Friday, November 13, 2009

A sad Bengali movie

For the last few months, I have not written anything; my blog page has been vacant all this while. But I have been watching and reading a lot. Watching a lot of movies – the dull, grainy black and white Bengali movies of the seventies and eighties of the kind that Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and others used to make.

Along the way, I must say that I have learnt a lot about the times in which my parents grew up in and the happenings that shaped their lives and why they behaved they way did on so many occasions. I also discovered that many of those so called “art movies”- parallel cinema as they call them these days struck a chord with me. The movies were usually dark, gloomy and had sad endings; but more of that later; but one could identify with the characters – they thought and behaved and acted like people I would know. They were not all black or all white. But rather like the color of the film in which they were filmed, they were various shades of grey.

This has been an important experience for me for my father spoke little of what his life as a young man was like and watching these classics from decades long gone by have helped me to try and understand the world as perhaps he might have understood it.

The film “Distant Thunder” is one that I particularly like to remember for it tells so poignantly that words like globalization might be of very recent coinage; but the events that make it all up have always been there. “Distant Thunder” is the story of the effects of the Second World War on an obscure Bengal village with the scarcity of food grain, the consequent rise in prices and all of that leading up to what is now widely known as the Great Bengal Famine which according to official figures alone killed 1.5 million people between 1942 and 43.

In the film (and the book of the same name), the principal characters know very little about the war and where the fighting is happening. The “distant thunder” alluded to is the drone of fighter planes overflying the village as move on to the war theatre in Singapore where the Allied forces and the Japanese were locked in battle. In fact, no one in the village really knows where a Singapore I located; their world revolves around their village and a few neighboring ones; the rare villager has even visited Kolkata, the state capital. In a casual conversation when one of the villagers asks where this Singapore is, the one man who knows is at a loss to explain. He finally says that Singapore is a little East of Midnapore – the district head quarters which the village has heard of but again very few have visited.

Although the Bengal famine is now part of Bengal’s racial memory and of all those who lived through it, it has not received the attention or empathy that it perhaps deserved. The partition and the misery and violence it caused received a lot more attention and visibility from the political leadership and the media of the day and the BBC has as late as in 2008 described the famine as an event that we forgot to remember. To that extent perhaps, people like my father who were of that generation and perhaps knew of friends and relatives who were affected by the famine, perhaps lived with wounds that never healed……and may be never will….

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