Review: MAATI-O-MANUSH – INFORMATIVE BUT UNIMPRESSIVE
February 19 (Calcutta Tube): Maati O Manush is a 2010 Bengali Movie directed by Sisir Sahana sratting Rimjhim Gupta, Sabyasachi, Tapas Pal and more. Read the full Critic’s review of the Bengali Movie.
Sisir Sahana, a noted artist who studied fine arts at Vishwa Bharati under the internationally renowned Jogen Chowdhury and then in London, has had an illustrious career as an artist. Some of his works, exhibited across Indian shores, throw up classic examples in a fine blend of rhythm, balance and aesthetics. For a long time, he had nurtured the desire to make a socially relevant film that would talk about the rampant practice of superstition in the village he comes from in a remote part of West Bengal. The result is his first full-length feature film Maati-O-Manush (The Soil and the People). The film is based on a script and dialogue by Sahana who has directed and produced the film and has also taken care of the aesthetics.
The 104-minute film is set against contemporary Bengal in a distant village called Mangalpur where the village does not seem to have either a police station, or a practicing doctor, a hospital or school. Jhonu (Rimjhim Gupta), a teenaged young girl, is mute but not deaf. Her father Atal Master (Sabyasachi Chakraborty) is the village school teacher, perhaps the only educated man of the village. Nirman (Tapas Pal), who now lives in the city, is a journalist who is like a mentor to Jhonu. The entire village is soaked in blind faith and superstitious belief, desperate to find am easy target for every ill – real or fictitious – that ails the village in any one they can lay their hands on. They find a suitable candidate in Jhonu. The sole cause for her attracting the entire village’s ire is that she is mute. They link every ill to her presence. They are convinced that she is a witch.
In spite of the pleas and explanations of her father that muteness is a natural disability and no crime or stigma, they are hell bent on wiping her out. When Nirman tries to explain things, the local politician’s goons come and beat him up badly. A young boy, Shankar (Tuhin Mukherjee) loves Jhonu but he too is a victim of superstition and shells out money to get a locket for Jhonu from a self-styled priest of a ramshackle temple who makes a living out of exploiting the ignorant. The local politician is eager to keep the villagers happy because the elections are round the corner and he does not care about the victimization of a young village girl.
A group of men armed with sticks and weapons, who claim that they are sanyasis, keep threatening Jhonu’s parents to leave the village or hand over their girl to them. To appease them, the father too, takes oath and becomes a sanyasi. These sanyasis are not mendicants and live normal married lives within the village. Though Jhonu’s parents try their utmost to save their daughter from the sanyasis’ wrath, Jhonu is beaten to death by the entire gang who chase her across the shallow water land in the village.
The reality of this kind of blind faith in the 21st century as unfolded in Maati-O-Manush is shocking. But the way the story is narrated leaves much room for improvement. Blind faith is a subject generally taken on by documentary and short film makers. Few feature filmmakers dare to step into this delicate territory. Sahana deserves a pat on the back for taking on this bold subject. But his infra-structure is faulted. Jhonu, a village girl, is dressed in a longish blouse and long skirt much like a city girl though her friends wear either the sari or the salwar kameez. She runs around the fields with her hair left loose at all times of the day, a practice that is taboo for any village girl in Bengal. She watches art programmes on television and tries to take joy out of a Picasso or a K.N. Subramanian and even draws figures on the walls of her home. She does not help her mother in housework and her mother has no complaints about this. We never see her father going to teach at the village school nor trying to take his daughter to a doctor who might be able to take a look at her speech problem which, at one point, is said to be not a major handicap. The local police are conspicuous by their absence. The group of sanyasis seems to be the law-makers and moral police. They even dominate the temple priest, and beat their breasts if the right-coloured flower has not been ‘gifted’ by Lord Shiva within the temple. If the colour of the flower that has dropped from the altar is not blue, Jhonu is the reason. What they do for bread and butter no one knows. Till the end, the audience is left in the dark about the main preoccupation of the villagers. Are they peasants? Are they craftsmen? How then, do they run their kitchens? These questions are not tackled at all taking away the power from the factual base of the story.
Rimjhim Gupta as Jhonu is good only towards the end when she is fiery-eyed and angry and rebels in her own way by running out of her room where her parents have asked her to hide. Sabyasachi Chakraborty tries to put in as much conviction as he can in a badly written role. Shantilal Mukherjee as the head of the sanyasis has no shades to his character or his moods. Chandan Sen as the local politician is wasted in a brief cameo wile Tapas Pal tries to look young with a wig in a brief role. His concern for Jhonu seems suspiciously to be hooked on a possible story for the paper he works for. Sreela Majumdar as Jhonu’s mother is very good while Tuhin Mukherjee’s Shankar has precious little to do except to stick a helpless expression on his face.
Sahana’s reference to modern art masters does not belong at all to the setting or the story and stands out like a sore thumb. Cinematographer Asim Bose has captured the shades of yellows and ambers and browns of the setting very well while Anup Mukherjee’s sound design tries to draw the best out of a limited situation. The same goes for Rabi Ranjan Mitra’s editing – not a shade of what he used to deliver some years ago. Nachiketa’s music for the songs is reasonably good. Many filmmakers do not realise that the telling of the story is often more important than the story itself. This is precisely what goes wrong with the well-intentioned making of Maati-O-Manush. I would not dare to give the film a rating of 3/10.
By Shoma A. Chatterji