Shadows and Sunlight: Chhaya Surya, Remembering a Forgotten Classic

(Readers’ submissions: Celebrating one year of the Indigenous Blog)


By Piali Bose

Chhaya Surya (1963), (pronouncedChayasurjyo ) – a Bengali film based on a short story by the famous litterateur Ashapurna Devi, is a poignant tale of a girl who is ostracized by her own family because of her dark complexion and her unconventional ways of living. From the very beginning of the film, this preferential treatment is seen – at birth, the two daughters of a Bengali middle-class family are named after flowers, but the younger is called, Ghentu and the older, Mallika. Ghentu – the name of a flower that grows purposelessly in the wildernesses. The young Ghentu is rebuked, ill-treated by her own mother who cannot cope with the constant chides by other family members about her ways. The boundaries of a girl child are set in the family, and while Mallika adheres to those conventions, Ghentu whiles away her time with the boys playing marbles, cricket, carrom, and sundry. Ghentu is a free spirit and confinement suffocates her. She thus grows up in a household where Mallika is the apple of everyone’s eyes, excelling in studies and other artistic pursuits; while Ghentu neither has her looks nor her talent, thereby possessing no prospects of marriage. Her only shelter is her chhotka (uncle), a writer by profession who is a  kindred heart and finds novelty in all her creations and thoughts.

Ghentu’s approach towards life, however, is not in suffering silently or complaining about her predicament. Instead, she believes in sticking to her ways and finding happiness within. She is selfless in her deeds and holds no animosity towards anybody, something which, besides her uncle, not many notice. She understands that complying with societal diktats would curb her independent thoughts and she would not prefer to be confined in a world where one has to accept certain norms to be appreciated and loved. Thus, Ghentu remains wayward, dresses ordinarily, and identifies with the world of the have nots.

The film has a soundtrack that is path-breaking in its own way. V. Balsara, the iconic composer plays around with the lilting tune of Tagore’s ‘Esho Esho Amar Ghore Esho’  (sung by Hemanta Mukherjee) and makes a haunting melody out of it, which serves as Ghentu’s theme, and like Ghentu herself,  becomes intrinsic to the storyline. The recurring theme music trails with Ghentu’s thoughts and finds words for the first time when she discovers love, in an unemployed young man who accepts her the way she is. However, just like the protagonist’s irrelevance in society, the director, too, chooses to hide him in anonymity – he remains nameless and faceless until the very end. The particular use of the theme resembles Hemanta Mukherjee’s usage of the iconic tune of Dwip Jele Jai (1959), another landmark Bengali film, which too had a recurring background theme (‘Ei raat tomar amar‘, later remade into Hindi as Khamoshi with the song ‘Yeh nayan dare dare‘) and also kept the identity of the male protagonist anonymous. This usage seems like V. Balsara’s tribute to Hemanta Mukherjee, his friend and mentor.

Like any of Ashapurna Devi’s creations, Chhaya Surya is also rooted in honesty. Her stories were courageous enough to question and draw attention to a lot of social injustices, especially towards women. While voicing the dreams, sorrows, and heartaches of women, her writings were never biased against men, but took the reader through a journey. These journeys transcended time and shed light on human shortcomings and celebrations, on tragedies as well as triumphs. The screenplay by the director himself not only does justice to the short story but also adds new dimensions to the storyline.

Ghentu confides in her chotka, who lends a sympathetic ear to her inner turmoil and train of thought. They become more like friends, and finally, one day she tells him about the special man in her life. She dreams of marriage, a home, a husband, and a life of love and respect. She wonders for the first time, if she too could have a beautiful name like her sister, who had turned out to be an erudite woman and had received a marriage proposal from a Glasgow-returned engineer.

Ghentu is happy for her sister, but she harbours her own dream to elope and settle down as soon as her man lands a job for himself. She knows her family will not accept the match as he is an orphan without a pedigree, but her immense faith in his love and earnestness makes her believe that with his B.A. degree, he shall soon get a job.

Fate, however, has other plans for Ghentu. On the day of her sister’s marriage, some money gets stolen. While everyone searches in vain, Ghentu enters the house, disheveled and out-of-sorts with some dry rajnigandha flowers in her hand. She admits to having stolen the money and justifies her action by saying that taking away a mere hundred rupees doesn’t matter when thousands were being spent on her sister’s marriage. The family is stunned at her admission. Her mother, furious, hits her in shame and disgust, while Ghentu remains stoic.   

Asked by her chotka once more in his room, she admits that she had taken the money for a certain purpose. The man she loved had passed away and the money was needed to perform his last rites.

Director Partha Pratim’s Choudhry’s brilliant treatment of the movie is equally, if not more, matched by the performances by the cast, especially by the young Ghentu (little Meeta) as well as the adult Ghentu (Sharmila Tagore, in one of the most deglamorized roles of her career). The subtle nuances of pain, joy anxiety, and suffering are beautifully portrayed through her expressive eyes. That Sharmila was chosen and she opted to act in this role after Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar speaks volumes about a director’s vision as well as an actor’s passion for portraying an offbeat character. Chhaya Surya remains a hidden gem in her vast repertoire of acting talent.

Director Partho Pratim Choudhury was also a dramatist, cinematographer, actor, and scriptwriter. He was sublime with his creative direction in iconic films like Hongsho Mithun, Palonko, Jatugriho, and more. He even cast Uttam Kumar in the unconventional role of Ghanada, later in the 70s. Directors like Partho Pratim Choudhury never got their due recognition, although they were avant-garde in their own rights.

Revisiting these films makes one wonder if Bengali filmmaking will again be helmed by visionary directors who will amalgamate a wonderful storyline with intelligent casting and soul-searching melodies. One can only hope!

Piali Bose holds an M.A in Economics and a PG diploma in Mass communications from Jadavpur University. After two decades of career in both India and Japan, she launched her flagship creative venture ‘Satrangi’ to pursue her passion for languages as well as the performance and creative arts. She is now a Designer, Curator, Writer, and Communicator.

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