Story 78: Panchayati

PRAKASH PAI, THE forty-eight year old sole proprietor of Savitri Studios – the second-biggest film production house in the state of Andhra Pradesh, headquartered in Hyderabad – glanced at Sister Agnes and thought to himself, again: heroine.

The priest with the triangular head was a character artist; perhaps he could be trusted to play the role of a comedian in a low-budget affair. The mullah – skull cap, powdered white beard, shifting green eyes that never stopped to focus on anything for longer than a moment – was a method actor. The kind you found walking about on set tearing up a piece of paper into smaller and smaller shreds. The kind you wanted in your film for prestige but whose screen time you always kept under five minutes lest it made your stars insecure.

Prakash turned his beaming face back to Sister Agnes. They were sitting next to one another – she in the middle, Rama Shastri to her right, Azgher miyan to her left – in three straight-backed wicker chairs almost bunched up together in a line. They’d given him an old, rickety armchair on the other side of the wooden coffee table. It was a comfortable piece of furniture, and Prakash did make a mental note of asking his assistant to order one for his study – perfect for an evening of falling asleep with a boring script laid out on one’s chest – but it made him look up at his three hosts.

‘And you must ask yourself,’ Sister Agnes was saying, ‘just what it will do to the culture of this place.’

‘No doubt,’ said Prakash. ‘No doubt.’

On the table between them were four steel glasses. Three of them arrayed on their side. One on his.

A part of Prakash wondered just how worthwhile this whole exercise was. This village had eight hundred people according to the latest census poll, and even allowing for the occasional illegal occupant, on a good night, it would struggle to fill up a two-hundred-seater. And in a good month, it would perhaps bring in a couple of lakhs in ticket receipts.

Wouldn’t even register on Savitri Studios’ budget.

‘I hope you realize where you stand with this,’ Sister Agnes said. Her skin was rich and plump like ripe guavas, and a glance at her fingernails told Prakash that she took care of them. It was the oldest line in the trade: you wanted to gauge a woman’s vanity, look at her fingernails. She blinked her dark, long-lashed eyes at him, as if to summon his gaze. ‘We were not able to stop the purchase of the land,’ she said, ‘but we fully intend to protest this – this abomination you call Shivani.’

Prakash nodded sympathetically. ‘I understand, Sister,’ he said. ‘Look, if it is that important for you that I should not build a theatre there, I won’t.’

‘You must realize that we’re a small village,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘We already have Bhavani Theatre not too far from here. It serves all our entertainment needs.’

That was, of course, why Prakash was here. Bhavani had just been bought out by Annapurna Productions, and now they owned two of Dhavaleshwaram’s theatres to Savitri’s two. Building a theatre here in Palem would make it a three-two victory. Or at least that was what he had been thinking when the deal came to his notice. Back then he had not contended for the three religious heads of the village joining forces against him.

He adjusted his position in the armchair, and looked at the corner of the porch. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and the ceiling fan was running on five. But the monsoons had been sluggish to arrive this year; the air was heavy and wet and hot. Prakash yearned for the comfort of his car’s air-conditioning. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Mohan, his driver, was sleeping in the front seat with the windows rolled up. The engine was idling.

‘Look,’ he said, eyeing Azgher, whose house this was. ‘Miyan. I heard you have a small agarbathi business, is that right?’

Sister Agnes turned up her nose, but Azgher could not resist a small glance up at Prakash. ‘Yes?’ he said.

‘I know a guy who runs a franchise of Cycle Brand in Dhavaleshwaram,’ said Prakash. ‘I could get him to have a chat with you if you want? He will look after the whole thing – distribution, marketing – all you have to do is sell them here in the village.’ He shrugged good-naturedly. ‘Everyone has a reason to pray.’

‘Azgher miyan,’ said Sister Agnes, ‘don’t answer that!’

‘How much will he take?’

‘He usually goes for ten percent, but I can put in a word and make it eight percent just for you.’ Prakash gave Sister Agnes his most winning smile. ‘I am only trying to help, Sister. Just a favour – one struggling businessman to another.’

‘We’re not struggling,’ said Sister Agnes. Rama Shastri shook his head as well.

Prakash took out a card from his back pocket and placed it on the table, wedged under the now empty water glass. ‘You give me a call if you want, okay?’

Azgher watched it with greedy eyes, and on the inside Prakash grinned. He had asked for his assistant to look up these three people – of course he had; one did not turn up unprepared to meetings, no matter how insignificant they were. Sister Agnes had the Cathedral Fund to tap into for her needs and wants; Rama Shastri had the temple fund that Devender Reddy managed. What did poor Azgher miyan have? Just his little stall outside his house selling agarbathis?

‘And if you want a place to set up a brand new store,’ he said, deliberately making eye contact with Sister Agnes, ‘selling agarbathis, but also other puja equipment – you know, flowers, brass vessels, and the like – just let me know.’

Sister Agnes said, fiercely under her breath, ‘Azgher miyan!’

Azgher’s eyes met Prakash’s only to lower themselves ashamedly. He shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, you cannot bribe us.’

Sister Agnes smiled at Prakash now, as if to say see? ‘I do wish you realize where you stand, Mr Prakash,’ she said. ‘We’re united in this fight. We’re not going to let you erect your theatre on Ramaraju’s land.’

‘Of course, Sister,’ said Prakash. ‘There is simply no question of building anything on the land without your approval. All three approvals. But then, one also wonders what the people of the village think?’

‘We already know what the people of the village think,’ said Sister Agnes, with a firmly set mouth that Prakash wanted to twist just a little around the corners to smooth out the just-appearing wrinkles. He wondered how old Sister Agnes was, and how old she had been when she gave up her life for the lord. His eyes fell appraisingly down her covered neck, to where two small mounds were pushing out against the cassock. The way she sat was prim and proper, with her thighs and knees clamped together, her sandaled feet on the floor, and her hands making spare, necessary movements. An urge came over Prakash to get this woman to fling away these holy clothes, put her in a bikini on a beach, thrust a half-filled wine glass into her hand, and then shoot an orange bounce off her navel in slow motion.

Yes, he thought to himself mournfully. Heroine.

‘We know what the people of the village think,’ she said. ‘We have five hundred and eight signatures against the building.’

‘Five hundred and eight,’ said Prakash. ‘That’s quite a number.’

‘It is,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘And one of them, you should know, is Devender Reddy’s.’

Prakash said, ‘Ah,’ but didn’t mean it. He already knew that Devender Reddy was not going to insert himself into this fight. It made much more sense for the sarpanch here to stand by, watch, and lean appropriately at the right time.

A hot gust of wind blew over Azgher miyan’s front yard and tugged at the back of Prakash’s neck. He unbuttoned the top two buttons of his silk shirt and cursed himself. What was he doing here anyway? What did this measly plot of land and theatre matter? At best it was going to give him bragging rights at parties in Hyderabad. Even if he just held the land undeveloped, it would be nothing more than a rounding error in Savitri’s scheme of things.

And yet, here he was. He had to admit to himself that it was Sister Agnes that intrigued him… he found himself imagining her in all possible angles, in high definition, in silhouette, against a French window, by a pool, smeared in the colours of Holi – and the thought of losing to her made him shake to the pit of his stomach.

‘Look,’ he said, at once tired and amused with himself. ‘If the people don’t want us, we won’t come. But can we call a panchayati and have a show of hands? Right now I just have your word for it.’

Sister Agnes seemed to think about it. Prakash did not hurry her.

At last she said, ‘I think we can arrange it. I will have to ask Devender Reddy, but how is next Sunday?’

Prakash gave her a wide grin. ‘Next Sunday is perfect. I will be here.’

* * *

‘I am not going to be there,’ said Prakash on the phone, on his way back to Hyderabad. He had already admonished Mohan gently – one always admonished one’s drivers gently – about turning on the car’s air-conditioning while he’d been away. Now he was talking to Superstar Krishna, lead actor in eighteen of Savitri’s biggest hits of the last five years.

‘Did I hear you right?’ said Krishna. ‘You’re not going to be there? Can I say that is probably wise? Why are you so worried about a small theatre in that ramshackle village anyway?’

Prakash bit into a ripe guava and munched on it for a while, watching the milestones on the highway go by. Then he said, ‘Krishna, there is no such thing as a small theatre or a big theatre. A theatre is a theatre. Without theatres we’re nothing.’

‘Right,’ said Krishna. ‘I am sorry.’

Prakash laughed. ‘I should not bother an artist with details of the business. One of these days I am going to make you a partner in Savitri Studios, and then you come face to face with all the ugliness. Sometimes it’s the smallest piece of the pie that is most important.’

‘Okay. But you said you’re not going.’

‘Yes,’ said Prakash. ‘I am not going. Because you are.’

‘Me?’ said Krishna. ‘Are you offering me a part?’

Krishna looked out of the car’s window and twisted his mouth out of shape. It did not promise to work, what he had in mind, but he had to give it a go. If for nothing else but to wipe that smirk off that nun’s face, he had to give it a go.

‘Not just you,’ he said. ‘Bring along Soundarya as well. I will tell you more when I land.’

* * *

Sister Agnes gave Rama Shastri and Azgher miyan their respective cups of tea. She remained standing at the base of the cathedral’s pulpit while the other two sat side by side in the front pew.

‘Number one, it is unnecessary,’ she said, more to herself than to her guests. ‘We already have Bhavani Theatre in Dhavaleshwaram. It is only ten kilometres away. Why do we need another one? We do not.

‘Number two, it is harmful. We have a library that no one ever visits. We have a church – and other places of worship – that hardly draw in any crowd. The culture of the place is slowly dying. And now we have this. If they come in, we know that before long there will be midnight shows and what not. Men of the village will rejoice!’

Azgher miyan and Rama Shastri traded a disgraced glance at one another.

‘Number three,’ said Sister Agnes, ‘it is disrespectful. That plot of land is where Alluri Sita Ramaraju fought the British. It is where he took a bullet in his chest, people say. Are we going to desecrate the history of that land by building a film theatre there? Why not a statue? Why not?’

Azgher miyan and Rama Shastri nodded up at Sister Agnes. They sipped their teas and nodded.

‘We know all of this,’ said Sister Agnes. ‘We have told our people all of this. And the people agree with us. We even have their signatures.’

‘Yes, madam!’ said Rama Shastri, suddenly passionate to the cause. ‘Before you came here I had no power to fight all these unholy things. But with you here – and with Lord Shiva’s support, we will win this.’

‘Yes,’ said Azgher. ‘Allah will bless you with eternal life. I have no doubt.’

Sister Agnes gave Azgher a blank look for a moment. She paused to ponder this situation here – a Brahmin priest, a mullah, and a nun plotting together against immorality. She found a strange sense of communion with her fellow members of the faith; after all, the dark forces of sin bore no name or creed.

‘Azgher miyan, Shastri gaaru,’ she said, ‘we have been appointed to do the work of God. And we have done an admirable job so far with this challenge. All I am asking you is to repeat to your followers these messages, so that on the day of the panchayati, they will not be swayed by that man Prakash’s words.’

Later, in the dark privacy of her bedroom, Sister Agnes allowed herself to recall the searing probity of Prakash’s gaze upon her that afternoon in Azgher miyan’s house. And she asked forgiveness of the lord Jesus Christ for the little bolts of thrill that passed through her body at the time. She had done her job well: she had not allowed the man’s interest to affect her thoughts or actions; and no one outside of herself and the lord would know of this moment of shame. The old Agnes would have given anything to accept the interest shown by Prakash, but Sister Agnes – Sister Agnes could not. Should not. Would not.

To bring her roving mind to rest, she recounted the three reasons that she had given Rama Shastri and Azgher. She imagined various ways in which the producer might frame the issue in order to garner some of the villagers’ votes in his favour. But she was well prepared. She had the villagers on her side. She had Devender Reddy on her side. They were incorruptible to his money. They were immune to his charms.

What else could he do? The issue was settled. Pitted against fame, power and wealth, the village’s moral fibre was asserting itself.

The panchayati, she thought sleepily with a yawn… just a formality.

* * *

On the morning of the scheduled meeting, just as Sister Agnes had finished lighting the candles at the pulpit, she heard commotion on the street. It was still only seven, so it was rather early for the panchayati to begin; people did not stir out of their houses until after breakfast on most Sundays.

Without knowing how, Sister Agnes at that moment felt that this had something to do with Prakash. The man had been unusually quiet the whole two weeks. She had heard nothing from him. Rama Shastri and Azgher had even declared victory, and suggested that the producer might not even turn up.

Sister Agnes had hoped that was the case, and on one or two nights, she had allowed the fantasy to blossom and bloom in her mind.

But now, as the sounds of excited voices penetrated the closed church doors, her stomach began to squeeze into a tight knot that promised trouble.

* * *

By the time she collected Rama Shastri and Azgher from their homes and arrived at Mandiramma Banda, the entire village was already there. Sister Agnes had remembered to bring the sheet of signatures, and she was glad to spot Devender Reddy at the head of the crowd of people, but something about the whole spectacle made her look in a bemused manner in Rama Shastri’s direction.

The priest was similarly perplexed. A stage had been erected in the shade of the banyan tree, and on top of it strode a man who was dressed in the saffron costume of Alluri Sita Ramaraju. He had a bow dangling from his side, a full quiver of arrows strapped to his shoulder, and he was waving his arms about in front of four jacketed-and-booted men whose faces had been powdered white.

‘This is my land, you English dog!’ said the actor, and Sister Agnes immediately recognized him. Krishna, she thought. Without her knowledge or permission old memories resurfaced in her mind; she had watched this film all of fourteen years ago in Siddhartha Theatre in Dhavaleshwaram. She had been one of the four hundred people that morning who’d whistled and thrown coins at the screen.

‘Oh no,’ she said.

‘This is my land, you English dog!’ said Krishna again, looking out at the seated people in the crowd. ‘You come here without my permission, you lick my feet without my permission, and now you have become brave enough to demand taxes from me for tilling my own land.’

Sister Agnes’s lips moved of their own accord, mouthing the words. No, she told herself. I must fight this. This is all a trick that man Prakash is playing on us. ‘Shastri gaaru,’ she said, nudging the old man out of his stupor. ‘Let’s go and talk to Devender Reddy. Isn’t this supposed to be a panchayati?’

As they found their way to the base of the stage, Sister Agnes spotted a number of people who had enthusiastically signed their sheet of protest just last week. Now they were all watching, rapt, as Krishna pounded himself on the chest and said Vande Mataram!

He ran to the edge of the dais, as if meaning to launch himself into the crowd. ‘Vande!’ he said, as his bearded face dripped with sweat and his arms sported blue-black wounds.

‘Mataram!’ said the people of Palem.

‘Vande!’ said Krishna again, through gritted teeth.

‘Maa-taram!’ said everyone.

Sister Agnes, at the side of the stage now, looked up at the towering figure of Krishna. He was shorter than she had imagined him, but what difference did it make? In the garb of Alluri, with the bow and the bloodied body and the voice – oh, that voice – a part of her wanted to fly up to the man and fight the bloody English dogs on her own.

But this is all acting, she told herself then. Acting. That is not Alluri. That is Krishna, the actor.

As she approached Devender Reddy, sitting on his heavy teak chair with one leg crossed over the other, under an umbrella held by Sambayya the old manservant, the English dogs had drawn their revolvers, and they were threatening to shoot. Alluri, of course, was baring his chest at them and saying, yes, shoot me here. Empty your revolvers into my body, you English dogs. Bathe my land with my blood. Let me sink into this earth and embrace my mother, and let a million Alluris take birth on this very day. How many of them will you kill? How many bullets can you spare?

‘President gaaru?’ said Sister Agnes into the din.

Devender Reddy was so immersed in the drama that he did not respond to her.

She tugged him on the arm.

Devender Reddy looked at her as if she were a mosquito. Then his face cleared when he recognized Sister Agnes. He said something like yes but his voice was drowned out by the people chanting Alluri’s name.

The music system – there is a music system? thought Sister Agnes – began to play the old song from the film, and Alluri, with his battered body and tattered orange garments, began to dance in homage to the motherland. Devender Reddy signalled to her to wait, as if to say, let me stand up.

Of course he had to stand up. They all stood up and danced with Alluri for the entire four minutes of the song. Sister Agnes, Rama Shastri and Azgher stood by the President’s side, not knowing quite what to do.

At the end of it all, as the morning sun began to rise from behind the row of four tall neem trees that shrouded the old shivalayam, the English dogs killed Alluri, and Superstar Krishna fell off the stage in a heart-sickening thud that made the crowd gasp.

For a long moment no one said anything. Sister Agnes heard someone ask, ‘Is he okay?’

And then, just as Devender Reddy was preparing to send Sambayya over to look, Krishna jumped up to his feet and shook his bow angrily at the sky. ‘No one,’ he cried out, ‘no one can stop the rising sun!’

And everyone said, ‘Yes! Vande Mataram!’

‘Vande Mataram!’

* * *

The panchayati took on a strange shape soon after. Here was Krishna on the stage on his feet, still in his costume, still speaking in the same heavy voice of Alluri. The English dogs were nowhere to be seen. On the two chairs that had been placed on the dais, one belonged to Devender Reddy, under his umbrella. The other one was occupied by Soundarya, the actress who played Krishna Prasad’s second wife in his latest film. She wore round sunglasses, her hair had been pressed into a bun, and the gold thread woven into her red sari glimmered in the morning light.

Krishna and Soundarya – the two biggest stars of the Telugu film industry – and here they were in Palem. They had arrived without notice, and the people of the village began to wonder if they were all watching a collective dream.

Even Sister Agnes.

So when Krishna said, ‘This is Alluri’s land!’ she had to pinch herself to remember that this was happening. This was the panchayati, and they had all assembled to talk about Shivani Talkies. But here they were, the three of them, pushed away to one side. Not one pair of eyes was even glancing in their direction. Sister Agnes scanned down the list of signatures, counting them out by tens. All five hundred and three of them. All of them were here right now, giving themselves up to the religious experience.

‘This is Alluri’s land!’ said Krishna. ‘And since Alluri’s blood flows inside each one of us, it is our land. We will not let people like Prakash Pai walk in here and build his Shivani Talkies. Not here. Not where the earth still remembers the scent of Alluri’s blood!’

And almost immediately he hunched his back and joined his palms to the crowd. He was no longer Alluri, but Krishna, their beloved superstar.

‘I am the son of Alluri, like all of you,’ he said.

Behind him, Soundarya removed her sunglasses and smudged at her eyes with a silver handkerchief.

‘When I was a child,’ said Krishna, ‘I grew up on tales of Alluri, how he fought the system and rose to embrace the weapons of his homeland. How he said no to the Englishmen. He inspired me to follow my dreams. If I am anything today, anything at all, it is because I had heroes like Alluri growing up.’

A cheer from the crowd. Someone said, ‘Yeah!’

‘So when I heard that Prakash Pai was going to build a theatre here, I said no. This is my Palem. This is my Dhavaleshwaram. If anyone is going to build a theatre here, it is going to be me! And I told him you’re not going to give the theatre a name like Shivani. No, we’re going to name it Alluri Sita Ramaraju Theatre. A. S. R. And it is not going to be one of these small theatres with a 35 mm screen. It is going to be 70 mm. And the sound system is going to be Dolby. Dolby Surround Sound. The words of Alluri will speak into the ears of every person sitting in every seat.’

Sister Agnes looked at Rama Shastri. The priest’s eyes were glazed over, and he was nodding at Krishna. To her left, Azgher miyan gave her a forlorn look. He knew – and she knew with him – that they had lost. They were not even going to get a chance to present their three arguments.

Unnecessary. Immoral. Disrespectful. Wasn’t that it?

‘Devender Reddy gaaru,’ said Krishna, the very picture of utter slavish obedience, ‘I promise that this ASR Theatre will be the pride of Palem. It will be the seat of Indian culture. We will show Alluri’s film every day, free! Every day, morning show… you come here and the doors will be open to anyone in Palem – to come in and watch Alluri in full colour. No tickets!’

The people began to cheer, and Krishna made a polite gesture for them to quiet down. Almost from nowhere a microphone made an appearance in his hand. His voice boomed out to the disused well and echoed right back where to Sister Agnes was standing with her arms folded across the chest.

‘Wait, wait,’ he said. ‘We will show films that have made our industry proud. Sampoorna Ramanayam! Once every week, we will show Sampoorna Ramayanam. Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam. Devi Mahatyam! Once every week we will show films of Jesus Christ. Once a week we will show a film of the prophet!’

‘What is he saying?’ muttered Azgher miyan, under his breath. ‘There are no films of the prophet!’

Sister Agnes heard that and began to laugh. She covered her mouth with her hand and heard Superstar Krishna make promise after promise to the enraptured crowd before him, that he would bring documentaries for the school children, that he would lead Palem to the age of enlightenment through the miracle of cinema – and she could not contain herself. She saw Azgher miyan remove his skull cap in frustration and squeeze it out of shape with old, gnarled hands, and she heard him ask her if she was all right. She nodded even as her eyes teared up, and her laughter just wouldn’t stop.

* * *

The following July, on the birthday of Alluri Sita Ramaraju, ASR Talkies, AC 70 mm, opened with a free showing of the old film Alluri, starring Krishna in the titular role. Sister Agnes, Rama Shastri and Azgher miyan stayed away on principle, but the entire village attended the function, where everyone from Devender Reddy to Soundarya gave speeches. (Sister Agnes was to hear later that the actress expressed a wish to some day play Mother Teresa on screen.)

In the last week of August, Krishna’s latest social drama, Tuntari (subtitled: this boy is naughty), alongside two leading ladies, premiered at ASR Talkies for the evening slot. This time, Sister Agnes, Rama Shastri and Azgher miyan saw one another at the theatre during the interval, at the potato chips stand. Not a word passed between them.

Prakash Pai saw no reason to visit Palem on either of these occasions. It would be a long while before he would meet Sister Agnes again, and then he would wonder in a vague and bewildered way what he had seen in that woman all those years ago. Sister Agnes, for her part, would have forgotten everything about this little episode. She would have bigger problems on her mind just then.

Superstar Krishna directed Soundarya as Mother Teresa in a movie that came out in the sixth year after ASR’s birth. It did not recover the costs of production, but it did receive four Nandi awards, and a nomination for a National. The film, in keeping with its cultural value, only premiered at forty select theatres across India. ASR 70 mm was not one of them.

By the end of that first year after the panchayati of Alluri, it came to Sister Agnes’s notice that morning shows at ASR were playing to an empty hall, and that illicit couples from the village – some of them schoolchildren – were taking advantage of the privacy offered by a dark theatre. As Alluri took bullets in his chest on screen from the pistols of those English dogs, love blossomed in scattered corners among the seats.

So Sister Agnes did the sensible thing. She began a signature campaign to stop the free shows. ASR Talkies had become an unofficial brothel, she said in her letter, and the only way this would stop is if the theatre management could be persuaded to (a) sell tickets for every show they run, and (b) show films that attract a large audience. For the good of the cultural health of the village, in case the theatre was less than half full, the manager would be required to turn the lights on and the air-conditioning off.

Before the month was out, she had four hundred and seventy seven signatures on her list. The first of them was Devender Reddy’s, who agreed with her wholeheartedly and offered her his full support.