When a writer (Churni Ganguly) is banished for her attack on religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, her cat is suddenly left alone.
“Exile” and “banish” mean two different things. Being ‘exiled’ is a sophisticated, perhaps an elitist term created to describe displacement from one’s roots through voluntary option that lists famous creative writers and artists who chose to exercise their creative expression in lands other than the one they belonged to. It could also apply to creative people seeking refuge in a ‘friendly’ or a “politically neutral” country for fear of life for some reason or other. But being “banished” means that a creative artist/writer/poet/filmmaker is forced, against his/her will to flee from one country to another, away from home and family and friends because no country wants to do anything with the politics of this person’s current profile and status. The ban on the person’s works extends to a blanket ban on the person himslef/herself, never mind the gross violation of human rights by nations the writer belongs to and the nations where she has been granted refuge and respect and creative freedom but shunted out the minute things became ‘uncomfortable’ for the hosting nation.
Nirbashito (Banished) marks the directorial debut of actress Churni Ganguly. Though the name of poet/writer Taslima Nasreen is never articulated, the film makes it clear through suggestion, storyline and cinematography that the protagonist is none other than the Bangladeshi writer who has been in forced exile for 20 years now. Churni Ganguly plays the writer. Her story is pegged to her pet cat Baghini, her ‘daughter’ After a few establishing shots, the writer who remains nameless in the film is suddenly whisked away from her Kolkata residence where she was in exile, to Stockholm in Sweden because her life is in danger. She is forced to leave Baghini behind and this separation from the cat is both a metaphor and a reality that describes the subject’s forced uprooting from her country, her parents, and her people that makes her a ‘no land’s woman.’
The film brings to life on celluloid some of the things Edward Said wrote in Reflections on Exile, a collection of essays (2001). He wrote: “While it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glamorous and even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”(p.173).
Nirbashito lucidly describes how “banish” carries the scary certainty of closure – which means that she will perhaps never be allowed to come back to her roots, to meet her parents, to spoil her Baghini rotten with raw fish and full cream milk, and most importantly, to do what her life is about – write. But is she allowed to make the new nation her new ‘home away from home’? Not really because after conferring on her the freedom to stay and write and create all over again in the new country, she is shunted away again. The lost, unloved, rootless woman, not knowing in which country she will wake up in the next morning is forcibly but very diplomatically whisked away to Paris where she has been very ‘honorably’ granted ‘citizenship’!
Churni layers the narrative in three areas – (a) Stockholm where the writer is made to feel at home, never mind the armed guards Gutav and Theo who are in 24/7 attendance watching her every move, (b) Kolkata that captures glimpses of Baaghini’s confusion when she feels she is unwanted in the home of the writer’s close friend Preetam Mukherjee (Saswata Chatterjee) whose pregnant wife (Raima Sen) is afraid of cats, but suddenly wakes up when she hears her ‘mother’s voice and steps into the living room to watch her in an earlier television interview. Preetam’s wife goes off in a huff to her parent’s place and for the first time, we discover that even a cat has the power to divide a very-much-in-love and about-to-be-parents married couple; and (c) Preetam’s struggle to overcome hundreds of red tape to send Baaghini to Stockholm to her ‘mother.’
Bodhaditya Bandopadhyay manipulates the strategies of editing – match-cutting, jump cuts, fades outs and mixes ideally that mesh and merge the text and the two sub-texts seamlessly. For example, when the ayah walks away after feeding Baaghini, her receding figure is slowly replaced by the receding sari of the writer from the cat’s point of view. When Preetam and his wife get into a heated argument, the cat slowly steps into her small cage as if she realizes that she is the cause of the argument. The snow-covered lands and the blue, cloud-dotted horizons of Stockholm are thrown in relief by the small, heavily cloaked figure of the lonely writer, head bent, smoking away on a bench, her body language expressing her loneliness and her sense of isolation. The chilling weather gets somehow meshed into the chilling ambience of the place and its people. The pace of the film is very slow in the earlier scenes in Stockholm but picks up with time.
Shirsa Ray is brilliant in capturing landscapes and seascapes and skyscapes and he makes optimum use of all these. There is a beautiful sound-overlapping frame of a helicopter in flight cutting into the nightmare of a small girl locked up in a room crying for her mother voiced over with lines of a poem penned by the writer. Raja Narayan Deb’s music sounds a bit too loud at places while the sound design flooded with every kind of sound imaginable ranging from the writer being whisked away to the airport, through the chasing of Baaghini as she runs away from giving her “paw” impression, to Preetam’s cell-phone unanswered by his angry wife, to the sound of rains leashing outside the writer’s Stockholm home windows, sometimes dotted with her voice-over reciting her poems like a desperate prayer.
Churni has rightly kept away from Taslima’s earlier poems filled with misandry (hatred for males) and graphic sex which made her famous, notorious and controversial at the same time. She has recited Taslima’s later poems that express her tragic loneliness addressed for instance, to the telephone asking it not to ring in the middle of the night as everyone is fast asleep, or, in the end, talking to her home asking after its welfare – “are you okay, home?” driving home the point of the entire film.
The Kolkata scenes capturing Baaghini against different settings are sometimes enlightening and at other times introduced to lighten the dark mood of the film with moments of humour okay in some scenes but jarring at others. This links with the writer’s friend Preetam’s desperate attempts to send Baagini to Stockholm, which misfires relegating both Baaghini and her ‘mother’ back into their lonely worlds. Glimpses into Preetam’s life broken by his dual commitment to his writer ‘friend’ and his pregnant wife are enriched by Saswata’s and Raima’s natural performances. The scenes in the CM’s chamber introduced to lend some hilarity to the scenario but seem to be too prolonged and exaggerated. Strategic clipping could cut out the needless distractions that sometimes tend to turn Baaghini into a sad joke! The small sub-text of the news room is uncalled for as are the ‘guest’ appearances of three noted journalists that raise ethical questions on journalists appearing in films!
The tragedy of the creative writer, once she finds herself in Stockholm, is spelt out through the language gap – she does not know a word of Swedish and her security guards do not know English. She cannot eat the canned food and drinks Gustav, the main guard brings her. Slowly, despite the language gap, there is a rapport between them only to come crashing down when she discovers his gun beside the other guard Theo’s guitar. She is cut off from people, from the cell phone, from e-mail and from everything that means ‘people’ and ‘language’ and ‘food.’ Churni with very dark circles under her eyes is perennially sad and lonesome and rarely smiles except when Wilma tries to bring some joy into her life. She tries to strip herself of the sadness through smoking and through emails while they last but the cup of sorrow is always spilling over. Her acting is good but her English is too impeccable to fit into the image the real writer has.
Lucas, head of the Swedish writers’ conclave proudly tells her that she is a superstar in Sweden and his wife Wilma becomes a close friend, bringing her woolens to keep her warm in the terrible Swedish winter, including underwear. She gives her a laptop and secretly, a pen-drive to communicate with her friends through e-mail. When her e-mail connect is discovered by Lucas, she is cut off from all communication and is shunted away to a distant island home in the name of ‘safety and security.’ So much for being a superstar in Sweden! The narrative rightly skirts all controversies related to Taslima’s writings and the heated actions they provoked in Bangladesh and India because that is not the essence of this film.
“Refugee?” filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak asks again and again in his films. “Who is not a refugee?” Nirbashito sets out to find answers to the question Ghatak posed in and through his films, in a myriad different ways, mostly angry, often restless, reflecting the state of his schizophrenic mind, forever vacillating between his roots – Bangladesh, and the city that was the base of his uprooted identity – Calcutta” For the writer in this film, there is no new identity-formation in a new land that offers her some semblance of a home and love and a sense of belonging. “A Woman has no Country” screams the tag-line of the film. Wrong. Was MF Hussain a woman?
Bengali, Drama, Color