The Aftermath of a Crisis- Subarnarekha During a Pandemic

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

By Param Raval

One of the first dialogues in Subarnarekha is Sita asking Haraprasad, “When we left the village you said we were going to our new home,” following that up with “if this is our new home then why is there so much fighting here?”. With this, Ghatak sets the tone of the film — the desperate promises of hope in a land of hopelessness and the anxiety that follows, contrasted by the hopeful, unquenchable desire to strive for a better life, for a better home. “Subarnarekha” refers to the river of that name (translating to ‘golden line’) which runs through the (now) state of Jharkhand into West Bengal in East India.

Subarnarekha begins with a lower-middle-class family living in a bustee on the outskirts of Calcutta immediately following Partition. This bustee is a camp, called “New Life Colony,” for refugees from East Bengal. The narrative focuses on Sita, whose mother and father were killed during Partition, and who is being raised by her elder brother, Ishwar. Ishwar has also taken in a poor, low-caste boy named Abhiram. They move to the Bengali countryside for a fresh start when Ishwar gets a job as an assistant manager in an iron foundry. Sita spends her life caring for her unmarried brother, until she grows into a young woman and falls in love with Abhiram. Ishwar is determined to find a proper high-caste Hindu husband for Sita and demands that she never see Abhiram again. Ishwar proceeds to arrange Sita’s marriage, yet Sita, resolved to marry Abhiram, escapes with him to Calcutta on her wedding night. (from Jumpcut)

Sita’s fate is tragic, to say the least. But Ghatak’s primary motivation behind this film seems not to be discovering human connections or relationships in the backdrop of tragedy but creating a theme out of the tragedy itself. Themes of belonging, security, hope & future, freedom, and societal blockades are only a few of the many that this incredible movie captures with great finesse. And on a larger scale, there is a looming sense of betrayal towards the forces that caused this (for some it is the government and for some, fate) and the resulting loneliness. Being centered around a refugee crisis is an embodiment of these emotions. And we see the characters harbour these debilitating feelings and attempt to build a new normal out of it within the tight constructs of a traditional society.

These are not scenes taken directly from the humanitarian crisis of the Partition itself but from the aftermath of it. The Partition, being largely spontaneous and grossly mismanaged, led to violent confrontations that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced several millions more. However, the aftermath was a harder, longer, and hard-won (if at all) personal battle for most people. A great migrant crisis, full of people finding themselves at a sudden loss of identity and community on top of losing their land, neighbours, and belongings. However, to reconstruct, a place in society and a grassroots community is the least one could expect to start with. And that’s what Ghatak chooses to open Subernarekha with. The establishment of a makeshift school in a refugee settlement. Despite the people, including the young Sita, wishing for communal peace and harmony in their new home, as a society plagued by itself, disruption follows regularly when lower caste minorities are regularly set apart, and accosted and chased out of the village — often violently. In the very first interaction of the film, we see a hopeful Haraprasad consoling Sita that the violence will pass and there will be peace soon. And that the people are willing to fight for it until they get it (not sure if Ghatak intended the irony here). Yet, Ghatak doesn’t flinch when bluntly telling us at the end how hollow and false these consolations and hopes of peace really are for some. It seems that it is this atmosphere of utter hopelessness that circles back from the beginning to the end and everything in between is just an unfortunate happenstance of one family. One of many more.

A bleak yet jarringly valid parallel can be drawn between this and the current disaster that India fights; perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis since the Partition. As the streets in front of hospitals and COVID-19 centres fill with unbearable despair and hopelessness, one can only wish for it to pass. This too shall pass, say some of the more optimistic ones. However, the crisis begs the question: What happens once this passes? What happens after the trauma and the grief hits the community as soon as they take a breath of relief from fighting an active crisis? How does a working-class family, a community, a society (let alone the entire nation) recover from this mentally and socially?

Ghatak’s answer to the trauma of the Partition was making a (accidental) trilogy about it around 13 years after the tragedy, saying that it still lives among us and will continue to for another generation. In the 21st century, as life becomes faster, room for emotion shrinks, and the world moves on without us, it is a devastating thought that we may never recover from this, at least in our lifetime. Some of us have the privilege of living in blissful ignorance, or at least the good fortune to do so. Despite not getting out of the house and not seeing the horrors in person, one can only helplessly imagine and empathize with those who’ll have to probably live with this for the rest of their lives — may that be someone losing their family or a frontline worker witnessing patients die by the dozen each day. The loss is immeasurable not just in statistics but also in time. If Ghatak believes that the direct repercussions of the Partition can be felt in personal lives 15 years later, what is to say about the present crisis? Seeing a parent or a sibling for the last time over a virtual funeral or watching them die in the back seat of your car while gasping for air. And even in cases less tragic than such, who can ever live the same mentally after scouring all the hospitals of the city asking for the same thing for your loved one for which hundreds more like you are desperate.

In dark, hellish times like these, pointing out the endless despair inherent in a humanitarian crisis of such proportions, might not be the ideal message to send out. However, by pointing out the heartbreaking despair in a debilitating story, even Ghatak faced heated deliberations with his critics who accused him of selling unnecessary despair. He penned an essay to respond to these accusations where he points out why his vision was being misconstrued— with “sensitivity” being the keyword there.

I don’t understand this business of decadence. And I have no desire to be an artist of “decadence.” There was not the slightest intention in my mind to profess “despair.” What I felt and wanted to tell through my film is the story of the present economic, political, and social crises in Bengal. I have tried to capture the great crisis that, in the years between 1948 and 1962, has come to take on monstrous proportions. The first casualty of that is our sensitivity. It has been gradually benumbed; and I wanted to strike at that.

(‘On Subarnarekha’, Ritwik Ghatak. Translated by Moinak Biswas)

For Ghatak, the film is not about a refugee crisis in a specific time, place, or community. And as he says in the essay, the story too is just a bare structure, a vehicle, to get the point across. This gives a universality to the theme and the specifics of the story are mere means to the ends. 

He tries to ground the film’s specifics around Bengal and a longing for the pre-Partition, culturally rich, and ‘alive’ Bengal. His characters are rendered homeless and removed of identity around the river Subarnarekha which flows like a golden ray of hope for the future — a future like the olden times for which they long desperately.

Home is where the family is. But Ishwar is not fortunate enough to have even that home as Sita and Abhiram, the only real family he has, both leave him. This departure, while not being a direct result of the hellish state in which migrants like him were left, is the result of Ishwar’s inability to fight off his own demons on top of societal ones. He succumbs under pressure from his community and workplace to adhere to bigoted casteism, and drives his beloved, adopted son away from him. Ishwar’s demons consume him soon after he forces Sita into marriage which drives her away as well. The only home he ever had crumbles rapidly and he is left only with a job and a “place” in society, albeit with his hollowed, decrepit self.

Clearly, it is not just the government or political authorities that Ghatak unleashes his subdued fury on; it is onto a class of civilians as well. A social class that enabled the ideologies and nurtured the conditions that led to the crisis in the first place. However, just like a lot of his filmography and unlike his contemporaries like Mrinal Sen, his work is devoid of any stark political stance. The social criticism remains subtle, but powerful and ubiquitous with allusions in the theme and especially the characters. Similarly, Subarnarekha is just a way of presenting a terrible crisis that directly haunted those regions and the generations of families there for decades and indirectly haunts the entire nation even today.

Just like that, how can a nation — rich with cultural and social diversity — crumbling under sectarianism and a dogma arising from vile, manipulative, and disgusting political tactics, on top of a ravaging pandemic ever recover emotionally and ideologically. Of course, the economy will climb back, trade will return and so will jobs. So what? Is that all that we need to recover from?

The ending scenes from Subarnarekha— where Ishwar, now jobless and homeless, walks along the banks of Subarnarekha with his grandson, can provide two contrasting interpretations. As Binu (Sita’s son) walks along the river and talks about how excited he is to go live in his new home in the mountains near the river we might feel that the end is near and the future is hopeful with a new generation who did not go through the despair that Ishwar’s and Sita’s generation did. Born during or after the tragedy, Binu’s excitement gives a vicarious hope that recovery indeed is just around the corner.

However, a second interpretation could also be that of hopelessness as a desolated Ishwar promises his grandson a home and, thus, a future — the existence of which is uncertain even for him. This uncertain promise is reminiscent of the hope Sita was given when she was Binu’s age. The hope for a new home among the mountains, next to the river, with all kinds of beauty around it. And given Sita’s tragedy in the film witnessed by Ishwar, he looks on as Binu has the same ideas and hope as his mother. This gives a sense of dread that the waves of the crisis might pass down generations and there is no way out. Ishwar who lost everything (once again) has no clear path to recovery ahead of him and all he can hope for now is a better future for his grandson. A future which he, again, has no reason to have hope for.

Param Raval is an engineer from Ahmedabad who loves appreciating cinema,  reading up on philosophy and social issues, and endlessly rewatching his favourite films and shows. When free, he expresses his passion (especially for Indian films) on his blog, Paradise Cinema

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