Biweekly Binge: Rajen Kothari's Das Capital- Fighting several pandemics at once
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, Das Capital available on rent-a-film streaming platform Cinemapreneur
Cinematographer Rajen Kothari had an illustrious career as a cinematographer with films such as Pestonjee, Ghayal, Mrityudand, Godmother, and Zubeidaa. He passed away in 2012 of heart attack, only
60, to the shock of many of his equally illustrious associates like Prakash Jha, Govind Nihalani, and Shyam Benegal. Kothari was a product of the FTII from the 70s era, when the institute produced a lot of talent that went on to spearhead Hindi parallel cinema in the following decades. At the time of his death, Kothari also left behind a film titled Das Capital, something he directed along with Dayal Nihalani in 2011 and was still working on in 2012. The film starred Yashpal Sharma, KK Raina, Pratibha Sharma, and Jameel Khan, and wasbased on a story and screenplay by writer Shaiwal. It has finally seen the light of day thanks to a new independent cinema rent-a-film streaming platform called Cinemapreneur. The film is set in Bihar of the 80s, but much of its lead character Purushottam Ram's (Yashpal Sharma) struggles are still relevant and, in some cases, even surreal in how current the film feels.
Purushottam is a treasurer/cashier or Nazir as they refer to him, in Rangpur village in Bihar. He's condescended to on several occasions, not least of which is when people refer to him as a "reserved quota" employee. The irony manifesting in several ways when we realise that he works in the village's Block Development Office. We see him despondent in the first scene and then the film moves back several years to when he got the current posting along with the status of a newlywed. The only time we see Purushottam commanding respect or authority is when he arrives to talk about his marriage alliance, a heft in his voice with bright clothes to match. The year is 1982 and Rangpur's Block Development Office is corrupt in every way possible. There are bribes and then extortion to divide those bribes, with Purushottam so far below the food chain that he voluntarily gives up even the remaining five bucks that hasn't slipped away from his non-greasy palms. In Das Capital: Gulamon Ki Rajdhani, almost everyone apart from Purushottam is an antagonist. This can come across as one note - his ultra-corrupt boss, the upper caste man Shivratan lording over the poor villagers as the president of the district scheduled
caste association (!), the collectors and ministers who care for nothing but their own pockets. In some quirky symbolism, Shivratan also indulges in the creepy business of human skeletons.
Leaving out the straightforward story and trajectory, Das Capital is more interesting when recreating a particular era of pre-liberalisation India, an India completely recorded in files, registers and cashbooks. Kothari uses those cashbooks to denote the years that pass. We see one for 1982 and soon, Purushottam has a couple of children and the cash registers graduate to 1985. Das Capital also recalls the era in its dull, unsaturated colours. By situating itself in one of the smallest of governmental institutions of the country, it reminds us of the several governments that exist in this land. We talk about state assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections but often forget or remain ignorant of the fact that lakhs and lakhs of small governments and institutions make up this vast country. And Purushottam is part of one such office. Hierarchies rule the roost, in both offices and hospitals. When Purushottam's wife falls ill, the hospital in the village is short of beds and the doctor is also extorted for election funds. Patients are moved to the floor to accommodate someone more privileged, oxygen cylinders are a luxury and even corpses are left unattended. A film set in the 80s, made in 2011, surreal in the ways it reminds us of a pandemic in 2020. Das Capital, in its own way, establishing that the country is fighting several pandemics all at once.
Das Capital lacks the polish of a well-made film and by the last act, descends into a melodramatic mess of cliches. But, it does show the serpentine maze that is India's bureaucratic system and what it takes for a common man to navigate it, especially with the barriers of caste and class eternally holding him back. Das Capital begins with Purushottam comically whining that there's nobody to care for him and how desperate he is to marry, and ends with his rant realised, left alone with nobody to come to his aid.