Review Bengali

Ganadevata review: Tarun Majumder's film is a celebration of striking performances and cinematic brilliance

Release Date: 29 Jun 1979 / 02hr 52min

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Roushni Sarkar

Ganadevata, based on a novel by Tarashankar Banerjee, is relevant even today and shows how community feeling can quickly turn into mob mentality.

Tarun Majumdar’s Ganadevata, a cinematic adaptation of Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s classic novel of the same name, was released 40 years on 29 June 1979 and it is still astonishing to see how the director retained the essence of the magnum opus in a film of 2 hours 52 minutes without making it tiring for a single moment.

Critics have pointed out that many of the important films in Bengali cinema in the past had one strong backbone, rich content from the canon of Bengali literature. However, what is often not mentioned is that a lot also depended on how much the directors concerned invested in research and dedication in retaining the authenticity of the content.

For this reason, it seems important to revisit a film like Ganadevata which boasts of striking performances by some of the top artistes of the period and a cinematic composition that is far more advanced than you get to see in the present age of technical advancement.

Majumder establishes the backdrop of the long film with a prolonged credit scene with images and visuals from the village Shivkalipur, inhabited primarily by farmers but also home to people from other professions. A beautiful folk-inspired song by Manna Dey accompanies the credit scene that also gradually introduces the characters, offering glimpses of their dominant traits or daily life.

A power struggle remains at the core of the story that is set in a period when the British were gradually spreading their tentacles into the traditional economic and social systems of remote villages. The story narrates how the transformation of the economic structure brings a decline in social relations, affects age-old customs and even creates rifts in personal relationships.

In this village, the caste system is prominent and so are the hypocrisies in it. Women of the lower castes are apparently 'untouchable' during the day, but are savagely sought after at night by powerful and lustful 'upper-caste' men. Women, too, at a time of acute financial crisis, don’t mind sacrificing their values for some money.

The most striking aspect of the film is its portrayal of all manner of degradation and the honesty that remains, which is raw and real, in the midst of this degradation. The depiction of the festivals associating the worship of various local gods and goddesses and their relations with the inhabitants’ age-old psyche is real and complex.

The film fascinatingly captures the essence of a village community in which regular conflicts excite all the people. Issues divide them in a minute and unite them the next moment for emotional reasons. No issue is hidden behind the curtains of an individual family. In Shivkalipur, an individual’s concern becomes a collective one, even when the moneylender Chhiru Pal (Ajitesh Bandopadhyay) and, later, representatives of the British government unleash relentless exploitation on them.

Samit Bhanja as Aniruddha

Aniruddha Karmakar (Samit Bhanja) is a blacksmith who tries to earn some money, going beyond the traditional system of providing service to the villagers in exchange for rice. This causes a rift in the village. Aniruddha’s wife Poddo (Madhabi Mukherjee) is unable to bear a child and hence takes recourse to various rituals to earn blessings and become fertile. Aniruddha and Poddo are often jeered by neighbours for being unable to complete their family. The neighbours find great satisfaction in teasing them in heated moments of petty enmity.

Local pandit Debraj Ghosh (Soumitra Chatterjee) and some other powerful and opportunistic old people gather for an assembly to derive a solution to the dispute created by Aniruddha and some others involved in professions other than farming who go beyond the system and earn money. Moneylender Chhiru Pal makes his presence felt here too. However, the assembly turns into a joke, as Chhiru insults the aged brahmin and Aniruddha refuses to comply with the system as, according to him, no one in the village abides by it.

The enraged brother (Anup Kumar) of Durga (Sandhya Roy) also makes his appearance at the assembly with a bruised back, complaining of Chhiru taking advantage of Durga at night and then beating him up for complaining against it.

Sandhya Roy as Durga

However, Durga happily accepts it when her brother renounces her under pressure from the neighbours. She claims to be a sexually liberated woman but has a dark and sad past and many layers in herself.

She is one of the interesting characters of the story, with grey shades of honesty, kindness, cunning and empathy. Durga wheedles the desperate Aniruddha, when he repeatedly becomes a victim of Chhiru and the rest of the 'lawmakers' of the village and loses everyone’s support, into her sphere of influence. However, at the same time, she makes it a point to have a locality rebuilt with money provided by Chhiru, who himself had arranged to cause a fire in it and burn it down.

When Poddo is enraged by Durga’s audacious tactics to snare her husband, the latter wins her affection also by involving her in rituals from which she is forbidden by village politics. Eventually, she also brings Jatin (Debraj Roy), a political activist under police observation, to Poddo. Jatin eventually starts revering Poddo as his mother.

Ucchingre, a boy left alone by his vagabond father Tarini, too finds shelter in Poddo’s house and calls her mother. At the end of the film, it is discovered that Durga has credit for building this relationship as well.

Nilkantha Sengupta as Tarini

The character of Tarini is iconic and almost personifies the transition pervading the story. Tarini, a farmer, loses all his lands, then his wife, and eventually starts earning money by singing at the station. The lyrics of his songs are inspired by the contemporary scenario, changing with the times. At the end of the film, his lyrics speak of an impending revolution that is beginning to sow its seeds in the hearts of the villagers under oppression by the British.

Chhiru Pal is a power monger. He is shrewd and he is a letch. However, his heart melts when the villagers start to show him a bit of respect. Originally a dimwit, he tries to establish his influence by pleasing those with more power and deceiving the villagers, without realizing that, eventually, under British rule, he too won’t have any autonomy.

Ajitesh Bandopadhyay as Chhiru Pal

Chhiru is strongly resisted by Debu Pandit, who first tries to uphold the traditions of the village and creates an animosity with Aniruddha, but in vain. Later, in his attempt to stand up for the villagers, he gets arrested by the police. His arrest creates unprecedented unity among the villagers and also serves as a wake-up call for Aniruddha when Debu returns from prison amidst loud appreciation and worship by the villagers.

Debu Pandit’s strong stance and sacrifice eventually inspire Aniruddha to sacrifice his own independence and he gets arrested while standing up for the villagers. At the end of the narrative, when the British try to make inroads into the villages with their new laws, alien to the residents, the resistance of Aniruddha and Debu Pandit, along with the inspiring insights of political prisoner Jatin, who gets shifted from the village for his impact on the inhabitants, starts building a new force of revolt.

However, amidst all these uprisings, the contribution of Durga is hardly apparent. While Poddo’s loneliness and misery become everyone’s concern, Durga remains the bold woman, living by herself and secretly twisting the course of events for the greater good.

There are so many narratives; yet, Majumder makes sure not to overlap one on the other, sustaining clarity and connection with the essence of the story. Each character has a story to narrate and each remains in the mind long after the film ends.

It is commendable how Majumder has chosen the appropriate artistes for each of the characters and how they almost turn into symbols of different kinds of collective expression. None of Bandopadhyay’s characters are stereotypical; they are real with hopes, dreams, shortcomings and insecurities that they are unable to fight at certain points of their lives, and the ensemble cast does full justice to them.

Samit Bhanja’s careless and wild demeanour suits Aniruddha’s attributes well. Madhabi Mukherjee is subtle as usual in expressing moments of love for Aniruddha and despair at the discovery of his infidelity, but she brings out the depth of her character to great effect.

Sandhya Roy is definitely the heroine of the story. Her act is bold and pronounced without a hint of melodrama. One moment, her liberated stance in such a male-dominated rural background raises questions; the next moment it turns into a symbol of resistance. She is soft while relating with peoples’ misery and vulnerable in getting acquainted with Jatin, the only man in her life who doesn’t bother about her identity, which depends on her caste.

Soumitra Chatterjee as Debraj Ghosh

Soumitra Chatterjee delivers the most natural act as the pandit. However, Nilkantha Sengupta as Tarini, the vagabond singer, delivers a performance that is bound to shake the audience. The way his eyes burn with optimism while he sings, even as his look is ragged and dishevelled, is powerful.

Anup Kumar’s act, too, stays in memory for a similar reason. His character is angry for most of the film. There is a trait of apparent eccentricity in the character, which Anup Kumar depicts with finesse.

Debraj Roy is suave and rational in the skin of his character which appears to be the most resolved of all. He is a bit distanced and detached with a lot of affection for the people around him.

Rabi Ghosh mostly has a comic appearance, yet it is fascinating the way he infuses his shrewd demeanour in his brief moments on screen.

Child artiste Kumar Kanchan’s act represents the naked reality of the times, without the garb of the emotions of the civilized world.

Last but not the least, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay’s act is layered, restrained but pure evil. He is a villain for sure but his act ensures that the audience can relate to the sad inevitability of his character.

The film contains ample moments of sheer cinematic brilliance captured by Shakti Bandopadhyay and edited by Ramesh Joshi. Starting from the depiction of the beautiful village in detailed yet soothing images to the visuals of the village catching fire, almost each and every moment carries proof of the utmost dedication of the film's technicians.

The sequence of dogs catching fire and women carrying water to put it out in the midst of the utter chaos and then all the animals flying off in a terrifying storm are extremely realistic for an age when VFX was unknown.

The sequence of a woman being lured with a coin by Rabi Ghosh’s character at a moment of extreme helplessness, while a fire is ravaging houses in the background, is hard hitting.

Hemant Kumar Mukhopadhyay’s music along with Manna Dey, Shipra Basu and Arati Mukhopadhyay’s renditions enhance the authenticity of the ambience and the moods in the film.

Each and every department of the film could provide study material for technical training. Though set in the late 19th/early 20th century, the film remains relevant even today, when the political situation in the country remains volatile.

Ganadevata shows how community feeling can quickly turn into mob mentality when there is lack of awareness from and suppression by the authorities. On the other hand, Chhiru Pal’s singular motto of becoming the sole authoritarian of the village pushes him to commit heinous acts. In a manner reminiscent of the dominant trend today, we can see the moneylender trying to win the attention of the people by building temples and engraving his name on old establishments while denying their true creators and arranging for festivals instead of doing constructive work and helping the poor to improve their financial status.

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