Neel Akasher Nichey (1959)
Director: Mrinal Sen; Writer: Mrinal Sen, Mahadevi Verma; Producer: Hemanta Mukherjee, Bela Mukherjee; Cinematographer: Sailaja Chatterjee; Editor: Subodh Roy; Cast: Kali Bannerjee, Manju Dey, Bikash Roy, Smriti Biswas, Ajit Chatterjee, Suruchi Sengupta, Lee Chew Fong, E Shao Wen
Duration: 01:49:31; Aspect Ratio: 1.328:1; Hue: 102.701; Saturation: 0.002; Lightness: 0.259; Volume: 0.215; Cuts per Minute: 8.227; Words per Minute: 43.345
Summary: Sen’s first commercial success, after his financially disastrous debut Raat Bhore (1956). Produced by the composer Hemanta Mukherjee, the film is set in the 30s and tells of an honest Chinese hawker, Wang Lu (Bannerjee), who sells silk in Calcutta’s streets while refusing to get involved in the opium trade run by his fellow countrymen. A flashback reveals his past history in China’s Shantung province: a cruel landlord blackmailed Wang Lu’s sister into prostitution, resulting in her suicide. The sequence, including documentary footage shot by Sen in China, is recalled when Wang Lu feels a brotherly affection for Basanti (Dey), the wife of a Calcutta lawyer (Roy). Basanti is committed to Swadeshi and has political disagreements with her husband, who blames Wang Lu for this. Basanti is arrested and imprisoned, causing Wang Lu to become more involved with her political group. When she is released, in 1931, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria makes Wang Lu go back and join the resistance. The story attempts to link India’s independence struggle with China’s fight against Japan. Sen said that the 30s, which formed much of the CPI’s theory on imperialism, was ‘enormously exciting ... [w]ith an element of nostalgia’ and he returned to the period several times (cf. Matir Manisha, 1966). However, the film’s non-chauvinist end is as significant as its internationalism in the anti-Chinese hysteria preceding the India-China War of 1962. The sentimental film is remembered mainly for one of composer- singer Mukherjee’s most famous songs, eg: 'O nadire ekti katha sudhai', and for Kali Bannerjee’s remarkable performance. Shot mainly on sets, the dialogue evokes political and class stereotypes while inscribing several political references, e.g. Basanti’s use of homespun Khadi cloth when Wang Lu offers her a piece of silk.
Release date: 20 February, 1959 (Radha, Purna, Prachi, Lighthouse)
Excerpts from ‘Always Being Born: Mrinal Sen, A Memoir’, Stellar Publishers Pvt Ltd., 2004
‘I went into hiding until I made my second film –Neel Akasher Nichey(Under the Blue Sky) –which, in spite of my reservations on several counts, was received generally with a certain grace. Even Nehru liked the film and remembered it for quite some time. Most possibly, he liked the film for its content, which unequivocallyespoused that our struggle against colonial rule was inseparably linked with democratic world’s fight against fascism. More so, because the story and its setting dated back to the mid-30s, when militaristic Japan attacked China. The singer-producer, Hemanta Mukherjee, was immensely happy as the audience gave its verdict. They liked the film very much.Funnily enough, since the government files, particularly in this part of the world, move at a snail’s pace, the concerned officials of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry suddenly sat up three-long-years later, after a fairly successful run of the film, played havoc with the files, made them move from one ministry to the other and straightaway banned Neel Aksher Nichey. This was around the time when, following the growing tension over the border issues of two neighbouring countries –India and China –in the late 50s, the conflict turned violent in late 1962. Fortunately, the skirmish did not last long, and the thawing on relations started soon after. Theban was most probably imposed precisely at this point of time, with shelling at the border and the process of thawing in Delhi and Beijing. But the officials lost no time rushing into the situation with amazing zest and got totally confused about years offascist aggression in the mid-30s –which were the years depicted in the film –and the border conflict and the eventual thawing in 1963.It, however, did not take long to take up this ridiculous issue on the floor of the Indian parliament. Hiren Mukherjee, the Communist MP, made an appropriate speech in the presence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. They also got terribly annoyed with the official order and the ban was withdrawn immediately. It lasted only three months, perhaps the shortest ban like my father’s disbarmentin the early 30s.’
Mrinal Sen's second film and the first film from Hemanta Bela Productions, the company started by singer Hemanta Mukherjee and his wife Bela Mukherjee. Sen's first film, 'Raat Bhore' ('The Dawn',1955), starring Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chattopadhyay, is assumed to be lost.
The opening shot immediately sets the context of the film through the shot of the Sahid Minar in the heart of the city and the words 'Calcutta, 1930' over it. While the Nationalist movement is rapidly spreading across the country, the looming shadow of crisis in Europe and East Asia is also something that one must keep in mind. The immediate importance of the first shot is highlighted by the very next - the long-shot of a truck full of policemen on a raid for swadeshi activists in one of the many by-lanes of North Calcutta.
The children chanting a rhyme about the police and their batons underlines two things especially. This is perhaps a regular occurrence, and the nature of the rhyme, although unclear but concerning the police's baton, underlines the growing dissent with police and the authorities in nearly every social component. This is also one of the high points of the early phases of the Civil Disobedience Movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930. Violent protests started in Calcutta soon after Gandhi's arrest on 4-5 May 1930, as a consequence of the Salt March. The crowds shown running in panic in the long-shot are immediately counteracted by the children almost charging at the police; there stance is noticeably aggressive in the very next shot.
The protagonist Hwang Lu is first seen in a long-shot, in the midst of the police chasing the crowd. He is unsure about his whereabouts, and clearly afraid of the sudden eruption of violence. This idea that he is an oddity, especially in an urban space in flux, is what frames the film. The police realize quite obviously that he is a hapless passer-by and they let him go. This 'difference', both racial and political, is crucial for the film, given the rather broad allegorical nature of the narrative as we shall see.
Adapted from a short story by Mahadevi Verma, titled 'Chini Pheriwalah' ('The Chinese Hawker'), 'Neel Akasher Nichey' was not only commercially successful but was also widely appreciated by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who is said to have praised Sen for having done a great service to the nation. This is primarily because of the film's evocation of the platonic friendship between a Chinese man and a Bengali woman as an allegory for Nehru's Panchsheel (Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence) policy, first drafted in 1954. The popular rhetoric of 'Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai' that emerged as a result came to a crashing halt in the early 60s leading up to the the Sino-Indian War in 1962. This is around the same time when the film was inexplicably banned for two months, quite a few years after its release, fearing rising tension in the already fraught political milieu - though this is quite contrary to the generally fable-like nature of the narrative and its message of friendship and co-operation.
The sudden voice-over is accompanied by the camera panning across a panoramic view of the city, linking Hwang Lu's tale with the socio-political scenario in the 1930s. The unknown narratorial voice, beginning the story of this unknown Chinese immigrant, gives the narrative a fable-like quality. The voice-over will appear only once more in the film.
Hwang Lu has come to Calcutta, among the numerous migrant Chinese moving across the world for better opportunities, to sell silk. The Chinese man selling silk on the streets of Calcutta evokes associations of the centuries of trade and exchange in Asia along the Silk Route.
The notion of 'oddity' and 'difference' is heightened by the reaction Hwang Lu evokes on the streets of the city. The first instance is again the children who have another rhyme ready; for Hwang Lu this time.
The little girl's assertion that calling him a 'Chinaman' would evoke the anger of the gods who would turn everyone into a 'Chinaman' is obviously part of the many urban legends that existed in the popular imagination regarding the Chinese. Most of them, one must clarify, were meant to scare children away from taking up with strangers who were arriving in the city daily. At the same time, the assertion that the Chinese are not actually a race, but a sort of cursed appearance is something that can be read as one of the many forms of racism and xenophobia that constitute the urban metropolis and its body social.
Basanti, the female protagonist, who is an ardent Swadeshi activist. Her Swadeshi association is one of the major plot-points in the film. She is wearing a sari made of khadi, the hand-spun cotton material that became the pivotal symbol of the Swadeshi movement and its renunciation of foreign goods.
The Old Chinatown in Bow Bazar and Tiretta Bazar, where the first wave of Chinese immigrants from as far back as 1872, came and settled. Mainly of Cantonese origin, the area depicted has a ghetto-like quality which, along with the squalor and the obvious illegal elements, provides a glimpse of the lives of the immigrant population of the time.
This is highlighted by the conversation between the Bengali man and the little Chinese girl when the former asks her if the cigarettes she is buying are for herself. The Chinatown would be frequented by many men from the city, who would go in search of women and opium.
The shady restaurant above which Hwang Lu lives is also a front for an opium den and perhaps prostitute quarters. The clientele is a mix of Chinese youth and local men; the owner is a local too.
With Hwang Lu not having made any sales, he is unable to pay back the money he apparently already owes the owner of the restaurant and the latter refuses him food. Maki, the woman who manages the operations of the opium den, clearly has a soft-spot for Hwang Lu, apparent in her discomfort over how he is treated.
Maki has come to Hwang Lu's room late at night with food. Hwang knows that she runs the opium den and perhaps the brothel too and does not want anything to do with her. His accusations that she is a 'bad woman' thus stems from his fear that she will influence him into a getting involved with the illegal aspects of Chinatown. Maki, aware of this fear, takes advantage of it to tease Hwang Lu.
Hwang Lu sees the packet in Maki's hand and assumes that she has come to offer him opium.
He immediately realises that he had jumped to conclusions but is still forced to refuse the food out of pride. Maki, on her part, appears to be quite fond of Hwang Lu, alternately teasing and rebuking him. Hwang Lu's hesitation stems from disconnect between Maki's acts of kindness towards him and his beliefs about Maki's profession.
The poster is of a cosmetics company named 'Madhuri'. The poster deeply influences Hwang Lu as it seems to remind him of Basanti, prompting him to seek out her house again. The poster, in fact, recurs throughout the film, consistently as a symbolic referent for Basanti and the idealized image that Hwang has conceived of her.
Basanti's mother-in-law appears to be both supportive and wary of Basanti's swadeshi activities, making her a curious mix of opposites. The book she hides under the pillow is 'Pather Daabi' by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Published in 1926 the novel, which showcases the riotous socio-political atmosphere in Bengal during the freedom struggle, was banned in 1927 for 'preaching of sedition' and became somewhat of a handbook for the Swadeshi movement.
Hwang Lu, having sensed Basanti's kindness the other day, has made his way to her house to attempt to sell some silk to her. Basanti attempts to explain to him that she does not use foreign goods, as expected of a Swadeshi activist.
Hwang Lu's assertion that he is not a foreigner is startling in the way he defines who a foreigner is. The assertion establishes the foreigner as essentially British - fair with blue eyes - and since neither he nor Basanti have such features, Hwang Lu's assertion is mainly a way to convince her that she should not perceive him as English. This act of equating the English with the foreigner has numerous implications. It directly speaks to both the swadeshi movement's objectives and China's own struggles with resisting imperialism. More immediately, it also alludes to the Panchsheel ideal of peaceful coexistence between India and China by placing the two races in the same domain with the British rulers as the common 'other'.
Basanti's use of 'bhai'(brother) to address him is a colloquial use, quite prevalent in spoken Bangla. For Hwang Lu, however, the word brother has deeper connotations as we will soon see.
Deeply moved, Hwang Lu insists that Basanti take something from his collection. Basanti, unaware of how the word 'bhai' has affected him, attempts in vain to dissuade him.
The servant, Haran, displays far less tolerance of Hwang Lu. Indeed, his account of a Chinese hawker's modus operandi is another example of one of the many popular myths about the Chinese immigrants of the time. This one involves a fantastic story of how the hawkers buy gold tooth from their earnings and go back to their native land when the whole set of teeth is complete.
Unable to shake him off, and to avoid further problems, Basanti agrees to buy a tablecloth from him. This transaction would also be perceived as against the ideals of Swadeshi but it is justified by the narrative's thematic logic and the debate about who or what is foreign that we have just discussed.
Haran, surprisingly, undergoes an immediate change of mood when left alone with Hwang Lu. As mentioned before, the Old Chinatown would be associated with illegal opium dens, and the popular impression then would be that all Chinese hawkers seemingly trade in opium. Haran, under the same assumption, attempts to coax Hwang Lu into peddling him some. As we have already seen, Hwang Lu has been shown to have a deep aversion for such dealing.
Hwang Lu confesses to have been constantly mistreated by people in the city, who keeping chasing or threatening him away. We have seen instances of this in the various interactions he has had with people from both within and outside Chinatown. This is further highlighted by the comment: 'Me no fine, me Chinaman'. Though it is supposed to express something that is eventually lost in translation, the comment nonetheless remains deeply ironic in this context.
The shot of the poster had been there at the beginning of the sequence and that is how it ends too. He had seen the poster and remembered Basanti from the day before and his soft 'thank you' is an acknowledgement of that. It also leads up to a flashback and we learn the reason why he was so affected by Basanti addressing him as brother.
The flashback sequence begins with the unknown narratorial voice again, for the second and final time. Yet again, it re-evokes the fable-like quality with which the film had begun. The successive shots - of the mountain range and the valley shrouded in mist, the farmers, the village, the small hut where Hwang Lu used to live with his sister Aa Lang, and scenes from village life - present an idyllic, even pastoral, image of Hwang Lu's past life. This, along with the background score comprising of Chinese folk musical elements, reinforces the stark differences between Hwang Lu's past and his life in Calcutta.
At the same time, Aa Lang's encounter with the feudal lord has obvious parallels with very similar local forms of exploitation in the rural areas of India under the zamindari system. It serves to provide a sort of thematic bridge between the two distinct geographical and social spaces. In fact the entire chain of events, leading up to Aa Lang's rape by the feudal lord and Hwang Lu's brutal rejection of his sister afterwords, has numerous parallels with similar tropes in Indian literature and cinema. To heighten the fable-like nature of this flashback sequence, the authorial voice is the sole voice that is heard. The unknown narrator tells the story while simultaneously mimicking the speech of the characters.
The feudal lord begins to press Hwang Lu for the taxes the latter owes him. This is clearly a ploy to gain access to Aa Lang which he confirms when he suggests the girl come to his house and work in order to pay off the money they owe him..
Much like the scene of rape - rapid shots of the feudal lord, the statue of the dragon with the necklace hanging from its mouth, and the scream - Aa Lang's presumed suicide is also conveyed through a series of suggestive shots. A long shot of her walking along the river cuts to a shot of the river followed by quick close-ups of Hwang Lu's hand reaching for the money and necklace, and then his tear-soaked face.
Rajat Roy, Basanti's husband and a reputed barrister. His first words 'Paglami! Paglami!' ('This is madness! Madness!') immediately underlines his differences with his wife. While she is an active member of the swadeshi movement, he is seen deriding their methods as ineffectual against the 'martial' British powers, suggesting they form an underground military organisation instead. Rajat represents the quintessential bhadralok, a large section of whom were government employees; they were, if not entirely pro-British, still quite removed from the larger Nationalist movement.
Basanti's reply, that at least public meetings draw people unlike speeches given in drawing rooms such as this, underlines that this has been a long-standing debate for them even if it has not directly affected their relationship till now. In fact, the general mood of the gathering is of bonhomie, in stark contrast to the topic of the discussion at hand.
Intrigued by the paper wrapped around the handkerchiefs, Basanti asks to see them and realizes that it is a gift-note Hwang Lu has gotten for her. Despite her misgivings, she decides to take the gift but demands that he take some money for it.
Since Basanti is known to be a swadeshi activist, the Chinese silk handkerchiefs evoke immense surprise at home. The men, in fact, are quite clearly amused by what they perceive as a sudden fancy on her. This assumption will emerge as a crucial factor in Basanti and Rajat's relationship.
It is revealed that Hwang Lu had sought the help of the owner of the restaurant in Chinatown in writing the note to Basanti. Here, they are making fun of the fact by insinuating that there is a more personal interest he has in Basanti. While Hwang Lu attempts to assert that he regards her as his sister, the three men insist that whatever interest he might have in her, she will never reciprocate.
Maki comes and informs everyone about a sudden police visit in the area. As mentioned before, the restaurant is perhaps a front for an opium den. Opium, however, was not illegal until 1947 and there were many licensed opium dens in old Chinatown. The presence of the police could just be a routine incident though the reaction of the patrons does highlight the less than legal aspects of the region and their often strained interactions with the authorities.
Though said in jest, it is to be noted that her acceptance of Hwang Lu's gifts may appear to others as some sort of a compromise with her ideals. The assumption that that her compromise is because of Hwang Lu's earnest insistence will become crucial a few scenes later.
The scene draws a parallel with the previous one with Maki expressing similar concerns about Basanti's motives that Rajat has just expressed about Hwang Lu's. This is especially underlined by the repetition of the word 'calculating' by Maki, though not in the pejorative sense in which Rajat has just used it. In fact, these two scenes highlight how the people around Basanti and Hwang Lu have begun to perceive their relationship with deep skepticism.
Rajat, seeing that Basanti has accepted Hwang's gifts, decides to buy a silk saree for her. The scene was shot in the Hogg Market (now, New Market), an enclosed municipal market on Lindsey Street that first opened in 1874 (it was renamed Hogg Market in 1903 after Sir Stuart Hogg, the Chairman of the Calcutta Corporation). The place is historically significant because it had been built by the colonial powers mainly for the British residents of the city. A market-place for the upper-class and the elite of society at the time, it stands in direct opposition to the Swadeshi ideals of indigenous produce.
This contrast is further highlighted by the Swadeshi procession and chants of 'Bande Mataram' that Rajat encounters on his way back home from Hogg Market.
Rajat, in turn, is angered and offended by her refusal. He admits that he had assumed she would not turn him down if he insisted, a reference to what he had said to her while discussing Hwang Lu's gifts a few scenes earlier. For Rajat, Basanti's acceptance of Hwang Lu's gifts had been a crucial moment. He had perceived it as a sort of softening of her stance on some of her ideals. Thus her rejection of his gift brings forth the resentments he has been harboring, making him lash out at her.
As we had mentioned in the opening scene, Mahatma Gandhi had just been arrested and there was widespread violence in the city. Section 144 was an important tool to stop all nationalist protests during the Indian independence movement, and its use in independent India remains controversial. Basanti is presumedly speaking at one of the many Civil Disobedience meetings organized in the city and elsewhere in the country.
The fact that the two men from the crowd deduce that Hwang Lu is a spy has interesting connotations historically. In the context of 1930, his status as a part of the immigrant population that was gradually expanding the horizon of the city could be one of the reasons why he is perceived as a government spy. At the same time, in the context of when the film released in the late 1950s and the political milieu it inhabited, it is essential to also remember the fear and paranoia about the rise of communism or the radical left in the 1940s-1950s - popularly known as the Red Scare.
Hwang Lu, having spotted Basanti, has remained behind instead of fleeing with the others. The documents that Basanti takes with her could be information regarding their activities and their members, both of which would be valuable to the police.
A series of small shots of the pandemonium that ensues, the swadeshi activists with the flags of Purna Swaraj fighting with the police, people running, intercut with Hwang Lu choosing to remain behind after having spotted Basanti.
News of Basanti's arrest has reached home and Rajat and his mother are worried. Interestingly, Rajat's mother, initially complaining about Basanti's lack of interest in a woman's role in the family, is immediately mollified when she returns home. We have previously seen how she is supportive of her daughter-in-law despite her unease with the cause and dangers it involves.
The revelation that Basanti's father too had been a freedom fighter and had been shot dead by the police provides an insight into Basanti's staunch adherence and belief in the Swadeshi cause.
The police have presumably come in search of someone who has taken shelter in Kallu's restaurant. The latter's claim that he would allow no such thing is laced with irony - in all possibility he is the one who has provided the fugitive shelter.
One of the chief reasons why the film is remembered to this day is Hemanta Mukherjee's seminal soundtrack and his iconic song 'O Nadi Re' ('O River'). Both Indian tunes and elements of Chinese folk music have been used throughout the film to heighten the notion of unity between the two cultures that forms the core of the narrative. The song, especially, encapsulates this very aspect.
The song is addressed to the river Ganga, asking where it belongs and why it never ceases its perpetual journey. It is also symbolic of Hwang Lu's own ceaseless journey as he constantly seeks to put distance between himself and his memories of home and Aa Lang.
The second stanza especially refers to Hwang Lu's lack of a sense of belonging anywhere. The song functions on two levels. While the ceaseless motion of the river is compared to Hwang Lu's own tiring journey, the river itself works as a metaphorical bridge that connects Hwang Lu's past and present. Irrespective of frontiers, it also simultaneously links Santung and Calcutta within a matrix of shared history and pain.
This idea of the river as a metaphorical bridge between the two cultures culminates in a visual transformation of the riverscape itself; the scene cuts to a series of shots of a river in China with fishing boats and fishermen at work.
Rajat has already expressed his displeasure over Basanti's interaction with Hwang Lu. A series of incidents have come to pass till now - Basanti's refusal of his gift, their fight, her arrest. This, coupled with the friend's snide comment, propels him to insult Hwang Lu and throw him out.
A shot of the symbolic poster of 'Madhuri'; it serves to heighten the melancholy tone of the scene after Hwang Lu is insulted in front of Basanti.
Basanti's mother-in-law attempts to broker peace between the couple. The reference to her Swadeshi work underlines the tension that is ever-present in the family regarding Basanti's life as a freedom fighter.
In many ways, Hwang has acted as a catalyst in the couple confronting the issues that have perhaps plagued their marriage always. Despite their support, Rajat has already displayed his unease with her Swadeshi activities and his irritation with Hwang Lu propels him into voicing his complaints and resentments. His angry comment that she convince Hwang to join their cause reveals that the primary reason behind his ire is not just their relationship but her work as well.
Scenes from the Chinese New year celebrations, with traditional processions and dragon dances; still celebrated in the end of January or early February in the Old Chinatown and Tangra (New Chinatown) area of present-day Kolkata. Contrary to the festive mood of the day, Hwang, deeply hurt by the incident at Basanti's house, is not taking part in the celebrations. Shots of Hwang within the confines of his shack intercut with scenes of dancing and revelry on the streets.
The reference to his family back in China immediately evokes memories of Aa Lang. This is especially symbolic because of how he has come to regard Basanti as his sister.
The resentment festering between the couple comes to the fore over Hwang Lu. As mentioned before, Rajat's primary complaint has perhaps been regarding Basanti's revolutionary activities and here he explicitly states that he had never entirely felt supportive of her choices. The tense nature of the scene is heightened by a series of shots-reverse shots of Rajat and Basanti, intercut with Hwang Lu overhearing their conversation.
Hwang has left the gift behind and it is a khadi sari and not the silk he usually deals in, foregrounding what Hwang had already asserted - that he had come there only to give his sister a gift.
The scene immediately cuts to the 'Madhuri' poster. A man is seen blackening the face of the poster, a usual practice of the time when a poster was meant to be discontinued or replaced. The image is deeply symbolic, foregrounding both the loss of the ideal that Hwang Lu had created around the poster and Basanti and the fact that he can no longer continue seeing her for fear of continuously upsetting her family.
The second of the two songs from the film, also sung by composer Hemanta Mukherjee. The song is also titled 'Neel Akasher Nichey'.
A Chinese temple, where Hwang goes to pray, one of the many that were present in and around Tiretta Bazar in the old Chinatown.
The song evokes images of night, sorrow and tears, foregrounding Hwang's anguish. The scenes in the temple are intercut with shots of Hwang's tear-soaked face as he sits and prays.
This is accompanied by shots of the empty city, gloomy and misty, with its dark deserted roads and alleys. The song makes constant references to loneliness, especially in the images of the vast blue sky and the earth that envelop this world. This notion of loneliness is associated also with Hwang's state of mind, especially his lonely life as an immigrant in an unknown city.
In fact, the city is crucial to Mrinal Sen's oeuvre, becoming a recurrent motif in his later career. Here, we see images of the city at night shrouded in a sense of foreboding, unforgiving to strangers like Hwang. The song repeatedly talks about shared histories of pain and suffering, a sort of manifesto for numerous people like Hwang who spend their lives in the peripheries of such urban spaces, neither at home nor able to leave. A lonely, depressed Hwang, walking through the city, is a potent symbol of loneliness and desolation in the unforgiving pre-War, colonial Calcutta.
This notion of sorrow and loneliness culminates in the very next scene where we see Hwang lying on his bed crying. Foregrounding the idea of the shared nature of such suffering and pain as the song that just enunciated, Maki is unable to offer him any sort of platitude and quietly leaves.
Rajat too is angry that Basanti has gone to visit Hwang Lu. Rajat's mother, despite her own misgivings, is very clear in her stand regarding the behaviour Hwang Lu has had to face at their home the day before and she rebukes Rajat for it.
Chatawalla Galli, near Tiretta Bazar, part of the old Chinatown.
In many ways, the confrontation between Basanti and Maki is central to the film. They both form two crucial aspects of Hwang's life on the streets of Calcutta - while Basanti is the ideal where he seems to identify the home he had left behind after his sister's death, Maki is the one who is closer to his social space but whom he despises because of her profession despite her kindness and obvious fondness for him. Their confrontation, in many ways, is a confrontation between two worlds, one Hwang inhabits and the other he idealizes.
An interesting aspect of Hwang and Basanti's relationship is the absence of a common language between them. This factor, though not exclusively visible in the film, nevertheless is foundational to the idea of friendship across diversity and difference that forms the crux of the narrative.
While trying to explain possible reasons for Rajat's dislike of him Hwang, attempting to say 'garib' (poor), says 'garibi' (poverty) instead. This difference between the adjective and the noun encapsulates larger notions of difference across class and ethnic lines, notions that contribute to the everyday experiences of the big city for the immigrant community.
Hwang has constantly rejected Maki because she is a 'bad woman'. The explanation that Maki may have chosen such a path after having fallen victim to circumstances, resonates with him at a deeply personal level. Basanti's explanation immediately compels him to compare Maki's presumed misfortunes with that of his sister Aa Lang and her encounter with the feudal lord. Interestingly, what one cannot ignore is that in both these circumstances, be it Maki or Aa Lang, Hwang himself has been as complicit in perpetuating prejudice and exclusion.
The flashback sequence to Santung; the voice-over is absent this time perhaps because this is no longer just a memory but something Hwang is relating to Basanti.
The flasback too is brought back a little differently. Unlike the first time, the scene at the feudal lord's house cuts to shots of Hwang out in search of his sister by the river. This last sequence had not been revealed before; it replaces the extended scene in the first flashback where Hwang had asked his sister to leave. The only voice in the sequence is that of Hwang calling out to his sister (voice-over by Hemanta Chatterjee).
Basanti relates Hwang Lu's story to Rajat. While the scene suggests that Rajat too is ashamed and repentant after having heard everything, before he can say anything they are interrupted by the knocking.
Hwang Lu's revelations, and perhaps Basanti's imminent arrest too, have somehow managed to help the couple resolve their differences. When Rajat agrees to pass on information to another Swadeshi activist after her arrest, he does it with a sense of firm resolve that had hitherto been absent in him regarding the freedom struggle and Basanti's role in it.
The Presidency jail; the Salt Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi's arrest and the violence in Calcutta and elsewhere had prompted the British to ban the Congress and other allied organisations in 1932, and allow the arrest of hundreds of activists. About four years pass and we see that Hwang Lu has been constantly visiting the jail hoping perhaps to catch a glimpse of Basanti.
Japan's attack on China and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War that would eventually merge with the World War II in 1941. Superimposed shots of war footage and close-up of Hwang Lu's throubled face.
Nanking, where some of the worst atrocities of the Sino-Japanese War were committed, also know as the Nanking Massacre.
A newspaper article and news footage of call-to-arms that had been issued by China to all expatriates to come and join the war against Japan. Unlike Japan, China had been unprepared for total war and had little military-industrial strength, no mechanized divisions, and few armoured forces. Up until the mid-1930s China had hoped that the League of Nations would provide countermeasures to Japan's aggression.
News of the war having reached Santung, Hwang's native place.
While it is never explicitly mentioned, Basanti's illness and her comment about going through a lot in jail, carries a subtle reference to the torture that many political prisoners and freedom fighters faced at that time after the banning of the Congress.
Hwang has given up his life as a hawker and has decided to answer the call-to-arms from his homeland to go and join the war. The decision evokes interesting parallels with Basanti's own dedication to the Swadeshi cause - in fact, Hwang admits that she has been an inspiration regarding his decision to fight for his country. The fact that now he has more in common with her than ever before - historically, socially and politically - is a firm and not-so-subtle affirmation of the ideals of Panchsheel and the ties between India and China.
Hwang gives Aa Lang's locket to Basanti; it serves as a final acknowledgement of their relationship. While Aa Lang's disappearance had caused Hwang to leave home, Basanti has inspired him to return.
The day of Hwang's departure; numerous Chinese immigrants are seen leaving to go join the war against Japan.
Basanti has come to see Hwang off and tie him a 'rakhi' for his well-being. The 'rakhi' is a potent symbol that ties up the narrative of the film. The 'rakhi' has always been considered a sign of a sister's love for her brother and her desire to see him safe. With Hwang Lu leaving for war, Basanti tying him a 'rakhi' is an affirmation of their relationship. At the same time, socio-politically, 'rakhi' has long been seen as a symbol of fraternity and peace. In Bengal, incidents surrounding the events of the 1905 Partition, and Rabindranath Tagore consequently organizing a mass 'rakhsha bandhan' among the Hindus and the Muslims, have always informed the popular consciousness. In keeping with the notions of fealty, co-operation and fraternity between India and China as espoused by the Panchsheel, the 'rakhi' sequence is firmly entrenched within the didactic logic that informs the narrative of the film.