Friday, March 04, 2011

Meghe Dhaka Tara- The Star in the Cloud Studded Sky

We were shown Meghe Dhaka Tara today as part of our course. Like most “Indian born American bred” youngsters, I too have an aversion to old movies, specially the black and white ones. I won’t get into any ‘good’ ‘bad’ judgment calls regarding this, it’s just the way I am. The few black and white Bangla films I have seen though were quite nice. The first B&W film that comes to mind in this respect is Sagarika starred by the eternally romantic pair Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. I remember gasping at the end of the movie seeing the two stars embrace each other and saying to my Ma, “Wow Bangla films in that era were quite modern!” 

Another B&W film, a hot favorite among vintage cine-goers is Saptapadi. I saw the movie. I liked the first half. But I did not at all like the second half. I guess it was due to my different temperament and sensibility. I felt the movie had become too cloistered. Anyways I would not want to get into any debate regarding Saptapadi, regarded by Bangla cinema fans as the most outstanding piece of work by Uttam-Suchitra (with an equally outstanding performance by Utpal Dutta’s voiceover as Othello).

I had heard of Ritwik Ghatak before but never seen any of his movies. I had absolutely no idea of his filmmaking. In our recent tryst with the PWA and the IPTA, we were made to come face to face with the man himself. I had also heard of the film Meghe Dhaka Tara and Komal Gandhar before. Byas, oi porjontoi. It never occurred to me to watch those movies. It was therefore with a great deal of anticipation that I waited for Meghe Dhaka Tara to be screened for our course. 

After some initial disturbance, we finally got to watch the movie. Our course coordinator gave us a background of the movie from beforehand and asked us to look for tell tale signs in the movie; regarding the arrangement of shots, lighting, sound and symbols as well. So when I went to watch the movie I had a clear cut idea of how to approach it (otherwise I would have missed out a significant part).

 Thus began Meghe Dhaka Tara. I was overjoyed when I could spot the first symbol our Professor had said, the symbol of the tree. A large banyan (?) tree. It played an important role, she said. I was awe struck. Nita comes from the distant side of the tree, carrying a black umbrella and a train is shown going by. Such clarity, such simplicity. The tree I felt represented roots and shelter. The train on the other hand, a symbol of eternal journey signifying the thousands of refugee families that came from the other side of Bengal showed the rootlessness they suffered. The tree in the midst of nowhere was possibly trying to show the intensity and desperation with which these people were trying to find their roots in places cut off from their ‘motherland’.

Meghe Dhaka Tara- The Star in the Cloud Studded Skynd then the story progresses by means of several other symbols, vis-à-vis Nita’s torn sandals and her earrings and bangles. She is the sole bread earner of a refugee family. Her family consists of her father, her mother, two brothers and sister. Everybody in her family is busy in their lives. Probably the only person who understands her hardship is her father. Her mother shows some superficial concern in the beginning but her trauma of the lost heritage of her family (10 years they have been a refugee), makes her incapable of understanding her daughter’s pain. The only way she can communicate with her daughter is by arguing with her.

Her elder brother depends on her for money. Her younger brother and sister do not so much take cash from her as they demand new shoes and sarees. The motif of the shoe is very prominent. Nita wears torn sandals (or chappals?) but her elder brother has hardy shoes. In the middle of the movie when his shoes get torn, he wears the shoes of his younger brother (who has newly got a job). This brother then lashes out at his Dada. An immediate contrast is then established between the younger brother and the Nita.

Nita buys sports shoes for her younger brother but the moment he earns enough, he develops an ego. He still respects her superficially but looks down upon the elder brother who does not earn money. This motif of the younger- elder brother comes into play repeatedly. Ghatak does not only concentrate on Nita, even though she is the heroine. He is showing the trauma of an entire family; how Partition can break up even the most unified and intimate relationships. And unless it is a level headed person like Nita who keeps her family together, it becomes very difficult to keep calm in the midst of distress.

The best example of the fact that Ghatak is not concentrating only on his heroine but an entire community is best shown through the ending of the film. The film does not end with Nita’s earth shattering cry, “Dada ami kintu bachte cheyechilam” (Dada, but I wanted to live!), rather the scene of an ‘inconsequential’ girl similar to Nita who is going off to work. Nita’s elder brother watches her as her chappals get torn. It strikes him. She looks back at him, gives a smile and then walks away. So poignant! So brilliant! Ghatak like any other ordinary filmmaker could have ended with Nita’s despairing cry but it would not have served his purpose. He is not making a film to address an individual; he is addressing an entire community.

The way Partition forced young girls of conservative Bengali families to go out in search of bread is something largely unaddressed by popular culture. Over many years however, we find Bengali filmmakers trying to address the plight of women due to the Bengal partition. I remember seeing a film of Satyajit Ray (?) where Madhabi similarly goes out to work to earn money for her family. Her husband, played by Soumitra Chattopadhyay disproves it immensely; it hurts his masculine pride. But there is nothing much he can do about it. But this leads to tensions between them as the film progresses.

There are so many things that I would like to say about this movie. This girl who appears in the last scene reappears in two other scenes in the movie; once while conversing with Nita when she has decided to drop out of M.A final Year Exam to support her family. But I can’t remember the other time, sorry dear readers.
The plight of Nita is well put in the movie.  Her elder brother’s ego is hurt when he takes her money but she loves him madly. 

To her younger siblings she is a provider; they take everything she gives and yet expect more. How can one reason the anguish caused by her younger sister when she marries the man Nita loved? Further how can one explain the despair of Nita at hearing another woman’s bangles at Sanat’s (her fiancé) house? And still more when she receives the shock of her life when her younger sister comes to inform her matter-of-factly that she is marrying Sanatbabu? How can one rationalize this? I have no idea.

I can only come to the conclusion that perhaps Ritwik did not want to rationalize this. Girls like Nita were not the epitome of women in the age of Partition. They were the providers of the family, true but that was all they were. There is a recurrent song in the movie, about Goddess Uma going to her husband’s place. Nita loves hearing this song. 

The last time we hear the song is when she leaves the house on a rainy dark night to visit the chest sanatorium in Shillong where she is sent forever, as she is suffering from tuberculosis. No one wants her at home. Somewhere I felt that Nita and the many like her provided for their family but they could never become a part of their family. In the beginning we see, Sanat wants to marry Nita but she asks him to wait. Her mother later takes her to a corner and blatantly asks Nita what would happen if she married Sanat; who would take care of the family then?

How does one rationalize this? I do not wish to be judgmental. But in those times, the best parents could want for their daughters was to make them happy and beautiful and then marry them off. Nita’s mother’s plea to her not to get married and criticize her regarding her relationship with Sanat then immediately gives the viewer a jolt.

The elder-younger brother divide is also brought to the forefront wonderfully. Money can change people. Time, on the other hand, can also bring people’s fortunes down. So while the younger brother behaves rudely to his Dada when he asks him for money for a shave, the tables turn quickly. The younger brother is injured in the factory he works for and the elder brother achieves his dreams and becomes a famous singer. The tables turn quickly. Ghatak shows the shame he feels when the elder brother returns from Bombay, a successful singer.

This brother is now able to look down upon all those who criticized him once upon a time, saying he lived upon the alms of his sister. Sanat too takes monetary help from Nita. In a very interesting scene, Sanat is shown asking Nita to leave her work citing the reason, “When will your brother earn? Isn’t he the eldest son?” What’s ironic then is that Sanat himself does not earn and takes Nita’s help. Where is the difference between these two then?

Nita does not hesitate to provide money to either Sanat or her elder brother. She works, thrusts her hopes and aspirations down so that others can fulfill their dreams. Sanat’s dream of completing his research is left unfulfilled when Nita’s sister approaches him and advises him to choose the easy way out- “Get a good job, you have many at your disposal. Leave the mess you stay in, get a flat. And then marry a pretty girl”. And she blinks her eyes twice. Sanat is baffled.

Unlike Nita who would always ask him to choose a life of hardship, this beautiful girl was asking him to opt for the easy way out. How many of us have the grit and determination to keep on struggling, when we don’t even know whether we will achieve our dreams or not? Not everyone is Nita, whose sole dream is to see her family happy. She achieves that but at the cost of her “life”, her happiness. Sanat is no Nita. He gives up, opts for the high paying engineering job but soon loses interest. He starts missing his office. But he has a family now. His wife is pregnant.

The elder brother on the other hand, seems quite incapable throughout the initial half of the movie. Viewers have more expectations of Sanat than they have of the elder brother. But in the end, it is the elder brother who stays with his sister, who achieves his dreams. May be this is where he surpasses Sanat. Herein lies the difference. The underdog thrives. And the brilliant intellectual full of high flowing words fails to perform. I felt Ghatak was mocking the empty idealism of the day. When hunger strikes, principles lose their relevance.

Sanat’s wife is pregnant. She is Nita’s younger sister. This news is delivered to us at the time when the first symptoms of tuberculosis are displayed in Nita. A viewer watching the film for the first time (like me) will obviously expect that Nita will die and the child will be born- which will show the victory of life over death. We would expect Nita to come back in the form of the child. But of course, Ghatak being the master filmmaker never does that. His agenda is not to idolize Nita. He has no intention of glorifying the birth of a child either.

Here comes another spoiler (for all those who have not seen the movies yet). Nita does not die. She renders herself incapable (and therefore unproductive) of functioning due to tuberculosis. The baby is born. Nita is transferred to a chest hospital in Shillong (not by her family or Sanat but by her elder brother). Before leaving, her father who was her only strength during her struggling days repents hopelessly, “They do not want you any more. They can dream of two storey houses now. You have made them alive once more. But they do not want you in their dream house”.

Ritwik’s skepticism of the modern Bengali family shows through this instance. The child will play in the two storey house but Nita is not welcome there. Her room will be his play house. Surely a caring protective family cannot let their newborn child roam around a sick person like her! Ghatak mocks, he laughs at the superficiality of the family which shows double standards for its children.

Nita, like Goddess Uma (also known as Annapurna) is the eternal provider for her family; they worship her when she provides, they kick her out of her house when she fails to provide. But she never becomes a part of their house. Her father, the bread earner is the head of the family. Her mother, a homemaker, who talks of her troubles day and night (even when Nita’s marriage breaks), is a wanted member of the family. Her elder brother is scorned throughout the movie but even he achieves a place for himself when he earns money. Her younger brother, even though he hurts himself at a factory job is mollycoddled by the family as he is the youngest son. The sister is beautiful and after all, she was right in her place; she simply wanted to get married. The only odd one out is Nita.

She is young, beautiful, educated. She has a job. She could get married any day. But she is responsible for her family’s happiness, and like her sister or brothers, she does not search for her dreams. She makes her family, her dream. The ones who search for their own happiness live in glory; Nita loses her ‘life’ to search for her family’s happiness. So when they achieve their dreams, her utility wears out.
Of course there are a lot many possible readings of Meghe Dhaka Tara. These are the few fragmented readings I have attempted.

P.S: Nita’s heart wrenching cry, “Dada ami kintu banchte cheyechilam” in the open space of Shillong’s hills is a stark contrast to her brother’s discussion of what a spoilt brat his little nephew has become. The open space of the hills provides a vent to Nita’s voice, her cry; something which was never possible in the cloistered realms of her hut back in Kolkata. Ritwik does not show Nita’s death. Would it ever be possible for Nita to find a new meaning for her life? Where she will be really able to “live” her life on her own terms? We do not know.

Ritwik however does not allow us that Romantic freedom. Quickly he brings us back to Nita’s locality where we see a girl wearing a sari like her, walk to office with a torn chappal. The second time this girl appears in the movie (ahan, I remember it now) is when she walks down the field where Nita’s elder brother practices singing. He runs after her screaming, “Nita, poisha de, poisha de” (Nita give me money, give me money) only to find that she is some other girl. She smiles and movies away. 

He moves away ashamed and then bursts out laughing at his idiocy. The viewer can only gasp in horror at his nirlojjo behavior. But times turn as I have already pointed out, and he is the only one who is there when Nita needs someone the most.

P.P.S.: If there is one thing I have felt while watching this movie; it is that there are many Nitas around us still. They exist in the form of working girls, perhaps even our maids (even though their class position and education would be different). Till date middle class girls are not able to complete their education and work to provide for their family. I know of such women. Meghe Dhaka Tara has humbled me towards their contributions towards life and society. I only hope that they do not lose their “life” to help others live. 

In that way, Meghe Dhaka Tara in the midst of its pessimism tries to make the viewers aware of the worth of these working middle class girls. If even some of us change our attitude towards these women, most of who we see daily and are part of our lives and family, the goal of the film is achieved. 

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