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aka The Essence 1986 140’ col Hindi d/p Shyam Benegal pc Association of Cooperatives and Apex Society of Handloom, Sahyadri Films sc Shama Zaidi c Ashok Mehta m Sharang Dev, Vanraj Bhatia lp Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, K.K. Raina, Annu Kapoor, Harish Patel, Mohan Agashe, Ila Arun

A tribute to the ‘Ikat’ handloom weavers of Pochampally in AP. The film tells of Ramulu (Puri), a master of silk weaving, his family and their tribulations with the co-operative they work in. The drama is sparked off by internal rivalries and the arrival of a government official, a woman (Gupta) looking for items to send to an exhibition in Paris. Complications are provided by Ramulu, who secretly uses some of his allotted silk to make a wedding sari for his daughter, leading to his temporary disgrace. The contrast between artisanal craftsmanship and mass-production techniques is illustrated by the life of Ramulu’s son-in-law, who moves away from the family and finds work in a textile factory. The moral of the story is underlined in an interview between a French journalist and Ramulu, the latter trying to explain that a craftsman pours the essence of his soul into his craft. Unlike e.g. Mani Kaul (cf. Mati Manas, 1984) whose 80s work is also animated by similar concerns for dying craft traditions, Benegal’s cinema makes no effort to mediate, demystify or even understand the nature of that ‘essence’. Produced, like his earlier Manthan (1976), by a marketing cooperative, the film also capitalised on a specifically 80s orientalism brought about by the several Festivals of India and trade fairs of traditional craft in Europe and the USSR.