative cinema aesthetic that was remarkably different from the tropes and styles of commercial Hindi films, more commonly known as “Bollywood.” It was only in the 1960s that the Indian government took an active interest in investing in non-commercial cinema. In 1960, it set up the Film Finance Corporation, the Film Institute of India in 1961, and the National Film Archives in 1964. However, the F.F.C. would not finance any film without a guarantor and the privatized film distribution and exhibition networks made it extremely difficult for independent “parallel” films to thrive. In 1968, filmmakers Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen wrote the “Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement.” It was in the same year that Sen’s Bhuvan Shome was financed by the F.F.C. without him having to provide a guarantor. One could argue that the Parallel Cinema movement in India was finally beginning to gain some real shape and momentum. 

Nihalani had graduated as a cinematographer in 1962 and started his career being the cinematographer for the documentaries of another Parallel Cinema luminary, Shyam Benegal. In 1975, the F.F.C. redesigned itself as the National Film Development Corporation which, in 1980, produced Nihalani’s debut film as a director, Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded). The N.F.D.C. also produced Party, which never saw a theatrical release but premiered on public television. K. Raghavendra Rao’s Tohfa, 1984’s biggest Hindi hit, was about two sisters in love with the same man and the younger sister sacrifices her love and lets her sister marry the man. Party, with its women smoking, drinking, quoting Lorca, and sacrificing nothing at the altar of family, is clearly a detour from the ways in which Indian cinema is used to seeing women and their lives.

“Why do you even throw these parties?” Amrish Puri’s character asks Mrs. Rane. He is called “Doctor” and is referred to by Mrs. Rane’s daughter, Sona (Deepa Sahi), as her boyfriend.  “What will people say otherwise? I have known Barwe forever... this is such a huge honor for him! I have thrown parties for much less,” comes her reply. For her, the eternal hostess, it is the need to be the epicenter of gatherings and the source of joy that is more important than the occasion itself. “They’re an offering,” Clarissa Dalloway says when she is asked why she throws parties.  One is not sure how deliberate these parallels are but both Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Rane are rich women; both hostesses of elaborate parties and both using parties to fill in for the emotional void caused by their strained relationship with their daughters. Both their daughters, Elizabeth and Sona, prefer to be reclusive, and have very little fondness for their mother’s festivities and their tacit deceit.

Mrs. Rane’s eponymous party forms the microcosm of Bombay’s cultural elite: there is Barwe and his deeply unfulfilled mistress Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi), who gave up her career as an actor to be with him; the budding poet Bharat (KK Raina); the Anglo-Indian English-speaking journalist Ruth (Pearl Padamsee) and her much younger boyfriend; the supermodel Vicky (Soni Razdan) and her husband Naren; the popular theater actor Ravi (Shafi Inamdar); the commercial playwright Agashe (Akash Khurana); and the cigarette-smoking, cotton sari-wearing Marxist Vrinda (Gulan Kripalani), who lives in her father’s posh and palatial apartment. Unlike Nihalani’s earlier films, where all cathartic revelations take place in solitude and silence, Party has constant chatter. Within Mrs. Rane’s large living room, people name-drop and go on taking umbrage at each other’s words; sometimes they defend themselves and find counter-accusations to every accusation. While the dysfunctionality of every relationship is revealed, no one is ever silent because any silence would force the people to introspect. Mrs. Rane’s party, like Mrs. Dalloway’s, is meant to mitigate the threat of these silences. In another parallel party, taking place in one of the many rooms of the mansion, Mrs. Rane’s son Rahul dances and gets drunk with his friends. While this party starts off as the raucous foil to the more sophisticated one going on downstairs, the story by Mahesh Elkunchwar, who wrote the original Marathi play the screenplay is based on, finally conflates them in their frivolity and vapidness.

Even amidst all the chatter and claustrophobia of the party, none among the people present are Nihalani’s protagonists. The film begins with a voiceover reading Amrit’s poetry written in a letter to Sona: “The clenched jaws are now aching with pain/ How long can you contain the lava simmering inside?” While we don’t hear or see Amrit through the film, his absence is palpable. We know he started out as a poet and now lives in the jungles helping the tribal people resist the government’s usurping of their lands, and that he is Sona’s lover but not the father of her child. Everyone talks about him in the party: some admire his poetry, some quote his lines, and some praise his revolutionary politics, while some others ridicule his short-sighted idealism. People talk about Amrit so much that he becomes a protagonist in absentia. When the narrative plays out to a point where one thinks Amrit would finally make an appearance, the righteous journalist Avinash (Om Puri) arrives at the party after having spent months with Amrit in the jungles.

What follows is a morality play-like discussion about art and politics where each person debates on the purpose of an artist and his art. Is poetry just art or is it a weapon to break down the status quo? Avinash, the closest Nihalani comes to placing himself in the film, says that every work of art which allows an artist to interact with the public, is essentially a weapon; to him, art and politics are inseparable. “The best art emerges out of protest,” the doctor opines while Avinash poses the climactic question: “If you ever have to choose between being a person or an artist, what would you choose?” The young poet Bharat searches for an answer when an off-screen phone call unravels the whole plot. The simmering lava contained within the clenched jaws, as described in Amrit’s poetry, finally erupts and spreads over people’s complacence.

Once the guests disperse and the veneer of social niceties is set aside for the night, the intellectuals of the society get to bed and reel under their nightmares. In their solitude, they are made to confront their insecurities in the silence of the night. Only the worst societies silence their artists and then are left to confront their ghosts. Poets who have peddled their verses for fame lay awake in the dead of the night haunted by men such as Aakrosh’s Bhiku Lahanya and the silent and absent Amrit of Party, listening to their muffled cries of anguish.

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