This mottled dawn
This night-bitten morning
No, this is not the morning
We had set out in search of
- Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Aravindan's Vasthuhara (The Dispossessed) is about migration and displacement at various levels, historical and cultural, material and emotional. Two strands of the narrative, representing different kinds of migration and displacement, work their way through the film. One is the result of history, the independence of India and Pakistan and the consequent partition of the country to cull two nations out of one. This rending apart of a geography of collective memories and common past/history resulted in the sundering of a community, its ways of life, livelihood and continuity. At that level the film deals with the refugees, the dispossessed, the garbage of history or the ones who were left behind in a no man's land. And the refugee officer Venu (Mohanlal), the representative of the Indian nation/state is there to relocate them in Andaman Islands. It is an initiative that comes after a lapse of more than three decades, that is, in 1971. Ironically, it is the same year in which another Indo-Pak war resulted in the death, dispossession and destitution of thousands of people and to yet another wave of refugees.
If these are forced migrations arising out of hatred, violence and accidents of history, at another level, the film deals with a different kind of migration and displacement. It is migration in search of livelihood. Venu, the refugee officer, is from Kerala, who is in West Bengal (which is in Eastern India) on duty. He is forced to live away from the land of his birth due to professional reasons. His relation with his past, land and culture is also an uneasy one. In Calcutta, he tries to relate to the Keralite community there. In almost all the scenes of the Keralite community in Bengal, we find them talking about the uneasy relationship between the two cultures, which is a relationship of love and hate, admiration and indifference, choice and compulsion.
These two realms, personal and impersonal, empirical and historical coalesce when Venu meets his own long lost aunt and later her family. He meets them by accident when his aunt Aarti (Nilanjana Mitra), a refugee, comes to meet him in his official capacity to seek some opening in the Andamans. This meeting leads to the moment of recognition, which drives Venu back to his native land. This return, possible only for a migrant like him who has left his land for livelihood or as part of his profession, brings him face to face with his family whose legacy is one that replicates the legacy of hatred and greed of the nation. The vile interests behind dispossession run similar courses from the micro/individual level to the national level.
A story of love betrayal unfolds before us as flashes of his memory. His uncles, Kunjunni and Ananthan, both are infatuated with the beautiful Bhavani, who in the arrogance of her youth and beauty, keep both of them on tender hooks, an unrequited love that results in the suicide of one and the departure of the other. The departure from home takes Kunjunni to Bengal where he marries Aarti. The new family attempts to come back to his ancestral home in Kerala only to be sent back empty handed by his orthodox kith and kin. Dispossessed of his roots and rights over property, he is forced to leave for Bengal in search of livelihood. Following an epidemic, he dies leaving Aarti in utter penury. But she manages to bring up her children who like their father, turn out to be revolutionaries. The daughter is on parole and the son is underground for their anti-state activities. Aarti is at the end of her tether when she approaches Venu for a break.
So the return home brings in a flood of memories in Venu's mind. He also discovers the pettiness and avarice of his kin who wants to hold to Kunjunni's property, something that parallels the partition of the nation and the dispossession of many in the process. Surprisingly, he finds a reincarnated Bhavani, who, ridden by guilt and lonely, is ready to forego anything to give Aarti and her family their due. Bhavani is one who has grown away from the arrogance of beauty and wealth, has grown into the grace of penance. This theme of recognition and forgiveness is one that recurs through the film.
Venu returns to Calcutta and reveals his identity to to his aunt. She accepts him and his love but not his offer of rights over property, affirming the humility and strength of love. This moment is also a crucial point in the narrative where the representative of the refugees and the state meet.
The character of Venu represents the nation in Vasthuhara and embodies an entity that is above the local and the regional. He is an impersonal force that stays above subsuming under its all-encompassing umbrella all the diversities and differences, yet drawing its sustenance from it, as if embodying the national slogan unity in diversity. A silent observer most of the times, he is like an impartial arbiter or witness to the happenings around him. He is someone who delivers national promises to the subject-citizens' relief and rehabilitation. Representation of his character comes out in greater relief when contrasted with the people who go past his authority/table in the office. They are all diverse and different and belong to different villages, castes, creeds and cultures. But before his impassioned and omnipotent eye, they are all alike, citizen-subjects seeking favours from the state, or targets of welfare schemes and development programmes.
The film has an interesting structure where, typical of Aravindan, the emphasis is more upon moods and ambience rather than dialogues and action. The camera movements are slow and contemplative, taking the viewer gently into the narrative world. What interests Aravindan more than the verbal are the face studies, especially that of the refugees, in the process giving them back their unique humanity and freeing them from the all-encompassing and impersonal term, refugee.
The second part of the film is a series of lengthy sequences with very few dialogues. It begins with a musical sequence of the trio, Venu, Aarti and her daughter, Damayanti (Neena Gupta), wandering the streets of Calcutta celebrating the family reunion. It is followed by the departure of the refugees selected for resettlement in Andamans. Herded into a lorry, they travel past the city and green landscapes of their foster-land towards the ship that is to take them to the new and unknown land of hope. This travel through the streets of the city to the sea is paralleled in the next sequence; here we see processions carrying huge decorated idols of Kali, being taken with songs and drumbeats to the sea for immersion. Throughout, we have somber and lengthy face studies and shots of the idols slowly sinking in the sea. The metaphoric charge is unmistakable. Then again we come back to the side of the vessel where Aarti and her daughter come to see off Venu. In the bustle of the refugees boarding the ship, a proper farewell is not to be. The ship leaves the port and we have a long sequence of landscapes and green pastures seen from afar that is followed by yet another documentary footage of refugees driven by the 1971 Indo-Pak war that is to take place in the same year. It is a climax that combines in itself hope and despair. Undying hope about human love and irrepressible force of life bursting forth from the most inhuman of situations; and despair about the politics of hatred and war mongering that push people into murder, death and destitution.