Shankhachil is a story of the physical and emotional journey of a family along the Indo-Bangladesh border and is also a humane tale of the brave BSF and BGB personnel’s total commitment in guarding the borders of their respective countries. The title is the Bengali name of a bird that defines a metaphor of freedom because it cannot be captured or tamed and also because, unlike humans, it does not have any communal, religious or geographical identity. It flies at its heart’s content because there are no barbed wires to block its flight, or borders defining its limits.
Rupsha (Saajhbati) is a young girl of 12 very close to her father, Muntasir Badal Choudhury (Prosenjit), and is deeply in love with the beautiful landscape and birds of her homeland, a small village in Bangladesh close to the border fenced away from India by barbed wire on the land and the flowing waters of the river Ichhamoti on the other side of which lies India. Badal is a respected teacher in the village school. His wife, Laila (Kushum Shikder), is a hovering shadow taking care of father and daughter and tending to the daughter’s frail health who appears to suffer from a chronic respiratory problem. We do not see her going to school or belonging to any social context with friends of the same age. She is very happy when the dead trunk of a tree springs a new leaf, or Arjun, the Rajput soldier (Nakul Vaid) she befriends across the wired mesh who brings her lots of coloured glass bangles because she reminds him of a daughter he left behind back home. This carries strong suggestions to being a contemporisation of Tagore’s Kabuilwalla.
The first half of the film, a National Award winner for Best Bengali Film, is grindingly slow because the camera caressingly kisses the beautiful landscape, riverscape, skyscape and the father-daughter bond taking its own time doing it. This is dotted with songs, sometimes on the sound track, sometimes lip-synced by the father with the daughter joining in and sometimes by the mother with Rupsha joining in. This becomes a bit too repetitive and slows the narrative down needlessly never mind the rich visuals one gets to be sucked into – birds in flight in the clear sky, the Icchamoti river with boats from either side crossing each other, the flags giving away their national identity.
“Who do you belong to, dear river, to India or to Bangladesh?” asks Badal of the river. The river remains silent. Rupsha loves her motherland but is forever puzzled by the border that divides the two lands – India and Bangladesh though the people are so similar and so are their songs, their music and at times, even their language. “I will never leave my country,” she says desperately to her father.
The world of the Choudhurys collapse when Rupsha falls seriously ill and the village doctor recommends taking her to the city hospital for better treatment and with better infrastructure. From this point on, as if by the magic wand of Goutam Ghose’s directorial flourishes with the brisk editing cutting from the boat ride to the ‘uncle’s home’ to the streets of Kolkata and the outstandingly picturesque cinematography (Ishan Ghose) that constantly vacillates between Nature and Life as the two move away from being complements to each other to become stark juxtapositions in contrast. The muted grays and blues are pitted against the sterilized ambience of the whites in the sophisticated hospital, cutting to a small jewellery shop the distraught parents repair to in order to pawn Laila’s little gold. The film takes a milestone turn and picks up not only in pace but also in action, ideology and emotion.
The nearest city within Bangladesh is too far for the emergency they find themselves in. The headmaster of Badal’s school suggests Kolkata which is just a few miles away across the river and he has a close friend who will help. But to go visiting his Hindu ‘uncle’ (Dipankar De), Badal will have to assume a Hindu name and identity and enter Kolkata with faked documents. It goes against his ideology and principle of honesty he has brought his daughter up with. But the value of his daughter’s life is much too precious and he surrenders his ideology to save his daughter’s life. Muntasir sheds his first name, his wife becomes ‘Leela’ and Rupsha’s name remains the same because it does not have invisible communal borders attached which perhaps also suggests a child’s freedom from ‘borders; she hates to acknowledge and accept.
This dual struggle the young parents are burdened under – one, of the dying Rupsha who needs an emergency operation and two, of the constant fight against getting caught as illegal entrants that will place them behind bars finally breaks when Rupsha dies minutes before the surgery. Ghose beautifully cuts away from Rupsha’s actual death with clichéd scenes of the parents crying over their daughter’s body and this very suggestion adds to the richness of the storytelling, the editing and the direction.
Badal finally turns around by revealing his true faith when the clerk handing over the death certificate asks him to get a copy made to be handed over to the crematorium. He says he is Muslim, despite the voter’s identity card that says something else, much to the consternation of his ‘uncle’ who is placed at risk himself. Badal and Laila are arrested and placed behind bars. The generous offices of the Border Security Forces on either side of the border fulfill Badal’s request to have his daughter’s body taken back to Bangladesh for a proper Muslim burial. The film closes with a long procession carrying Rupsha’s coffin which perhaps, could have been done away with. Ghose’s gift for suggestion would have brought about a richer closure for a very sad film.
The sound effects – birds in flight, the twitter of birds, the sounds of the hoot of a passing steamer sailing by, the hospital sounds of the monitor beside Rupsha’s bed, the din in the lanes of Kolkata, the mobiles failing to work for lack of proper signals, the medical officer’s staccato voice are effectively punctuated with phases of silence few directors tap into. The art direction is ideally conceived of. Badal’s less than modest village home is decorated with portraits of Tagore and Nazrul, books, faded and dust-covered letters held in an antique trunk, written by his predecessors he brings out and slowly throws them away into the river waters. He gifts a magnifying glass to Rupsha and she uses it to close in on ants climbing up and down a tree trunk, or the birds in flight. There is a beautiful scene with a colourful fair on the Indian side of the barbed wire fencing. Bangladeshis who form a crowd on this side plead to the BSF people to allow them to get in for a wee minute and have a look but they cannot, the rules do not allow it.
Badal and Laila’s grief, frustration, uncertainty, financial stress come across mainly through facial expression and body language. This film will definitely go down as one of Prosenjit’s most memorable performances in all time. He not only underplays the role of a constantly worried father whose only child, born after several years of a supposedly barren marriage, is caught between life and death and he neither has the resources nor the identity that would help him cross this major block in his family’s life and future. Saajhbati as Rupsha, with her pale looks enhanced without any trace of make-up, slips under skin of the increasingly sick girl with a passion for Nature and all that it stands for in her debut performance. Kushum as Laila is outstanding in her controlled performance overlaid by subtlety and great economy of expression. Dipankar De is as good as he always is while Nakul Vaid is very good in an unusual cameo.
The running footage of 134 minutes in the first half could have been trimmed down by at least 15 minutes. And then there is the basic premise of Rupsha’s ailment. She is diagnosed as suffering from congenital heart-valve dysfunction or blockage. We see her in the beginning often suffering from breathing problems and sometimes, she faints and has to be in bed till she becomes all right. Badal is an educated school teacher and a very good one at that. How is it possible that he did not seek medical advice and treatment for his only daughter’s respiratory problems though the symptoms were visible till it began to reach a point of no return? Why?
The bottomline of Shankachil is that it redefines the word ‘freedom’ and appeals to us to look at it through the eyes of the bird, the Shankhachil who also begins to symbolise the borderless world Rupsha believed in.
Bengali, Drama, Color