Saturday, August 12, 2006

Bari Theke Paliye (Runaway from home)

In 1948, two years before Ritwik started working on the script of his first completed film Nagarik (The Citizen), he wrote a disquieting short story Parashpathar (Touchstone) that was published in the 11th September edition of Desh, the leading Bengali literary periodical, and was later included in its golden anniversary edition of best short story collection — Desh Subarnajayanti Galpo Sankalan.

Chandrakanta, the eccentric protagonist of the story, had become a disciple of a sadhu and from him, had learned the secret formula of MritaSanjibani — the ancient Ayurvedic medicine that can revive the dead which, in the context of the story, is to be interpreted metaphorically. Rest of his life was spent in pursuing odd jobs to save enough money so that he could travel across the subcontinent searching for each of the shrubs and herbs prescribed in the formula. He did not quite completely trust the formula, but he was incapable of giving up on the mission – his raison d’être – which predictably ends in a tragedy.

The formula also required the applicant of the medicine to sing a specific song, with compassion and in a specific tune, while applying the drug to the dead. In his conversations with Banarasilal, a famous exponent of classical Hindustani music and a visitor to a colliery in Madhya Pradesh where Chandrakanta was temporarily working as a contractor, Chandrakanta delves into all sorts of sounds – musical and incidental, natural and mechanical, consonant and dissonant — and the images and memories those sounds invoke in his brain. With the benefit of hind sight, this discussion anticipating the twenty-three year old writer’s future experiments with sounds, images and their dialectical relations becomes more fascinating and even instructive. It is also intriguing how closely Chandrakanta’s passion and his tragic end foreshadow Ritwik’s own future.

More to the point of this post, however, is the fact that Chandrakanta is a runaway. Born in a small village in Kumilla district of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), he ran away from his home and when asked by Banarasilal if he ever wanted to go back to his village some day, his response was just an unintelligible sound of uncertainty and pathos.

Shibram Chakraborty, whose novella Ritwik adapted for Bari Theke Paliye, had his own fair share of adventures. Born in an aristocratic family in the Chanchal region of Maldah, he ran away from home, took part in nationalist freedom struggle and went to jail. Later he was adored for his humorous stories – unique combination of laugh-out-loud and subtle humor — about Harshabardhan and Gobardhan, two immortal characters and also, to a lesser extent, for his autobiographical masterpiece Ishwar, Prithibi, Bhalobasa (God, Universe and Love) – a brilliant overlap of his personal and Bengal’s political journeys through the first half of the last century — which never quite got the recognition it deserved. His wordplays were magical and his sense of humor welcomed the ridiculous and the sublime with equal élan. A lifelong bachelor and an intensely private person, his mess hall habitat at Muktarambabu Street in North Calcutta and the extremely idiosyncratic and curious lifestyle were part of Bengali-lit folklore.

Kanchan of Bari theke Paliye, the film, however, is closer to Ritwik — who himself had run away from home a few times in his youth — than Shibram. The original set in a Calcutta where optimism and idealism still were the dominant forces had to be morphed quite a bit to fit with Ritwik’s view of Calcutta of fifties: a post-second-world-war, post-famine, post-riot and post-partition crumbling metropolis – cruel and apathetic. He was direct and precise about this in an essay entitled My Films:

In our boyhood we have seen a Bengal, whole and glorious. Rabindranath, with his towering genius, was at the height of his literary creativity, while Bengali literature was experiencing a fresh blossoming with the works of the Kallol group, and the national movement had spread wide and deep into schools and colleges and the spirit of the youth. Rural Bengal, still reveling in its fairy tales, panchalis, and its thirteen festivals in twelve months, throbbed with the hope of a new spurt of life. This was the world that was shattered by the War, the Famine, and when the Congress and the Muslim League brought disaster to the country and tore it into two to snatch for it a fragmented independence. Communal riots engulfed the country. The waters of the Ganga and the Padma flowed crimson with the blood of warring brothers. All this was part of the experience that happened around us. Our dreams faded away. We crashed on our faces, clinging to a crumbling Bengal, divested of all its glory.

What distinguishes Bari Theke Paliye from the rest of Ritwik's films is the additional layer of subjectivity introduced — the big city is observed with an outsider’s perspective, through the eyes of a village boy who fantasizes Calcutta, his El Dorado. How Kanchan’s initial wonder at the majestic spectacles of the city and his optimism for finding work and sending money to his mother are slowly transformed by a cruel and heartless city into disillusionment is the crux of the narrative. Ritwik accomplishes this subjectivity with the help of techniques like low angle shots accentuating Kanchan’s point-of-view and the tall high-rises of the city, special angles and long focus on 300 mm lens, intentional distortion of objects shot with his favorite 18 mm lens, using depth of focus to create a feeling of stasis in the shots of fast-moving vehicles and people, and transfer of recorded music at three times the original speed. [1]

The vignettes of the city — the railway tracks and the local trains that daily bring to the city an incredible number of commuters and homeless displaced people looking for a livelihood, iconic Howrah bridge: the gateway to Calcutta, maidan’s mounted police controlling football spectators at rampart, slums, ships at Princep’s ghat, cows and ambassadors keeping company, beggar mafia, hawkers, nostalgia-filled office adda, pickpockets, michhil (political rally), glowing advertisement boards at night and the dark alleys during the day, conjurers, day laborers, biyebari (wedding reception) dinner and post-dinner impromptu classical music jalsa, the gentlest of class warfare between English-snob city kids and the outsider village boy, and the fiercest of survival battles where homeless street dwellers, barely surviving, chase dogs away and scrape for biyebari leftover food in dustbins in a scene reminiscent of Bijan Bhattacharya’s epochal Nabanna – are filled with tension and Ritwik’s compositions are constantly clashing and colliding with each other.

Kanchan’s journey does have its moments of joy, compassion, friendship and even a touch of romance. His dream sequence about Mili and their alternately teasing and loving conversations are tender and sweet. The jump cut and the close-up of Mili’s face that immediately follow the scramble for leftover food cinematically try to wipe the inhumanity out of Kanchan’s memory. At Princep’s ghat when Kanchan confides in Mili his dreams of boarding a ship, one is reminded of Bibhutibhushan’s Aparajito — the Bengali novel intellectually and emotionally dearest to Ritwik – where Apu and Lila’s pet topic of discussion was Apu’s fantasy voyage to discover Atlantis. As an aside, Satyajit has not been forgiven for dropping the pivotal character of Lila out of Apu trilogy. In his defense, he did try to fit her in, but it did not work out for the lack of suitable child actors and also as a result of schedule conflicts with the only suitable actor he finally managed to find.

However, refugee Haridas’s love and empathy for Kanchan, the slum-dwelling mother who sees her runaway son in Kanchan and above all Mili and her parents’ affection merely delay the inevitable heartbreak – Kanchan’s painful question: ei sahore eto du:kkho keno (why so much sadness in this city?) – echoed in the day laborer’s assertion: kolkata sahor – dayamaya kuchhu nei, ja ghare chole ja (this is Calcutta, it does not care about anyone, go away, go back home), and symbolized in the death of a chil run down by a car, beautifully cross-referencing a Sukanta Bhattacharya poem about broken dreams.

Never the one to shy away from using the great mother archetype and integrating it with his conception of home, Ritwik presents three faces of Bengali mother – Kanchan’s mother in the village waiting for him to return, the slum-dwelling mother who works as a maid and keeps looking for his lost son and Mili’s upper-middle class urban mother who is very sick and is practically waiting for her death. In a couple of typically audacious and melodramatic sequences – one where a song about maternal love and nurture is being played on radio and listened to by both Kanchan’s mother in her village home, and Mili’s mother in Calcutta, on their transistor sets that link the two long shots, and another when Kanchan tries to save the slum-dwelling woman from arrest by claiming: o amar ma (she is my mother) – which very few could pull off, Ritwik unifies all three of them, their losses and longings.

The film ends on a hopeful note as Kanchan - unlike Chandrakanta, Haridas and countless others, displaced and marginalized – still has a home to return to where he is re-united with his mother, forever loving, and his father, finally trying to get out of the clutches of Chanakya’s guide to child-rearing. Calcutta, the touchstone, touches Kanchan(literally meaning gold), shatters a few of his fantasies and makes him wiser.

[1] Source for the information on lenses and the techniques mentioned is a Ritwik interview on page 51 of Bnadhan Sengupta’s Ritwik Chalachchitra Katha. First Edition, 2003.


yourfan2 said...

Wonderful review. Unfortunately I have seen only two of Ritwik Ghatak's film- Ajantrik and Jukti Tokko Goppo. Every public and school library has loads of Ray films, but none seems to have any Ghatak film.

I read a review on Ghatak by Megan Carrigy where she quotes Ritwik trivializing film as a much much lesser form of art than theater- he was a theater person after all...maybe thats why his films were so theater like brilliant.

Dipanjan said...

Thanks. Yes, it's hard to find the dvds. You could buy them from or, but library rentals are hard to locate.

Is Megan's review online? I am not familiar with it. In one interview, Ritwik said he moved from theater to film primarily because with films, he could reach more people. If he could find a medium that would reach even more people, he would gladly switch again. He was not in love with the film as an art form - communicating with and connecting to people were more important to him as an artist. However, I will be surprised if Ritwik actually trivialized film as an art form. Maybe he was quoted out of context.

bongopondit said...

Brilliant review ! And thank you very much for showcasing an underrated classic of Bengali cinema.

On slightly off-topic, Bengal was fortunate enough to have so many illustrious humour writers - of various shades as well - Parashuram's biting satire, Sukumar Ray's nonsense, Narayan Ganguli's (Tenida) slapstick, and of course,
Shibram Chakraborty's subtle word-play. That genre deserves a post on its own.

And yes, 'Ishwar, Prithibi, Bhalobasha' - enlivened a rather long train journey from Bombay to Kolkata

Dipanjan said...

Thanks. Underrated it is and it deserves much more. In addition to the pigeonholing and marginalizing that all of Ritwik's films are well used to, this film suffers from a genre problem. It appears to fit in the children's genre which is not a favorite of serious cinephiles. At the same time it is too sombre to work as a feel-good coming-of-age film. Unfortunate.

I need to give Ishwar, Prithibi, Bhalobasa another read. It has been a while.

yourfan2 said...


The review I was referring to is here-

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

Absolutely brilliant!
Yours is a very underrated blog and this is a magical post on some of the most underrated of Bengali artistes.
BTW, the post on Indian football was great too (which I linked on my blog - without your permission!).

Dipanjan said...

@yourfan2: Thanks for the link. I have read the Bengali article Megan referred to. It is the same one I alluded to in my last comment.
I do not think Ritwik "trivialized" film as an art form and thought of it as a "lesser" form than theatre. He denounced film not because he thought it was an inferior medium, but he was very careful about not letting love for the art form take precedence over content and audience - his two passions. Also you have to consider his attitude in the context of his time - dominant French New Wave movement and the wide variety of formal and technical experiments, sometimes at the cost of alienating audience and obscuring themes. That was what he was guarding against when he undermined film as an art form. In spite of such a strong caveat, his films are still goldmines of innovative camera angles, editing and use of music and incidental sounds.

Dipanjan said...

@Dipta: Thanks. Please feel free to link, no permissions needed. This blog is underrated because I am a slacker and it is rarely updated :) I will try to improve.


Beautiful. Learnt a few things I did not know.

Sandy said...

Absolutely wonderful review.

Thanks for some great insights. Loved it.

Dipanjan said...

Thanks GB. Glad that I could reduce my debt a little bit.

Thanks Sandy.

Hiren said...

Nice, comprehensive write up and good photographs. Ray was known for his thoroughness. You are also very thourough in your posts.

udayan said...

I am prepared to wait for 2 months between posts in case all your posts are of this quality ... what a poignant memory you managed to unearth.

On second thoughts, maybe you should not take two months more, you know?

hutumthumo said...

eita darun likhechhen dada

rama said...

Thanks immensely for this. Do visit my recently started Calcutta photoblog at Cuckoo's Call. Best, rama

Anonymous said...

Nice review. You should write more often.

Uma said...

Excellent review. Just finished seeing the movie. For someone fairly unfamiliar with early Bengali terrain, the well-informed review's been a feast.

neptune said...

is the song :majhe nadi bahe re/ o pare tumi radhe, epare ami" from this movie?