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In Search of History – A Review of Maati

August 3, 2018 | By

Maati is a film about the nuances in historical narrative, about the personal merging with the political. But it also belongs to the emerging genre of Bengali cinema where the narrative straddles the two Bengals – Sankhacheel, Bisorjon and now Maati. Subha Das Mollick reviews the film.

Bengali film Maati

Maati is the directorial debut of Leena Gangopadhyay and Saibal Banerjee. The posters of the film suggest division or partition, with Adil Hussain and Paoli Dam standing on two sides of a cracked up terrain. The film begins with Meghla (Paoli Dam) taking a history class. With a small group of students in her study, Meghla is discussing the history of partition of India. She chides her students for busily taking notes, instead of listening and contemplating. She says that history is too nuanced to be encapsulated in the lecture notes. She points to a framed photo of an elderly lady and says that this lady is the reason why Meghla took up history as her subject.

This sequence establishes the premise of the film Maati, positing the personal history in the history of the nation – personal stories adding shades to the grand narrative of history. There is a growing trend among historians to look for historical evidence in unconventional sources – letters, diaries, police records, municipal gazettes.

In Maati, the unconventional source comes in the form of a diary – a diary kept by the lady in the photo – Kumudini Devi, Meghla’s grandmother. In physical appearance the diary is a red cloth bound big book. Between the covers, there are pages of description of life in East Bengal, of the meadows and rivers, of the changing seasons, of the festivities and celebrations. The descriptions are graphic and evocative, high in their literary value. Kumudini Devi never uprooted herself and crossed the borders even though the rest of the family migrated to Calcutta. The diary is delivered to Meghla’s grandfather and Kumudini Devi’s husband Satyabrata Chowdhury at his Calcutta home, by a young girl from Bangladesh. Her name is Jinia. Jinia’s grandfather was Satyabrata Chowdhury’s friend and neighbour in East Bengal.

Meghla reading her grandmother’s diary

The diary opens the lid of a tightly shut chapter in the history of Chowdhury family. Decades of amnesia is stirred up by traumatic memories. The diary brings the historian Meghla face to face with many questions. It takes the grand-daughter Meghla closer to her beloved grandmother as the grandmother in the framed portrait comes alive in Meghla’s mind. She takes possession of Meghla and urges her to prod on, to reveal the truth. Jinia’s wedding comes as an opportunity for Meghla to go to Bangladesh, to visit the homeland of her ancestors, to touch the soil (‘maati’ in Bengali) that nurtured her father and her grandfather.

Jamil (Adil Hussain), a friend of Jinia’s family, comes to the airport to receive Meghla. On their drive back home, Jamil and Meghla discuss about history. Meghla says, “History is there. We have to dig it out, find it.” The lines from grandmother’s diary run in Meghla’s mind. She identifies some of the spots mentioned in the diary. The camera hovers over the lush green landscape of Bangladesh. It glides above the river dotted with boats. The bird’s eye view of Bangladesh lends it a fairy tale like quality. But Jamil warns Meghla, “Our land is no fairytale land”. Jamil takes a detour and drives into the Dhaka University campus. Meghla recalls all the stories she had heard from her grandfather about his college days.

Jamil warns Meghla, “Our land is no fairytale land”

At this point the film becomes strongly reminiscent of Supriyo Sen’s powerful documentary film, Way Back Home. Those who have watched Way Back Home will recall that Supriyo’s father broke down when he visited the campus of Braja Mohan College in Barishal. Supriyo had taken his parents and the camera crew to Bangladesh to look for what they had left behind in a hurry in 1950. But East Bengal, which became East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh changed beyond recognition in the intervening years. They could not find their lost homeland. They could not find the pond behind their ancestral home or the betel nut tree in the courtyard or the playground where Supriyo’s father played football. Although the local people were courteous and hospitable, being treated like guests in their own homeland was a little disorienting.

In this teeming metropolis Calcutta, every other home nurtures a story of lost homeland, a story of pastoral life left behind forever. Each story is unique in its own way. Each story is a dot in the mosaic of the bigger picture. Meghla’s story and Supriyo’s story are among these hundreds and thousands of stories.

Meghla and Jinia in Maati

The uniqueness in Meghla’s story is the character of her grandmother Kumudini and the mystery around her death.  Meghla comes to Bangladesh with the firm belief that her grandmother had been murdered. The last pages of grandmother’s diary had gory details of the local Muslims turning violent, of trusted servants becoming rebels. Meghla is shocked when she learns from Jinia that Jamil lives in Meghla’s ancestral home. She jumps to the conclusion that Jamil’s forefather murdered grandmother Kumudini and usurped the property of the Chowdhurys. Why else would Jamil conceal from her that he is the present occupant of the Chowdhury Mansion? Meghla loses the objectivity of a historian and becomes overpowered with emotion. She steps into her ancestral home and checks out all the nooks and crannies, objects and artefacts mentioned in Kumudini’s diary. When she looks for an easy chair with a broken arm rest, Jamil informs her that the broken arm rest has been repaired. Jamil takes her to the ‘Thakur dalan’ where the Durga idol used to be made every year. The bamboo and hay skeleton of the last Durga idol made here is still there. Jamil takes off his shoes before entering this dalan. Meghla notices this little gesture. Yet, behind the affable, amiable façade of Jamil, Meghla continues to see a killer and a usurper.

Jamil introduces Meghla to his ageing mother

Jamil introduces Meghla to his ageing mother. But Meghla cannot accept the sweet home-made desert that she offers to Meghla with great affection. Meghla is torn, tormented, confused and unable to enjoy Jinia’s wedding. When Jinia leaves for her husband’s home, Meghla tells her that this is their last meeting because she will never again come to Bangladesh.

Meghla’s reticence gradually gives way to acceptance when Jamil takes her to the hospital built in memory of Kumudini Devi. Kumudini’s bust in front of the hospital building is identical to the portrait of her in Meghla’s study in Kolkata. It comes out that Jamal’s mother too had her roots in Calcutta. In August 1946, during the great Calcutta killings, she had lost her near, dear, home, hearth. In one evening’s madness she became an uprooted, homeless orphan girl. Meghla’s head hangs in shame on hearing this story. History of violence runs deeper and wider than she would have liked to believe.  The inglorious history of violence and bloodshed is an inheritance of more Bengalis than she would like to accept. But as a historian she could not turn her face away from the cold facts.

The ‘fact’ of Kumudini’s murder has been left unresolved in Maati. Just as we would never know what happened at the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India or who was the killer of the Samurai soldier in Rashomon, the audience of Maati would never know what happened one fateful night in the deserted Chowdhury household, where Kumudini was living alone. Some small gaps in the grand narrative of history will never be filled up. History is what gets written, more than what ‘actually’ happened.

A young Kumudini Devi writing her diary

Meghla gifts her grandmother’s diary to Jamil when she learns that Jamil is writing a history of Bangladesh. In his turn, Jamil gifts the ‘maati’ of Bangladesh to Meghla. Meghla returns home at peace with herself, accepting the nuanced narrative of the division of Bengal. One only wishes that the film would have ended the way it had begun – with Meghla teaching history to the same students, but now with a different perspective, with the pot containing the soil of Bangladesh adorning her study table.

There are many other elements in the narrative of Maati that one wishes were handled more skilfully. Time-frame is one such element. When exactly did Meghla’s grandfather migrate to Calcutta? For how many years did grandmother live alone? How did grandmother’s diary come in possession of Jinia’s family? How and when did Jinia and Meghla strike a deep friendship? These are pieces of jigsaw puzzle that do not fall into place. In spite of these blemishes, Maati is a well shot, well cast and well enacted film.

Maati is a film about the nuances in historical narrative, about the personal merging with the political. But it also belongs to the emerging genre of Bengali cinema where the narrative straddles the two Bengals – Sankhacheel, Bisorjon and now Maati. Perhaps this new emerging genre is triggered by the commercial motivation of capturing the market of both Bengals; but a happy by-product of this motivation is that, these films are taking the audience of West Bengal inside the homes of Muslims. Muslim protagonists in these narratives are flesh and blood characters and not mere caricatures. In spite of a large population of Muslims in Bengal, Muslim protagonists have been by and large conspicuous by their absence in Bengali literature as well as cinema. This new genre is fulfilling that lacuna.

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
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