Govind Nihalani’s Party could have easily morphed into Page 3, with crowd-pleasing punchlines like ‘This is called entertainment, not journalism’ and ‘Yeh Mumbai ki gutter hai, band rahe toh hi better hai” moonlighting as life philosophy. While Bhandarkar’s Page 3 – an engaging, if a tad caricaturish, send-up of the rich and famous – makes simplistic assumptions and thrives on stereotypes Nihalani’s Party (1984) produces far sharper insights into the so-called ‘Humans of South Bombay’ genre – the same territory that Bhandarkar traverses, featuring a motley crowd of society elites, media types and failed actors and the secret skeletons tumbling gradually out of their well-preserved closets. Nihalani’s prototypes belong to the 1970-80s, a time when the Page 3 set was very much in existence but the term hadn’t yet been invented. Perhaps, The Times of India was in those days led by less imaginative editors and marketing mavens.
By way of plot, Party – adapted thirty five years ago from celebrated Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar’s satire – offers nothing to write home about. Yet, the “plot” literally thickens as you watch along, drawn as you are into the fascinating world of its varied characters who have all converged into the tasteful home of Mrs Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta, a theatre doyen) for a coveted, by-invitation bash. Never mind that some gatecrashers will have the gall to inevitably break in and even find themselves marvelling at the sheer amount of “culture” that’s on full display at this swanky soiree. A much-loved patron of arts, Mrs Damyanti Rane is a champion of society parties, where the city’s who’s who (Nihalani assembles so fine a repertory of actors and performers that it’s bound to make you practically lose count of who’s who) turn up in droves amidst much literary chatter and gossip over sophisticated clinking of wine classes. This time, the party is in honour of Barve (Manohar Singh), a well-known and critically-acclaimed writer whose relationship with his wife (Rohini Hattangadi as Mohini) is revealed to be uneasy in the first few minutes of the film’s opening, providing an early glimpse into their unhappy marriage. “Don’t sing, don’t drink,” Mohini snaps at an emotionally-distant Barve, hinting at her own failed stage career, while he responds to her “I love you” with a curt “All right.” She anyway pours herself a drink. “To your success,” she raises a glass. “The party begins now.”
To be fair, Party begins with a certain Amrit’s hard-hitting poem lamenting for a better world. In chaste (and graphic) Hindi, Amrit rhapsodises about the magic city built from the “pearls harvested by human sweat.” What is a greater crime against humanity, the bombing of innocent villages or one hand grenade lobbed at a ruthless dictator, he asks. “My clenched jaws are aching,” the familiar voice tells us. “How long can I keep this lava buried inside me? My head feels like it could turn into a crater.” This brazenly leftist poem is narrated by Naseeruddin Shah, whose missing-in-action Amrit will cast a long and grim shadow on the film throughout, a Godot whose agonising ‘wait’ can never be worth it, it seems. Amrit’s ghost haunts Party with his absent presence.
A severe case of ‘art’ attack
Starting out as a cinematographer, Nihalani’s films eschewed the Bollywood machine. As the 78-year-old filmmaker told Scroll in a recent interview, “They wanted stars and chocolate heroes, we didn’t. They wanted songs and dance, we didn’t.” Instead, Nihalani’s cinéma vérité (Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Tamas and Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa to name a few) shared closer links with literature (he has often cited his partnership with the legendary writer Vijay Tendulkar as a “great influence” on him), theatre and especially poetry that he incorporates adroitly to achieve a greater sense of social realism and lyrical aesthetic in his work. In the absence of songs, poetic realism gave the parallel cinema of Nihalani a much-needed soundtrack of “clenched-jawed” anguish. No wonder the poetry credit is shared by three writers on Party while in Ardh Satya he had primarily relied on Dilip Chitre’s powerful poems. On the sidelines of an animation festival in Jaipur in 2011, the director had remarked, “You have to be faithful to the essence of the work, not the writer.” He was replying to a question about literary adaptations, a theme that remains at the core of much of his work. In fact, more than any other Nihalani film, Party comes closest to resembling a play. It might all be happening right in front of you, on a stage occupied by all these brilliant actors – many of them, sadly, long gone.
Set mostly indoors (critic Jai Arjun Singh called it the best example of “chamber drama” in Hindi cinema), Party opens with Sona (Deepa Sahi), who’s the talk of the town for being an unwed mother, reading Amrit’s impassioned letter. From early scenes, we can glean that Amrit is a radical of some kind, working as a political activist with the tribals somewhere in far away villages. We also meet Barve and Mohini, who initially wants to give the party a miss. They are clearly incompatible as a couple but putting up with it, for some reason. There’s an amusing scene involving Vrinda (Gulan Kripalani), a cotton sari-clad busybody who’s revealed to be a well-heeled Marxist and Agashe (Akash Khurana), a popular theatre director who finds himself at the receiving end of Vrinda’s disgust for the mainstream culture. The scene takes place while they are driving down to Mrs Rane’s salon. “Just because your plays are successful doesn’t mean you are talented,” Vrinda taunts Agashe, as a song from Umrao Jaan plays on the radio. She attributes his “cloying sentimentality” as the reason for his success. Agashe tries to put up a brave front. “You communists are very diabolical,” he shoots back. “You talk about the masses on one hand and yet deride the very common man’s taste, all the while sitting in your luxurious Malabar Hill abode.” An earlier sequence does indeed depict Vrinda’s plush home. MF Husain’s horses casually hang on the wall. This is one scene that best illustrates Vrinda’s distaste for Agashe’s plays. She’s cheeky enough to tell Agashe on the phone that she had passed the tickets he had sent for his play to her maid and her husband instead. “They loved it,” she says, with a smug grin. With that prankish statement, Vrinda lays bare the gap between high and low art.
Nihalani also ushers us into the “method” world of a theatre stalwart (Shafi Inamdar) who knows how to draw the line between art and life. He cannily keeps the actor that he is and the person playing the role, in two separate boxes. When a fan, moved to tears by his portrayal of Julius Caesar, tells him that there must be so much suffering involved in his performance he responds with, “It’s the character who’s suffering.” And with that, the actor is off to Mrs Rane’s. When he proudly declares at the party, “It’s every actor’s obligation to give back to society” you are immediately reminded of an earlier scene at the play where a sidekick had piped up, “He’s a great actor. He never stops acting.”
At Mrs Rane’s, preparations for the party are on in full swing. The host with the most, however, is a bit disturbed. Just like she is before all such parties. A family friend who the audience will know simply as Doctor (Amrish Puri) reminds Mrs Rane to take a sedative, but not before joking that she has to take a sedative before every party while he usually has to, after it. But beyond the banter and celebrations, Mrs Rane is feeling queasy, an ominous fear that something bad is going to happen.
Curious specimen: Malabar Hill Marxists
On that note, the party of Party begins. If you are looking for a story, this is not the film you should be watching. This is a movie about conversations, arguments and counter arguments, hence the device is disarmingly discursive. The story of Party lies in its themes, ideologies and ideas. Someone argues about the literary value of Naipaul and Rushdie. “Activism is also a form of romanticism,” Barve declares to a crowd of admiring fans and critics (including the fussy Vrinda) hanging on to his every word. “Men understand women better, just the way only a Brahmin can understand the problem of untouchability,” says Agashe, adding that Barve knows nothing about women. “Barve has reached his creative menopause,” he quips. Later, Barve, Vrinda and Agashe discuss whether one can separate great art from the artist/human being. “Many criminals have created great literature. Like Jane Eyre,” Barve argues. “You can choose to be a good human being but you can’t choose to become a good artist.” Vrinda launches into fresh attack, reminding them of Amrit’s Lorca-inspired dictum, “A writer without conviction cannot succeed.”
Amidst this crème de la crème crowd, there’s also the outlier Bharat who will suffer vernacular snobbery. Don’t waste your time in this holier-than-thou circle, Vrinda advises him. His writing has volcanic energy, she tells him but something vital is still missing. Bharat is the least pretentious of the lot, as he freely admits, “I write for fame.” In the time of MeToo, it would be interesting to see what audiences think of the empowered Vrinda’s relentless pursuit of the shy Bharat, who snubs her advances. Later in the evening, journalist Avinash (Om Puri) joins the group, which leads to more serious discussions on art and politics. These conversations are among the film’s most insightful. “Every art is like a weapon. If that doesn’t work, the weapon becomes the medium,” Avinash, a friend of Amrit’s, proclaims unhesitatingly. For Avinash, art and politics are inseparable from each other. He goes even further to say, “If an artist is not politically committed, his art is irrelevant.” It triggers the sincere-sounding Bharat, himself a promising writer, to counter, “Do you mean the purpose of art is to become the weapon of politics? Do we lower the status of art when we link it to politics?” When Doctor (Amrish Puri), who author Jai Arjun Singh had called the audience surrogate (perhaps, due to his constantly watchful gaze and his cool detachment from the proceedings) is dragged into the discussion to offer his POV, he explains calmly, “The ideology of an artist or any political party he may join, that is his personal choice. I do not think of it as a precondition to the relevance of his art. But the fact is that great art, especially in the 20th century, has been shaped by a sense of protest of some kind. To revolt against oppression is the artist’s most important duty.”
The floor above, there’s another party underway, redolent of Western music and rich spoilt brats. They could be the children of the same SoBo elites who are having these high-minded, whiskey-fuelled discussions downstairs. In the end, you wonder if all this artsy talk is just as empty and meaningless as those of the young dancing their hearts out upstairs. As Barve gets drunk, he’s forced to confront his inner demons. He attacks the hypocrisy of the arts, declaring truth to be nothing but a ‘hoax.’ This is Barve at his candid best. In a startling disclosure, he calls himself a fraud and blames Mrs Rane, who has been a godmother to many talents, as being complicit in this shameful deception. To be a writer was to be a sham, as Barve discovers. He no longer feels himself worthy of all the success. An even more hard-hitting realisation dawns on him that when his words will wear out, sooner than later, they will be so empty that they will turn instantly to “dust.” It makes Mrs Rane question her own existence and legacy. Her daughter, Sona, thinks of her as a “parasite” who has lived off on others’ fame and success all her life.
As egos and tensions collide, the truth begins to topple the mask of the intellectual elite to reveal their true face, two men stand out. One is the cynical (but also the only reasonable one around) Doctor who never talks until someone prods him to and then there’s Amrit who’s never seen. We only hear his searing poetry about truth and justice. Finally, at the film’s closing, we do see him, soaked in blood. Mrs Rane’s premonition has truly turned into a nightmare. She may not have said it as much but this party was never going to end well. For Govind Nihalani’s fans, let us assure you that there are quite a few Munchian “screams”, a typical pleasure of many of his films.
The cover of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Party described the book as “Chekhovian.” It’s fitting, because pretty much like Chekhov, Nihalani’s skit seeks to expose the pettiness and pretensions of the high society and despite being 35 years old, much of the conversations that find itself at the heart of the film are still relevant and talked about. At a time when right-wing politics has trumped the Left, Party makes further mincemeat of the Marxian experiment – a timely reminder of an era when the Left was powerful among the elite but still a fair game for an enjoyable satire. In fact, the most important question in Party is also the hardest to answer: What is the role of art (and artists) in society?