Maya Darpan (1972)
Kumar Shahani

Your brother’s going away hasn’t changed him a bit. Such pride! Even your leaving will not shame him. He is as he was.


Maya DarpanKumar Shahani remains one of the directors in that rarely seen and even more rarely discussed group of filmmakers that includes names such as Mani Kaul and M. S. Sathyu. Unfortunately, neither are there home video releases for most of their works nor are there widespread public screenings or film fest retrospectives within the country to generate interest. Heck, they don’t even make their way into the world of file sharing and peer to peer networks. We are now at a point where even the original negatives of the films face the risk of extinction. One can only hope that institutions like the World Cinema Foundation will do something about it. Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) is a seminal work in Indian Parallel Cinema not just because it canvasses critical social issues (a facet that, more or less, in hindsight, has become a characteristic of the movement) but also because it attempts to seek out a new aesthetic, which does not try to straddle mainstream cinema and art cinema, to do that. The very title, Maya Darpan (literally “Illusory Mirror”), aptly sums up both the film’s social (imprisonment by one’s own “image”, as defined by the class system) and formal (Maya Darpan could well be a sobriquet for cinema itself, encompassing both its illusive and realistic properties at once) concerns at once.

Shahani’s film is set in a provincial town in Northern India, at a time following the nation’s independence in 1947 (The film could well have been set in 1972, just after the worldwide leftist revolution had been put down, and there wouldn’t be much change to the script) when India was yet to be completely integrated as a political entity and when Nehruvian socialism was about to take on the existing feudal hierarchy. Taran (Aditi) is the daughter of a wealthy landlord (Anil Pandya) and lives with her father and her widowed aunt (Kanta Vyas) in their ancestral mansion (which goes on to represent the whole of upper class in the film). The town is witnessing protests by newly formed labour unions which are partly being politically educated by the local railroad engineer (Iqbalnath Kaul), who seems to have an unspoken romantic relationship with Taran. Taran’s unseen brother, who had, to the chagrin of their father, renounced his class privileges and gone off to an Assamese tea estate, asks Taran to join him. Stuck in a stifling patriarchal order, with pressure to get married to an upper class groom mounting, Taran decides to talk to her father about her plans. Actually, much less goes on in the film than what I’ve described and the film is more interested in assessing the formal possibilities of the medium than in following a seamless opportunity-conflict-resolution trajectory. Taran’s character does not arc in the traditional manner (she seems to have already entered the third act) although she eventually manages to switch roles with her lover.

Maya Darpan is a film about transition and transformation – from the bondage of regressive social structures to a progressive state of liberty and equality, from a setup where people have to assume rigid roles irrespective of free will to one where a individual can free himself of inherited roles and think for himself/herself (Taran recites a poem – “I’m called to birth again” – that recalls the legend of the phoenix, as she washes her hands). In other words, it is about the process of breaking the cycle of repression and exploitation into a zone of freedom (Shahani even inserts newsreels depicting World War 2 battle sequences and Gandhian protests during the British rule of India, perhaps to suggest all forms of oppression and subjugation). Shahani finds the cinematic idiom to express this cycle in the form of duplicated shots, redundant compositions and repeated actions and dialog. There are many shots that depict characters moving from the right edge of the screen to the left that are so schematic and mundane to the point of being humorous and self-parodying (One of Taran’s daily routines is to dust the set of chairs – presumably the symbols of power and authority in the film – that her father and other landlords use during their teatime. Fittingly, they are left scattered and disowned by her towards the end of the film). This transgression of social boundaries is also depicted by having characters cut through boundaries and cross railway tracks regularly. Consequently, Maya Darpan plays out like a piece of complex musical composition with many minute variations on a few primary motifs (The film’s unexpected coda itself is a set of classically choreographed tableaus that, I believe, presents the class conflict in dance/martial art form).

Maya DarpanShahani apparently assisted Robert Bresson on A Gentle Woman (1969) and the influence of the French director on Shahani’s style is obvious (especially the extraordinary opening sequence of that particular film, which is echoed at multiple places in Maya Darpan). Like Bresson, Shahani’s shot division has a tendency to break down sequences into their most basic components. Images of hands and feet, isolated in action, often punctuate the narrative. Also Bressonian is the use of sound in the film. Shahani employs tremendous amount of off-screen noise to complement the imagery rather than reinforce it (This divorce between image and sound is alluded to in the very first scene of the film – the nomadic camera, at first, seems to be searching for the voice on the soundtrack and eventually settles down near a sleeping character. The voice turns out to be non-diegetic). The presence of trains, automobiles, oxcarts and taps are all established by the soundtrack. In fact, the camera is never made privy to any sensational action. These actions are either relegated to the space off-screen or they are only provided to us through words. But the influence of Bresson is most palpable in Shahani’s use of his actors. He asks the actors, all non-professionals, to have no expression whatsoever on their faces when spouting their lines monotonically, without any modulation. The effect is all the more unsettling given how vehemently it goes against the natural speech pattern of the country.

As a result, Maya Darpan could be described as a film in which the sociopolitical concerns of Shyam Benegal and John Abraham are distilled through the minimalist aesthetics of Bresson (with a dollop of Resnais, Antonioni and Pasolini to boot). However, it should not be assumed that Shahani’s style is entirely derivative. Shahani’s Bresson influence is just the base upon which he works out his own ways. For instance, in Bresson’s films, conflicts would largely be kept internal and would very occasionally manifest in the characters’ physical actions. In either case, Bresson thoroughly remains a realist of space and time. Shahani, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to slip in the borderline-surreal elements. Large stretches of poetry and prose are recited by the characters on the soundtrack, which touch upon their psychology but abstain from analysis, while we see them wandering the barren, debris-filled streets of the town. Furthermore, Bresson’s characters have to go through a process of suffering before they can attain deterministic grace and happiness whereas Shahani’s protagonist is an active entity who chooses to change her life through conscious effort. Even the handful of comments online about the film mentions its innovative use of colour, which I find to be the least important aspect of the work. Shahani does this through the costume and production design of the film, which doesn’t exactly seem to succeed throughout.

Satyajit Ray once commented about Maya Darpan, along with other acclaimed works of the period (almost all of which he was critical of!), in his collection of essays Our Films, Their Films. I’ll type it down here:

Shahani’s other allegiance [in addition to Ritwik Ghatak] is to Bresson with whom he had worked on a film. The legacy of that lesson is to be seen in the girl in the centre of Mayadarpan [sic]. She, too, like Mouchette, suffers inwardly and wordlessly. No quarrel with that. But we are concerned with what happens outwardly. And here, I am afraid, Bresson evaporates. Does Shahani seriously believe that the major outward manifestation of such suffering is a slow, rigid ambulation up and down verandas repeated every five  minutes or so throughout the film? Film language would be threatened with extinction if this were really so. To me Mayadarpan seems a combination of poor psychology and poorer stylization. Even the sophisticated response to colour goes for nothing in a film that is so gauche in its handling of the human element. Even more than [Mani] Kaul, Shahani seems to forget that when one imposes a rigid style on the actor without a thorough working out of its expressive possibilities, it becomes indistinguishable from bad acting. The method becomes, extremely risky in a story with an urban background, where the nature of life and work severely limits the expressive gestures. The only possible approach here is the psychological one, for which Shahani seems to have no use.

While I would not be so harsh and unforgiving about Shahani’s film, I do believe Ray makes some fine points there. Shahani sure does seem to be on an experimental ground, trying to figure out the most effective means to get his points across. Not all his flourishes work and there are a number of rough edges to the film. Some shots seem o serve no purpose except perhaps to further disengage us from the already alien narrative. But it would be a tad unfair to say that Shahani eschews psychological exploration altogether. True that he does not work towards psychological realism through the conventional means of writing, acting and scoring. His psychological examination is, akin to Michelangelo Antonioni, carried out through actor choreography, his compositions and his mise en scène (and, to a minor extent, through the poetry-driven non-sequiturs that brace the narrative). Taran is almost always composed against the mansion’s walls and amidst the imposing interiors of the building. She is arrested and suffocated by the endless amount of doorways and pillars in the mansion. During the course of the film, it’s as if the monstrous structure assumes a life of its own, consuming Taran into the void within. This is starkly contrasted with the lush and open spaces of Assam and of the working class section of the village. The bottom line is that, if not anything else, films such as Maya Darpan are of considerable interest to the native viewer since they repudiate accepted norms of psychological realism in a country whose cinema has always thrived on those norms.