I go back to my middle school Biology lessons to find the scientific word for the Hindi word, ankur. Epicotyl: The part of the seed that becomes the leaves and stems of a new plant; the first rebellious sign of life that raises its fist above the earth to proclaim its existence. The title of Shyam Benegal’s 1973 debut film, Ankur, has been officially translated to The Seedling and its story tells of a society raising its first fist of resistance against the ceiling, colliding against it to break across a divide that seems impenetrable.
Benegal, born in 1934, grew up near the city of Hyderabad in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He was around 12 when the Telangana Rebellion broke out in 1946. Led by the Communist Party, peasants revolted against their oppressive feudal lords till 1952, when the Party won the state elections and land reforms were introduced. This was independent India’s first major agrarian revolt. People who had participated in the revolts had been arrested and then gone on to become Benegal’s college classmates years after their release, thereby shaping his political worldview. Ankur came out of the Hyderabad of Benegal’s childhood; a cusp wherein it was transforming from being a feudal society to a modern city; trying to hold on to the past while trying to accommodate its modern aspirations. Letting go, holding on, transforming. The epicotyl of a society stretching itself to grow.
With the transformation of a feudal society, land no longer remains the seat of power. Naturally, the power relations that emerge from it also change. The high seat of power the landlord enjoys begins to crumble as the peasants realize they’re no longer tied to a lifetime of oppressive obeisance. In Ankur, the landlord’s son Surya (Anant Nag) lives in the city and when he graduates high school, he is not allowed by his father to pursue a bachelor's degree. He is the son and it is his primal duty to take responsibility for the land the family owns in the village of Yellareddiguda. A privileged and arrogant Surya arrives at the village to take care of his father’s rice fields carrying his modernity with him: a copy of Playboy, a car, his cigarettes, and a record player. He doesn’t “see” caste as he eats food cooked by Lakshmi (Shabani Azmi), a woman of a lower caste, but still operates from a position of power that his caste affords him, perpetuating an oppression that has been mastered and handed down by his forefathers. As modern as his cigarette-puffing self is, Surya has no qualms agreeing to an arranged marriage with the underage Saroj (Priya Tendulkar), who he leaves back in the city.
The power imbalance between Lakshmi and Surya is obvious. Soon after he arrives, Lakshmi becomes the maid servant who cleans and cooks for him and punctuates every word she speaks to him with the word sarkar, meaning master. Lakshmi is married to the mute and deaf potter Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher) whose profession has been rendered useless with the proliferation of aluminum ware. Ankur begins with Lakshmi praying to the gods for a child and it is evident that the frustration and embarrassment of not being able to impregnate his wife drives Kishtaya to alcoholism.
When Kishtaya is caught stealing cane alcohol from Surya’s estate, he is paraded through the streets—a shame that drives him away from the village. With Lakshmi now sexually available for Surya (who is already married to Saroj), it takes him nothing to promise that he’ll take care of Lakshmi forever. She stops calling him sarkar and Surya’s facade of city-bred modernity fools her into believing that she is an equal; sometimes even the more powerful one because he isn’t able to function without her. “Who will make tea? Who will cook food? Who will look after the house?” he asks her. Lakshmi, who had seen her labor only as an act of servitude and survival, finally derives a sense of self-worth from it. Attention from a higher caste landlord who can vocalize his attraction for her only adds to it.
Benegal’s masterful screenplay is brilliantly layered as it looks at Surya’s power from the intersections of patriarchy, caste, and class. Once Surya’s father comes to know of his son’s affair with Lakshmi, he sends Saroj to the village. As the legal wife and an upper caste woman, she easily slips into a position of power over Lakshmi and reclaims the reigns over her household from Lakshmi’s hands. Benegal then makes it clear that the who is not important in “Who will make tea? Who will cook food? Who will look after the house?” as long as there is someone—a woman—doing it. Lakshmi and Saroj are the same woman on different sides of the caste and social lines; both helping preserve the patriarchal status quo in a transitional society. It takes no time for Surya to replace one with another. Surya grows up hating his father’s mistress and the son she has with his father. As much as he distances his life from his father’s, he perpetuates the same cycle of oppression when Lakshmi becomes pregnant with his child. He and his father, too, are the same man on different sides of modernity.
If Surya is a stand-in for the last embers of the dying fire of feudalism, the unborn child is an amalgamation of the rich and the poor, a transgression that has the potential to disrupt power structures proliferated by Surya and his family. Naturally, Surya wants Lakshmi to abort the child; she disagrees. Within her body thrives a little kernel of life that threatens to raise its head above the lines that want to contain it. For the seedling to sprout, a rupture is imminent.
When Benegal signed on the debutant actor Shabana Azmi for Ankur, he informed her that he will be casting her in his next film, Nishant (Night’s End, 1975), as well. He would then go on to make Manthan (Churning, 1976) with Smita Patil to complete his trilogy capturing rural societies rupturing out of old orders and power structures. While the revolt of the laboring class simmers in Ankur, it erupts in Nishant and transforms into collective power in Manthan. “Cinema is a social medium, unlike the medium of painting,” Benegal says in an interview, “And because it is a social medium, somewhere along the line, a sense of social responsibility does creep into it.”
It is through Benegal’s politically committed cinema that the Indian New Wave grew beyond the regional limitations of the Bengali films by New Wave pioneers, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen. The New Wave started speaking Hindi, the language of commercial Bollywood. Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (Embers), arguably the biggest Bollywood film of all ages, was released in 1975 and it is Benegal’s early films, being released around the same time, that harbinger an era in Indian cinema that is truly “parallel” to the mainstream Hindi film industry; not completely opposite but different enough. Ankur, true to its name, is a rupture within the fabric of Hindi cinema. Much like the unnamed little boy who casts the first stone against the old world order in the film, Benegal plants a tiny seed that pierces through the landscape of Indian cinema. Lakshmi and Kishtiya birth and nurture a new future full of radical hope; Benegal is its expert midwife.