English, August, made in 1994, is Indian film director Dev Benegal‘s first feature film. This film ignited the next generation of Indian cinema and is acknowledged as a landmark in contemporary Indian cinema. A humorous and irreverent study of bureaucracy and the Indian Generation X, English, August won several awards at international film festivals.
English, August became the first Indian independent film to break the stranglehold of mainstream Indian Bollywood cinema when it was acquired by 20th Century Fox and became a theatrical success in the country. This has led the way for other low budget, independent movies such as Bombay Boys and Split Wide Open, which are part of the next generation of “middle cinema”. The film is based on the novel English August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Sadly, the 35mm negative of English, August was damaged because of poor storage by Prasad Laboratories in Madras (now Chennai) then the best processing and printing laboratory in India . The DVD of the film is finally available after a prolonged restoration effort. (Read about the film restoration update below.)
Agatsya Sen (Rahul Bose), nicknamed “English, August”, speaks and thinks in English. A lover of poetry, he listens to Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, rock and jazz and reads Marcus Aurelius. He is also an Administrative Service Officer, a member of the most influential and powerful cadre of civil servants in India. He is sent off for a year’s training to Madna, the hottest town in the country.
Culture shock and a language barrier in his own country follows (August’s mother tongue is Bengali). He feels like a foreigner, but must survive. Moreover, August is surrounded by wild characters : Srivastava, the pompous head bureaucrat and his wife Malti, the fashion and cultural leader of the town ; Sathe, a local pothead and cartoonist; Kumar, the Police Superintendent and connoisseur of porn films ; and Vasant, the world’s worst cook.
August negotiates this provincial creek with the only paddle he can find; Fantasy, daydreams and “self-abuse” become his means of revolt and escape as he escapes from the heat into the mystery and quiet of his secret world of erotic fantasy and contemplation.
Irreverent humor, frustrated idealism and earnest compassion are blended with a keen sense of character, place and political reality in the auspicious ”English, August.” The film provides a lighthearted frame for an incisive rendering of a gallery of memorable characters against the background of the problems of modern India. It was directed by Dev Benegal, who wrote the screenplay with Upamanyu Chatterjee, whose novel was its source.The focus of ”English, August” is Agastya Sen (Rahul Bose), known as August, the well-educated son of the Governor of Bengal who majored in English in college and now, at 24, has embarked on a career as a civil servant in a part of his country where he cannot speak the language. A product of big-city life in Calcutta, August is dispatched to Madna, a backwater notable for intense heat, high humidity, disease and a statue of Gandhi that stands only because it is propped up.August’s superior, Ravi Srivastava (Salim Shah), attends to his duties as the Collector of Madna in perfunctory fashion. For young, single men like August, in this tiny community there is no possibility of anything but solitary sex, although the police chief is willing to share his pornographic movies. Among the governed, rebellion is seething, fed by a can’t-do attitude among civil servants that leaves some communities without such basic necessities as water.
August tries asceticism (long solitary runs), books, music. He tries alcohol, marijuana and more masturbation. Madna, where the walls of the Collector’s office are adorned with plaques bearing the names of his predecessors far back into the days of the Raj, remains, embodying the struggle of its people to break free of the past and partake of the present.In ”English, August,” his first feature film, Mr. Benegal deftly manages the feat of using the scalpel of humor to lay bare a young man’s painful but edifying immersion in an alien culture within his own land and to deliver potent sociological and political messages.Directed by Dev Benegal; written (in English and Hindi, with English subtitles) by Upamanyu Chatterjee and Mr. Benegal; director of photography, Anoop Jotwani; music by D. Wood; produced by Anuradha Parikh. Rahul Bose (Agastya [August] Sen), Salim Shah (Srivastava, the collector) and Shivaji Satham (Sathe, the cartoonist).
- Won the Silver Montgolfiere and the Gilberto Martinez Solares prize for the Best First Film at the 1994 Festival des 3 continents
- Won the Best Feature Film in English at the 1995 National Film Awards, India
- Won a Special Jury Prize at the 1994 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema
- Rahul Bose as Agatsya “August” Sen
- Salim Shah as Ravi Srivastava
- Tanvi Azmi as Malti Srivastava
- Shivaji Satham as Govind Sathe
- Virendra Saxena as Laxman Shankar
- Mita Vashisht as Sita Avery
- Director – Dev Benegal
- Screenplay – Dev Benegal
- Screenplay – Upamanyu Chatterjee
- Producer – Dev Benegal
Upamanyu Chatterjee’s “English, August,” was first published in India in 1988. The story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town, it was hailed as the country’s “Catcher in the Rye” — a novel that captured the zeitgeist of the 1980’s, when India was uncertainly emerging from decades of economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism. Now, nearly two decades later, “English, August” is at last being published in America. The long wait, and the fact that, although Chatterjee writes in English, he still works and lives in India, confer a certain legitimacy upon his book. In a market dominated by cosmopolitan authors and fusion prose, “English, August” is being presented, in the words of one admirer, as “the ‘Indianest’ novel in English that I know of.”
Chatterjee richly deserves this accolade. His book displays a world rarely seen in modern Indian writing, revealing a detailed knowledge of the heartland that can result only from personal experience. As a member of the Indian civil service, Chatterjee has traveled and worked throughout India, and his novel is crowded — at times overcrowded — with the sorts of characters and scenes from rural life that couldn’t have been written by an author living in New York or London. Some of his descriptions are reminiscent of the late R. K. Narayan, whose fiction took place in the invented rural town of Malgudi. (“Without him,” Graham Greene once remarked, “I could never have known what it is like to be Indian.”)
Yet “English, August” wears the crown of authenticity uneasily — partly because the book is so charmingly unassuming, so natural and assured, that it would be uncomfortable with any crown at all. In his introduction to this edition, Akhil Sharma, himself the author of an accomplished novel about an Indian civil servant, characterizes the book as both a “coming-of-age story” and “a slacker novel.” Indeed, what’s striking — and wonderful — about Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is his aimlessness, his refusal to be pinned down to any particular opinion or grand idea. “There wasn’t a single thought in his head,” Chatterjee writes, “about which he didn’t feel confused.”
This confusion no doubt has something to do with the copious quantities of marijuana and alcohol Agastya consumes, but it also signals a welcome lack of self-importance. Despite the book’s subtitle — and in contrast to the grandiosity of much modern Indian writing — Chatterjee shows a distinct lack of interest in writing a Grand Indian Novel. India is merely a backdrop for the more intimate story of a young man’s fumbling attempts to find himself and his place in the world.
Agastya’s confusion is superficially about his career: having followed his father into government service, he toys repeatedly with the idea of seeking other work. But his real problem stems from uncertainty about his identity in a rapidly changing nation. Chatterjee’s central character has a satisfyingly complicated — even irreverent — take on the concept of Indianness.
Ending up in the remote town of Madna, Agastya (who has spent most of his life in New Delhi and Calcutta) quickly learns how foreign he is to the Indian heartland. Like a tourist, he boils his water; he’s terrified of the frogs and mosquitoes; he struggles with the local language. Modern and secular, he hasn’t much respect for tradition or religion. (At a temple, he and a friend share a picnic of “beer and beef and marijuana.”) Even the novel’s title hints at Agastya’s ambiguous identity: named after a mythological saint, he is nonetheless so westernized that people have taken to calling him August, or just plain English.
Like so much modern Indian writing, then, “English, August” is concerned with cultural alienation and dislocation. Chatterjee writes beautifully about this condition — “Now all he wanted, or thought he wanted, was one place, any one place, with no consciousness in his mind of the existence of any other” — but he can also write hilariously about it, avoiding the sentimentality and maudlin nostalgia that cloud so much expatriate writing.
Indeed, Chatterjee’s prose is cynical, witty and frequently bawdy; it brilliantly captures a generation and a nation struggling to reorient themselves in the early days of what we now call globalization. “They’re turning modern without warning, these bastards,” a friend of Agastya’s exclaims while struggling to open a cylinder of cooking gas that has a new kind of seal. One character strolls around with a Walkman, and likes to call rupees “bucks” and himself Mandy. “He’s the sort who’d love to get AIDS just because it’s raging in America,” is another character’s withering verdict.
There’s something quaint about such descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and AIDS was an American problem (rather than, say, a rural Indian one). “English, August” is filled with cultural references — Maruti cars, Nirodh condoms, Campa Colas — that are from another era, as are many of India’s insecurities and uncertainties about the West. Today’s India is very different from the nation Chatterjee captures here: more modern, more globalized, more self-confident. Yet “English, August” has worn remarkably well. Agastya’s story is convincing, entertaining, moving — and timeless. It merits an accolade that’s far harder to earn than “authentic.” It’s a classic.
The protagonist of this book is a 24 year old half Bengali, half Goanese guy named Agastya Sen. He goes by the nick-name August and the book several times takes note of the fact that this nickname depicts August’s confused upbringing and more so, his confused self. August comes from a privileged background, his father being in the civil services himself and also holding the position of Governor of WB. He has been raised in Delhi and Kolkata and seems to drink and dope himself with gusto. His vocab is colourful and his ideas and thoughts tending towards the perverted.
The book starts with August moving to the fictional small town of Madna, placed very excitingly in the heart of Indian hinterlands. Madna is reportedly the hottest town in India. August, I feel, is half scared of moving there and almost anxiety-attacks himself into
hating it. It’s all about perception maybe. Anyway, the book is this very personal look of August’s stay in Madna. It has pages unto pages of August’s feelings of awkwardness, desultoriness, indifference and ultimately, depression.
The feeling that really hit me was August’s emotions of displacement, almost as if he was a refugee. He just did not get the people he met in Madna. And what’s more I felt he did not even try. He took one look at them, and judged them from his seat atop the dome of his alma mater. He does meet quite a few colourful people. The collector of Madna and his wife, Mr and Mrs Srivastava were quite interesting, as were the SP and the cartoonist, Sathe.
August seems to get away with bunking office regularly. Nobody seems to reprimand him or really get him to mark up on his profession. The job seems undemanding at the extreme. The collector and the SP seem to do little more than shout at subordinates and threaten random miscreants they meet on the road. Sathe, the cartoonist, does little more than spout idealistic pearls of wisdom through his wily cartoons.
And August does little more than sleepwalk through it all, while reading Marcus Aurelius and the Gita, and listening to Tagore. What I found really striking is August’s passivity at all times. He never takes any control and is directionless both in his professional and personal life. He hates his life in Madna and wallows in it. The only thing that redeems him perhaps is his unconventional take at rural life. You almost live through August’s stay, the book is so detailed. It talks of dhabas, crappy food, mud and other yellow stuff on the
side of the road. It is a look at the 70% of India that we never get to see. And that is what makes this book so readable.
RESTORATION UPDATE : Work on the English, August DVD is now nearing completion. Sound Designer P.M. Satheesh hunted down the original Digital tapes and has painstakingly built up the entire sound track from scratch. P.M. Satheesh calls it a ‘labour of love, for a movie which began the next generation of Indian cinema.’ The original location audio was recorded in digital stereo by the sound guru Vikram Joglekar. Vikram recorded the entire film in sync sound and English, August became the first Indian film to do this in a long long while after the 50′s. Vikram who is a master Dhrupad singer, head of Dolby Labs in Italy and a complete tech head is fondly called The Don. His knowledge of cinema sound and Indian classical music is legendary.
The original negative of the film is being mastered frame by frame on an ITK telecine at Famous Laboratories in Bombay under the supervision of Director of Photography Jogendra ‘Jean-Luc’ Panda. The Director’s Cut of the film will be shorter than the theatrical version. Currently in production, the DVD will have a new Dolby Digital soundtrack. The DVD will also be made from the original 35mm negative in a widescreen edition enhanced for television and will include scenes screened once during its Toronto 1994 premiere and subsequently deleted from theatrical release — scenes never before featured in the film. The DVD release will also feature additional music and a re-mixed soundtrack by Uday Benegal and Jayesh Gandhi of the group Alms for Shanti. The 35mm theatrical version to be released will then conform to this new edition.