Film of the Month: Catch ‘Humans of South Bombay’ in action in Govind Nihalani’s biting satire Party

MUMBAI : 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.”

A still from the movie Party.

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.