Shankhachil – Soppy, Syrupy, Sentimental and Sad
Goutam Ghose’s Shankhachil won the National Award for the Best Bengali film of 2015. The film is a tribute to the courage and conviction of the human spirit that expresses and feels the oneness with people across the border, bound by language, culture, music, art and ideology. Prosenjit as Badal gives one of his most outstanding and convincing performances in recent times. However, one cannot deny that the film is syrupy with overloaded sentimentality that makes it intensely sad and tragic. A Silhouette review.
Shankhachil directed by Goutam Ghose has bagged the National Award for the Best Bengali film this year. Ghose uses a personal story of a nuclear, middle-class family living on the banks of the Icchamoti River in a village in Bangladesh and leading a content life within Nature to chart out a much wider and deeper landscape to draw out the tragedy of the Partition of India first in 1947 and later, when Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971. The family story in Shankhachil belongs to the independent Bangladesh separated from India by rows and rows of spindly barbed wire on the ground level, by the Ichhamoti River in the water body while the sky remains open, blue, cloudy, thunderous by turns but free where borders do not matter, not for the birds who arrive in winter and fly back when winter is over .
The film is a tribute to the courage and conviction of the human spirit that expresses and feels the oneness with people across the border, bound by language, culture, music, art and ideology and is also a celebration of the humaneness of the border security forces on either side of the border who veil a tender heart that beats beneath their stark uniform, conditioned discipline and starched behaviour.
Muntasir Badal Choudhury (Prosenjit) is a teacher in the village school but all his free-time is spent playing with his daughter Roopsha (Saajhbati) who is very fond of Nature and his simple wife Laila (Kushum Shikder) but always suffers from the pain of those wires that separate them from the people on the other side of the barbed wire fencings. Roopsha is an unusual girl who is so fond of Nature and her surroundings that she uses the magnifying glass her father gifted her with to peer into ants and other insects climbing into the holes of a tree trunk or watching butterflies in flight or watching the bird Shankhachil flying away to India and coming back to Bangladesh. “Birds like the Shankhachil are not bound by man-made borders defining the limits of one’s motherland,” Badal explains to his daughter once.
The film begins with a prologue of a 14-year-old boy who is shot dead while trying to cross illegally over the barbed wire fence. Which side is not clear and it does not matter because people on either side are victims of this man-made division that is arbitrary and fluid and has neither a beginning, nor an end. A hurried press conference is held in the open where cameras and microphones are thrust at people-who-matter by members of an angry media who want to know why and how the boy was killed and what is going to happen next. This prologue does not jell with the rest of the film except the bearing it has about the illegal cross-over threatened by danger to life and freedom. The shot of the boy’s body precariously hanging over the wire is repeated like an image metaphor through the film.
The ‘press conference’ is dotted by an ethical question. Real life journalists, television reporters and photographers feature in this scene and their faces are easily recognizable by their popularity. How ethical is it for members of the media to feature in a film they might have to review/discuss/analyse or argue about after its release? It is a significant question because reportedly, some of them were paid for their appearance. Is this some kind of media compromise? One does not know. A director of Ghose’s eminence and an actor like Prosenjit’s position did not need this at all.
A twist of fate forces Muntasir Badal Choudhury to make an illegal trip with wife and child across the border to West Bengal in India. The journey across the river, with steamers and launches and boats waving the national flag of either country is filled with tension and the suspense of getting caught. From this point on, Shankhachil gathers momentum not only in terms of pace but also in terms of spelling out the drama in Badal’s life. They change their names, except Roopsha’s, get themselves fake voter cards in order to legitimise their illegal entry. This shakes Badal terribly because for the first time, he is forced to compromise on his honesty and integrity. Are they able to return to their homeland after their work in India is over? Or, are they trapped in a no-exit situation that holds them captive in another land against their will?
Ishan Ghose’s cinematography captures the vast expanse of the sky with its flight of birds criss-crossing in flight, the waters of the Icchamoti that knows no borders, the small hut with pictures of Tagore and Nazrul on the walls of Badal’s modest home, closing in on the magnifying glass as Roopsha looks with intrigue and curiosity at these strange facts of Nature who live a free life and comes again and again to the barbed wire fencing to focus on a group on the Bangladesh side appealing to the border security forces on either side to allow them to cross over and take part in the fair on the other side. The colours are muted and low-key to match with the context and the plot of the film with tenderly touched art direction to match.
The editing (Baishali Sasgupta Bhowmick and Niladri Roy) cuts and chops and clips and changes and paces out the various but limited locales of the film’s incidents and events taking us from Badal’s home to he slowly and painfully casting old letters of his predecessors into the waters of the river, to the stark white antiseptic walls of the hospital, the long, unending corridor that captures a running Badal from behind as if through a bright tunnel that never ends, very well. However, the film could have clipped away repetitive and slow footage in the pre-interval phase. Ghose’s music is beautiful and positioned well dotted with Tagore songs sung together by the entire Choudhury family, or on the soundtrack, lightening the otherwise tragic mood of the film.
But the prizes must go to the actors who have done splendidly with Prosenjit as Badal giving one of his most outstanding and convincing performances in recent times followed by Saajhbati in her debut performance as the pale and sick Roopsha and Kushum as her mother. Dipankar Dey is very good as the ‘uncle’ on the other side whose dilapidated home in decay adds a different dimension to the story. Even the staccato hospital officer (Ushashie Chakraborty), the BSF officer (Nadul Vaid) who recalls his daughter in Rajasthan and befriends Roopsha, and the surgeon (Arindam Sil), or the conman from the jewellery shop are credible and good.
Shankhachil is stripped of glamour, melodrama and electric action, true. It is a straightforward, linear narrative unfolded without froth and frill. All the same, one cannot deny its syrupy, sweet and soppy sentimentality that makes it so sad and tragic that you would not really care for a repeat viewing. It is an eloquently beautiful film that says everything it has to through the language of cinema. But it also calls for a re-think on Partition films once and for all. Partition films are practically coming out of our ears and one really cannot find a parallel for films like Garam Hawa (1974), Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan and the unforgettable pain that emerges every time you watch any of the Ghatak classics. Shankhachil is a visually rich film. Content-wise however, this critic has issues of logic and an emotion overload.
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