Director: Hemen Gupta; Writer: Hemen Gupta; Producer: Hemen Gupta; Cinematographer: G.K. Mehta; Editor: A. K. Chatterjee; Cast: Bikash Roy, Manju Dey, Sambhu Mitra, Suruchi Sengupta, Pradeep Kumar, Leela Ghosh, Amita Sarkar, Kali Sarkar, Sambhu Mitra, Harimohan Basu, Bankim Ghosh, Shyamal Dutta
Duration: 02:14:07; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 53.518; Saturation: 0.052; Lightness: 0.179; Volume: 0.172; Cuts per Minute: 2.125
Summary: Gupta’s best-known political film addresses the violent agitations against the colonial police in the Midnapore district of Bengal in late 1942. Set against the violent Quit India agitations of the 40s in Midnapore, much of the drama stems from the ambivalence of the local leadership towards Gandhian non-violence. An aged woman activist (a reference to Matangini Hazra of Midnapore) explains that Gandhi advocated non-violence but asked every woman to carry a knife as well, just in case. Ajoy, his wife Bina (Dey) and aged grandmother are fired with the ‘Karenge ya marenge’ (Do or die) zeal. Violence erupts when the village blacksmith’s daughter is killed. The blacksmith is tortured and killed by the evil army officer Major Trivedi (Bikash Roy, providing one of Bengali cinema’s most enduring images of untrammelled villainy). Bina, who becomes a courier for the terrorists, is gang-raped by the army and goes insane, whereupon the entire village rises in anger. The grandmother is shot while leading an unarmed procession. Ajoy is shot too. Finally, in a sequence evoking Eisenstein’s Bronenosets Potemkin (1925) the army refuses further orders to fire and eventually tramples over the major to join the marchers in raising the Indian tricolour. The tensely constructed and well-acted film, despite occasional hiccups in the dialogue (e.g. the major’s line in English, ‘You will be killed, killed to death’), encountered censorship problems for its potential to ‘excite passion and encourage disorder’. Banned in Bengal, MP, Assam, Bihar and Madras (although cleared in Bombay), it was eventually released, with changes, in 1951
Release date: 9 August, 1951 (uncorroborated because the date is not mentioned in any of the official sources due to the long ban that had been imposed on the film)
Applicant: Anil K Sengupta
Produced by: Film Trust of India
Gauge: 35 mm
Length of film: 4165.40 m
No. of certificate: 50839
The song playing over the title credits is Bengali composer and lyricist Atul Prasad Sen's 'Bolo bolo bolo shabe'. Sen was well-known for his songs of patriotism and this rousing anthem expresses the hopes and dreams that Bharat will one day arise and become the greatest nation in the world. Throughout, the camera zooms in through the rolling credits on the flag of India at the centre. In 1949 the Censor Board had refused to certify the film out of fear that it would cause unrest over the depictions of police and military violence during the Quit India Movement of 1942, considering that it was releasing so soon after Independence. The ban was in effect for two years before being revoked.
Background score: "Bolo bolo bolo sobe" by Atul Prasad Sen
Quite reminiscent of another film on the National Movement at the time, 'Chattagram Astragar Lunthan', the film begins with a long monologue that establishes the context - colonialism, the National Movement, and specifically, the Quit India Movement. It is to be noted that so soon after Independence the claim that it was not 1947 but 1942 that was the true year of freedom for the nation might have been deemed too controversial by the Censor Board; this could probably be one of the causes for the ban on the film.
Unlike 'Chattagram Astragar Lunthan', where violence and revolutionary thought was a central concern, the Quit India Movement called by Gandhi was a policy of civil-disobedience and satyagraha. In 'Biyallish', the violence is always from outside, be it the police, the military or even the local British sympathisers. The two films together produce a fascinating picture of the Nationalist Movement and its internal politics, with the Moderates and the Extremists on either side. This is established right at at the outset by the rows of military trucks as they infiltrate the villages. The harsh background sound aids in the evocation of dread and a underlying feeling of violence which is reaffrimed by the villagers and their apprehension and fear.
The man, as we will soon learn, is a local businessman, one of the many who reaped profits from the British and who refused to aid the Quit India Movement. The phrase 'naked fakir' refers to Mahatma Gandhi who called for the Movement on August 1942. The disparaging term had originally been used by Winston Churchill with reference to Gandhi.
As part of the civil disobedience movement, many people resigned from their government jobs soon after the movement was launched.
They refer to the Movement as the 'last struggle for Independence', something which is a refrain within the narrative of the film. The call 'Do or Die' was issued by Gandhi on 8 August 1942 at Gowaliar Tank Maidan in Bombay. It would go on to become one of the most iconic revolutionary calls in the Indian Nationalist Moevment.
Mandal Mahajan, the local landlord we have seen already. He characteristically attempts to dissuade the men. He refers to Ajay's father who was shot to death by the police in the 30s. The movement he refers to is one of the many peasant movements that became a serious concern for the British in Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab in 1930s and 40s.
The 'charkha' or the spinning wheel was one of the most significant symbols of the satyagraha and swadeshi movements supported by Gandhi. In fact the 'charkha' was there in the original tricolour flag adopted during the declaration of 'purna swaraj'. The old woman working at the 'charkha' firmly establishes the family as part of the swadeshi movement.
According to the old woman's words, the date ought to be 14 July, 1942, the last day of the Wardha Congress when the resolution was passed. We learn that Ajay is an active member of the Congress and has been sent to the village in anticipation of the resolution.
The events from 14 July 1942 (the passing of the resolution by the Congress) and 8 August 1942 (Gandhi's address) are depicted through the use of actual archive footages of the period. This attempt at documentation often has an aesthetic quite different from the film, interrupting the otherwise realist narrative and also abbreviates events. The tendency is noticeable in 'Chattogram...' and is later used remarkably in 'Chhinnamul' (1952).
Four single-shot scenes depicting how the news of the Quit India Movement trickled down from London, through the then Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, to the district level in Bengal where the Movement had a huge impact. This move is important in the context of film as the narrative will now focus on the effect of the Movement at a local level.
Consequently, the last level is the local military commander Major Trivedi who will be the figure of colonial repression and violence henceforth. There are urban legends in film history about how Bikash Roy's performance in the role had such an impact that he had difficulty going out in public for a while because people could not get over his actions as the fictional Major.
Within a few hours of Gandhi's speech, all the high rankings leaders of the Congress and many workers and supporters were arrested by the British. Here, we see the police ransacking the Congress zonal committee office under Major Trivedi's orders.
The scene of the arrest is immediately followed by a shot of the smithy, with the blacksmith working on a fiery dagger - an allegorical association of images to hightlight the growing unrest among the people regarding the British and their policies. The blacksmith and his daggers would also assume central importance in the narrative.
Ironically, one of Lord Linlithgow's concerns had been to keep the districts and interiors as peaceful as possible. One of the measures of military control was to ensure the disappearance of vehicles, effectively people, from the roads.
The news of the arrest of the entire Congress leadership and the banning of the party reaches the zonal members.
Mandal Mahajan represents, at the micro-level, the lack of support for Quit India Resolution among the other parties (The CPI, The Muslim League) and the princely states, which ultimately led to the quashing of the movement. At the same time, he is also representative of the many native businessmen who were hoping to profit from the Second World War and who actively sided with the British in suppression.
The popular support for the Congress increased immensely after the British suppressed its activities and banned the party.
In fact, despite the failure at the national level the Quit India Movement had a major impact in regions like Satara in Maharashtra, Talcher in Orissa, Midnapur in the Bengal Presidency. The resentment regarding the incarceration of the Congress leaders coupled with personal narratives of war taxes, forced export of rice and local oppression.
The scene in Mandal Mahajan's shop foregrounds how he is presented as a classic villain in the narrative. He is willing to do anything for profit but fears being alienated by the social body for siding with the British. Major Trivedi and Mandal together represent the multiple levels of repression, both overt and insidious, that resulted in the failure of the Quit India Movement.
The covert zonal Congress meeting where the women are standing guard against possible military raid.
Mandal's false arrest has had the desired effect as he is being perceived as the first victim/martyr of the Quit India Movement.
Ajay is reading out the declaration of the resolution of July 1942. The provisional government that was to be established was in fact a reality in districts like Tamluk and Contai where the locals ran a parallel goverment till about 1944 when Gandhi personally requested them to disband.
As decided earlier in the meeting, the women form the first rank of barricades, meant to hold back the police or the military, especially in order to help the Congress workers escape.
One major aspect of police and military violence was the violence on women, both physical and sexual. Here, unable to extract any information from Moyna, Trivedi orders her to be thrown to the army barracks and we later learn that she was repeatedly raped and then thrown into the lake. The violence on women also has a significant symbolic dimension since the National Movement had consciously cultivated the metaphor of the woman's body to stand in for the body of the nation. Consequently, violence on women would often be identified with violence on the nation itself in the popular imagination.
It has been three days. The local Congress workers are still in hiding while the blacksmith Dasu has recovered his daughter Moyna's body.
The stress on non-violent struggle based on Gandhian principles and satyagraha is a central concern in 'Biyallish'. The short exchange between Dasu and the old woman foregrounds this. Dasu wants revenge while she advises him to not give up on the ideals of non-violence. It is a classic Moderates vs. Extremists debate regarding the need for retaliation and vengeance.
Dasu inhabits the fuzzy zone between these two ideological standpoints, where Gandhian principles seem to be at constant dialogue with possibilities of violence. He takes up making daggers, and the inspiration ironically is Gandhi who is credited to have advised women to always arm themselves with daggers to protect themselves. This anecdote regarding Gandhi's advice to women is quite possibly apocryphal.
Bina is on her way to where the rebels are hiding, with food and news.
The rebels observe a silent prayer in memory of Moyna and her sacrifice. We have already seen how Moyna has been regarded as a martyr of the Quit India Movement by the rebels and the villagers.
The plan, as mentioned before, is for the rebels to launch a wide-spread civil disobedience programme and take over key government buildings - the offices, the courts, the post-office, and the military barracks. All this would however need to be done non-violently through barricades and unrelenting protest marches.
What they sing is typically a marching song, its words of revolution matched by the staccato beats.
Mandal has been furnishing information to the police and their latest preoccupation has been to find out where the locally made daggers are coming from. In an earlier scene, we have seen the blacksmith Dasu resolve to make daggers for the women to protect themselves.
In the ensuing conversation Mandal confirms that Dasu's efforts have proven successful because a lot of women have been using the dagger to protect themselves, killing soldiers and officers in the process. It is quite obviously a ploy by Mandal to fool Dasu into a confession, and he succeeds in it too.
The hammer on the smithy of the blacksmith has already been established as a metaphor for unrest, dissent and revolution. Interestingly, the scene fades in to Major Trivedi mimicking the action signifying his own efforts to drive a wedge within the movement at the local level.
Major Trivedi's plan is a perfect example of the British policies of divide and rule. Here, the aim is to evoke communal tensions by stressing on the Hindu nature of the Congress behind the Quit India Movement. In fact, the Muslim League had been against the movement due to similar concerns and did not support it. The film alters the reaction of the Muslim leaders at the local level to produce the image of a united nation against the oppressors. The recitation of the verses from the Quran at the end of the scene underlines this further.
Yet another sepoy, presumably stabbed with one of Dasu's knives by a woman near the zamindar's lakes where the sepoy had been on duty.
Mandal Mahajan, who has been supplying the army with information regarding the rebels and their whereabouts, arrives with news regarding Dasu.
In one of the most stirring and gruesome instances of military violence the blacksmith Dasu is tied to the army trucks, for his role in making daggers for the women and the consequent murders of sepoys, and dragged through the streets resulting in his death.
Ajay has been appointed the head of the local Congress committee ahead of the large-scale non-violent civil disobedience movement, in order to claim swaraj and with 29 September to be marked as Independence Day. As mentioned before, a few districts in Bengal succeeded to some extent in this barricade, keeping their parallel local governments working till 1944.
Major Trivedi's comment that he is a peace-loving man is extremely ironic in this context especially because his 'conversation' with the elders of the village consists majorly of threats to their life and property.
The men, as we have seen, are willing to go to any length to support the Congress; hence, the only recourse left for Mandal is to try and manipulate their fears regarding the violation of the honour and chastity of the women of the family, drawing on Moyna's example incessantly. At the same time, in order to maintain his cover he must do so covertly, even accepting defeat if necessary.
Having chanced upon Ajay in the dead of night, Mandal immediately goes to inform the Major about his return home. His entry into the army camp is a recurrent scene and has the same dialogue every time, with him calling out to the sentry on guard with the word 'Friend'. His deceptive nature, and the reason for his visit there makes, this recurrent scene and dialogue heavy with irony.
In the earlier scene, Major Trivedi had given the elders till 9 to make up their mind. Here, he is angry and agitated that they have ignored his warnings and orders the men to get ready for the raids.
Major Trivedi too is unsure of Mandal's loyalties, especially given his betrayal of his own people.
Major Trivedi, angry at the family's lack of support, orders his men to set fire to the house, with Ajay's infant son still inside.
The assisting officer's doubts and his sudden departure is one of the first instances of dissent among the ranks, something that will play a major role in the climax of the film.
Having gotten the news of the Major's assault on his family, Ajay rushes back home and is immediately arrested for seditious activities.
Despite Ajay's sacrifice his young song dies. To heighten the sense of tragedy and outrage, the scene fades into a close-up of Major Trivedi's boots underlining how he has been instrumental in the tragedy. More than the rape and death of Moyna and the gruesome murder of Dasu, the child's death has deeper symbolic and tragic associations.
The Major is also seen walking over a flag of 'Purna Swaraj' with the 'charkha' at the centre. It is meant to be an offensive act and his attempts to coerce Ajay to do the same foregrounds it as a denunciation of the National Movement and the Congress. At the same time, knowing fully well Ajay will do no such thing, it sets the stage for his torture. Consequently he is beaten and he bleeds on the flag, heightening the symbol of suffering and sacrifice for the freedom struggle that has been associated with each and every death in the film thus far.
Ajay prays for strength to resist because asking for water would be perceived as a sign of weakness or capitulation.
Only a few minutes ago we had seen the first instance of dissent among the soldiers. Here, carrying this notion forward, a soldier secretly offers water to Ajay, eventually agreeing to serve as messenger for him. Also important is the fact that the soldier's explicit support for swaraj and the swadeshi movement is inextricably linked with his financial dependance on his British employers, providing a glimpse into the many people living the interstices of the Nationalist struggle.
The British attempt to prove that Ajay is insane and his accusations of police and military brutality are thus simply fragments of his imagination.
Ajay's defense of himself is not based on denial but on an aggressive acceptance of his responsibilities as a revolutionary. Importantly, the fact that he endorses the non-violent Moderate way of struggle based on Gandhian princliples is also made amply clear.
It becomes evident that the men standing around while Ajay is taken out are all members of the Congress and that the sepoy had delivered the letter to them, allowing them to help Ajay escape.
Reminiscent of the earlier scene where news of the movement travels, here instructions trickle down regarding the most effective ways to crush the movement. While some of them are ones we have already encountered - creating communal discord, brutality, violence - two points here are crucial. The first, the Bengal Famine of 1943, caused by the over-export of grain during the War, effectively crushed the movement and killed millions of people in the Bengal Presidency. The second is the quick mention of Japan as a possible threat where they might aid the Quit India movement in some way - important especially in a post Pearl Harbour context.
The news of Ajay's escape and renewed activities is greeted with enthusiasm by the villagers. Three scenes in the run up to September 29 which was to be marked as the day of freedom. Parallel shots of the military on their drive to instill fear in the populace, resorting to threats, intimidation and murder.
To mark the non-violent nature of the movement, the processions meant to occupy the government buildings and offices will advance with music instead of weapons. Bina is training the rebels in the song their group will sing, a typical marching song with staccato beats.
The programme to disrupt all means of communication and transportation was a well-known way to isolate local government and overtake them. A similar instance of this can be seen in the Chattagram armoury raid as discussed in the context of 'Chattagram Astragar Lunthan'.
At the same time, since this movement is non-violent the rebels are fully aware that it might cost them lives. For Ajay and Bina, the personal and the political have come to occupy the same stand-point especially after the death of their child.
Major Trivedi's men, on the look-out for rebels preparing for the day after, intercept Bina in the market and attempt to catch her. In order to protect the rebels' plans, Bina swallows the letters with the instructions she had been asked to pass on.
Major Trivedi's close-up, partially covered in shadow, heightens the sense of terror and menace that his charcater embodies. He refers to the 'vastraharan' episode of the Sabhaparva in 'The Mahabharat', where Draupadi is publicly shamed and her clothes torn off by Duhsasan. The rest of the scene continues this allusion as the officer attempts to tear Bina's sari from her, holding her by her hair like Duhsasan had.
The officer getting stabbed by the dagger hidden in the sari is an immediately reference to Dasu and his last words. The dagger is one of those made by Dasu for the women to keep in order to protect themselves.
As Major Trivedi forces himself on Bina, her cries are heard by Ajay and his companions outside but they restrict him in order to prevent his arrest. Ajay himself had earlier mentioned that he could not visit his grand-mother because his arrest would endanger the movement planned for the next day.
Traumatised by rape and torture at the hands of Major Trivedi, Bina loses her sanity, mistaking Ajay and the rebels for the military officers, and wandering aimlessly about the area around the barracks.
Bina's fate has a profound effect on the villagers; agitated, they rally and resolve to join the march towards the barracks to reclaim the town from the British.
It is also revealed that the rebels had carried out their plan to segregate the town by detroying or disrupting all modes of communication and transport.
At the march, instead of Bina, her team is now being led by Ajay's old grand-mother.
Scenes of the marching rebels are intercut with the entire British garrison preparing for battle, with all the high-ranking officials present there.
The scene between Major Trivedi and Ajay's grandmother, whether intentionally or not, allude heavily to Matangini Hazra and her association with the Quit India Movement. Hazra was a revolutionary who led a procession of nearly six thousand people towards the Tamluk Police Station on 29 September 1942. In fact, the figure of the old grandmother with the flag of swaraj visually refers to the iconic images of Hazra facing off against the police.
In fact, her death too is heavy with allusions of Hazra. Hazra had been similarly shot down after being warned by the police. The incident and the associated allusions serve to contextualise the struggle depicted in the film, drawing heavy parallels with the impact of the Quit India Movement in the interiors, like in Midnapore in Bengal.
At the same time, little Sibani's death, with the flag wrapped around her, provides a set of potent visual symbols of nationalist fervour, her sacrifice providing a more immediate, and dramatic, context to the narrative.
This whole sequence is intercut with shots of Bina, out of her mind, sleeping among the bushes, unconcerned and almost disturbed by the noise around her. The scene foregrounds the sense of tragedy that is extricably connected to the freedom movement.
The song is the one Bina had been training her group in. It breaks her out of her stupor, triggering a memory. This is further underlined by parallel shots of the crowd marching forward to this song with Ajay in the front.
Ajay reads out Mahatma Gandhi's missive to the people to inspire them. At the same time, the scene itself alludes to Gandhi's speech at the Gowalior Tank Maidan where he had coined the phrase 'Do or Die' and which also led to his arrest within a few hours.
The soldiers have been placed on guard among the dead and wounded to ensure none of them get any medicine, water, or any other form of help.
Bina is walking across the bridge where the first wave of protesters had been stopped. The dead bodies of the rebels, the wounded lying around, the screams of pain, and the cries for help and water, all these elements along with the dreary and menacing mise-en-scene associates the place with allusions of hell. Bina walking like a spectre through this desolation, singing the earlier marching song, further strengthens this feeling.
Bina chances upon Ajay, the latter lying on the path wounded and bleeding. However, she does not recognise him.
Despite being wounded, and knowing fully well that Bina is not in her senses, Ajay resolves to finish his mission. At the same time, his request seems to trigger something in Bina who goes to the rebels waiting nearby, ready to lead them on.
Ajay manages to crawl to the barracks and place the flag of swaraj there.
Bina seemingly regains her memories. She breaks into the song with which she had been meant to lead the assault on the barracks leading the second wave of protestors forward.
The dissent that had been growing in the ranks reaches a crescendo as the soldiers refuse to shoot anymore, instead parting and letting the protestors through into the barracks.
The protesters are greeted inside by the garrison who have laid down their arms and are seen shouting the slogans of independence.
The scenes of celebration and revelry are intercut with shots of the British officers escaping through the back-door of the mansion. The farcical nature of the scene is underlined by the return of the voice-over that the film had begun with. The voice-over declares in no uncertain terms that 1942 was indeed the most important fight for independence and this is reinforced by the raising of the flag of swaraj over the barracks at the end of the sequence.
The voice-over also points out Mandal Mahajan who has swiftly changed sides and is seen donning a Gandhi cap in order to mingle with the jubilant crowd. The role of the voice-over here is clear; with the local narrative of struggle having reached its denouement the omniscient voice-over performs almost a choric function, reporting on the costs and consequences of the struggle and also warning against threats that still lurk in the shadows. The symbolic donning of the Gandhi cap by the double-faced Mandal is a severe indictment of all those who had actively sided with the British and their atrocities for their personal gains before independence.
The dramatic exposition had come to a definitive end with the taking of the barracks and the raising of the flag. The words of the voice-over are thus necessarily extra-diegetic and didactic, connecting the local struggle (Mandal, Bina, and the martyred Ajay) with the larger nationalist narrative.
The last scene takes this didactic and extra-diegetic impulse further by directly addressing the viewer, asking them not to get up because the 'moral' of the story has been left unsaid. Set against shots of the flag of independent India, the voice-over issues a set of warnings regarding both internal threats (Mandal has already been referred to) and external enemies in order to preserve the freedom that has come at a great cost. It is a steadfast eulogy to the ideals of democracy and nationhood in a post-independence context, in keeping with the Gandian principles and the Congress ideology that have been quite central to the narrative of the film.