Celebrating Govind Nihalani with Party
“It is the thriller that excites me as a form. It has all modern elements of modern neurosis, all the elements of betrayal, all the elements of crime, distrust, nexus between various institutions, governmental and non-governmental, and within the vortex of this, what is going to be the individual choice. This is what fascinates me. There has to be something that goes beyond the plot, something that goes beyond simple entertainment.” - Govind Nihalani in Celluloid Chapter,1992.
What strikes about Party today is its unique quality of timelessness, of universality in terms of time and space and perhaps, the predilections it suggests that are much more transparent in real life today than they appeared in the film more than three decades ago. On the one hand, the film is a political and social satire that unmasks the glamorous and famous faces of writers, actors, socialites, social activists, ‘fixed’ literary festivals abroad, while on the other, it unfolds the pain, the angst, the tragedy and the loneliness of these souls despite their fame, their affluence and the power they think they hold over their less fortunate and less gifted fraternity because they have no control over their own lives.
In the long list of Govind Nihalani’s versatile oeuvre focussed on action blended often with Leftist and socialist ideology, and at times, an appeal for fairness and justice for the marginalised, Party stands apart (a) as a film per se, (b) a film that was made in the 1980s and (c) a film directed by Govind Nihalani. It is adapted from a popular Marathi language play by acclaimed writer Mahesh Elkunchwar who collaborated with Nihalani on the screenplay. First making his mark on the Indian theatre scene with Holi (1970), Elkunchwar is recognized as one of the most translated and performed playwrights in the country. He is widely appreciated for his immaculate craftsmanship and deep understanding of the human psyche. He is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards.
The story is set within one evening and night in the well-decorated, affluent home of Damayanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta) who has organized a party to celebrate the national award bestowed on Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), a famous playwright. Before the party begins, one discovers that everything is not all right between Damayanti and her daughter Sona (Deepa Sahi) because she hates the company her mother keeps and distances herself from the older woman’s lifestyle. Her son however, is always beside his mother but seems to be a good-for-nothing young man.
The film jostled with other significant films released the same year such as Saraansh, Sparsh and Utsav. Sadly, though this history has been carefully deleted from all online stories on Party, the film did not get a theatrical release and was premiered on Doordarshan that lost the makers (NFDC) an audience. The grapevine went around saying that the CBFC had problems with a particular scene featuring Rohini Hattangadi as a once-famous-now-alcoholic actress who is currently the keep/wife of Diwakar Barve. Ironically, Rohini bagged the Best Supporting Actress Award at the National Awards in 1985 for her portrayal in the film. Vijaya Mehta won the Best Actress Award for her portrayal of Damayanti Rane at the 1985 Asia-Pacific Film Festival.
Party is different from most of Nihalani’s films because it is one of the few films he has shot almost entirely indoors, within the spacious complex of a heritage-like bungalow in Bombay and its spacious gardens with a bench under a tree, the trees and the flowers washed in the shimmering silver of a moonlit night. Instead of using just a few characters to narrate the core of the story, Party spills over with characters portrayed by famous stars of the Bombay theatre world and art films scene. Party is one of the first films to have been restored by the NFDC and re-released on DVD in a new print.
Party differs from most films by Nihalani also because it is perhaps the most verbal and dialogue-centric films he has made in his entire career. The dialogue is strong, sharply edged with satire and intelligent humour and always underlined with inner meanings that reach beyond the surface. There is a lot of name-dropping during the discussions which again, is not Nihalani’s style. This namne-dropping marks the film out for a niche audience and not for the masses who would not know the names discussed ranging from V.S. Naipaul through Salman Rushdie to Karl Marx, Garcia Lorca, generously dotted by Bharat (K.K. Raina) who often recites Amrit’s poetry.
From Vijaya Mehta to Amrish Puri to Manohar Singh, the film is filled with Mohan Bhandari, Soni Razdan, Deepa Sahi, K.K. Raina, Akash Khurana, Om Puri, Shafi Inamdar, Pearl Padamsee, Gulan Kripalani and Naseeruddin Shah, each one etched out deliberately to fit into a cliché stereotype of the character he/she is portraying. The playwright is an intellectual snob while the doctor is the only wise man who speaks of his philosophy and ideology of the artist’s need to keep himself distanced or not distanced from the politics of the state. The elderly woman Ruth (Pearl Padamsee) who walks in with her very young boyfriend feels insecure about the gap in their ages while the young boy wanders away to seek fresh pastures. The famous film hero (Shafi Inamdar) is deeply in love with Mohini (Rohini) but she thinks it is too late. The social activist (Gulan Kripalani), a Marxist dresses typically in light cotton saris and tries to seduce men with her intellectual gab while the retired actor and poet (Mohan Bhandari) goes off to sleep on the bench in the garden outside leaving his lonely and sad wife (Soni Razdan) to seek her own entertainment and dancing partner.
Party is a celluloid-created reality as there is actually a real party happening in front of the audience. Party is a metaphor that reaches beyond what one sees in real time. Party is a microcosm of an Indian metropolis where heavyweights rub shoulders with lightweights, the famous like to snub the ones wanting to become famous, the ditched man reveals his emotional scar with his bitchy remarks on the man he lost the woman he adored to, the angst and pain of an actress reduced to becoming the mistress/also-ran-wife of the award-winning writer, the rich and erudite socialite (Damayanti) who loves to rub shoulders with the famous and the intellectual and the talented (?) and long, intellectual discussions, on the pros and cons of land-grabbing by the corporate sector backed by the government to encroach and appropriate land that belongs to the adivasis, while a left-wing, injured and committed journalist (Om Puri) holds forth supporting the absent protagonist Amrit and his active crusade for the tribals with a glass of whisky in his hand, the rebellious single mother who hates her mother but lives in the same house filled with luxury.
Most discussions zero in on Amrit, absent on screen, a gifted poet who shifted from poetry to activism as a crusade against tribal exploitation and oppression. He left the politics of the party circuit and literary societies to stand beside the tribals and add strength to their movement. Who is Amrit? Is he a concept of the ideal amidst the mediocre, an ideal we strive for inside but pretend otherwise outside? Is he a ghost created out of the fantasies of the men and women in the party? Is he the one who haunts them all and fills them with a sense of guilt on the one hand and wonder on the other? No. Nihalani gives the game away by actually bringing Amrit into the scene, fantasized by the famous playwright and the wannabe poet Bharat in their respective visions after the party is over and they have heard that he has been killed after his tongue was ripped off and his body lay in the drains somewhere. This defines a sad anti-climax to a very powerful celluloid statement that subtly underlines the satiric unreality of a so-called “democratic socialist republic” that India declared itself to be in 1951, continued to be in 1984 and claims no different in 2016.
While defining and elaborating on the three kinds of images cinema produces, about the third kind of image, Nihalani said, “The third kind of image is the most important because it goes beyond information and acquires a larger meaning than the information contained within a shot. These images carry and echo a lot of our subconscious memories, personal and collective, and grow into symbols.” This comes across the most lucidly, powerfully and eloquently in his finest film ever, Party.