Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.
The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.
At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.
Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?
It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.
This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:
These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.
Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.
Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –
The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.
Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.
This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema. Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.
The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.
Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.
The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film. The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:
Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.
Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.
The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:
In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.
Vijay is a poet who
encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.
Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.
The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title. The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha
combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.
The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.
Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.
This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film
Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.
The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:
It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.
(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that
the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.
Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.
This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.
Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.
This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.
The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.
The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.
Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in
Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.
Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.
The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).
Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.
The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.
This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):
Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.
The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)
Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).
The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.
Kolkata is a city steeped in memory and cultural history. The principal city of British India, it has over the last fifty years fallen behind Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai in terms of economic development. But it won’t give up its self-image of ‘cultural capital’. 2011 marked 150 years since the birth of perhaps the greatest cultural icon in Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore – the Nobel Prizewinning writer of poetry and prose and the great polymath of Bengali culture. The Sound of Old Rooms is both a celebration of Tagore’s influence and cultural legacy and an attempt to look forward to the future. Sandeep Ray’s film focuses on teacher-poet Sarthak Roychowdhury. The filmmaker made an earlier film about the poet’s family and here he uses some of the earlier footage to trace the life of his ‘character ‘ from his college days through to the publication of a book of his poetry and up to fatherhood in his early forties. The 72 mins film uses a variety of formats from 8mm film to contemporary digital video footage.
For anyone who became interested in the world of Bengali students and aspiring intellectuals as seen in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen in the 1950s and 1960s, this is a fascinating film. (But Sandeep Ray is not to be confused with Sandip Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.) But even without that background, audiences should quickly warm to the central character. Two of my favourite scenes concern the visits Sarthak makes to his literary agent/publishing broker. This wily character does a quick calculation on the margin of a newspaper page and agrees to find a publisher for Sarthak’s poems, confident that he will make a profit. Years later he appears to be hoarding the last few copies of the book which has nearly sold out its 500 copy print run and he tells Sarthak that Tagore didn’t have that level of success with his first publication. These are the kinds of scenes you don’t normally get in an arts documentary – the agent trying to open the bottle of booze that Sarthak has brought as a gift, Sarthak grilling the agent’s assistant to find out if there are secret copies. I like the reality of the writer’s life that the film presents. On the one hand, Sarthak has used up all his creative energy in producing this first book and faces the usual problem of how to follow it up. In the meantime he has to earn money giving home tuition and taking teaching jobs outside Kolkata. At one point he has to take empty beer bottles back to a shop and is dismayed that the return deposit rate has dropped. At other times he chides taxi drivers for trying to overcharge him by a rupee (a rupee is worth not much more than 1p in UK money).
But the film is also about Sarthak’s family and the old three-storey building in which they have always lived. We meet his parents and eventually his wife Ritu who Sarthak met at university. Sarthak’s father is mostly in the background but his mother and Ritu feature strongly. Sarthak’s relationships with the two women in his life are structured around tradition and modernity. At one point he reminds Ritu that she has come to live in Sarthak’s parents’ house just like his mother and his grandmother before her, but at another point he says “we got our Masters in friendship, now we’re working on our PhD in relationships”. Ritu and Sarthak’s mother are both strong characters and very likeable. The film is full of fascinating juxtapositions. In the cluttered old house with little more than a bed and some bookshelves, Sarthak and Ritu happily slurp bowls of Maggi instant noodles and in an old bar they discuss Gayatri Spivak (and Jacques Derrida in a taxi). At other times we see them taking train trips in much the same way as those characters in the earlier Bengali movies. Ritu teaches full-time up until the birth of her son. The birth changes the lives of Sarthak and Ritu and this is the film looking forward – even if the whole family will still be listening to the sounds of old rooms. Sarthak wants his son to be aware of the memories in the house even as he looks to the future.
Here’s the trailer:
I found the film fascinating and hugely enjoyable. Sarthak is the filmmaker’s cousin and he participated in the production as well as being the subject. This relationship is only evident in the ease in which Sandeep Ray is able to present the events of Sarhak’s life on screen. There is never a moment when we feel that we are voyeurs or that the scenes are being manipulated for the camera. There are snatches of his poetry throughout and a music score by Sion Dey. I’d like to see the film again to get a full appreciation of both the poetry and the music. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.
It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.
Also And Quiet Rolls the Day. 1979. Directed by Mrinal Sen. In Bengali with English subtitles.
The article contains plot information, however the plot is not the main focus of the film and its ending is ambiguous.
Mrinal Sen is among the leading independent Bengali directors, along with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. Like Ray he was involved in the Calcutta Film Society: and like Ghatak he worked in the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association. However, he has his own distinctive themes and style, and he was a pioneer in what became known as the Parallel or New Indian Cinema in the 1970s. The major political influence is less Partition [which was central to the films of Ghatak] and more the Naxalite Movement of the 1960s. This was a Marxist-Leninists grouping that split from the official Communist Party of India. Their popular name came from actions in Naxalbari in Bengal in 1967, where peasant seized lands and dispensed ‘people’s justice’. Though the movement was suppressed its political influence and ‘Naxalite struggles’ continue in the sub-continent. These politics are clearest in Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy, especially the second film Calcutta ’71 (1972).
Ek Din Pratidin is less overtly about politics, but it displays the stylistic stance that Sen favoured in his early career. This film also fits into a trilogy, essentially of family melodramas. The other two titles are Ek Din Achanak (Suddenly One Day, 1989) and Mahaprithivi (World Within, World Without, 1991). “The three films under discussion all dramatise the bourgeois nuclear family”. [Bishnuptriya Ghosh, 2000]. In each of the three films a crisis occurs when a family member goes missing or dies, though the plots never fully explain what has occurred. In Ek Din Pratidin it is the eldest daughter, also the family breadwinner, who fails to return home on an evening after work.
In this film the family is described as lower middle class. However, the English term is somewhat vague and probably fails to define the particular cultural and economic situation of the film.
The family in question has seven members: the father, Rishikesh Sengupta (Satya Bannerjee); the Mother (Geeta Sen); the eldest son Tupu ; his younger brother Poltu; the eldest daughter Chinu (Mamata Shankar); her younger sister Meenu (Sreela Mujundar); and the youngest daughter Jhuna . Rikeshesh’ status is identified by the address Rikisheshbabu. Babu can be translated as ‘sir’: “babu culture (the well-educated, cultured, polite middle class who retain a certain Victorian Eurocentrism).” In the Bengali context this is known as bhadralok culture.
“Bhadralok sometimes designates education or the kind of labour in which one is engaged; at other times, it is used to demarcate literacy or participation in high culture; at yet others, it creates a marker between immigrant and non-immigrant communities. One’s level of education, accent, emotional restraint, distaste of admitting to material constraints and/or exploitation, and controlled sexuality are some of the classic features of this concept used in gender and class relations as a sign of civilisation.” [B. Ghosh, 2000].
So we are presented with this consciously civilised family set in a context where such values are of great importance. However, the family’s economic situation no longer corresponds to such class values. The father is in receipt of a pension, which is inadequate for the family needs. The son, college educated, cannot find a suitable job but will not undertake manual labour. The three youngest children are in education. Chinu, the eldest daughter. contributes the major income. She has an office position which brings in [with pay and extras] over 500 rupees a month. However, this economic achievement brings with it cultural conflicts with the traditional value relating to gender.
It fact the family hangs over an abyss, likely to slide into the world of the proletarian and lumpen proletarian masses of the city. Their situation is dramatised by their position in the house in which they reside. This is an old C19th mansion owned by Darikbabu and whilst he resides on the top floor the rest is rented out to families. Significantly the Sengupta family are on the ground floor, alongside the communal courtyard and by the entry door. Darikbabu`s lofty position is reflected in his treatment of his tenants. He acts as a lord, berating them over the careless use of water and electricity. He also upbraids the family over the question of traditional morals.
The mise en scène and camerawork of the film reinforce this hierarchical relationship. A recurring shot is a low angle from the courtyards and taking in or titling up the mansion, towering above. Camera tilts down the building emphasise the cultural descent implied in its layout. The family’s reduced circumstances are also depicted by the cramped constraints of the rooms which they inhabit, emphasised by tight angle shots of groups and individuals within. There are frequent slow pans across groups of faces and tracks across the setting. There is a feel of entrapment, added to by shots through doorways, grills and bars.
The film’s plot covers only one night. The pre-title sequence introduces us to the locality and includes a school accident to Poltu. He is tied to his bed for the rest of the film. The narrative is also partly restricted to the confines of the family space. When characters venture out into the city it is predominantly at night, adding a noirish feel to the film. The sense of an alien and dangerous space beyond the home adds to the feeling of paranoia.
The main action covers the point in the evening when it becomes apparent that Chinu is late home from work. Immediately the repressed fears of the family start to surface. This angst is fuelled by the mainly unsympathetic interest taken by the neighbours, both in the courtyard and the house. These fears concern the sexual and economic dangers that may have befallen Chinu and may befall her family. But they are also expressions of the traditional values of bapu culture, a culture that provides the uncertain foundation for this community.
There are sympathetic characters in the house. Shyamalbabu lives one floor above the Sengupta family. A sign of his greater affluence as he is still in employment. He actively helps in the search for Chinu. A young girl, Lilly shows empathy for the situation of the women: she challenges the moralistic comments of her elders. But others, especially the landlord, exude strong disapproval.
As the night progresses the fears and angst of the family increase. Early on Meenu tries to phone Chinu’s office from the local surgery, without success. Then Tupu, helped by his friend Amol [who owns a motorcycle and seems to be a bit of a ‘wide boy’] visits first the police station and then the local morgue. As these actions develop the encircling darkness becomes more obvious and dissension increase within the family.
Later the police call at the house. A young woman has attempted suicide: she is pregnant. Rikishesh, accompanied by Tupu and Shyamal visit the hospital. There a group of possible relatives wait for news. The fears and angst of the Senguptas equally consume all. The woman dies and the relatives have to inspect the body: It is not Chinu.
Then in the early hours of the morning Chinu returns by taxi. The audience has in fact greater knowledge than the family. We saw a sequence earlier where she boarded a crowded tram. Another sequence showed an unanswered telephone call at the local surgery: presumably Chinu trying to contact her family. Whilst her safe return assuages the fears of the family it does not resolve the repressed fears. The family members show little relief and Chinu herself asks “Do people have no faith in me at all”. The repressed nature of the fears is emphasised when none of the family can bring themselves to ask Chinu where she has been. And this repression recurs later when none of the other tenants can bring themselves to ask the family a similar question.
The landlord does descend to the courtyard and threatens the family with eviction: making vague allusions to morals. He is confronted by Tupu who nearly comes to blows with him. Tupu also re-imposes masculine authority by ordering Chinu back into the house. One senses that the landlord will be unwilling or unable to enforce his threat. Morning sees a veil of normality over the courtyard as the house rises. The mother prepares food as on the previous day, though pointedly, the final shot is through the bars of a window.
The narrative of the film is predominantly linear and naturalistic. There is one flashback to an argument between mother and son. However, at several points Sen uses what are usually described as Brechtian techniques: distancing devices. The film’s opening, and a later sequence panning over the city, have titles in Bengali, which appear to offer comment. Unfortunately these were not translated in the recent version that I have viewed. Then on three occasions an authoritative voice-over informs the viewer about contextual matters. In the first we are introduced to the history of the house, its tenants and the Sengupta family. The comments conjure up the C19th Raj, when Bhadralok culture developed, with its co-operation with the British occupation.
The second sequence explains to the audience Chinu’s importance in the family economy as she travels home. In a third sequence a voice over accompanies an insert shot of Chinu, and the competing voices of the junior family members, asking for gifts from her income. Importantly Meenu does not make such a request; indicative of the empathy she shows for Chinu’s situation. Later she challenges the family’s narrow and selfish fears over the incident.
Another sequence with distancing techniques occurs in the hospital scene. The camera prowls round as the waiting relatives voice their fears about the young woman in care: several of these are addressed direct to camera, once more encouraging the audience to consider both the words and what they represent.
The soundtrack reinforces the paranoia of the film. There are a couple of melodies but most of the time this consists of modernist music and accompanying discordant sounds. There feel is both unsettling and indicative of the underlying dread felt by the characters. A sound reproducing a ticking clock accompanies the main titles and recurs throughout the film, emphasising the slow passing of time as experienced by the characters.
Though only 91 minutes in length Ek Din Pratidin is a powerful film, developing a melodramatic situation, fraught with perils for the characters. Yet it also encourages the audience to step back and consider the economic and cultural forces that develop the melodrama in a particular way. Apparently family melodramas were a popular genre in the Bengali cinema of the 1950s and 60s and they generally supported the dominant bhadralok culture. [B. Gosh, 2000]. Sen beautifully subverts this type of story and situation, but allows the audience to both involve themselves in that story whilst [possibly] considering and understanding its position in the larger social scheme.
Bishnupriya Ghosh, Melodrama and the bourgeois family: notes on Mrinal Sen’s critical cinema in The Enemy Within The Films of Mrinal Sen, edited by Sumita S Chakavarty, Flicks Books, 2000. The article, and the book, are rather academic. I also think some points on the film are mistaken. However, there is a lot of useful comment on the context, including on Bengali cinema.
The film has been distributed in the UK and was screened on UK television [I think C4] in the 1980s. Currently available on Angel Digital DVD. Unfortunately the colour is now very washed out and night-time scenes are pretty dark. The subtitles probably contain errors. A translation of a comment reads, “1897 … the revolutionary year of the soldiers.” This is a reference to the Gadre or Great Rebellion, which occurred in 1857.
Restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. 158 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles, black and white, 1.37:1. Available in 35mm and High Definition versions.
“If you were eighteen years old, growing up in New Delhi, a student of cinema, a cinephile or a plain film snob, it was given that you would swoon over the film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and spend endless hours in the Delhi University canteen discussing his film, his alcoholism and his eventual death from Tuberculosis. … years later when I saw his epic, A River Called Titas, [that] I swooned for different reasons. The film is a work of pure genius. A passionate elegy for a dying culture, it moved me profoundly, and continues to haunt me to this day.” Deepa Mehta in Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue, 2010.
Ghatak is a key filmmaker and influence in Indian cinema, but is much less well known in the West: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary omits him completely. Apart from a series of nine feature films Ghatak was also Professor of Film Direction at the Film Institute of India from 1965 to 1967. Here he influenced a generation of young cineastes, including a number who were to become important in Independent Film production.
Ghatak was born in East Bengal in 1925, then part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Later East Bengal was included in the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. After the 1971 war of secession it became Bangladesh. Whilst he was young Ghatak’s family moved to Calcutta. In the 1940s he became politically active and worked in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. This was a radical cultural organisation associated with the Communist Party of India. It was very influential in the early years after Independence including in mainstream and independent filmmaking. Ghatak [among other works] staged plays by Bertold Brecht, who was an influence on both his stage and film work. Ghatak started work in Indian mainstream cinema as an actor. He became a scenarist at the Bombay Filmistan Studio in the 1950s, working with the major film director Bimal Roy, [Roy’s most famous film is Do Bigha Zameen (19540 which was seen as influenced by Neorealism].
Bengal was not only the scene of strife in the dismemberment of India. It had suffered badly under British colonial rule, especially in the major famine of 1943. This social and personal history left a strong mark on Ghatak’s work. The sense of loss, exile and conflict are powerfully felt in his films. Bengal was also the home of Satyajit Ray. However, whilst both filmmakers use a form distinct from popular mainstream films, they are themselves rather different. Both filmmakers often create a documentary look, and show the influence of Neorealism. And Ghatak shares with Ray an ability to integrate characters with landscapes, and he also make compelling use of indigenous music. However, Ghatak uses songs rather than instrumental pieces, and these offer a commentary on the characters and events. Moreover, Ghatak favours a style which included the melodramatic, a staple of popular Indian films. His work offer frequent dramatic close-ups where the emotions and conflicts experienced by the characters are powerfully presented. But these are often counterpoised with long shots and long takes, creating a sense of distance from the scene. Ghatak tends to a style which might be term Brechtian, in the sense that it not only encourages the viewer to stand back a little, but also to consider and appraise the events in the film story. The overall style tends to the elliptical; both the overall narrative and individual sequences are often disrupted by abrupt changes due to visual and sound edits. The soundtracks in Ghatak’s films are especially noticeable, with both songs and noise changing abruptly.
A River Called Titas is typical of this approach. The film is adapted from a classic Bengali novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman. The film is structured as much by symbolism and myth as it is by the development of a plot. Especially on first viewing the progress of character and plot can be difficult to follow.
[The following contains general plot information].
The tale is set among the Malo fishermen who toil on the waters of the Titas. The community includes both Hindu and Muslim families, though Hindu characters dominate the narrative. The central figures are Basanti, a young girl: Kishore, a fisherman: Rajar Khi, Kishore’s bride; and Ananta, Rajar’s son. We first see Basanti as a young girl in the village. Kishore and his brother Subol go on a fishing trip. It is on this trip that Kishore meets Rajar, whom he rescues in a village conflict. He then marries her and takes her back to his village. However, river bandits abduct her and this drives Kishore crazy. Basanti, who envisaged marrying Kishore, marries Subol instead, but he is drowned on the day of the wedding. There is an ellipsis of ten years.
Rajar with her son Ananta arrives in the village seeking shelter. Neither she nor Kishore recognise each other. The situation creates conflicts over traditional values regarding marriage and child rearing. Kishore is attacked and dies, and Rajar drowns alongside him. Basanti now takes care of Ananta; a situation objected to by Basanti’s parents. More village and domestic feuding lead to Ananta leaving to live with another family. Meanwhile the Brahmin landowners stir up conflicts and demand the repayments of loan from the fishing and farming families. At the end the river dries up [partly due to a scheme engineered by the Brahmin landowners]. The village falls apart.
The tragic end of the film is signalled in the opening shot, a dried up river ravine, which re-appears at the end. A Bengali song is heard on the soundtrack, which includes the following lines:
“I fear I see the Ganga waters rise to fill the blue sky
I fear I see the boats aground on the dry river bed.”
The dried up ravine re-appears in the film’s final sequence. Women are reduced to begging: a father dies of starvation: fishermen and farmers fight over the dried up riverbed. Basanti sits disconsolate outside a hut and a voice-over informs us:
“The River Titas flows on but tomorrow it may be bone dry.
It may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart.”
We then see Basanti stagger through an arid desert where she digs for water. Dying she has a flashback or vision of a young boy running in green fields, [possibly Kishore], and the film ends on a freeze-frame of her.
The film seems full of Bengali and Indian cultural references: many of which are probably not apparent to western audiences. However, there are two important references, which are common to the art and culture of the sub-continent. Kishore appears to be related to the mythical figure of Krishna. He is a godlike figure found in classic mythical writings. He fought great battles and ruled over a kingdom and finally ascended into heaven. His romantic life was also important and he married a princess, but he had other romances, the most important being Radha. This aspect of the myth is explained in the film Lagaan (2001), where another Krishna-like Hindi hero Bhuvan [Aamir Khan] explains to the Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) at the Temple to Radha and Krishna,
“Krishna was married to Rukmini and Radha to Anay …But the deep love they had for each other set an ideal … neither united nor separated, They’ve been worshipped together for ages.”
The Radha/Krishna/Rukmini relationship seems to parallel that in Ghatak’s film between Basanti/Kishore/Rajar: [and also relates to the romantic triangle in Lagaan].
Another marital aspect of the Krishna myth includes thousands of maidens who he rescued from captivity and married in order to save their honour. This clearly relates to the situation of Kishore and Rajar after her kidnapping.
There are also mythical parallels to a Hindu goddess. Rajar and Ananta are seen before a shrine to Bhagwati [another name for the Durga, the ‘Mother Goddess’]. Later in the film Basanti is also associated with Bhagwati. This seems a clear parallel for the important theme of motherhood in the film.
There is a lot more complexity in the plot and characters of the film, and I think Western viewers will probably need more than one viewing to assimilate all of this. There is also a rich palette in the film’s visual and aural style. Ghatak has a great command of camera and mise en scène. There are numerous fine sequences. In particular late in the film there is a boat race on the river, which is enthralling in its presentation. This is a film which one should encourage local exhibitors to book and screen.
There is a bfi DVD available, though it is taken from a pre-restoration print.
Two online reviews, which I found especially interesting, are one on Hobgoblin Reviews by Lynda Parker: http://www.thehobgoblin.co.uk/REVUES.htm. This has informed comments about the political context for Ghatak’s film. And Journey through Bangladesh by Audity Falguni relates the source novel to the area in which it [and the film] is set: http://www.thedailystar.net/starinsight/2010/01/03/jny.htm.
There is an entry on another Ghatak film, Subarnarekha (1963) on this Blog.
Note, film quotes taken from the English subtitles.