Widely considered to be auteur, Shyam Benegal’s most accomplished work, Nishant was nominated for a slew of prestigious awards including Cannes’ highly coveted Palm D’Or (one of the few upon view films to come out of India to do so) yet it honestly warrants little of the reverence bestowed upon it.
Based on the story of a village in pre-independence India that rose up against their tyrannical zamindars, Nishant is about four disparate characters whose lives become intertwined when one of them is kidnapped by the zamindars to become their sex slave.
As characteristic of most arthouse, neorealist films such as those of Satyajit Ray, a filmmaker whom Benegal clearly takes after, Nishant is slow and pensive. However the film rarely rewards your patience for its slow buildup which after a while feels more akin to deadening drudgery.
Indeed, unlike the bulk of Shyam Benegal’s work, Nishant is a depressingly predictable affair with an ending one sees coming within the film’s first ten minutes that one must also sit through two and half hours for. To make matters worse, the film is also bogged down by lazily written archetypal characters – the villain is a Frankenstein-like, cruel narcissist who looks like he was lifted straight from a Seventies Bond film and his henchmen are two moronic brothers who laugh wildly (in unison, of course) whenever they inflict pain on poor people.
Nishant is the worst sort of arthouse film, one that rarely rewards your patience for its slow buildup, or in this particular film’s case, its deadening drudgery.
How this dumb shit got into Cannes is anyone’s guess really.
Still, Nishant has its moments. The scene in which Shabana Azmi’s character is kidnapped in the middle of the night will burrow inside your skin while the film’s final shot of despondent children huddled together in an empty classroom listening to their village descend into barbarism, is profoundly heartbreaking.