Director: Nemai Ghosh; Writer: Swarnakamal Bhattacharya; Producer: Bimal Dey; Cinematographer: Nemai Ghosh, Biswanath Ganguly; Editor: Gobardhan Adhikari; Cast: Prematosh Roy, Gangapada Basu, Sova Sen, Shanta Devi, Shanti Mitra, Sushil Sen, Jalad Chatterjee, Bijon Bhattacharya, Ritwik Ghatak
Duration: 01:38:03; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 122.568; Saturation: 0.003; Lightness: 0.468; Volume: 0.193; Cuts per Minute: 18.305; Words per Minute: 44.971
Summary: This seminal film in the evolution of Bengali cinematic realism tells of a large group of farmers from East Bengal who, on Partition, have to migrate to Calcutta. Made with IPTA support, the film used several people from refugee camps to represent their fictional equivalents. Its two legendary
highlights are the scene of the old woman clinging to the doorpost of her ancestral house, refusing to leave, and the arrival of the peasants at Sealdah station amid thousands of real refugees living on the pavement. Other remarkable scenes include the long train journey, cut to the rocking movement of the passengers as they try to sleep or stand in the crowd. Despite its strong documentary overtones with people enacting their actual experiences (including the old woman), it is the folk-derived IPTA acting style that sets the tone, punctuated by tight close-ups, usually of the hero (Roy), the only politically aware member of the group, who looks for his community on Calcutta’s streets. The film came to exemplify realism as consisting, in Ghosh’s words, six different principles: no professional actors, no make-up (except whiskers), no out- takes, no songs, concealed camera on all occasions, and dialogue with a strongly regional dialect. Early commentators (including Mrinal Sen, writing in Parichay) criticised the film for its narrative and stylistic incoherence, although it is much closer to the spirit of IPTA’s famed stage production of Nabanna than IPTA’s own film version of that play, Dharti Ke Lal (1946). Gangapada Basu, who plays the leader of the group, had acted in the original play, and went on to do notable roles in Jalsaghar (1958) and Kanchan Ranga (1964). The film was made under trying conditions, including police harassment (e.g. the script was seized following a court order). Post- production censorship imposed some compromises and the film was released only following the intervention of New Theatres’ B.N. Sircar. It was a commercial failure but recovered its costs when the USSR bought it on Pudovkin’s recommendation (cf. his long essay in Pravda, 6.12.1951), where it was dubbed and retitled Obejdolni. This was Ghatak’s first extended encounter with cinema, functioning as actor and assistant director. According to Ghosh, Satyajit Ray, then an art director with an advertising agency, informally contributed to the initial screenplay.
Annotated by Moinak Biswas and Maharghya Chakraborty, adapting Biswas' essay 'The City and the Real: Chhinnamul and the Left Cultural Movement in the 1940s' (2006)
The title music of this otherwise experimental film follows closely the conventions of studio productions of the time, in composition and instrumentation. The music director Kalobaran worked in the industry.
The opening credits show names of various writers and artists associated with the left-wing Progressive Writers' Association' (PWA) and the 'Indian People's Theatre Association' (IPTA), namely the writer Swarnakamal Bhattacharya, actors Gangapada Bose, Charuprakash Ghosh, Sova Sen, Bijan Bhattacharya, Ritwik Ghatak (who had started working in the film industry by 1951)
A title announces it is going to be a ‘stark portrait of the victims of partition’. As it introduces the village ‘Naldanga’ and its inhabitants,the film adopts a very schematic, almost commentary-like exposition: the river, the mosque, the temple, a villager... We then find the protagonist of the first section, Srikanta, meeting a number of people, representing the village trades – the potter, the goldsmith, and the jute farmer. It is like a reconstructed documentary exposition. The land and the life, its imminent crisis – all this is presented to the outsider as it were, in the manner of ethnographic documentary. But the formal compulsion lying at the heart of Chinnamul is that in terms of representation, documentary realism is greatly restricted in the rural section, while it receives a boost in the city part.
Madhav clip 1: opening sequence
Soon after this we enter Srikanta’s home – the site of the family drama, of the story of the couple that will be used to finally round off what is essentially a scattered narrative. The set is done with the characteristic artifice of the studio era, a style that will slowly change in the early years of the fifties. The road outside the house is also shot in the studio lot as well as some of the meeting places of the villagers. As Srikanta and his wife talk about their conjugal dreams of a happy home we are taken through images of a bird and its nest. It comes as a straight metaphor but the bird motif is brought back time and again over the rest of the scenes at Srikanta’s home suggesting the nest being actually there.
The peasants talk about 'akaal' throughout, a word that stood for bad harvest and starvation, found in the literature, songs, drama of the period quite frequently, appearing much later in Mrinal Sen's films (eg. 'Akaler Sandhane' see https://indiancine.ma/ULV/info
). The dialogue on three occasions refers to the 1943 Great Bengal Famine that had seen 5 million peasants perishing within months.
The shadow of another 'akaal' looms over the people now. At the same time, they are aware that something of a large-scale historical change is coming about. They look up to Srikanta to explain that change. Srikanta is a political activist, but like many others in 1946-47, the partition is not something he could visualize. He tries to organize the peasants against the local landlords and their oppression.
Such scenes of Srikanta's involvement with local politics is interwoven with scenes from his domestic life, creating the picture of a man as deeply involved with the home and the world. The scenes in their home are marked with such placidity that, true to the nature of the melodramatic conventions, one is almost sure that misfortune is lurking around the corner.
Srikanta is a guiding force behind the villagers' resistance to their oppressive landlords. However, not even he can conceive of a possibility where the nation might be divided. In fact, the comparison they make between the Partition and the squabbling over property is rather fitting no matter how far-fetched. Naldanga is of course a village where the Muslim and the Hindu peasants have not been divided by Muslim League and Congress. The common struggle against the landlords as shown here is more in line with the Communist Krishak Sabha politics.
The most schematic, almost allegorical parts of the film are related to the portrayal of the two landlords – one Hindu and the other Muslim – working hand in glove to make a killing as the peasants are forced out of their land. There is a clear attempt to translate the 'communal' question into the class question. We are told they have done it before, during the great Famine, and this is how the political games at the national level translate into local terms of class exploitation. Here Ghosh comes and warns Srikanta against possible joint machinations by the Hindu and Muslim landlords. Ghosh is played by Bijan Bhattacharyam whose play 'Nabanna', on the Bengal Famine, launched the new theatre introduced by the IPTA.
As the police swoop down on Srikanta's house and arrest him, the two landlords are shown standing under a tree and leering frontally. The mixture of narrative idioms is quite pointed here. On the verandah the scene of the couple: Srikanta sensing the danger and asking his wife what she would do if something happens. As he mentions this she gives a start and her vermillion dot is smudged – a very familiar melodramatic action. This is also the climax: the door latch shakes, the boots stamp on it, the two villains under the tree watch. While the two are presented in the manner of ‘cut-outs’ reminiscent of contemporary drama, dance drama and agitational pantomime, the police onslaught is more in tune with cinematic rhetoric. The quick cutting back and forth, the oblique angles, the accelerated montage and the suggestive exposition where we do not see the police at all but only the boots and the handcuffs evoke among other things the Russian films that were shown by the IPTA and then the Calcutta Film Society in the late 1940s.
Immediately following this, dialogue is used as voice-over while we see the speakers gesticulating - a technique probably neccesitated by shooting conditions.
As the lonely, traumatised Sova Sen, Srikanta’s wife, looks on, there is a series of dissolves and super-impositions of shots of the nest, lightning and storm, a flame from an earthen lamp, two hands trying to guard it. Soon after this a second series: a hand holding a knife striking down, houses on fire, city streets streaming with people.
There are other montage sequences, more common to Indian cinema of the period, and these relate to seasonal changes or large-scale time transition. The partition itself is presented in this manner. Apart from the conventional cinematic iconography and punctuation technique, what is palpable is the presence of images of political reportage, illustrations and news photographs.
The peasants, meanwhile, are at a loss without Srikanta about what ought to be done. With the Partition finally having occurred, something no one had thought would happen, the balance signifies the strange turns of destiny to which the lives of millions of people will now be submitted. Dialogue as voice-over comes back.
Having worked in cohorts with Muzaffar Khan to rob the peasants of their land, Madhu Ganguly now resorts to using another potent weapon to drive the villagers out - fear and distrust. As rumours spread regarding real and imagined assaults everywhere, people are driven to a state of intense paranoia, fed with lies and misinformation, and their insecurities are stoked in order to force them to migrate.
Chinnamul not only mixes styles - from contemporary film melodrama, Studio Socials, political theatre, dance drama and shadow plays of the IPTA variety, etc., it also mixes acting styles and actors and non-actors. Among the latter are some actual refugees. The most memorable of these non-actors was the old widow, who clings to the bamboo pole of her house and says she wouldn’t leave her home come what may. The director Nimai Ghosh considered it an experiment that would not fit into the conventional logic of cinema of that time at all, a film deliberately aimed at breaking the logic of entertainment and consequently those of dramatic organisation. In some aspects cinematic and dramatic conventions have left strong traces, but in others, as in this scene with the old woman, something extraordinarily fresh and new was happening, and to great effect.
The long transition in the form of the train journey, quite different in rhythm from what we have seen before, is apt, as it will be a radically different sense of space and time that the film will soon enter. The arrival in the city presents a moment of great phenomenological transformation in film history. There was, however, nothing in Indian Cinema that could match the stark vividness of the image as the villagers arrive in Calcutta as refugees. As they board the train they come out of the indeterminate location of Naldanga to real places on the map of a burning country. We catch a glimpse of the station “Darshana” on the way, conjuring up the fateful route of the refugees who came in through murder and mayhem to the city.
Train arriving at station
The approach the Sealdah Station in Calcutta – the top angle of the maze of tracks and the low angle shot on the platform shades- has almost a dream like quality as a new reality dawns on the characters. They land in a sea of humanity; many of them displaced people, on the platform. This will be the temporary home for them and they will have to forge their new community. For decades since this community would continue to be politically extremely important. They have not come to marvel at the big city as peasants, nor to climb the ladder of individual success as we find in countless films and popular fiction. They are here to take part in the very making of the city anew. Post- independence Calcutta would be shaped with and through them. Already in 1950-51, Chinnamul carries a vision of future. It institutes the refugees as the protagonists in the city and also institutes a refuge gaze at the city. These characters can now appear to represent themselves so that the ethnographic exposition and the commentary mode now almost vanish from the text. There is no doubt that Chinnamul could place the fictional characters of villagers right in the middle of a 'present' because of its political background. This politics was trying to bring into visibility another reality undercutting the chronicle of colonialism and nationalism. The events of riots, partition and the massive uprooting contribute to a tragic view of the moment of independence, to a political vision that finds this moment of the founding of the nation-state as that of the beginning of a struggle rather than an end to a course of destiny. The city as it appears here is a city that has just woken up to history itself. In a sense the village episode was still in some timeless place, these people now have entered time as immediate experience.
The metaphor of the phantasm, people without food, without clothes, shorn almost of their very physical reality haunt the literature of the period, the most memorable being Manik Bandhopadhayay’s short stories. Here the famished bodies on the streets recall famine drawings by Zainul Abedin, Chittaprasad and Somenath Hore, and the photo-journalism of Communist publications like 'Swadhinata' and 'Janajuddha'. The filmmaker who will return to these images most consistently is Mrinal Sen.
It was no coincidence that through the upheavals between 1967 and 1977, the ‘refugee colony’ areas proved a stronghold of radical politics in and around Calcutta. They constituted a support base for the left till the middle of the 2000s. These homeless at Sealdah railway station organized itself into a cultural and political entity. But Chinnamul concentrates on a point where the crowd, an explosion of faces and tongues hit the streets of Calcutta. The great achievement of the film was to animate a crowd into protagonists. It is not the story of one among the hapless embarking upon a private odyssey as the standard narrative system would have it. The migrants from Naldanga become a collective focus of action.
Srikanta is released from jail and comes searching for his wife and fellow villagers to Calcutta. It is in his search that provides a linear motion to a description, which is otherwise too broad in canvas and too unpredictable in development. It is a compromise, an inevitable one, with the logic of cinematic conventions, but the film does not get to be rounded off around his search.
There was some violence between the residents and the immigrants but the way the new people were absorbed into West Bengal in a gradual manner is perhaps unique given the fact that the refugees maintained distinctive cultural and even political profiles. The landlord who comes to ask the refugees to vacate his house is clearly non-aggressive. On the fringes of the city, however, the untold story of resettlement involved forceful occupation, often of Muslim peasant land. The exchange between the landlord and Bijan Bhattacharya here presents the clash of two ethos, once again suppressing the sectarian aspect of Partition and resettlement.
As the groups broke apart under pressure new groups were formed among the refugees and the colonies were built upon these new principles of re-creating the village. The refugee colony that Srikanta visits shows an inhabitant trying to nurture his little plants. He says ‘If I had the land I could produce gold on it’. As the refugees built their villages in Calcutta they would create these plots of little gardens. They would build schools and clubs; they would have their own distinctive culture of humor, folk music as well as voluntary civic activities.
Monohar, the goldsmith played by Ritwik Ghatak in the film is shown peddling ”American combs for four paisa each” on the street, and he is the one who saves some money for his own family. People like him move out of the group to set upon their own to the progressive weakening of the original community.
When Srikanta finally finds them Bishu and Prasanna tell him that the Naldanga he is looking for has fallen apart. But they are shown amidst refugees from other villages and districts. Earlier on, it was mentioned that this flotsam life has weakened the distinctions between people from different districts - Dhaka, Barisal, Kumilla, Pabna, Noakhali. This would finally mean that in the refugee colonies a hybrid, uniform East Bengali dialect will be spoken by all, which is true even to this day.
The force of scattering is too strong in the narration once the film arrives in the city. This is a sign of the city invoking a form. Srikanta’s story is a narrative in the traditional sense. But the sheer possibility of scattering that looms large on these lives, of the unexpected happening to them any moment, necessitates a logic of unfolding that is relatively free.The film looks disorganized because of this other sense, the sense of being ‘not yet told’.
True to socialist humanist narratives, Srikanta’s union with his wife coincides with her death and the birth of their child. This is the climax of the story of the couple that began in the first part, but Srikanta is hardly the single focus of the film once the great journey of the people begins. As the city and the country come into an epic encounter in Chinnamul the category of the individual protagonist is rendered problematic.