By Frances Bulathsinghala/www.southasianmonitor.com
Out there, in seemingly split second distance, is the shimmer of the dark green forest. The strands of sun escape through the scalp of the sky, past the shoulders of the trees and almost brush your eyes. The forest is not alone. It is occupied by a border guard because the forest is on the edge of a separation of countries. The white skinned soldier who has many secrets which are all locked up within himself ruthlessly guards the border. Because he has no companion except the forest, he one day bends to the earthen ear of the soil and whispers his secret. Whispers his guilt. He has killed. He has killed many. He has killed many humans. He has killed them for the fault of crossing one man made border to another. The people he killed have attempted to get a better life for themselves. And he had killed them.
“Now I have killed a hundred. A foreign soldier in a foreign land. The land of the rich. So many people try to cross the border illegally. I have shot all of them down. Each and every one of them. That is what I am here for,” he whispers to the deep ear of the ground. The wind blows through the trees. But passes no judgment. He asks the earth not to tell anyone his secret. He carefully buries his crimes in a hole he has dug. The forest closes up his wound of conscience. It is another day among many other days. He firms the grip on his gun strapped to his body and soon disappears into the canopy of green and brown. But the hunt is not over.
Somewhere in that dense solitude is another human being. A brown one. He is not a hunter but the hunted. He is an earthen hued shadow and flits between the trees with as ease as the breeze. He dines on wild mushrooms and sleeps atop trees. He laughs the free laugh of a man un-caged. The hunter and the hunted meet one day in a crowd of trees but there is no killing. They have discarded the need for speech and it does not separate them. Meanwhile in the transient world, the struggle goes on.
Somewhere away from the border there is a flurry of construction on stolen land.
“The crooks of the party forced us to tell on TV that we have given our land willingly but it is not true. It is shameful,’ a crowd of men tell the camera.
“When the notice came we refused it repeatedly. And it went back and back. But we never agreed. During acquisition they said it would be an industrial zone. But now they are building residential towers. None of us got jobs there except housemaids. They told we could get a job here,” the testimonies of exploitation continue.
“They buy a piece of land for Rs. 6,000 and sell a flat for 8 million.”
“Could any of us afford that? Tell us ?,” one young man asks.
Then there is this half built building, one among many others. A site worker, an impoverished father of a ten year old computer genius ascends the stairs tentatively to meet the new architect to seek some support for his talented son. The architect is battling his own demons of guilt and is psychologically and emotionally debilitated by the separation of his brother whose whereabouts he does not know. The architect is the manifestation of the modern day plague of commercial soullessness as the lone White soldier is the manifestation of soulless duty. The young man spinning through the jungle could be seen as representing the freedom we have lost and the site worker, the epitome of hope, expecting shreds of kindness from a disinterested world.
And thus unravels the Bengali film Chatrak (Mushrooms) based on the realities of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), scripted and directed by award winning Lankan film director, Vimukthi Jayasundara. Jayasundara is the first Sinhalese to direct an Indian movie, and also the first Sri Lankan to make a film in Bengali. The other two Sri Lankans who have directed successful Indian films are Sri Lankan Tamils; Balu Mahendra from Baticaloa in the East of the island, who directed the award winning film Veedu, Sandhya Ragam and Thalaimuraigal and V.C.Guhanathan from Punguduthivu-in the North of the country who directed two commercial films Thanikkattu Raja and Michael Raj.
Simultaneously tying concepts such as isolation, freedom, survival, capitalism, political corruption and helplessness in a South Asian political context, Jayasundara is the latest to give to the world an introspective work of art that also serves as a sociological portrayal pertaining to post colonial facts.
Shown in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and also at the Toronto, Pacific Merdian and Vladivostok international film festivals, the film is made in the vein of the renowned Bengali film maker Ritwik Ghatak. It also shares a ‘behind the scene’ commonality with Bengali film icon Satyajit Ray.
Jayasundara , born 1977 hailing from the Ratnapura district in Southern Sri Lanka who had nursed childhood ambitions of being an artist, sketches most of his frames for better clarity, akin to Ray.
Speaking to this writer after the screening of the film Chatrak in Colombo recently, he points out that the 90 minute film was scripted in a span of around three weeks, inspired by the first impression he had in 2010 of driving out of the Kolkota airport and finding himself heading along a road bordered by frantic constructions.
“There was nothing to see but these constructions and in observing closer, I realized that these buildings that were coming up had little connection with the masses of the city. Alongside these half built concrete structures people were calmly walking past with their cows and buffaloes.”
Spanning out at times like a documentary and at times like an art film, Chatrak skirts between stark reality and the surreal, as it brings out significant aspects of urban India as seen in the metropolis of Kolkata.
“In 2010, the Calcutta I saw as a newcomer to the city was one of paradox. One part of it existed in a kind of a time vacuum. It could have been a scene about 100 years ago. There were book sellers with long beards and round framed glasses and people who were not hurrying about as we could see in other cities. Then there was this crazy concrete jungle mushrooming,” he says.
The film that Jayasundara crafted as a result of his observations captures as an excellent sociological study the death that we live in the modern world, embalmed by the vapors of corporatization. The history of the city and its synchronized meaning as tied to the overall theme of the film, is brought to life in a few sentences. We see a city elder (long beared.. back rimmed glasses, dhoti and shawl) say to a man sleeping on a kerb : ‘Wake up, the night is over. Do you know how much Job Charnock paid to buy this city? One thousand three hundred rupees only… The film thereby sets a foundation of thought for the viewer to reflect on British rule through this act of British Administrator Charnock who bought the city of Calcutta; for Indian Rs. 1,300 in the late 17th century soon after the British East India Company set up their trading posts and subsequently declared Calcutta the Capital of India until the year 1911 when King George V on a visit to the country proclaimed the transfer of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
“He bought the whole city. Sutanuti, Calcutta and Gobindapur,” rambles on the city elder, raising the ghost of Charnock, leaving the audience free to mentally compare the actions of British colonial rulers with today’s custodians of the city and contemplate the meaning of independence.
Architect Rahul (played by Sudip Mukherjee); his partner, a Kolkata working girl, Paoli (played by Paoli Dam); Rahul’s unnamed brother (played by Sumeet Thakur); and a foreign border-guard (Tomas Lemarquis) brings to life the story where Rahul, favoured by luck and assisted by perseverance, escapes poverty in a fishing trawler and gets to Dubai. Like millions of other Indians, he sojourns with the hope of making it big in a land of opportunity and in his current life back in Kolkata we can see he has achieved some of his dreams; he is an architect and has a job, a home and a girl who loves him. His younger brother fails in the attempt of escaping poverty and remains in the jungle that separates opportunity from privation. Although meeting the dreaded border guard, he survives just as he has survived with the beasts of that tropical wilderness.
The Rahul who we meet on the screen is one of the many pawns in the mill of exploitation. He has just about reached the precarious tightrope of being identified with the middle class and is an inadvertent player in the game of pauperizing the poor. He regularly sees the original residents of the many construction sites because they work as labourers for a pittance. He is seen making the usual flippant promises that the middle class pledge to the poor, when Rahul tells a site worker that he would try and help his genius son who has designed computer games even without owning a computer. And the life of Rahul goes on .. he goes to work, comes back home, eavesdrops on the fables his neighbours recite to their children, waits for his girlfriend to come back home … But like the inequalities in Kolkata the guilt of Rahul having built his life without searching for the whereabouts of his brother, grow. He starts searching for his brother in the alleys and the tenements of Kolkata. Armed with only an old photograph as a clue, he recruits various characters from the nook and corners of the city tasking them with the search which looks futile but ends however with the brother being finally found living his free life in the forest.
“He sleeps atop trees. We will have to wait until he comes down,” the man commissioned with finding the whereabouts of the brother explains, as Rahul and his partner wait in expectation in the fringes of the jungle. The young man finally climbs down from his tree, is caught and escorted to the miserable walled in concrete life that Rahul is almost immune to, but which brings near death to his brother.
The film ends with the brother being returned to the forest. Rahul returns to the city. When we see Rahul last, he is back in his makeshift table and his plastic chair under a dull night bulb giving the half built building he is designing a murky hue, similar to the murky thoughts swirling in his head. He has been drinking and we see the almost empty bottle and notice his tottering. We next hear his scream of exasperation and see him spiraling over the edge of the building. As we see him prostrate on the ground, surrounded by rubble and bleeding from his head, we do not know for sure whether it is an eternal death of the hereafter or a prolonged city bound living death of survival which will be Rahul’s lot.
What we know for a definite fact is this. We have been in the forest with Rahul’s brother and he has made his choice. We, with little choice, return to the city with Rahul and see with Rahul’s eyes, the box like cement edifices we occupy as modern homes, which is our prison. Hence, we echo the words of Rahul the architect when he whispers to himself ; “Nothing else than boxes and cages.”
Apart from the many other visual and script based attributes, Jayasundara should be congratulated for examining the concept of development from a socio-political and socio-economic paradigm. The sociological concept of alienation is tackled with brilliance as is the spiritual concept of human connection which transcends speech based communication, as is seen in the silent understanding that ensues between the foreign border guard and Rahul’s brother.
However what first disconcerts the viewer in the beginning of the film is the rational question as to what a foreign border guard is doing between India and Bangladesh.. However, the viewer may, provided s/he contemplates on it at a deeper level, connect the foreign border guard with the universal phenomena (and fear psychosis) connected with borders and juxtapose that with the universal third world yearning for that distant pot of gold.
The other subtexts in the film are directly connected to its main philosophy. For example, in one scene towards the latter part of the film, climbing up the stairs in the lower middle class tenement where he resides, Rahul passes through the house of his neighbor and listens as the neighbor narrates a fable everyday, at a certain evening hour. We do not see the neighbor but we hear the female voice on the other side of the wall. Rahul, waiting for his partner to come home sits on the stairs and listens to the narration, which goes something like : “Long time ago God was living in a forest… One day a crooked businessman chose this forest to hide his plunder…He offered a lot of money to the poor builder to build a hide-out on condition that he should not leave the forest before finishing the construction. With his beautiful wife, the builder started walking in the forest, day after day, night after night …”
We then traverse the imagination of Rahul and go into the forest with the narrated characters of the builder and his wife … The builder attempts to cut a tree to build the hide-out for the businessman to hide his plunder. The moment the axe is put to the tree, the tree trunk starts bleeding. The builder runs screaming through the forest, swinging his axe at the air. The wife wanders away. The builder searches for the wife once his madness leaves him. But he cannot find her. And for thousands of years he searches but cannot find her…. the fable narrator tells us.
In this surreal component of the film, as in the sub text of the lone border guard, we understand about borders at a deeper level. The borders between sanity and madness. The borders between bondage and freedom. The borders between opportunity and loss. The borders between guilt and redemption.
In conversation with this writer Vimukthi Jayasundara, explained how he views the forest as the support base of many great feats and aspirations of man.
“If we want contemplation and enlightenment, we go to the forest as the sages did. If we want to rebel and change the world, we seek sanctuary in the forest as many of the freedom fighters did,” points out Jayasundara.
On the practicalities behind this cinematic production, he points out that making an Indian film was first informally discussed with his long standing friend, Bappaditya Bandhopadhyay, a producer and director of Bengali films.
With the assurance from Bappaditya that he could convince Vinod Lahoti, a Kolkata film enthusiast and businessman, to finance the film, Jayasundara moulded his first impression en route from the Kolkata airport to the city to set the base for the main storyline, adding further material by the knowledge he gathered by speaking to architects, investors, bankers and the ordinary people in the city.
“Much of the film is real and un-acted. Those who speak of their land being taken over are people who actually lost their land because of the construction work. Many of the other scenes such as those involving the Durga festival and scenes shot in public transport are mostly the way ordinary life plays out day to day in Kolkata,” says Jayasundara.
Having made a string of short films since 1996, Jayasundara received the Camerad’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005 for the Best Debut Director for his film Sulanga Enu Pinisa (Forsaken Land) which is a soul searching on the war in Sri Lanka, looked at from many viewpoints.
His cinematic training is from the Film and Television Institute in Pune, India and the Le Fresnoy Studio National in France.
(The featured picture at the top is that of actor Paoli Dam – the working girl in the film)