I recently saw a superbly restored version of Govind Nihalani’s 1983 film Party on DVD. I scribbled down some notes afterwards, which I’ve reproduced here. While they may not make much sense to anyone uninitiated with the unique pleasures of this film, I’m hoping those who’ve seen it will recognise my eagerness to say something – anything – about it quickly, before those precious first impressions evaporate.
- The cast is like an honour roll of parallel cinema actors. Wouldn’t it have been great if the movie had no opening credits? Imagine not knowing who was going to walk through the door next, and it turning out to be Amrish Puri, Deepa Sahi, KK Raina, Om Puri, Rohini Hattangadi, Manohar Pandey, Shafi Inamdar…
- Robert Altman appears to be the dominant influence on the way the movie is structured, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. For one, I haven’t really heard of any Indian director citing the Hollywood maverick as an influence. Also, none of Nihalani’s other work that I’ve seen points to him. Maybe it’s just that the film is ‘Altmanesque’, in that it has a large ensemble cast, uses stylistic tropes like overlapping dialogue, and satirises without discrimination.
- Some of the observations are as true today as they (presumably) were then. The two unidentified men at the start of the party – the ones who say “Kitna culture hai…aur culture ke saath contacts bhi badhta hai” – are a hilarious send-up of the kind of hangers-on still seen at film screenings and art exhibitions. It’s fun to see how the same situation can still serve as a send-up today, but with the roles reversed: when Tusshar Kapoor and his buddies crash a high-society book launch in 2011’s Shor in the City
, they are the social critics, and the joke is on the attendees.
- “Subhash once played the Elephant Man, don’t let that bother you”, says Pearl Padamsee’s Ruth at one point. It’s a gem of a non-sequitur, but is it also a reference to David Lynch’s film, which caused such a splash in the art film world when it released in 1980, three years before Party? The only other thing that’s Lynchian about this film is Naseeruddin Shah’s brief but horrifying cameo at the end.
- This is the Hindi film as far as onscreen drinking is concerned. As in real life, you have the abstainers (Deepa Sahi’s Sona), the self-appointed saakis (Amrish Puri’s eponymous doctor), the ones who can hold their drink (Monohar Singh’s Divkar), and ones who can’t (Rohini Hattangadi’s Mohini). Some are drinking to lose their inhibitions, some to forget their problems, some just because that’s what people do at parties. A large amount of the dialogue revolves around alcohol and its effects: “Please give me a small brandy, I feel so tired”; “Drinking won’t solve anything”; “I’m drunk” (in response to “You’re looking more and more radiant”).
- The structure is unlike that of any other Hindi film. Like Altman’s films, Party is composed of fragments of conversations, interactions, incidents. (You could argue that Monsoon Wedding was similarly structured. Could it be that Mira Nair’s inspiration was Party and not Altman’s A Wedding, as most Western critics assumed?) The film keeps shifting its focus from one conversation to another, a high-risk stratagem that could have ended up disorienting viewers (that it didn’t is a testament to Nihalani’s clarity of vision and the presence of the great Renu Saluja at the editing table).
- “All art…is a weapon,” Avinash (Om Puri) says. And its true that art is lethally deployed in this film. Nihalani’s camera (he shot the film himself) literally stalks the participants, creeping up on them around pillars, doors and bushes, hoping to catch them during an unguarded moment. And the script is a polished knife. Divkar’s response to Mrs Rane’s suggestion that they, the mannered intellectual elite, had been in search of the truth – “Hoax!” – is as breathtaking and self-critical a moment as any in Nihalani’s oeuvre.
- The ending is a head-scratcher. In what looks like a scene from a zombie movie, a battered, tongue-less Amrit (Naseeruddin Shah) is shown staggering towards the camera. This ghastly vision is seen by Divkar and Bharat. You can see why Nihalani chose these two. Amrit’s moral authority already haunts Divkar – this gruesome image could almost be an extreme manifestation of the poet’s guilt. For Bharat, on the other hand, this walking corpse is like a premonition. Till now, he’s been keen to follow in Amrit’s footsteps. In the same way Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi
would do two decades later, Nihalani shows him – and the audience – the stakes involved.
- The least developed plot strand is that of Soni Razdan’s character semi-cheating on her husband with Pearl Padamsee’s escort. But even their scenes have a point of interest – Nihalani’s use of uber-pop numbers from the ‘80s. That the angry young auteur of Indian cinema chose to include such cheesy synthpop classics as “Maniac” and “What a Feeling” is intriguing; the rest of the film has a restrained Indian classical score. Did Nihalani use these numbers (both from Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance, released that same year) to ground his film in a particular place and time? Was he being ironic? Or did he just need some diegetic sound, and reach for the nearest mixtape?
- Party is full of little seductions. Malvika dances into sin. Bharat is seduced, not by an increasingly enamoured Vrinda, but by the very idea of Amrit. And there’s a delightful mutual seduction scene between playwright (Divkar) and actor (Shafi Inamdar's Ravi), each telling the other just what they want to hear.