indian cinema heritage foundation

N A Ansari and the Beauty of Incoherence

26 Feb, 2020 | Short Features by Aditi Sen
An image of from the song booklet of Black Cat (1959) from the Cinemaazi archives

Aditi Sen looks at the forgotten oeuvre of film-maker N.A. Ansari, whose work, replete with unresolved multiple plot points and lack of narrative logic, makes him an Indian equivalent of Ed Wood.

Back in the 1970s, books were very common wedding presents amongst Bengalis in Calcutta. Popularly known as biyer boi (wedding books), they were sold at a very reasonable price in College Street. My parents received a large number of them when they got married. After I was born and managed to get somewhat literate, Dad opened his box of those wedding books and read them with me. The covers were always very attractive. They would either be classic 1960s pulp art or a lithography of an attractive woman or a picturesque European village. The books started like a typical novel, where the protagonist named Bina was worried about her prospective groom, Rajat, who seemed like an unkind man to her. This went on for about six pages and, as we were about to find out a scandal about Rajat, we discovered the next page was straight out of Wren and Martin. It was beckoning Dad and me to analyse the grammatical structure of ‘still water runs deep’. Right after that there was a recipe of swadisht doodh pua banane ki vidhi (pancakes soaked in milk), followed by pedology lesson on black soil, and ending with messages from the Bible. Every book was full of wonderful, eclectic content. We were mesmerized. And this is exactly how Nisar Ahmed Ansari approached his films.

There are two ways of looking at his cinema. In one way, you could call them classic B-thrillers, very similar to American drive-in cinema. Or you could see them as quasi-Gothic projects presented in a postmodernist framework.
There are two ways of looking at his cinema. In one way, you could call them classic B-thrillers, very similar to American drive-in cinema. Or you could see them as quasi-Gothic projects presented in a postmodernist framework. I am not being tongue-in-cheek at all. Ansari had a signature style of film-making that lacked basic structural coherence and yet his films were decidedly entertaining. 
Shriram Iyengar (cinestaan.com) calls him the Ed Wood of Bollywood.
Today, many consider Ansari to be a film-maker with a cult following, admired amongst cinephiles. However, in all probability, this kind of fandom comes from a place of ambivalence. On one hand, there is appreciation of his unique content; on the other, his shoddy production and directorial skills are mocked at. Shriram Iyengar (cinestaan.com) calls him the Ed Wood of Bollywood. Now, the reason Ed Wood captures the imagination of cinema lovers is largely because of Tim Burton’s compassionate depiction of him in the film titled Ed Wood (1994). While Bollywood cinephiles certainly enjoy Ansari’s films, there is very little attempt to locate his films in a broader milieu and appreciate the distinguishing features of his movies. Ansari is an actor, director and producer. My interest primarily lies in his directorial work. 
 
Tower House (1962). Image Courtesy
Ansari knew that a Gothic setting usually worked well in capturing the attention of the audience
I want to begin by talking about his quasi-Gothic settings. He was very fond of haunted houses, castles, forests and towers. He often liked to begin his stories in a Gothic setting. For example, Tower House (1962) gets going with a spectral suicide from a tower that is repeated every night. Black Cat (1959) starts in a gothic house with men in black coats and hats, and gunshots. Zara Bachke (Be Careful, 1959) revolves around a princess who falls in love with an ordinary man. There is also the villainous gang, led by Ansari himself who wants to marry the princess for her money and use her resources to carry on his nefarious activities. The whole set-up is Gothic, including a fake séance in the climax that reveals the real culprit behind the murder of a watchman. Even his espionage thrillers like Zindagi Aur Maut (Life and Death, 1965) and Wahan ke Log (People from Mars, 1967) have Gothic subplots. Ansari knew that a Gothic setting usually worked well in capturing the attention of the audience. 
 
Mr Murder (1969)
 
His posters were intriguing, the song booklets of his films had 1960s pulp-fiction-style art, and his film synopsis literature was also very attractive.
I want to draw attention to my analogy of wedding books, where the cover of the book was important. We all know one must never judge a book by its cover, but we also know that the cover is where the attraction lies. The cover is often the reason why we choose a book. Ansari understood the value of a good cover. All of the art associated with his films was fascinating. His posters were intriguing, the song booklets of his films had 1960s pulp-fiction-style art, and his film synopsis literature was also very attractive. Unlike 1980s and 1990s horror and thriller films, the artwork was not a collage of different characters in the film. They were often paintings using all the Gothic tropes like women in white, cobwebs and bats, dilapidated mansions, flying buttresses and gargoyles. Against that background, he would place his damsel in distress, the scheming baddie and the dashing hero. My father maintains that it was the posters that always drew him to watch Ansari’s films. He always felt deep intrigue. I would say the exact same thing about Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz, where the poster and the tagline drew me to the theatre for the very first show. In a time without social media, posters played a vital role in drawing crowds. His espionage thrillers, too, utilized tropes like cigar-smoking baddies, villains plotting in a den, a body hanging and staples like an attractive vamp and a handsome hero. The poster for Wahan ke Log had a flying saucer that clearly indicated the film was about aliens. 

Ansari’s films often opened with very straightforward storytelling. In Zindagi Aur Maut, we know in the first three minutes that enemies have copied vital data onto microfilm and the job of the secret agent, played by Pradeep Kumar, is to find and retrieve those films. Needless to say, after twenty minutes or so, Ansari slips another unrelated plot into the film. 
   
We give too much importance to the belief that mysteries and thrillers should make sense, and actively look for plot loopholes. Ansari unapologetically makes ‘loop-gulfs’ and flaunts his complete abandonment of reason.
Wahan ke Log has the most comprehensive beginning. In the first minute, we encounter a flying saucer and alien hands with scales shooting people with laser guns. In fact, the very first shot shows X-Ray vision revealing the rib cage of the victim. Yet, the beauty of his films is that the story is far more complicated, and in the first thirty minutes he introduces three different plots, not closely connected to each other. There is, of course, the usual comic subplot, romance and melodrama in addition to the multiple plots. Yet within this tumultuous structure, he manages to create endearing clichés, slapstick humour and an action-filled climax. This is why I consider his outline postmodernist and insist that the beauty of structural incoherence is underrated. We give too much importance to the belief that mysteries and thrillers should make sense, and actively look for plot loopholes. Ansari unapologetically makes ‘loop-gulfs’ and flaunts his complete abandonment of reason. He is not striving to add things up or plant sensible clues. He wants to throw in a few red herrings, change plots, indulge in moral subjectivism and tell us a story that shouldn’t make sense. 

Tower House has two disconnected mysteries. One, the haunting of the tower house and the other the murder of a hunter named Ranjeet, played by Ansari himself. Similarly, Black Cat also has two unrelated mysteries: one of the gang called Black Cat and the second, a regular murder mystery. Wahan ke Log has three plots. One is the alien attacks, then there is a ghost story of a dead princess haunting a castle, and finally the account of an evil genius who has invented a machine that can hypnotize people. Even his early directorial venture, Zara Bachke (Be Safe, 1959), has two plots. 
 
Mulzim (1963)
 
Ansari wanted us to see unpredictability pan out on screen, while keeping the cost low.
Ansari’s characters were largely two dimensional. He always played the villain in his films and regularly cast Nilofer as the Anglo-Indian vamp with a name like Ruby, Rita or Margaret. Johnny Walker was his favourite comedian and often had a more significant presence than the lead actor, especially when the lead actor was Pradeep Kumar. Ansari kept his characters uncomplicated, complicating the storyline instead. Considering his films were always low budget, I have always been intrigued by his multiple plots. Recalling my parents’ wedding books, my father and I never really solved the mystery behind the eclectic content. The only explanation we could come up with was that, because College Street was the hub of second-hand books, many publishers just combined arbitrary pages and bound them in an attractive cover. They knew no one read those books, and even if they did, they would learn to admire randomness. Similarly, Ansari too wanted us to see unpredictability pan out on screen, while keeping the cost low. 

In a world where we are endlessly bombarded with deep meaningful symbolism in cinema, where films are politically judged and have become vehicles of socio-economic discourse and outrage on social media, it is important to take another look at Ansari’s films. N.A. Ansari did away with organization. Way before non-linear narratives became fashionable, he gave us circular, perpendicular and hexagonal narratives. The multiple plots often went nowhere or had abrupt endings. Sometimes, they would blend with the main plot and have no resolution at all. Ansari understood that not everything needs to be resolved. Just like in life, some mysteries are not solved. They merely subside. That is the deep philosophical implication of Ansari’s films; it is perfectly fine not to solve everything, but instead let things recede and they will always surface to trouble you again. 
 

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About the Author

Aditi Sen is a professor of History based at Queen's University, Canada. Vintage Bollywood cinema keeps her going.