Bilash (Niranjan Roy) belongs to the Macchmara (fish-killer) community – fishermen who net hilsa and other fishes in the river Ganga and live by the riverside. An orphan, Bilash is reared up by his uncle, Panchu (Gyanesh Mukherjee), an experienced fisherman. Irritated by his wild ways, Panchu dreams of getting him married. The fishermen take loans from the local moneylender at high interests and undertake their annual fishing expedition downstream. They reach their traditional fishing spot but alas the catch is poor and the fishermen just manage to get by. Bilash however gets enamoured by the charms of Himi (Ruma Guha Thakurta) – a fish trader who is the granddaughter of Damini, an older fishmonger who had fallen in love with Bilash’s father in their youth. Panchu and Damini are initially opposed to the relationship but Panchu, in his death-throes on the night of a violent storm, gives Bilash the permission to marry Himi and also allows him to go to high seas if the situation becomes desperate due to diminishing fish catch in the river Ganga. Himi bows down to the belief that a land-dweller marrying the nomadic Macchmara will bring immense misfortune to the groom. Bilash begins his journey to the sea promising to return to Himi …
Satyajit Ray’s path-breaking masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955) had an immediate and fundamental impact on the culture of filmmaking in Bengal. Ray’s film, which was in some ways was influenced by the efforts of Italian Neo-realists like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, prompted some filmmakers working in Kolkata to go beyond the artificiality of the Tollygunje studios and take up the life and struggles of marginalised rural communities as the subject of their films. Rajen Tarafdar’s Ganga – an adaptation of a novel by the controversial author Samaresh Basu – is one of the more successful films of this transformation – a film that is still remembered as a powerful yet sensitive depiction of the poor fishermen, whose lives are irrevocably entwined with the flux of the great river.
Ganga, prima facie, is an account of the coming of age of Bilash – from a callow young man to his wish fulfilment of becoming the head of his community and leading a fishing expedition to the seas, which hitherto had been a taboo as his own father had died at the hands of the man-eating tigers that reside in the Sunderbans forests situated in the delta of the Ganga river. In the beginning, he is a strong young hot-headed man, the winner of the annual boat race and hence the cynosure of a promiscuous village wife (Sita Mukherjee) and a teenaged girl, Gamli Panchi (Sandhya Roy). But in the final moments of the film, his transformation to manhood is complete – Bilash now is not only the leader of his gang but also has the maturity to understand Himi’s refusal to marry him with equanimity and calmness. However, the film avoids concentrating solely on him – the story of Bilash is used as the premise to probe and depict the trials and tribulations, the customs and beliefs of the Macchmara community and the terrifying yet hypnotic grandeur of their milieu – the mighty river Ganga – which as one of them describes as “our nurturing mother and also our prophet of doom”.
Thus at many moments, the film seems to go beyond the narrative framework and revel in sequences where ‘nothing happens’ in terms of the progress of the narrative. It is in these sequences – the long and arduous expedition of the fishermen to their traditional fishing grounds being the principal example – the attempt of the filmmaker seems to capture the daily grind of the Macchmaras and bestow on them an element of solemn yet monumental dignity. The sequence that precedes this journey down the river, consisting of shots, which capture the preparation of the trek – the negotiations with the local moneylender, the repairing of the boats, the mending of the nets, the praying rituals of the women bound by a folk song on the audio-track – is another example of the filmmaker’s interest in chronicling the minute details of the world in which the protagonist is posited. Yet, it must be admitted that this effort to portray the protagonists of the film as a part of the environment and whose responses are shaped and determined by it makes the film a difficult viewing in certain passages as the pace of the film goes haywire and the screenplay seems to overindulge on the marginalia at the cost of real human emotions. The absence of any major sub-plot – the screenplay concentrates mostly on Bilash and the journey down the river – also adds a dose of predictability creating a sense of boredom. The film’s use of the original Bengali dialect of the Macchmaras no doubt validates its realistic ethos but also sets up barriers in communicating with the average Bengali.
The brilliance of Ganga is in the authenticity with which it captures the milieu of the Macchmara community and also in its portrayal of the spirit of a community whose life as Panchu puts it “begins and ends in the Mother Ganga”. True to its debt to one of the key tenets of the Neo-realist movement, the film avoids dramatic and the sensational and concentrates on catching the ebb and flow of ‘life as it is’. Gamli Panchi’s infatuation with Bilash, Panchu’s irritation with his nephew’s wayward ways and the blooming of romance between Himi and Bilash are all given a very deliberate low-key treatment – representing these as normal, routine events. Panchu’s dying moments in the night of the terrible storm and the key plot-point of the film, where he gives permission to Bilash to marry the land-dwelling Himi and also to take their group to the delta of the Sunderbans are captured without any great dramatic flourish, the stress seems to be more on capturing the fury of the cyclone than the death throes of Panchu. In one of the final moments of the film when Himi refuses to marry and leave her home with Bilash the situation is handled without major melodrama – their calm acceptance of fate and traditions is reflected in the extremely unobtrusive construction of the scene and the use of sparse, minimalist dialogues.
The technical aspects of the film are of extremely high standards. Dinen Gupta’s black and white cinematography elegantly captures the ever-changing panorama of the river Ganga through a series of complex tracking and panning shots. Close-ups and mid close-up shots of the hilsa fish in its death-throes, the oars of the fishermen plying on the river, the sweat-soaked muscular bodies of the fishermen, the jewellery worn by Himi and other women et al – are used extensively to catch the minutiae of the lives of the Macchmaras with the eye of an sensitive observer. The audio track too is rich and well designed. The sound of the gentle river breeze, the roar of the cyclone, the soft tinkle of women’s jewellery, the haunting call of a lonely sea-gull, the booming horn of a steam ferry, the ripple of the wavelets on the river bank, the fearful blast of waves crashing in on the planks of the tiny boats – a myriad range of sounds are woven together with Salil Chowdhury’s folk based background music and non-synchronous use of traditional folk songs such as Gangar Buke-te Nao Bhashailam Re and Sajani Go Sajani, Hoibe Mor Gharani.
Acting too is of the highest calibre in Ganga. Gyanesh Mukherjee is superb as the old and wise Panchu while Sandhya Roy in one of her early screen appearances fits in very nicely as the lively and curious village belle infatuated with the handsome Bilash. Niranjan Roy as Bilash is able to overcome his limited range of expressions with the sheer raw physical presence and swagger that his role as an ebullient young fisherman demands. His actions of rowing the boat, throwing the net and hauling up the catch all bear the hallmark of genuineness and seem to have been mastered after arduous preparation/rehearsals. Ruma Guha Thakurta is brilliant as the rich, sensuous and independent Himi. The rest of the cast, under the influence of Italian neo-realism via Pather Panchali, comprising professionals and non-actors (a few of them being real Macchmaras) do a commendable job and support the main cast with reasonable competency. All this endows the director Rajen Tarafdar’s endeavour to capture the ebb and flow of life of the Macchmaras, whose lives are intertwined with the river Ganga, a rare sense of honesty and cinematic vision.
Ganga was awarded a special prize at the International Film Festival, New Delhi, 1960.
Bengali, Drama, Black & White