Winner of India’s 46th anni National Film Award for best pic in 1999, “Conflict” finds vet helmer Shyam Benegal in fine form with a ripped-from-the-headlines story that blurs the hot-button “untouchability” issue of friction among regional castes with the no-nonsense yet often humorous yarn of a film crew trying to wrap hard-hitting prod on subject. Item is fine fest entry from the region and could have theatrical life in specialized situations before inevitable vid success.
In the Kull village, located in the northern Bundelkhand region of Madya Pradesh province, two castes, the Thakurs and Dalits, bicker over the installation of a water pump. Thuggish Thakur landowner Chamak Singh (Ravi Jhankal), complete with Snidely Whiplash mustache, becomes so incensed over the timid protestations of dirt-poor Dalit Nathu (Kishore Kadam) that the resulting economic sanctions threaten to starve the Dalits out of the village.
When Nathu’s house mysteriously burns down, he runs to the local temple to beseech God for help, only to be beaten and urinated on by Singh for breaking the ban on Dalits in the holy place. Staging a sit-down strike with the remarkably receptive local authorities, Dalits win rights to their well and their pride.
Twist here is that first few reels play straight, with a jarring “cut” from genial but pompous director (Rajit Kapur) intro-ing the behind-the-camera intrigues of the Bombay-based film crew struggling to complete the shoot.
Story then moves back and forth between developments on both sides of lens, offering intriguing parallels on caste system of region vs. that of your average film troupe as the onscreen stand-off unfolds.
Thus, thesp limning Dalit victim turns out to be sensitive and often petulant about the subject away from the set, while “actual” Nathu (Raghubir Yadav) buzzes around the director’s chair offering clarification and advice with wife Dulari (Seema Biswas) in tow. So too Murli, who plays the now-dead Singh in film-within-a-film, is a preening hipster with a strong streak of unreasonable prejudice offscreen. This leads one observer to sigh “polishing a black pot will not change its color.”
These and other tensions result in inevitable violence, again mirroring conduct pic is trying to denounce. Benegal manages the shifts in perspective with skill and apparent relish.
Perfs are clear as they need to be to delineate actor from character, with amusing flourish of real-life screenwriter Ashok Mishra playing himself in modest support and references to Indian and international cinema sprinkled throughout. Rajeshwari Sachdev has many of pic’s tenderest moments as she soothes the movie Nathu (who’s convinced finished film will only unspool at a few festivals) while bonding with “real” character she’s playing (Dulari, for those keeping score) after enthralling Singh’s resentful son with her industry connections-based, inevitably, on apparently real bits of industry gossip.
Tech credits are pro, with Dolby Digital mix massaging the clumsily dubbed but still infectious score (which includes the mandatory musical numbers).
Subtitles on print caught offer helpful translations of many local terms in parentheses.