DAHAN/ CROSSFIRE (1997)
A woman( Rituparna Sengupta) cornered by an unruly group of men gives out a primal cry for help. That scream, a cry emanating from her molestation in an area opposite a metro station, in the perennially crowded Calcutta, is ignored by almost every passersby, be it men or women, pedestrians or those seated in cars. Everybody is a viewer. Almost a voyeur by default, if not by choice. Nobody wants to be involved in the chaos, the noise and mayhem of being in an unruly situation and Rituparno Ghosh’s DAHAN thrusts us in a social order where turning away from a scene of crime is preferred by us. The fear of becoming a part of that charged atmosphere which already haunts our visual senses is primal and inescapable. Human corruption and gendered mindsets are at the core of how we live.
So when a courageous school teacher (Indrani Haldar) intervenes, roughs up the hooligans and rescues a fellow lady citizen from the worst without fearing the consequences, a fascinating and brutally realistic character study materializes with all the maturity that we expect from a Bengali feature. We come to realize that despite the accolades, felicitatory words and media coverage of her bravery, patriarchy will upend her agency. While the survivor is given her only share of comfort by her sister in law( Mamata Shankar). Her in-laws are indifferent, her husband becomes a beast of his own accord with the shadow of his inability to rescue her and societal taunts inflating his ego further. Her own parents’ concern is dimmed and drowned out by an engulfing class difference on the other hand. The subtle and often recognisable hues of these relationships are captured with precision by Mr. Ghosh and his team.
Soon, the thirty seconds of fame for the humble and practical school teacher, the fame of being a braveheart, a role where others clearly condescend to her most of the time and which she doesn’t want herself, citing her intervention as a basic civic duty at best, make her a pawn. Her own paramour uses her exalted status to gain an overseas stint from his company, a complementary benefit of sorts to their conjugal bonds for the future.
DAHAN which references a burning sensation, an incineration of the soul after suffering trauma, is powerful as it frames its scenes with the surrounding sounds always affixed to the exchanges among people. So the chatter of an active school during recess is present when other colleagues praise the braveheart. Others are more naturally attuned to the churning of emotions in the negative space. Such as the playing of devotional songs during Puja season in the locality, foregrounding a tense domestic spat within four walls of a home and of course the bedlam in the opening moments affixed with a teeming marketplace and cinema hall as well as the traffic aid in the verisimilitude of danger lying in the least expected places.
That pervasive element of patriarchal values also pinpoint every good and bad occurence with the ladies’ good looks, as when the school teacher receives such a remark by a colleague, attributed to her predominance in print and broadcast media. The survivor of the assault too is constantly questioned about her real intentions. Her good looks tend to occupy centrestage. Which shows how reductive, blase and vulgar we are as a species. Sensitivity to others’ plight is simply out of our radar.
DAHAN, however, is a dramatic representation that identifies the inner strength both women possess. Others around them, like the teacher’s wise and compassionate grandmother accord it a wholesome outlook supplemented by experience while one of the assailant’s bethroted exhibits a circumstantial imprisonment where her own choice is clouded and erased by her family’s affluence, corruption and influences that rattle justice. What others say is a huge motif in our lives. It is the same complexity that drives this rousing screenplay.
The end is all about breaking free and deciding one’s own choice where one woman’s relocation to Montreal and the other’s insistence on traveling alone are symbols of a greater resistance to social sanctions that never care for our well-being. Haldar and Sengupta’s National Award winning performances help that joint epiphany to break forth with certitude. It is a cruel world. We need to be our own upholders of self- esteem. Ultimately, we walk alone to actualise our true selves. The cacophony then becomes silent strength to overcome the odds. The crossfire then is doused to raise a phoenix in our hearts and minds.
It’s the ethical dilemmas that make DAHAN a mirror image of our daily struggles.
If surrounding noise and sounds were integral to understanding the chaos of DAHAN then a deadening, suffocating silence is the running theme in Rituparno Ghosh’s second ’90s feature ASUKH that is written about here.
Within that silence emerges an universally resonant tale about the bonds of tenacity that hold a familial unit of mother, father and child together. Even as her work commitments get the better of her, the daughter never wavers in her love for her parents. Even as her irritability worsens with the stress and speculations of those around her, she always sits down for her last meal of the day with her father. Which is especially endearing. I also love that Debashree Roy’s meta casting as a major cinema star is never overblown. She is the same down to earth individual when signing autographs for a comely nurse attending her mother in the hospital and the simpleton wearing glasses at home.
Age and personal commitments have a tendency to mar the flow of relationships. The passage of time itself is an ensnaring entity. So when illness enters the room, emotions run at a higher tangent and the silence is gradually dabbed with more open communication.
Thank you Rituda for these communicative passages, blessed with such honesty, for the performances by Saumitra Dada, Debashree Roy and co., Aparna Sen’s poetic narration and the intimacy of real issues that is achieved. Transparency flows in sustained notes of introspection. ASUKH then becomes a warm labour of love, a memory worth cherishing.
Stephen Karam’s big-screen adaptation of his own play by the same name makes it clear that the onus of earnestness is pretty high. That’s what it takes when you have to title your work THE HUMANS. But isn’t that the side-effect of being born as flesh and blood mortals? The constant pinch of reminding the world that we are human, with glaring and gaping valleys in place of peaks and always in dire straits at inopportune stages. We ourselves have to be shaken out of our stupor to know that we are not capable of functioning as super-competent all-rounders always.
The claustrophobia of an apartment divided into an upper and a lower portion is congruent with the pace. A relocation and a Thanksgiving dinner get coalesced here. Personal and professional matters naturally enter the proceedings. As we humans very well know, celebratory gatherings are often far away from being that. They are often events where we cross the thresholds of repression to spill the beans.
This family at the center of THE HUMANS consists of three generations. Ailments from dementia and colitis, personal setbacks as a lack of a career upswing for one sister and being fired from a successful firm owing to a chronic physical condition for the other sibling hang together along with one young man’s hiatus from a career and normal life owing to a long battle with mental health issues.
There are sweet moments, bonding and disagreements, laughs and tears, escape from thorny issues and brushes with a recent past for all involved. All in the naturalistic vein of how they all unfold for each one of us. Kudos to the element of verisimilitude maintained here, from the low lighting, spare and unfurnished interiors to the use of inhibiting spaces that restrict movements and a freedom to communicate. This is another reality about family ties: we often withhold more than confess or confront.
The performers, comprising of two young stars, a theatre legend and three Oscar nominees, all rise to the occasion and make this compact capsule of relationships one to remember. Personally, Richard Jenkins’ undetected PTSD, from the time of being privy to 9/11, and his haunted looks stayed with me. It’s a potent reminder of how much goes unnoticed under the surface of our psychologies. His final breakdown in a solitary space and the haunting use of darkness that closes this feature encapsulates all these lives in general. It is how the rose-tinted gloss to familial ties get subverted and, in turn, accomodated realistically.