Ishwar Chakraborty (Abhi Bhattacharya) along with his friend Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya) and his family, arrive in Calcutta from East Pakistan, their homeland, when the Partition happens. His little sister, Sita (Indrani Chakraborty) is with him. The place they are marked to reside in happens to be a fallow land the local zamindars have no use for. Ishwar moves on when he is offered a job by his old college friend, Rambilas, as a cashier in the latter’s foundry in Chhatimpur within Ghatshila along the river Subarnarekha. But just before that, he discovers that while transporting people in trucks to different places, a small boy is separated from his mother by goons of the zamindar, who is hell-bent on evicting the refugees. Ishwar takes this little boy along with his sister Sita. Abhiram (Mater Tarun), the little boy, is soon packed off to a hostel. When he returns after his college graduation exams are over, Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee) has grown into a pretty young woman trained in Hindustani classical music and the two fall in love. But since it is discovered that Abhiram (Satindra Bhattacharya) belongs to a low caste, Ishwar turns against them marrying. The two elope when Sita is about to be wed to another. Ishwar’s world collapses around him and he even tries to commit suicide but fails in his attempt. Time goes by and Haraprasad, returns suddenly in his life. He suggests they move to Calcutta, where Sita and Abhiram, now parents of a five-year-old Binu (Sriman Ashok Bhattacharya), are struggling to stay afloat. Abhiram works as a bus driver and events take a tragic turn with his sudden death following a mob attack by a crowd for having run over a young woman. In Calcutta, the quest for ‘bizarre and deadly fun’ leads Ishwar and Hariprasad to the race course, the Windsor Bar and finally, to what they think is a brothel. The woman, who steps out very hesitantly is Sita and she finds that her first ‘client’ is none other than her brother. She picks up her kitchen knife and kills herself. Ishwar has no one now except the little Binu, the only one he can call his own. Taking him along with him when Ishwar reaches Ghatshila, he discovers that he has lost his job but it is Binu who now gives him the hope to live…
Subarnarekha is Ritwik Ghatak’s final part of his Partition Trilogy comprised of Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and oc course, Subarnarekha (1965). Each of these films are recognised as important cinematic milestones of India’s Partition, touching upon the international landscape of dislocation and migration of masses of people forced to leave their homelands and strike new roots in a country that is ‘foreign’ to them. The film zeroes in on the theme of uprooting – geographical, emotional and moral. No doubt, the storyline of the film is deceptively simple on appearance. Maybe, when one reads it (see synopsis above), it may also seem melodramatic. For example, the discovery of Abhiram’s caste from the way he identifies his dying mother at the station – thereby revealing his low caste – is pure coincidence. When criticized for the same, Ghatak defended the elements of melodrama and coincidence and their use within the film almost with a vengeance. And as one goes deeper into the film, one senses the depth, intricacies and complexities that Ghatak explores in the narrative.
The film opens with credits that are beautifully designed against a ‘dated scroll’ on parchment paper in beautiful calligraphic writing with the edges of the scroll torn. The music accompanying them creates visual poetry expressed through songs and melodies. There is a baul number utilized in the beginning, a pointer to bauls, who are secular and live and sing beyond borders. As Ishwar and Sita come to West Bengal to their new home, she keeps asking her brother that does it have a blue mountain, lovely flowers, birds and butterflies flitting around. She, as a young girl, sings a Tagore number Dhaner Sheshe Roudra Chhayaye Lukochurir Khela (The sun and the shade are playing hide-and-seek on blades of grass), which becomes the theme song representing the ‘new home’ she dreamt of. She later teaches the song to her little son, Binu, promising him the same ‘new home’ she dreamed of and believed in as a child. Binu sings the same lines on the banks of the river Subarnarekha when Ishwar brings him to the river banks, in his small-boy, tuneless voice. He turns around and asks his uncle whether the ‘new home’ will be like his mother described. This time, Ishwar replies and says, “Yes.”
The various periods in the film’s narrative are established through historical milestones and events of the times. The story begins on 28th January 1948 with a small group of refugees hoisting the national flag as a tribute to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre led by the idealist and rebel school teacher Haraprasad, a close friend of Ishwar. Drumbeats and strains of Vande Mataram can be heard against the visuals. A couple of days later, we hear of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. And soon after Sita and Abhiram have eloped, the foreman Mukherjee brings a newspaper that carries the news of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight into space.
By running away to Calcutta with Abhiram, Sita asserts her autonomy for the first time and this is a turning point in the narrative. Though Ishwar and Sita, have totally different experiences in Calcutta, the face the city reveals to both is the same. It wears the ugly face of a cannibal and its human victim. It is a city where affluence is represented by sheer heartlessness and casual indifference, heavily layered with man’s inhumanity to his fellow-beings. For Ishwar, a Calcutta of horse-racing turfs and gambling dens, of brothels and bars is the temptress or the seductress, the heady drug that tempts and lures an honest man like him into its spidery web. It thus, reduces in one instant, a principled man like him to a man in search of hedonistic pleasures inside a brothel. Says Haraprasad to Ishwar, “You have money, I have none. There is real fun in Calcutta now – in the hotels, restaurants, racing turfs – what deadly fun!” His use of ‘deadly’ before ‘fun’ is a subtle irony. So subtle that you almost miss it. The city is no less cruel to Sita denying her the right and the freedom to live up to her mythical name. In the city, she is no one’s wife, or daughter, or sister. And even her sisterhood is snatched away from her – a reality she fails to grope with. Yet, all is not lost. If a bit of Ishwar dies with his sister’s suicide, he also begins to live again. Calcutta offers him a lifeline after having taken it away. This comes in the shape of Sita’s little son Binu, who pulls Ishwar along because the latter’s steps are now hesitant. The roles of the guardian and his ward are reversed and it is now the little Binu, who guides his ageing uncle into a future of hope, if not happiness.
Subarnarekha gives Abi Bhattacharya his greatest on-screen role and he portrays Ishwar with great restraint, depth and subtlety, even when his world lies in a debris around him. Madhabi Mukherjee, too, gives a fine performance as Sita, capturing every shade and mood of her character perfectly. Satindra Bhattacharya effectively carries out his character arc from his hopes of becoming a successful author to his facing rejections for writing sad stories drawn from his life experience to turning into a bus driver. While Sita’s torn sari saddens him, he will not her work when she says she could earn more from her music. Indrani Chakraborty as the little Sita is charming and innocent while Jahar Roy as the foreman Mukherjee, who thrills at other people’s sorrows, adds a touch of relief in an interesting cameo. But the most outstanding performance comes from Bijon Bhattacharya, a noted novelist, who wonderfully portrays Haraprasad from a crusading young man trying to help his fellow refugees in the opening scenes to a street beggar, without losing out on his philosophical but acidic comments. He is quirky, funny, scathing and tragic by turns, dotting his perceptive comments with references to history, ideology, and the Hindu scriptures.
The cinematography (Dilip Rajan Mukherjee) is wonderfully evocative. The arid landscape of Ghatshila is more prominent than the flowing waters of Subarnarekha because it forms the locus of the landscape, drawing a parallel with the dry lives of Ishwar and in a manner of speaking, Sita’s also. Her songs take away from the dryness for a while, at least. As she grows up, Sita sings semi-classical numbers on the banks of Subarnarekha based on raagas like Bhairavi, Bageshri and later, Malhar. There are also unforgettable shots showing the ruins of a forgotten airplane on an old airstrip built by the British in Ghatshila where Sita and Abhiram, as children, play around.
As with every Ghatak film, there is much to savor in Subarnarekha’s expressive sound design. He even makes effective use of the Patricia tune from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) as Ishwar and Haradas drink excessively in one of Calcutta’s watering holes!
Subarnarekha was completed in 1962 but its theatrical release happened only in 1965. Sadly though, the film failed at the box office. Ironically, it is (deservedly) regarded as a true classic of Indian cinema today. In fact, some historians and critics consider it to be Ghatak’s finest ever film, Meghe Dhaka Tara notwithstanding.
Bengali, Drama, Black & White