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Upperstall Review


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Bengali, Drama, 1997, Color

Jhinuk (Indrani Haldar) is an independent, working daughter of a professor and is engaged to Tunir (Sanjeev Dasgupta), a man of her choice. Romita (Rituparna Sengupta) is a housewife, married to Palash (Abhishek Chatterjee), chosen by her father, a corporate big shot. The two meet accidentally when five men try to molest Romita and carry her away. When the husband protests, they beat him up as well. This happens outside the Tollygunje Metro in Kolkata as the two are returning from a shopping trip. Jhinuk sees the girl being attacked from inside her auto rickshaw on a night of lashing rains. She intervenes till the molesters escape on their two-wheelers. She persuades the couple to lodge a police complaint. The incident is front-page news the next morning, turning Jhinuk into a heroine. Her colleagues and the principal of the school she teaches in are fascinated, overawed and amazed at her courage. But the euphoria begins to fade soon after. Romita’s in-laws are grateful but change under pressure. Palash and Tunir dissuade the two women from appearing in court for their own selfish motives, dictated by patriarchal norms. Romita cracks under pressure and refuses to identify the culprits in court. Therefore, Jhinuk’s evidence is turned against her, as the defence lawyer (Nirmal Kumar) makes insinuations about her moral character. The molesters are released...

Dahan (Crossfire) opens with the voice-over of Romita, one of the two women who form the centre of the narrative. This female voice, used as a framing device in this circularly structured film, destabilizes, at the very outset, the popular practice of using a male voice-over to register the authority of the male. The female voice functions here, unlike in dominant cinema, in relationship to one of the major visible characters on screen. Dahan, based on a novel of the same name by Suchitra Bhattacharya, is a cinematic interpretation of a true incident that took place in Calcutta in June 1992. Director Rituparno Ghosh takes this incident, and the novel based on it, to make a strong statement, not only on the position of woman-as-victim in Indian society, but also on audience expectations of female representation conditioned by popular cinema. Dahan satirises the middle-class moral policing of women in Bengali families that zeroes down to make the woman the target and trying to flesh her out as an indirect perpetrator of molestation even when she is actually the victim. Jhinuk, who rescued Romita from being abducted by four young men from affluent families, is initially venerated but subsequently alienated by the very family whose daughter-in-law she rescued. Even her ambitious fiancé insists on dissuading her from pursuing the case because the main accused happens to be the son of his boss and his posting to London is hitched on his ability to persuade his girlfriend to withdraw the court case.

There are three families in the film. The first one is that of Jhinuk. She belongs to an upwardly mobile upper-middle-class Bengali family. Her father is a professor who intends to buy a plot of land somewhere though they already live in a spacious apartment in posh South Calcutta. The mother is a housewife, presenting the archetype caring and loving mother to her two children and submissive wife to the husband. Jhinuk is a schoolteacher and her brother is studying for an engineering degree at IIT, Kharagpur. The kid brother gives her a biography of Joan of Arc, drawing parallels with the historic character and his sister as an expression of celebrating his sister’s courage. They present the picture of an ideal family, waiting for a piece of prime land to build a house, for the son to graduate and for the daughter to get married to Tunir in the near future. The grandmother chooses to live apart in an old people's home in the same city. This underscores the subtle decimation that has crept into the apparently holistic family. Though her parents and brother are thrilled and feel justly proud of their brave daughter, trouble raises its ugly head when the court case against the molesters begins. As the film comes to a close and Jhinuk is preparing for her marriage, she is dogged by doubts about getting married to a man pressurizing her to back out of the court case because it is directly linked to his transfer and promotion. This, even before he has become her husband.

Romita's marital family is an extended one, living in North Calcutta, the traditional and conventional roots the city’s social history is traced back to. She lives with her husband, his parents, his older brother and his wife. Her in-laws seem sympathetic towards her to begin with. But they stop her from identifying her molesters in court. She tries to call up Jhinuk, who she hardly knows, but hangs up the phone when Jhinuk picks it up. Her husband's sympathy soon turns to anger when his office colleagues tease him and question him about the difference between molestation and rape. He even rapes her one night in her traumatic state to reassert his marital rights over his wife’s body. Romita's family too, as her elder sister-in-law informs her one day, is not the well knit, structured and composed 'family' it appears to be. It organizes a special pooja in the home to appease the Gods. Romita changes from a pretty and contented housewife to a traumatized young woman hiding in her bedroom, refusing food and drink to begin with, her beautiful face rid with dark circles round her eyes, her shock when her husband rapes her within that traumatic state and her decision to join her sister in Canada, not really knowing why.

Trina, the studious daughter of an elite and affluent family is in love with the main molester, the son of a powerful and influential father who can pull enough strings to get his son out of the jam. Her parents are very happy about her choice though the boy is not a Bengali. The newspaper headlines about the molestation do not change their perceptions about him in any way. Trina however, begins to harbour second thoughts. She even attends the court hearings and sheds silent tears in the privacy of her room. Much to the shock of her elitist parents, Trina staunchly refuses to go ahead with the engagement. Is Trina's parental family then, a fragmented one? Romita decides to take a break and fly off to her older sister in Canada, not sure about whether she will or will not come back. Jhinuk's steps are slow, heavy and faltering, as she walks wearily out of the old people’s home towards the fenced gate of the old age home. The camera pans up to capture the sound and image an aircraft taking off as Romita’s voice-over is heard on the soundtrack. Jhinuk walking towards the fenced gate, her back to the camera, the aircraft taking off and Romita’s voice-over carrying sentences of the letter she has penned to her sister are captured in a single frame.

The anguish and pain of the three women, Romita, Jhinuk and Trina are captured through subtly lit close-ups caught in semi-lit scenes, sometimes, partly in silhouette while the expressive faces of the actresses do the rest. The courtroom scenes moving back and forth to Jhinuk’s sickness with the mosquito net protecting her privacy and her vulnerability juxtaposed against the courtroom drama trying its best to strip off the dignity and the self-esteem she is trying desperately to protect reveals the director’s sensitivity in the way he treats his characters. Hari Nair’s cinematography fits neatly into the shifting moods of this volatile film.

Though Romita is beautiful, (an award-worthy performance by Rituparna Sengupta), Ghosh strips her of glamour after the molestation as she tries to cope with herself within her bedroom. Questions keep nagging us. What is the difference between molestation by outsiders and marital rape of the wife by the husband? What kind of 'family' would one call it when a molested wife is raped by her own husband in anger and frustration as a sort of punishment dealt out to her in the full knowledge that she is the victim and not the victimizer? Through Dahan, Ghosh succeeds in freeing the portrayal of the family in cinema, both narrative wise and cinematically, from its obstinate permanence of happy togetherness and transforms this rigid ‘image’ into a surface which functions in complex and contradictory ways, rather than as a purely referential ‘commodity’ offering one-dimensional meanings. The narrative of Dahan is sandwiched between letters penned by Jhinuk to her sister in Canada.

Indrani and Rituparna are mind-blowing in their dialogue delivery and in their silences, the simmering anger trying to rise to the surface but silenced before it can find a voice is expressed tellingly by Sengupta. Indrani expresses the confusion about the values she holds close being questioned and re-interpreted and redefined by the people around her is palpable and moving. Sanjeev Dasgupta is convincing as the frothy and arrogant Tunir while Abhishek is very good in a complex role of the shaky husband whose wife has been molested in public and he is left to face the potshots of his office colleagues in the men’s toilet. 

If Dahan falters, it is in the scenes that feature the grandmother (Suchitra Mitra) who does not belong to the film and is very uncomfortable portraying the role. The scenes in the old age home are superfluous except the last one where Jhinuk comes to hand the wedding card to the old woman. Clipping away the grandmother would have reduced the inordinate length of the film to some extent. The few intimate scenes between Jhinuk and Tunir are also needless interruptions. Another question that raises its head is Rituparno’s defining the main culprit as non-Bengali. Why? His script subtly yet strongly hints at the North Kolkata-South Calcutta divide that remains an unceasing debate of schisms within Bengalis of Kolkata. Romita’s parents live in South Calcutta, her elder sister is settled in Canada but her parents have married her off to a traditional joint family in the northern parts of the city. Her ‘south’ upbringing makes her pick up the telephone to thank Jhinuk or apologise for her behaviour in court. Her ‘northern’ shift keeps her silent when Jhinuk lifts the receiver at the other end.

Still, Dahan convincingly sheds light on the changing matrix of the family in Indian metros today. The family’s relationship to the physical spaces it occupies is less important than its relationship to the emotional spaces created, sustained and destroyed between and among the members who constitute the basic structure of the family. The family mirrors society and the society reflect the family where both are gendered in particular ways, especially within the patriarchal paradigm we seem to function in. Gender assumptions have been employed, either with a bias, or based on a neutral hypothesis, to characterize these relationships and in the same way, have used the family unit to construct gender. Often left out of such discussions are the socio-economic spaces newly created under the demands of these shifting paradigms of family space. Dahan reiterates this question through its story, structure, narration and technique.

Upperstall review by: Shoma A Chatterji

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