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Is Tollywood neglecting movies on Displacement Issues
By Hemanth Reddy S 14/12/2015

 The buzz surrounding Srijit Mukherji's 'Rajkahini' has thrown up a question. Why has contemporary Bengali cinema largely neglected Partition as a subject? Refugee issues and trauma of displacement have almost disappeared from the big screen. The reasons, fear many, are not just involving the logistics of attempting such cinema.

While trade figures of Rajkahini are flattering for the director, opinions are largely divided about the treatment of a subject as colossal as Partition. An overwhelmed Mahesh Bhatt has already announced that he intends to make a Hindi version of the movie titled Lakeer . Back in Kolkata, there are many who are overwhelmed with Begum Jaan's attempt to save her brothel and her girls from being torn apart by a random Radcliffe line. Alongside them are others who have pointed at discrepancies in depiction.

Yet, there is no denying the fact that the movie has opened a floodgate of views. For those who have liked the film, the obvious reaction is to want to watch more films on displacement issues. Those who have found gaping holes in the screenplay want a more authentic depiction that does greater justice to the colossal human tragedy that has played out on the border. And both these groups have wondered why too few contemporary Bengali films have been made on Partition tales and displacement issues.

Surprisingly enough, both Hindi television and cinema have not ignored the subject. It is as strong a theme in Govind Nihalini's epic television series Tamas and Ramesh Sippy and Jyoti's popular serial Buniyaad. Chandraprakash Dwivedi's explored the theme in his film titled Pinjar. So did Shyam Benegal in Mammo and Pamela Rooks in 'Train to Pakistan'. Even hardcore Bollywood has thrown up movies like JP Dutta's Refugee! More recently, Salman Khan's Bajrangii Bhaijaan, all complete with song and dance, touched this subject too. But contemporary mainstream and arthouse Bengali movies ducked, succumbing to the loss of thematic connect with earthy concerns.

According to Srijit, "Partition is one of the biggest chapters of the subcontinent in terms of history. We have grown up with the memory of Partition. It is there in popular literature. Films, mostly on Punjab less on Bengali, have also depicted this theme." Begum Jaan's trauma in 'Rajkahini' has served as a reminder of how Partition tales have curiously vanished from Tollywood's recent outings on the big screen. Refugee camps are non-existent. The rootless have faded away to oblivion. Their poverty, struggle and desperate attempts to stay afloat don't inspire screenplays. The camera, instead, has panned on the relationship tales of couples in Kolkata's highrises. The trauma of displacement is a subject that everyone knows about, a story that plays out daily on the borders but no one revisits on screen!

Five years back, Asma Bibi's tireless struggle to give birth in India had hit many headlines. Already in labour, she had arrived at the Dinhata subdivisional hospital with the demand that she be allowed to give birth at the hospital. Asma, a resident of Mashaldanga which is the biggest Bangladeshi enclave in India, made her a Bangladeshi citizen and her entry into "India" was illegal. Asma wanted to publicly acknowledge that she and her husband were from chhitmahal. Unlike all other children in the enclaves, Asma had wanted her child to have an identity. Finally, the hospital officials relented. As a tribute to his mother's tireless struggle, the boy was named Jihad.

Tollywood - which is quick to ride piggyback on real life incidents for cinematic inspirations - has never touched the tales of Jihad or Asma. The Bangladesh genocide in 1971 and the indiscriminate rape of girls in refugee camps is yet to hit the Bengali screen. Raima Sen had played a rape victim in Mrityunjay Devrat's Hindi film titled 'Children of War' that was based on the genocide. Spine-chilling scenes of blood streaming down open drains much like dirty water hit the raw nerve. The emotions are familiar in Bengal. But the Tolly lens has looked the other way!

Director Aniket Chattopadhyay, who is now penning a script on Adhir Biswas' 'Deshbibhager Smriti', refers to Nimai Ghosh's 1950 film - Chhinnomul - in the context of Bengal's cinema on refugee. This film related the story of farmers from East Bengal who were forced to cross the borders post Partition. Apart from real refugees as characters, the cast had also included director Ritwik Ghatak!

Bengal still goes back to Ghatak's directorial ventures to refer to celluloid's depiction of the displacement trauma. Shocked with the "division of a culture", Ghatak had highlighted the insecurity of the homeless in his Partition trilogy - ''Meghe Dhaka Tara", "Komal Gandhar" and "Subarnarekha". Even till this date, Supriya Devi's haunting 'Dada, ami banchte chai' continues to echo in the collective psyche of viewers.

But that was in the 60s.

In reality, displacement problems have continued. Tollywood simply forgot the Marichjhapi massacre in 1979. Forget making a movie in 1979, even today no director has volunteered to write a script on say, someone like Shanti Sarkar who has been applying sindoor religiously for 36 years in the hope that one day, her husband will step off a boat and come back, with their son. Shanti's husband had tumbled off a boat in a hail of bullets and screams in Sunderban's Marichjhapi island.

Actor Kaushik Sen has played an important character in 'Rajkahini'. His son, Riddhi, has acted inChildren of War . Ask him why Tollywood isn't that keen on exploring displacement themes and he says, "I'm glad that my son, Riddhi, did such an important film like Children of War. I think, the lack of personal experiences is a major factor for Bengali cinema not attempting to touch displacement issues."

Aniket says there is a constant pressure from producers to either attempt franchises on Byomkesh and Feluda or tales stories whose bandwidth rests between Ballygunje Place and Ballygunje Phari. "There is a simple formula in place. Stories need to have an extra-marital angle. Including one homosexual character is also in vogue these days," Aniket says.

The most obvious problem, most directors agree, is the funding. Any film playing out the Partition drama needs to be mounted on a certain scale. Unfortunately, the recovery route of investment in Tollywood is still so limited that producers can't be blamed if they shy away from investing beyond Rs 4 crore even to make a period film. By Bollywood standards, this is almost a laughable budget! It is no rocket science to understand that once a director agrees to make a period film on such a small budget, he has to accept compromises. For the audience, who have got a taste of watching big budget period films churned out of Bollywood, this isn't always a very happy scenario.

Says Aniket, "I am writing this script but am not sure if I will get the budget I require to translate it for screen. The fear of not being able to mount a period piece properly often puts directors on the backgear."

But then again, period pieces are not mandatory while featuring displacement. Even a South Kolkata colony of today can throw up many contemporary tales of displacement! "True. The larger problem is the fear of having to take a political stand if such films are attempted," he says. The silence is much more comforting instead of stirring up a hornet's nest.

Bappaditya Bandopadhyay, who focussed on displacement in Kaantatar and Kaal, had blamed the disinterest in making political films in Bengal for this apathy. "Whereas, G Aravindan made a Malayalam film on refugees! Set in 1971, Aravindan's 'Vaastuhara' looked at the lives of partition refugees to Bengal. More than lack of awareness of political events, it's the fear of political power that prevents Bengali directors from scripting a movie on Marichjhapi. We just don't have the guts of Ghatak," Bandopadhyay had told TOI before his death. Two of Bandopadhyay's yet-unreleased films ('Sohra Valley' and 'Sohra 2') deals with immigration issues in the North-east.

In the pipeline is Goutam Ghose's Shankhachil starring Prosenjit Chatterjee that has been attempted as a human document on the shared past of two nations and its influence on people who cross borders naturally. "There was this story I heard about a family that couldn't attend a wedding because a house had strangely fallen on the other side of the border!" Ghosh says.

Ghosh collated a few of such real stories and then wrote his film with Sayantani Putatunda. That was only 10 per cent of what he had heard. "Considering how critical this issue is in Bengal, many more films should originate from here," Ghose admits.

Perhaps, the debate surrounding 'Rajkahini' will prompt others to give a serious thought to this issue. Srijit's 'Rajkahini' screenplay will be remodelled and set in Punjab to make way for another Partition film in Bollywood. Wonder if Tollywood will meanwhile break its silence to start penning a fresh script.

source: TOI

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