The clock chimed the midnight hour and, strategically enough, “Partition” was forced down our throats, a shame that no one has been able to accurately describe in what would pass as a modest facade. This uncertain border between two countries gave rise to a separate entity called “refugees”, severed limbs populating a tribe known as the geo-politically displaced.
The universality of the term “border”, which plays a significant role in constructing “nostalgia”, has made it a popular subject among artists and thinkers who have striven to strike a chord between looking at the reality looked at through various mediums. Cinema has been quite generous with its attention to border-related issues and, in the South Asian context, this chapter on partition discourses would not be complete without mention of that one director for whom Partition ceased to be just another cinematic theme – rather, it always was the lingering wound, thereby constructing the man he was. Ritwik Ghatak was one of the first who made an attempt to use the border crisis as a major theme with a distinctly artistic yet realistic mode of cinematic expression. At the heart of almost every Ghatak film was inculcated the image of a woman. He never referred to his place of belonging or longing as the Fatherland. Women, upright and proud, sometimes stirred by a cause, sometimes by helplessness, were always his main protagonists.
By conservative estimates, anywhere upward of half a million lost their lives due the fateful event of 1947 when a certain someone decided to draw the Radcliffe line. Over 70,000 women were raped and about 12 million people fled their homes. Nemai Ghosh&’s Chinnamul looked at the partition issue very closely while Ghatak&’s works mostly centred on nostalgia and how the refugees yearned for their pre-partition life. Both the directors, Ghatak mainly, had worked intricately on showing the plight of the marginal among marginalised women who are inevitably always the worst sufferers of any tragedy – only, theirs is a history forgotten. But amazingly enough, none of the great directors that Bengal produced ever focused on the most marginal among the marginalised, the prostitutes, till Srijit Mukherji dared to take up the subject in his recent rendering, Rajkahini. As an element of fiction, the life of a prostitute, if seen from the other end of the telescope, has always struck a chord with story-tellers and viewers alike. Films like Mandi, Chandi Bar, Subarnarekha, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan, Utsav and Taan, though controversial at times, have impressed mostly because the primary stimulating aspect of human life is sexuality. The films were well-received by a society that still considered sex a taboo, to be discussed in secret chambers or cherished in the dark recesses of the heart.
Mukherji breaks those barriers and presents his version of Partition. His characters are proud prostitutes and their motherland is their whorehouse. The story revolves around a brothel headed by Begum Jaan (Rituparna Sengupta, giving her career best performance), the matriarch who is ruthless and loving towards her 13 girls. As the credits start rolling, we see a Muslim frantically looking for his daughter in one of the refugee camps. The doctor informs him that the girl had been dumped by seven men the night before but she was alive.
A stoic Fatima (Riddhima Ghosh), hiding her shame beneath her robes, only responds when the doctor shouts “khol” to his attendant, which she thinks are the cries of monstrous ecstasy from one of her rapists. Mukherji excels in characterisation and each of them is so well-etched that they rightly inspire fear, loathing and respect. Saswata and Koushik Sen as Mr Sen and Illias, the engineers of partition, do an excellent job. Jisshu as Kabir is deliciously devilish. The struggle to save the house from being partitioned churns out the finest acting from Rituparna, as having tortured her tonsils to get that authoritative voice, she declares, “There is no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, upper-caste, lower caste in a whorehouse,” and in an instant tears apart the pretentious masks of decency donned by the apparently respectable.
Boasting alluring cinematography, the film captures life unawares where whores accept kisses with secret disdain, don’t repel the hands trying to undress them, sometimes disrobing with practiced hands and with no awkwardness, the task over the body is finished with cash in hands and a silent tear for a loved one.
Nevertheless, the film still fails to justify the main point. There&’s a forced attempt to make one feel overwhelmed right from the beginning. The director&’s preoccupation with the character of Begum Jaan ignores screen space to all the other women. Ena Saha doesn’t have a single dialogue in the film and it seems that she was only there to pick up a gun at the end. The characters were believing till the point they were inhuman. A feeling Kabir and a crying Sen at the end spoil the script, as it is a forgone conclusion that one man wanting to uproot them and the other to savour them wouldn’t be moved by their deaths, irrespective of the glory this might entail. Because history has it that Partition threw up numerous women for rape.
The camera work is amateurish with random cuts and the director employing zoom in/zoom out techniques. There&’s no single long shot in the film, even though the sequence badly needed this. What Mukherji failed to realise is that showing prostitutes and arming them with guns does not make it a feminist film. He falls into the clichéd trap with the unnecessary display of bare backs and a half-baked random lesbian scene that in no way justify the trauma of partition.
Interestingly a “renewed patriotism” has been generated among modern “new wave” Bengalis by an equally “new wave” director who loses steam somewhere. As for prostitutes or partition, “it will never be known how this has to be told using the first person or the second”, by men or by women. It&’s so subtle that it is difficult to achieve the sort of chord that Ghatak touched without being unnecessarily overwhelming.