The month of August is supposed to be majestic and powerful, as its name August suggests. The Western month of August corresponds to the second half of the Indian month of Shravan, also supposed to be ritually the most active month in the Hindu calendar. The rains descend in torrents, there are floods, the sowing season gets over and we watch with prayers in our lips our crops grow towards a full harvest to be reaped at the end of Autumn. In India it is a dangerous month, a month when many things are supposed to come to an end but also begin. Lord Shiva, the grand destroyer of the cosmos is born in this month of Shravan and many pilgrims through long and arduous journey go to temples and shrines of Shiva to propitiate the deity. In Bengal, Bipattarini, a deity representing the protective powers of the planet Mars is worshipped in order to deliver us from danger and death. August is also the month when the diameter of the moon is often the largest when seen from the earth; it is the month when ties of blood and bonds of friendship are reasserted through the Raakhi ceremony. Historically, August is the month of Independence and also of Jinnah’s Direct Action Day, full of murder and mayhem, it is also the month of the Quit India Movement in 1942, seeing both heroic assertion and brutal suppression. In short, it is a month of extremes. 14th August is also remembered because in the year 2004, Dhananjay Chatterjee was hanged to death at Alipore Central Jail in Kolkata. It is an anniversary that the Anandabazar still celebrates.
I associate August with deaths; I lost three of my prime relatives on the 13th of August of various years and whenever July draws to a close to August, I tremble at the thought of demise of many near and dear ones. Not to forget that 22 shey shravan is also the death anniversary of Tagore. This year too August has been a month of demises.
I lost my girl cousin on the 25th of July this year. She was brilliant and cheerful aesthete but suffered acute mental depression, partly due to her congenitally weak heart and consequent obesity. She succumbed to her condition leaving behind her husband and adolescent son, both who depended on her pathetically.
A week before that my mother’s school friend who was also my teacher in the University died a lonely death at her residence where she lived all by herself. She had been widowed quite a few years ago and now lived all alone as both her children are settled abroad. I remember her as yet another person in my life who used to be overawed by me !!! and I resented that. I used to tell her, you should be my teacher maashi, you should goad me to do even better even as I am getting the highest marks in my class. But she was an ordinary soul, who despite her academic brilliance wasted her life in a permanent job and a permanent marriage.
Then went my mother’s friend’s husband, fell to cancer which when detected gave him only a few weeks to live. All of us are clearly shattered by this. Arun mesho was a man who God rarely ever makes, a soul as pure as he is a rarity. I consider myself to be fortunate to have come across a man of this purity. He was God’s gift to us. As we are all shell shocked at Arun mesho’s death, I cannot but think in the opposite direction. I never believe that people cease to exist when the die because it is through their existence that their souls always live among us. I think that we are fortunate that we met a man like mesho and have his memories to live with. His death is merely an end of his visitation among us and no one, not even death can snatch him from us.
The next one to depart was Ratri’s mother. Ratri and I are class mates since school and then into college. Whenever I think of Ratri I associate her as a trio, herself, with Ruma, her beautiful and smart older sister and her tall, slim, straight gaited mother, Mashima. Ratri’s father used to be busy and he also suffered from asthma. Mashima was both a father and a mother to the girls. Mashima used to come to school to pick Ratri up and my parents were relieved to know that Mashima acted as all our guardians. When Ratri was older and no longer needed to be chaperoned, Mashima used to visit the school on special occasions. Ratri’s father died thirty years ago and since then Mashima cast her shade over the sisters, their spouses and later their children. When I heard of Mashima’s demise, I suddenly remembered Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield where people often were assumed to go out with the ebbing tide. I remembered the scene from the novel because we were made to read out these scenes and also write answers to questions around these passages.
The other day Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a young friend from the media called me up. Susmitadi, he said, can you give me some insights on August? August? I jumped out of my skin. Yes, August is also the anniversary of three landmark films in India, Satyajit ray’s Pather Panchali, Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay. It is the 55th year for Pather Panchali, the 50th year for Mughal-e-Azam and the 35th year for Sholay.
Pather Panchali caught the world by storm for its subtle aesthetics, its imagery and its story telling shot in one of the most basic cameras by a debutant. It was almost like Tagore winning the Nobel Prize or Mohun Bagan’s victory in the IFA shield. Ray’s accolades became a matter of Bengali’s national pride. But Bengalis could not really digest the film despite the fact that the novels on which the Apu Trilogy was based were the basic text of every Bengali household. We loved Bibhuti bhushan’s Apu and Durga for the picturesque land they lived in, the exquisite plants and bowers they played about, the pink sunsets that they saw, the small wonders of the earth they revelled in. The world of Apu in these novels was full of fun and zest. But what came out in the film was pathetic unsurpassable poverty, poverty so deep that humans would feel it difficult to wholly remain human. Every emotion was vulnerable to the despicable destitution that threatened human existence. When elders of the family went to watch the film, the verdict was uniform and universal – unwatcheable.
Nargis commented on Pather Panchali that Ray was trying to showcase India’s poverty and I somehow felt that she was right. I would never have felt bad about a film that showcased our poverty today but in those days, we all were repulsed. We were too close to poverty then, the Bengal famine happened not long ago, and our family incomes were not as secured then as it is now. The middle class forever remained in fear of poverty, of falling into it or falling back in it. Poverty could only be tolerated when there was a clear capability of overcoming it. Nargis was one who played the lead role in Mother India, released in 1957, a film that showed poverty in its abjectness perhaps as never seen before; the family in the story was perhaps poorer than in Pather Panchali, but in that family, albeit unrealistically, neither values nor morals were compromised and soon enough with determination and diligence that poverty was overcome. It was not the poverty so much that upset us in Pather Panchali but the fact that it was so insurmountable that it got the better of us. Today when we are not threatened by poverty it is so much easier to sit back and enjoy it.
Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay were both blockbusters and all time hit films. Both are intensely dramatic and time defying. But they represent two opposite properties. Mughal-e-Azam is predominantly an agglomeration, an accumulation, maturation, a fructification of many forces within cinema. The actors perform as if it is their final call, music moves towards classicalization, photography is at its ornate best and the arguments emanate out of a long maturity of discourses. No wonder, its setting is the palace, the characters are regal, and the drama is as one that moves history. Mughal-E-Azam is like a grand wrapping up, a great show that is put up with all of one’s savings.
Sholay is just the opposite of this. The films opens you up, burns the past, cuts the ties that bind lose and is a great journey into release. Sholay faces the future, perhaps unknown, perhaps uncertain. It is a film of emptiness, one that carries no baggage; it is a film of new found lightness of being, of new experiences, new vistas. This is why; Sholay always seems like a beginning, an investment, a promise and a prolegomena, of things to come, of things to begin anew.