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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Tarpan, Review: Pride and prejudice

Tarpan, Review: Pride and prejudice

To draw even minimal audiences, films like Tarpan need three boosters: positive reviews, film festivals exposure and word-of-mouth publicity. They pick up dark subjects, rooted in current ground reality, write them for the screen in the realistic mode, stick as far as possible to factual references as against a fictional narrative, cast unknown or at least relatively unknown actors who would nevertheless deliver, retain a technical team that can put-together the basics on a shoe-string budget and finally bank on their own good intentions to see the film through. So, let me begin by stating that Tarpan comes as a pleasant surprise.

Tarpan (The Salvation; not be confused with the word tarap/tadap or tarpan/tadpan, which mean anguish and agony) conforms to the above matrix, having got more than 20 exposures at film festivals. Released yesterday in Mumbai, it needs positive reviews and word of mouth to fill the cinema halls. Its fate will be known by tomorrow night, with the first three days of ticket sales deciding its commercial prospects. There was a press preview held at a few hours’ notice three days ago, that I could not attend, so my review is based on the screener link sent to me by the film’s PRO Ashwani Shukla (Altair Media).

Tarpan is a ritual of satisfying the spirits of gods, sages and ancestors, by offering them water. This film is based on a novel by Lucknow-based Hindi writer Shivmurti (now 69; other filmed works include Bharatnatyam, Kasaibada,Triyacharitra; Trapan has been translated in German), set in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Rajpatiya, a young, lower caste (also called Harijan/Dalit/Achhoot/Scheduled Caste in India), woman of the village, coming from a family of tanners (tanners), is attacked by a high-caste Brahmin boy, Chandar, who also attempts to rape her. Two women, working in nearby fields, hear her screams and come to her rescue. A couple of other farm workers also come to her aid.

Rajpatiya’s father, Pyare, whose family has been brutally victimised by the Brahmins for decades, is hell bent on getting revenge. His wife is against all this vengeance, especially since the charge is cooked up. Pyare approaches Bhaijee, a Dalit leader, who suggests that a police case be lodged. But the police is corrupt and advises Pyare to forget about it. The incident becomes a political issue, as Bhaijee sees an opportunity to take advantage of laws made to protect schedules castes and make out a case of rape. When the local sub-inspector refuses to co-operate, Bhaijee uses his contacts with the local legislator, who puts in a word with the Superintendent of Police. An FIR (First Information Report) is filed and Chandar is arrested. Though Poonam and Rajpatiya are both against pursuing the case, they have to toe the line taken by Pyare and Bhaijee. Soon, there is going to develop a scenario when Bhaijee will demand that the nose of Chandar be chopped off, as the ultimate spite and humiliation of a belligerent, misguided Brahmin youth, denting Brahmin pride beyond repair.

Not having read the novel, I cannot compare its adaptation, but what has been transposed and executed in 102 minutes of runtime is fairly enough to bring home the central idea. Screenplay and dialogue by Dharmendra V. Singh is evocative of the territory and the culture. A few idioms are used, quite aptly though, never out of context. Scenes are short and to the point. Maybe a little humour would have provided relief. Tarpan has little or no novelty, in terms of the issues addressed. Atrocities on Dalits are innumerable and have been inflicted for thousands of years. One important element, admittedly, is novel, though: an unscrupulous Dalit leader leaving no stone unturned to get back at the Brahmins, and win some cheap laurels for himself in the bargain. Noticeably, the legislator and Pyare’s advocate are both Muslims, bringing in a third angle to the politico-religious divide that often dictates which way the votes will swing in UP: Brahmin/Dalit/Muslim.

For the benefit of those who are not familiar with Dalit deities and customs, the community often greet each other by saying “Jai Bhim”, in reverence to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who chaired the constituent assembly and who guaranteed Dalits a special place in society when the Indian Constitution was framed. It was implemented from 26 January 1950. In the film, there is a reference to Eklavya, a character from the Mahabharat, who wanted to learn archery from the guru of the upper class Pandavas, Dronacharya. Drona refused. So devoted was Eklavya that he learnt the art while watching Drona from hideouts. When Drona discovered that Eklavya has mastered the art and might even be better at it than his top pupil Arjun, he asked Eklavya for Guru Dakshina (on the completion of his training, a disciple has to give his Guru a ‘donation’, and this can be whatever the Guru desires). Drona asked Eklavya to cut off his thumb and give it to him. This would mean an end to archery, where the thumb is of supreme importance, and Eklavya readily made the sacrifice. Dalits are Buddhists, and the reference to the holy city of Gaya, in Bihar, is made because Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a Mahabodhi tree in Gaya.

Describing herself as a Writer, Director, Producer, Poet, Thinker, Painter, Counsellor, Future Teller (did she predict the events leading to the release of Tarpan, and its box-office fate?)... and a Passionate Lover...for Cinema, Neelam R. Singh is a debutant maker, who refuses to play safe. No popular element is introduced with the aim of meeting ‘demands’ or ‘expectations’. Though there is a mujra dance of sorts, it is enacted by one male and another actor in drag. Moreover, it is cleverly built into the plot and actually takes it forward. As if that was not enough, the mother of the boy who has borrowed money to organise this revelry severely castigates him for his foolishness, absolving the director of all remaining guilt for her indulgence. Singh is quite taken up with social issues like class prejudice and women’s security, and hopes to make her next film on similar concerns. She admits that many films have already been made around these parameters, but they can never be enough, she feels. Through her committed films, she hopes to make some difference in the lives of even a handful of viewers.

Pyare is played by Nand Kishor Pant, and I would look forward to more from this talented, naturalistic performer. His monologue at the climax is a tour de force. Neelam, who plays Rajpatiya, impresses with her silences and choked emotions. Rajpatiya”s mother, Poonam Alok Ingle, could easily have been one of the women from that Faizabad village where the film was shot. Sanjai Kumar as Bhaijee is always on the verge of turning into caricature but remarkably holds himself back every time. A nice directorial touch is felt when he pulls off the dark-glasses from his motor-cycle rider’s eyes and dons them himself, telling him to buy himself another pair. Likewise, his counterpart, Pandit Dharamdutt, as essayed by Rahul Chauhan, could easily have become a stereo-type.

Vandana Asthana as his wife, the Panditain, is the most villainous of the lot, the kind of woman women should be wary of. Arun Shekhar, the film’s executive producer, is cast as Amarkant, an uncle of Chandar, who uses his contacts to try and get Chandar out. Hot-blooded and thoroughly spoilt, probably the only child of his parents, Chandar is Abhishek Madarecha. Since the violent dramatic events need negative characters to precipitate the good~evil divide, mother and son do the needful. Padmaja Roy is seen as Lavangia, the Dalit who is a Pandit loyalist, but there is a method in her machinations. Male dancer is Mukesh Kumar and the female (in drag), Lalit Kumar.

Credits include Music-Manoj Nayan, Lyrics-Rakesh Nirala, Background score-Sanjay Pathak, Cinematography-Sukumar Jatania, EditorSunil Yadav and Sound-Sunil Pandey.

After winning 28 awards in many national and international film festivals of the world, Tarpan has suffered at a lot at the hands of censor board (Central Board of Film Certification), but Neelam’s herculean efforts and continuous follow up, which culminated in a tribunal court order, made it possible for the film to get a UA certificate, which allows children below 18 to see the film if they are accompanied by adults. The CBFC was insisting on an Adults Only certificate, expressing fears that it might influence impressionable minds.

In an era when almost every new action blockbuster raises the desensitisation mark, it is healthy cinematic practice to treat yourself to little reflection. Tarpan creates an image that is not beautiful to look at, but as they say, reality is harsh. It might be a Utopian dream to imagine a world of the John Lennon kind, a world where humans are not targeted on account of their caste, social status or gender. Yet, dream we must, for if it comes to choosing, would you settle for dystopia?

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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