Shyam Benegal’s second film featuring GOAT all-time favorite Shabana Azmi, NIshant is the follow-up to the stellar Ankur, and even includes much of the same cast. The film explores the corrupt world of landowners and local bureaucracy in India on the cusp of independence.
In a feudal village in the 1940s, the village’s new schoolmaster’s wife, Sushila (Shabana Azmi), is abducted for the enjoyment of the zamindar’s cruel, depraved younger brothers. The schoolmaster tries to recover her through official channels, including the local police official (Kulbushan Kharbanda), but meets everything from indifference to abject fear of the powerful zamindar (Amrish Puri). In the meantime, Suhsila tries to make the best of her imprisonment, demanding concessions like trips to the temple to worship and access to her own kitchen where she can prepare her meals with some dignity. The zamindar's youngest (and most uncertain) brother, Vishwam (Naseeruddin Shah) shows signs of being in love with her, to the chagrin of his wife Rukmini (Smita Patil), who bristles at the possibility that Sushila may come to replace her. Eventually, the local pandit – through most of the film another pawn of the zamindar – incites the schoolmaster and the rest of the town to revolt against the zamindar's tyrrany, with indiscriminately tragic results.
While Shabana gives a more rangy and volatile performance than in Ankur, ultimately Ankur is the tauter and better film. Still, there is a certain raw tension in Nishant, an anticipatory mood that is compelling even when nothing is happening. Shyam Benegal's dusty, dusky visuals, along with many silent or near-silent scenes, seem to enhance the tension with their spareness. And it is a great treat to see so many giants of parallel cinema displayed in their unpolished youth - Shabana, Smita, Naseer, Kulbushan, and Mohan Agashe and Anant Nag (as the zamindar's other two brothers) are all fresh out of school; none of them had more than two films' experience prior to Nishant, and even Amrish Puri had only played half a dozen roles.