Among the visual and aural pleasures of Saeed Mirza’s 1978 film Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastan (newly available in a restored print by the National Film Development Corporation) is an enigmatic establishing sequence. The first images are from a village or a very small town, and are set to a minimalist music score — little more than the gentle plucking of a string instrument, it becomes more hypnotic the more you hear it. We see measurements being taken, cloth being dyed, posts being driven into the ground, threads stretched across them, and soon we realise that we are watching an intricately embroidered carpet coming into existence.
As the soundtrack gets busier, a shot of a wall with the finished carpet spread over it cuts to the inside of a room with the same carpet on display; the camera tracks forward and we see we are no longer in the village — we are in a showroom in the city. This is where the product of all that hard labour will be sold at prices that the original craftsmen could scarcely conceive of. Unseen foreign tourists murmur to each other in wonderment; the place is like a temple of capitalism, and the film’s sensitive protagonist feels out of place in it even though his family owns the showroom. Arvind Desai’s “ajeeb dastan” (strange fate) is essentially this: born into privilege, he has a social conscience but is too limp-wristed to do anything about it; he is firmly under the thumb of his father who tells him it’s all right to dream once in a while but not at the expense of running the business.
Watching this film, I wondered: is Arvind the most passive “hero” in the history of Hindi cinema? More than once, we see him going to visit someone, sitting around for a bit without doing anything, then getting up and saying he has to be somewhere else. Trapped in a smart suit on office days, he wears a kurta when he goes to visit his “Leftist” friend Rajan and his jhola-carrying crowd. But when they begin talking about such things as existential angst and the effects of industrialisation, Arvind seems unable to participate. “I’m not intellectual, like you,” he tells Rajan with a laugh.
But what is he exactly? We see him strolling about indolently in a bookstore, looking almost as if he needs to prove something to himself; he glances at a shelf containing titles by Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers, but he doesn’t pick one up. Is this how an Intellectual Manqué window-shops?
Mirza’s film has a compellingly off-kilter quality. It feels like a movie made by someone who had recently graduated from a film institute, his head chockfull of cinematic possibilities — there is much experimenting with sound and camerawork, and little nods to the work of directors like Godard and Robert Altman. And there is, alongside this, a talent for being irreverent and polemical in equal measure — something that also runs through Mirza’s other work, including his 2008 book Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother. In one scene, when Arvind buys something and hurriedly walks away after handing over extra money, the shopkeeper shakes his head and chuckles to his assistant “Saalon ko paise lene mein bhi takleef hoti hai.” (“These rich people find it difficult to even take their money back.”)
But ultimately, humour and scorn are the only weapons that the poor are shown to have, and the last shot has the helpless carpet-makers staring out at us as the soundtrack becomes percussive and angrier. The ending perfectly complements the opening sequence, and this film is among the milestones in what became known as the Cinema of Struggle in the 1970s and 80s.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer