ANKUR (1974)

Shabana Azmi and Ananth Nag in a still from Ankur
  • Year of Release: 1974
  • Cast: Ananth Nag, Shabana Azmi, Sadhu Meher, Priya Tendulkar
  • Director: Shyam Bengal

“Brimming with energy and symbolism, Ankur is one of the most entertaining and engrossing Hindi social commentaries”

Surya (Ananth Nag) is the son of a wealthy landlord. We meet an elated Surya on the day of his result and witness his happiness being cut short by his authoritative father who is not impressed by his performance and asks him to drop the idea of further studies and devote his time to the family business. We also see him come face to face with his father’s mistress and her son at his home. His expressions make it clear that he hates them with all his heart but is unable to do anything about them. He walks up to his mother to share the good news of his result and she appears to be happy with his son’s success. The discussion between the two makes it clear that Surya’s mother has been at the receiving end of the brunt of an abusive marriage while his father’s mistress and her son have had a stronger grip on the man and reaped more benefits.

Surya is soon married off to a minor chosen by his father and then packed off to the village to look after his father’s interests and agricultural lands. His bride doesn’t accompany him as she is still not of age and is slated to follow him there once she comes of age. Upon his arrival in the village, Surya realizes the power that he has over the people who either work on his land or reap some benefit out of the landlord. Upon this realization, he starts using his clout over the villagers to terrorize them and meddle in every matter pertaining to his lands and the areas surrounding it. He soon meets Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) who works in his fields and maintains his house. Surya finds her attractive and asks her to prepare his food and do all the other household chores. Lakshmi introduces her deaf and dumb husband, Kishtayya (Sadhu Meher) to Surya and requests him to give him some work. Surya makes him the bullock cart driver.

As time goes on, Surya develops a stronger attraction for Lakshmi. The absence of his wife and his rising sexual appetite further rolls him towards her. On the other hand, Lakshmi is having a hard time with Kishtayya who is an alcoholic and is unable to impregnate her. She desires a child more than anything else and things sour between the two on this subject. Kishtayya is caught stealing toddy from Surya’s land. In spite of Lakshmi’s pleadings, Surya gravely punishes him that hurts and embarrasses the man so much that he decides to leave the village. Lakshmi is left all alone now. Surya gradually makes a move on her and as she is reeling under the weight of what would happen to her in the absence of her husband, she gives in to his advances.

Unfortunately for Surya, his father arrives at about the same time, rebukes him for his blasphemous ways and insolence, and informs him that his wife will be joining him soon. Soon his wife, Suru arrives and from the very beginning, she takes a strong disliking to Lakshmi. It’s only a matter of time before she has Lakshmi fired and it also dons on Surya that Lakshmi is pregnant. He is under extreme duress as he can’t accept being ostracized by the villagers for his immoral treatment of Lakshmi and to make the matter worse, Lakshmi refuses to abort the child.

Sadhu Meher and Ananth Nag in a still from Ankur

Shyam Benegal was a major proponent of Hindi cinema and he uses this film to highlight a number of social issues by intertwining them in the narrative and by using them to extract emotion and awe from the audiences. This aspect of the film makes it special even though in terms of the story progression, there isn’t a lot happening. Some of the social issues raised by Benegal are:

Alcoholism: Lakshmi works extremely hard for earning an honest living but her husband’s alcoholism and the meager pay that she receives from Surya puts her in a tight spot. We witness her stealing rice from Surya’s house. She tries to draw Kishtayya’s attention to the precarious state of their living but to no avail. It is his alcoholism that ultimately results in his downfall when he is reprimanded by Surya and Lakshmi is left fending for herself after Kishtayya leaves the village in disgrace.

Caste Divide: the issue of casteism is brought out many times in discussions between different characters. Lakshmi is an untouchable and when Surya employs her to cook his food, it becomes a topic of discussion in the entire village. When Surya’s father comes to visit him, it proves to be one of his biggest complaints with him. When Surya’s wife comes to live with him, she refuses to eat anything from Lakshmi’s hands and gradually throws her out of the house.

Rich versus Poor: The biggest issue that we get to see here is the massive divide between the rich and the poor. While Lakshmi has to toil hard to survive and is even shown stealing rice just to make ends meet, the landlords live a comfortable life doing nothing and benefiting out of the hard work that the others put in in their fields. The entire village despises Surya for his attitude and behavior towards them but still never have the strength to stand up to him. Lakshmi gradually gets pushed to such a corner because of her poverty and her husband’s sudden disappearance that she is in many ways forced into the arms of Surya as she feels overwhelmed by the odds stacked up against her.

Adultery: Surya and Lakshmi are both guilty of committing adultery while their reasons for doing the same are different. Surya is frustrated because of a lack of sexual satisfaction. He comes into contact with Lakshmi and is smitten by her beauty and poise. She is the prettiest girl in the entire village and we don’t see any other as fair, pristine, and well dressed as her in the entire film. Surya tries to make a move on her but is initially thwarted. He gets his chance when her husband abandons her because of what he does to him and gradually works his way into getting what he desires of her.

Ananth Nag in a still from Ankur

Lakshmi is depicted as someone who respects and even loves her husband. According to her, he was the one who fed and kept her family alive in his heydays when Lakshmi and her mother were helpless. She informs Surya that he was a strong young man who earned a lot. However, things took a sad turn for him when his business of making pottery diminished after people shifted to aluminum utensils. Why Lakshmi commits adultery is not made totally clear. I felt that the desire for a child and Surya’s ploy of making her feel in command might have been some of the reasons. She also started believing that her husband had abandoned her and that might have catalyzed her actions as she looked up to Surya to provide for her as she was promised.

Ananth Nag as Surya is weak, conniving, and hateful. In the first few sequences of the film, he appears to be someone who might be a victim and sufferer but as the film progresses we learn that when in a position of power, he is just as ruthless and dispassionate as his father. Worse still is his physical weakness and moral bankruptcy. In the final scene of the film, we see him beat up Kishtayya on his return as he is doubtful that he might be coming to him to penalize him for impregnating his wife while in reality, the man was coming to him to ask for a job. Nag makes the character real with his sly looks, perfect mannerisms, and some deft touches.

Shabana Azmi as Lakshmi is equally good. While her rendering might be a tad bit superfluous because of how pristine and fair she is depicted as it works well in the context of the film. We see her metamorph from a simple girl who is in awe of a landlord to someone who finally stands up to his oppressive ways and is not afraid to curse him. It is through her rendering of Lakshmi that Azmi is successful in bringing out the issues faced by the downtrodden and how it affects their lives. Her rendering makes the character come alive and overshadows all the liberties that Benegal took in terms of depiction.

Ankur is wonderfully directed, is entertaining, and raises some of the most important social issues of Indian society but doesn’t forget to organically intertwine it in the narrative in such a way that the subjects never feel preachy or boring. On a technical level, the film scores brownie points as it is so beautiful to look at and is edited proficiently. The biggest qualities of the film still remain its performances, drama, the story, and the social issues that it raises. Ankur is one of the best Indian films of the 70s and merits a watch on any given day.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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