Party: The discrete charm of the literati

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 24, 2019 08:53 hrs

Govind Nihalani's 1984 film satirises the passivity of socialites and activists, while urging the viewer to sympathise with men of action

Jiske kosh mein kehne ka arth hai hona aur hone ki shart ladna; uske liye shabd kisi bhi brahm se bada hai jo uske saath har morche pe khada hai,” read the words. (For those whose know word as being and assert being as struggle; for them word is greater than any principle if only one rallies beside them).

These are part of a short poem that commences Govind Nihalani’s Party. Adapted from the play of the same name by noted Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, Party is a provocative and sometimes irreverent look at the world of the intellectual elite.

The action of the story is principally set at an evening party, hosted to honour celebrated author Diwakar Barve (Manohar Singh), who has just been awarded a prestigious literary award. The affair is being hosted by Damyanti Rane (Vijaya Mehta), a rich ageing widow and a patron of the arts.

Barve is companioned by his alcoholic wife Mohini (Rohini Hattangadi), a former actress who quit the stage to get married. Mohini seems to be incapable of distinguishing art from life and is incessantly ‘playacting’. There is Damayanti’s sombre daughter Sona (Deepa Sahi), who has a child out of wedlock, something that seemingly bothers Damayanti far more than it does Sona.

Other guests include thespian Ravindra (Shafi Inamdar), who seems to be unable to separate himself from his roles, the outwardly radical Vrinda (Gulan Kripalani) who preaches social responsibility to her peers, aspiring poet Bharat (K K Raina) who looks at the event as a way to network with the city’s literati, and television soap writer Agashe (Akash Khurana) who seems content in his role as the artist of the status quo. Damayanti’s son and his friends are in an upstairs room and gyrating to 80s American music, careless about the happenings downstairs.

Amrish Puri plays a retired doctor, whose status as an outsider to this circle of elites marks him as an uneasy often quiet witness to these events. Puri’s character could be argued to be a substitute for the viewer, uninvolved but sympathetic to the characters.

This is a film composed to conversations, often between individuals of strong positions and a way with words.

At one point, Bharat awkwardly says “she is drunken” in a painful effort to make small talk. He is brushed aside and informed that the correct expression is “drunk”.

“You English speakers think too much of yourselves,” he replies, provoking a rejoinder that there is such a thing as “vernacular snobbery” as well; a point hammered by some of the characters speaking in a contrived and stilted Hindi.

Vrinda bickers with Agashe about the unabashed populism of his soaps to which he counters “You Marxists speak of the common man, yet you mock his tastes while sitting comfortably in your Malabar Hills bungalows.”

This is theatrical cinema, not unlike films like ‘12 Angry Men’, where characters and dialogues drive the narrative.

Bit by bit, all the conversations at the party veer towards a missing face: Amrit, Damayanti’s son and a promising poet who left the shallow clerisy to fight for the cause of exploited tribals.

Not unlike Godot, much of the movie’s action proceeds from Amrit’s centrality to the characters’ conversations. Amrit is derided, championed and disregarded by different members of the intellectual clique; each revealing more about oneself through their attitude towards Amrit.

Vrinda hails Amrit but cannot emulate any of his sacrifice, Bharat lauds him but is keenly aware of his limits as an artist; Agashe is content in his role as an author of cheap soaps and Barve simply remarks that Amrit’s ‘cause’ may be a reaction being an artistically spent force.

Amrit, though in absentia, is revealing the viewers of the characters’ banality and callousness towards the inequities in society; Amrit is a man of action, the others merely of words.

The conversations take a considerably political turn when a journalist named Avinash (Om Puri) – the last person to have met Amrit – joins the party. Snappy repartee gives way to intense debate about an artist’s role in an injustice-ridden society.

The harrowing finale shows Amrit for the only time in the movie and in a bitter contrast Nihalani chooses to linger on his silence just as he had begun with his voice.

Party is one of Govind Nihalani’s finest films and one of Elkunchwar’s finest plays. The long-drawn-out interactions are coupled with smooth camerawork and an eye for the small detail (look out for Amrish Puri reading V S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River).

The film bares the hypocrisy of the intellectual elite and challenges the viewer to sympathise with men of action. Amrit’s sacrifice of a promising career is seen praiseworthy while the others’ willingness to hobnob at luxurious parties and bicker over junkets is seen as deplorable.

Party is a deconstruction of the ostentatious elite intelligentsia; it’s a fierce dissection of bourgeois hypocrisy while exhorting the viewer to take unto action.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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