Filmmakers are often confronted with the dilemma on whether to move ahead in the new digital era with their personal ideas or to remain with an idiom that game changers would consider dated but which could still evoke the spirit of a new experience.
Manas Mukul Pal belongs to the second category that believes that the best way of touching hearts is to tell stories of life with which everyone is familiar but which can be presented with subtle adjustments and strikingly refreshing insights.
Sahaj Paather Gappo rises to extraordinary heights on the strength of its solid fundamentals. First and foremost, it is the skill with which the director has managed to adapt the Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay story with the contemporary polish that makes the film an automatic choice for discerning viewers. Second, it confirms the arrival of a director with enormous potential on account of the capacity to visually explore the possibilities of the short story and the superb handling of the cast.
At the heart of this experience are two children who, with natural innocence and an amazing sense of self-confidence, mirror the multi-layered nuances of rural Bengal. The biggest lesson for young debutants would be that the natural environment holds the artistic inputs, which can be chiselled with appropriate craftsmanship and required sensibilities to produce a fresh canvas. Telling the story on the screen with an abiding sense of simplicity to convey the complexities of the text is an achievement in itself.
The film is a major surprise because the director has done this after emerging from the shadows, as it were, without the marketing drive that is now considered essential for commercial success. Whatever the final results, the film shines on its content and treatment. It pulls the story out of the pages of the book, gives it the visual touches and contributes a fair amount of spontaneous humanism to make it a convincing cinematic statement.
At the very root of the effort are little touches that make the two child actors — brothers revelling in their innocence amid the poverty that is an inescapable fact of life — amazingly authentic, assured and adorable. The film captures the rural environment with its charming shades and, at the same time, the stark disparities in the social structure. An enlightened audience would inevitably be reminded of Pather Panchali — the elder brother revealing the mature sensibilities and understanding of the realities of life which are missing in the younger sibling. The director is conscious of the danger of straying into the cinematic territory that has been immortalised by the master of Indian cinema.
To that extent, the visual devices have faint echoes of the epic but sustain a power of their own. Scenes like the rain and the infectious joy that is part of their innocence link the film to a common heritage. But the director clearly leaves a stamp of his own with details like the diction rooted to a particular area contributing to the overall mood. On the whole, the story sustains a natural flow but with sharp and refreshing images of rural life drawn from Bengal’s feudal past that help it to survive with unmistakable humanism and unfailing warmth.
The focus, naturally, is on the two children who display a delightful sense of natural freedom but with expressions that have been added without the slightest hint of an external hand at work. At one level is the harsh impression of a social system that compels youngsters who have barely stepped into their teens to go out in desperate search of livelihood for their families. At another level is the inspiring picture of children thrown into a vicious cycle of injustice and neglect — with no signs of change in the social structure — but still drawing the best out of the world around them. Again the echoes from the Ray epic, drawn from the same author, are heard more than six decades later. They generate the same warmth but with an idiom that Manas Mukul Pal can confidently claim to be his own.
What can, however, be said about Sahaj Paather Gappo is that the restricted milieu and the concentration on a specific chain of events hold the film from acquiring the universal strength and relevance that the rural canvas may have acquired. But the modest ambitions cannot be held against an effort that is otherwise unusually sensitive. The characters, apart from the children, like the mother, villagers and the members of the feudal household are rooted to their immediate surroundings.
They produce the desired vibes and become instantly relevant but may not go on to become social icons. That does not take away from what the director offers on a restricted canvas. It is the integrity, spontaneity, natural inspiration and organic handling of the rural experience as a whole that make the work strikingly different and stand out with exciting indications of the potential the remains to be explored.
If it finds a larger audience that would discover a slice of emotional attachment to rural Bengal, it would be a bonus well deserved. In any case, it will be remembered for some of its striking images of innocence — and the lasting impression of wisdom and warmth.