Manas Mukul Pal’s debut feature Sahaj Pather Gappo released in September 2017 is quite different from the popular or even the parallel trends in Bengali cinema. It is refreshingly different in spite of its weaknesses. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag writes a critique (but not a review) drawing parallels with a Tamil film Kaaka Muttai which also involves two brothers like Sahaj Pather Gappo who experience the burn of hunger and the indifference of adults.
The absent father
In Garth Davis’ Oscar-nominated Lion (2016) five-year old village boy Saroo gets separated from his elder brother Guddu as Saroo mistakenly gets on a train that takes him to Kolkata which is far away from his native village and State. Saroo and Guddu steal coal from freight trains and sell them for food to earn for the family. In a truly Dickensian first half of the film we find how Saroo, all on his own survive the onslaught of a cruel metropolis. The big city which offers hope for many also lays traps for the naïve and the uninitiated. Saroo wanders in the city, wriggling himself out from the clutches of pimps, poverty and an indifferent humanity that has no space for the impoverished down-trodden without the polish of the great Indian middle-class. Much later after two decades and a half and with an Australian fragrance to boot Saroo returns to find his long lost family and discover that Guddu had died the same night when he boarded the train to a future he never imagined. Though separated only by a few years Guddu to Saroo was a protector and a friend. He was not exactly the father figure (the father had already been dead) but definitely one in the making.
The ‘absence’ of the father or his physical existence is ironically omnipresent in Manikandan’s Tamil film Kaaka Muttai (2014) as well. Here the father is in jail, shown a few times and has a sparse shadow on the sons who remain nameless and are known only as Big Crow’s Egg and Little Crow’s Egg to be referred to as BCE and LCE henceforth in this article. The brothers like Saroo and Guddu steal coal from the suburban line in Chennai and live in the slum with their young mother and aged grand-mother. Unlike Saroo whose innocence is straddled by the big city’s capitalist pollution, for the brothers in the Tamil venture this is commonplace. For them stealing is probably the only form of existence they are acquainted with. Deep beneath the film is about aspirations and how hunger regulates the dream of the multifarious strata of the Indian society. It is a story of desire – to own a cell phone that can take pictures of the crippled slum boy, to have the ‘unhygienic’ road-side paani-puri of the upper-class children, to savour and be part of an exclusive experience of having pizzas of the brothers. It transcends the desire of the children of the Chennai slum and sweeps over a nation which salivates continuously to move upward in the value chain on the basis of deprivation and in ignoring the right of others.
In the film the brothers yearn for pizza when a new pizza parlour opens up in the space where they used to play. ‘Pizza’ –the metaphor comes up in television advertisements, in handbills and in hoardings that cover up the skyline of the city. As the garbage-choked Cooum River stagnates, the claustrophobia is expressed from a top shot of the city. When the camera descends to ground level it is a common scene for any Indian metropolis where the haves and the have-nots rub shoulders symbolically as they inhabit different physical spaces.
And amidst their crude urban experience their naïveté shines through the bright eyes when they hold up a torn 10-rupee currency note against the Sun shimmering through, not with hope but with heat and sweat. And with so many films on child characters, cinema forms an important vehicle to depict the role of dream in their lives. As the Tamil actor Silambarasan, playing himself comes to inaugurate the pizza parlour and bites into the first slice of it the slum urchins go berserk, the actor is all that they are not but aspire to. It is not important whether the brothers get their bite on the pizza slice (they eventually get to through some political squalor), what is more important is that all throughout their experiences made them wiser. The bitter incidents don’t leave them with a bad taste, since life moves on even when there is stagnation.
The free egg
Egg symbolizes nutrition, a diet that is seldom missed amongst non-vegetarian middle-class Indians and also a substantial population of the world that can afford. It is hence ironical when we find the young boys stealing eggs (this is how they got their names) – not of chickens but of crows, birds of inferior pedigree almost like indispensible outcasts like they themselves whom the upper-middle class India is unwillingly forced to share the collective physical space with. Eating birds’ eggs that are readily available and hence of less value are also exhibited in Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s tantalizingly heart-wrenching I Was Born But… (1932). In the film we find the young boys eating sparrow eggs raw with the hope of gaining energy and vitality!
Set in the suburban Tokyo the film depicts two brothers Keiji and Ryoichi along with their parents. Like in the films referred above this one also plays with the representation of the father – an idol of the boys who suddenly find out that their father is a ‘nobody’, a clown to his peers at work and almost like a doormat to his boss. This negation of the ‘image’ of the father-figure in pre-war Japan has its own connotations but quite interestingly it is again with the help of moving images (in this case a personal film) that the young ones get to experience a reality of life, albeit bitter in this case. Yet, like Kaaka Muttai, in I Was Born But… as well there is humour in the small nothingness of life and in the directors’ decision to not dramatise it. Life reflects as vignettes with warm softness and with near-unreal perfection.
Egg as the symbol of easy yet timid wish-fulfillment like the boys of Kaaka Muttai and I Was Born But… binds another contemporary film as well – Manas Mukul Pal’s Sahaj Pather Gappo. Based on Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story ‘Tal Nabami’ (5 pages with less than 1500 words) the film has already created a few ripples. Set in rural Bengal it depicts the life of two boys Gopal and Chhotu. Much like BCE and LCE, within their meager possessions the boys of Sahaj Pather Gappo portray tenderly how the mainstream filmstars (Mithun Chakraborty) inhabit and influence their virgin, rural heads. They live in abject poverty as their rickshaw-puller father met with an accident and hence incapacitated. Here again, the father’s influence is slender apart from the conventions of patriarchal mores whereby their economic condition is directly linked with the absence of the ‘active’ father.
By making the father disappear the film also reminds us of Satyajit Ray’s elegant first feature Pather Panchali wherein the father who is a priest is predominantly out of the home and hence the audience memory. However Sahaj Pather Gappo’s main resemblance with the Ray masterpiece is due to the common author Bibhuti Bhushan and the setting of both these narratives in rural Bengal. Bandyopadhyay is a master story-teller, lyrical yet harsh, the minute details form the grandeur of a Persian carpet without sticking out ugly. In an age when the ‘non-mainstream’, ‘parallel’ Bengali films as well prefer to confine the characters, the plot, the settings and the dialect to one that is prevalent in the city of Kolkata, this film is a happy departure. It holds the colours of the rural Bengal in a poignant palette. That is why the images linger longer than the persistence of vision. This is such a welcome relief that we wish to overlook that the feature film in the end remains primarily a montage of shots with sensitive acting by the central two characters (and also their mother) – the subplots tend to be weak and the script insufficient.
Train – the aggressor and the provider
In Lion the train takes Saroo away from Guddu and his family. In a sense it took him away from his roots. Later we find him lost and lonely in a crowd of people in Kolkata’s populous Howrah Station. Yet the railway track provided them with their livelihood. The brothers in Kaaka Muttai also thrive on their conquests along the railway track – the railway track acts as a provider. In one touching shot LCE kneels before the track and puts his ears on it. Is he listening to the beats of the track as a train advances? Surely for them the track has a heart.
Train does come in the first dream sequence in Sahaj Pather Gappo. The village’s geography doesn’t lend us with the opportunity to understand if the railway track is part of it. Nonetheless the dream, rather nightmare of Gopal takes the breath away momentarily as the mother runs to the track to commit suicide. The train hurries past as Gopal winds her sari from beneath its wheels – the image acts as subtraction of life. The frame reminds us, though in an opposite sense, of the iconic Pather Panchali scene where we find Apu’s first tryst with modernity as he runs towards a speeding train. The camera here as well holds the wheels but they resemble speed of evolution and less that of destruction. Train remained a recurrent metaphor in the whole of Apu Trilogy with significantly altered meanings.
Train and trolleys intersect Ozu’s frame multiple times in I Was Born But… as well to signify the separation of the brothers from their father – the dissociation of their perceived image and the real one as well as the bifurcation of the two worlds, the children’s and the adults’ which in another shot are merged as identical parallels.
An unholy hunger
In Manikandan’s Tamil debut film the object of desire was a pizza. For Chhotu in Sahaj Pather Gappo it was pulao in the house of the Seth on the occasion of Janmastami. The desire-objects are agonizingly close yet in either of the films the boys can’t touch them because of their socio-economic fitments. And in both it is food unlike the ones that we, the middle-class crave for. The hungers that are evident herein are depicted almost flawlessly by the actors in both the features – the two sets of brothers. That they are non-professional actors who emanate from the same socio-economic strata as the characters themselves (real-life slum-dwellers in Chennai and real-life urchins in deprived villages of West Bengal) helped both the directors as the characters behaved more than they acted. No wonder all four of them received the National award for Best Child Artist – J. Vignesh and Ramesh for Kaaka Muttai in 2014 and Noor Islam and Samiul Alam for Sahaj Pather Gappo in 2016. The social stigma, the economic farce they live in daily afflicts them with pain. Yet in their humble genuineness they have a rare luminance in their unobtrusive shine. Both the films reflect two sides of the same coin – the currency of the Indian under-privileged at its depressing worst and its sublime best.
In a letter to Satyajit Ray dated 05 April 1963, Ray Bradbury, author of cult novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ referred to Empathy Machine and wrote that Ray’s Apu Trilogy helped him to empathize with Ray’s world of characters. Yet there were many, mostly foreigners who preferred to sympathize with the ‘half-naked’ Indians and shed their crocodile tears – a reason why Ray was accused of ‘selling’ India’s poverty to the West.
For the Indian middle-class, ultimately Apu was a Brahmin and hence one with whom they can relate and empathize. Ironically enough after six decades, both the films in discussion here dwell on characters who are far from having the Brahminic upper-caste blood in them. The glorious Indian market economy ensured that we have a culture and art market within India now in which we, the consumers of it can lap on to the lives of Chhotu and Gopal with relentless pity and unmatched, disdainful sympathy. For, we have the pizzas and pulaos and they, have not.
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