Film critic Vidyarthy Chatterjee explores Mrinal Sen’s path-breaking neo-realist film of the 1960s, the Odia film Matira Manisha.
The first Odia film, Sita Bibaha was made in 1934. In the more than eight decades since the making of that mythological, Odia cinema does not appear to have given itself too many opportunities to show the world what it is actually capable of. There has never been a dearth of talent in the ranks of its filmmakers, many of whom have benefitted from attending film schools, but there are hardly any producers willing to invest in meaningful scripts talking of believable people in believable situations. Apart from high-pitched social dramas, complete with mandatory doses of sex and violence, song-and-dance numbers, and other hybrid elements making them look like pathetic clones of Hindi blockbusters, nothing much seems to be happening on the banks of the Mahanadi. In fact, but for Mrinal Sen’s path-breaking neo-realist film of the 1960s, Matira Manisha, which caused a handful of Odia artists and intellectuals to take a close look into the possibilities of cinema as both an art form and a tool for social discourse, it is likely that the picture would have been even more disheartening.
Made three years before Bhuvan Shome (1969), Matira Manisha is now counted among Sen’s more important films, although the case was quite different for several decades following its making. Strangely, the director himself was not known to be expansive about this rural odyssey, made at a time of intense struggle in his life and career. However, for the film connoisseur it was the first authentic and creative work in Odia, made in a style part-fiction, part-documentary. The narrative underlined the threat of disintegration faced by a farming family under the pressure of social and economic change combined with shifting personal needs and ambitions. It was a different Sen from the one viewers came to know some years later, full of a worked-up rage and too conscientious an objector. In Matira Manisha, it was a quiet, almost lyrical humanist at work, strong without being self-conscious or strident in his resolve to understand changing times and evolving creatures; refusing to sit in judgement or come up with easy solutions to collective crises and individual traumas. Come to think of it, the subject of the likely withering away of the hallowed institution – the rural joint family – has rarely, if ever, been handled with greater maturity or deeper sensitivity in Indian cinema(s).
Two brothers, situated somewhere in the fallow, back-breaking Odisha countryside and separated by age, temperament and expectations from life, are shown having difficulties seeing eye-to-eye with each other on matters to do with life in the family or working the ancestral acres. The elder brother is hardworking, responsible and affectionate, but can be rigid and stern when the much younger brother appears to be straying from the straight and the narrow, as handed down by village tradition and sought to be enforced by the former. Where the elder brother knows no other focus in his daily existence than the family and, by a certain predictable extension, the larger village collective, the younger cares for no time-honoured restrictions and behaves in such a carefree manner as to seem even a bit misguided at times. He sings, he loves the theatre at the local village fair, and dreams of escaping to Calcutta, a fabled city about which he has heard many attractive stories. The feeling of suffocation within him grows even stronger after his marriage to a good-looking, somewhat coquettish girl. The film is utterly delightful as Sen breathes life into the relationship by leaving the newly-weds to their naughty devices behind closed doors. But even as the two are shown getting closer to each other, the divide separating the brothers keeps widening till the critical moment arrives when it becomes irreconcilable.
Adapted from a well-known novel by Kalindi Charan Panigrahi (1901-1991), the reputed writer and a member of the Odia literary group called Sabuja Goshthi, Sen’s film was noticed by a few critics but ignored by the viewing public. This was because Sen made a radical departure in the way he ended the story of the two brothers. Where Panigrahi’s story had a traditional, Gandhian ending which spoke of compromise and reconciliation, Sen, true to his rebellious way of thinking, concluded on a modernist note, upholding the rights of the young to be heard and appreciated. True, there is occasional friction between the brothers in the literary text, but these are resolved by the time the story ends with the younger brother realizing his mistake and asking for the elder’s forgiveness – the all’s-well-that-ends-well sort of thing. Sen, on his part, showed the growing conflict leading to a confrontation, refusing to go along with village traditions that said there are definite rules of deference governing the behaviour of the young. Sen’s interpretation was considered to be sacrilegious by Odia filmgoers of the day, causing them to reject the film outright. The film’s producer pleaded with Sen to rework the ending and thereby make it suitable for popular acceptance, but there was no way the principled maverick could be made to relent, with the result that such an important work never came to be discussed in Odisha. Few people saw it on account of the liberties Sen had taken, and even those few felt no need to discuss it. It was many years later that the film began to be recognized for the masterpiece it is, thanks to the exertions of respected auteurs like Nirad Mahapatra who did all that they could to set the record straight.
What Nirad Mahapatra (1947-2015) said about Matira Manisha in relation to its place in the history of Odia cinema, opens up opportunities for the present-day cineaste to assess the extent of injustice done to it for many years after its making. Speaking in the documentary, For Nirad, With Quietude (2016), by Joshy Joseph, the late director observed: “I do consider that Mrinal Babu’s Matira Manisha gave Odia cinema a facelift. I mean it’s a milestone in Odia cinema… But Matira Manisha was not really liked in Odisha for a very different reason. I would say that Matira Manisha was his first political film in the sense that if you see the film vis-à-vis the novel where the entire sympathy of the writer was with the elder brother… the writer is trying to catch hold of the sentiments, of the traditions of the feudal system where the elder brother being the eldest in the family, gets the maximum property and has a say in everything… Mrinal Babu turned the story around, saying the younger brother also has a right, he has the right to his life, he has the right to do what he wants to do… if he wants to go to Calcutta and be an industrial labourer, so be it; he should be free to do it and he should have the right. So, that is why the Odisha people didn’t like it, they refused to accept the deviation from the original novel. But if you look at it as a cinematic work, I think it is one of the brilliant works he has done. I still consider Matira Manisha to be one of Mrinal Babu’s best, finest films.”
For so long has the narrative of cinema in this country been dependent on literature, especially on well-known, much-read and deeply-admired classics, that the idea of moving away from the original source is nothing short of the heretical, the blasphemous, to the average filmgoer. The fate of Matira Manisha being roundly rejected at the box-office is a case in point. The Odisha audience was angered by the liberties taken by Mrinal Sen and refused to exercise their right to be enthused by the freshness and fearlessness of a new sensibility that the Bengal director sought to infuse in the film. But, come to think of it, the offended and alienated Odisha filmgoers of the day can hardly be blamed when even today we find filmgoers not being happy with directors ‘tampering’ with distinguished novels. A Godard or a Mrinal Sen is hardly a good cup of tea for audiences with a restricted approach to film appreciation. While on the subject, is it not true that even today we find many respected directors in different Indian languages preferring to work on popular/classical literature to the exclusion of other sources?
Almost two decades after Matira Manisha, Odia cinema came to be enriched by another masterpiece. Nirad Mahapatra, who was such a staunch supporter of the earlier nugget, made Maya Miriga, the only full-length feature he could come up with in a career otherwise crowded with teaching, writing, organizing film societies, documentary filmmaking, etc. New Indian Cinema was bursting with possibilities in the days when Maya Miriga came about; the young, the brave and the gifted were only too willing to take on what had seemed impossible to most even a decade earlier. Here, it is difficult not to speak of Matira Manisha and Maya Miriga in the same breath. For one thing, both the films depict the gradual erosion of a painstakingly raised joint family as a fall-out of changing times and changing attitudes. But an important difference was that while the younger film was set in a small town (Puri) and portrayed an educated middle-class family in a state of inescapable transition and decline, Sen had taken his camera to a nameless countryside where another family, this time of peasant stock, was experiencing the pangs of misunderstanding and separation. The films explored different physical spaces of dramatic action, but were united by a common directorial sensibility and vision to tell the remarkable stories about common-enough families caught at the crossroads of being and consciousness.
It was the sense and sensibility contained in Maya Miriga that began for many a brave young Odia the long journey to the Pune Film Institute and back. But, going further back, before Maya Miriga there was Matira Manisha, each in its own way a remarkable journey into the culturally rich, materially deprived and spiritually vibrant conditioning of the Odia people.
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