Family…can’t live with them…can’t…
The Just Watch site is being silly, but I found it on the Criterion Channel. Approximately 127 minutes.
Neeta is a university student pursuing her M.A. who also has a tutoring job. She just finished for the day, so she walks back to her home in a refugee camp outside Kolkata. She passes by her older brother Shankar, who is so wrapped up in practicing his singing that he does not seem to notice her.
Shop owner Bansi stops Neeta as she is walking by. Apparently, her father will soon owe for two months. Neeta says that she will tell her father, and walks away. She takes only a few steps before one of her sandals breaks, so she has to walk barefoot the rest of the way.
Not long afterwards, Shankar arrives at Bansi’s shop to ask for a shaving razor. Bansi yells at him for not paying for stuff, but Shankar pays for the razor…with a banknote that he grabbed when Bansi was not looking.
When Neeta gets home, her younger sister Geeta gives her a letter. Neeta goes to her room to read it privately. It is a love note…of sorts…from Sanat, one of her father’s former students who has not been around much recently.
As she is re-reading it, Shankar comes in and grabs it. He mocks her for being so sensitive about his prying. After some more squabbling, Shankar asks her for some money, since today was her payday. She gives him much less than he wants and asks him why he doesn’t get a job, and he responds that that would be unseemly for an artiste. Just wait another two years and his music gig will bring in some big money.
Geeta and younger brother Montu are eating dinner while trying to hit up their mother for some money. Geeta wants a new sari to compete with a classmate from college. Montu wants cleats for his soccer match tomorrow. Their mother tells them that it is difficult enough providing two meals a day that it will eventually go down to one. Then Montu remembers: today is Neeta’s payday. He and Geeta race to Neeta in order to be the first to shake her down.
They go to the city and Neeta manages to pay for both the sari and the cleats, as well as a shirt for Shankar. While Geeta and Montu are admiring their new possessions, they notice Sanat. While it is obvious that Geeta is attracted to Sanat, she and Montu walk away to Neeta alone with Sanat. It is not a very romantic conversation. Sanat notices how much Geeta has grown and then asks Neeta for some money to be able to do some school project. Unfortunately, her month’s money is all gone, spent on her siblings. Sanat feels terrible for even trying to put his burden onto her, but she is okay with it. She will find a way to help him out next month. In the meantime, he should visit…because her father is always talking about him. He will try as soon as he gets money. She walks to her siblings and they all go home.
Mother is upset that Neeta spent all of the money. Money that could have been spent on a month’s worth of groceries. That she did not spend it on herself is irrelevant; she is always throwing money away. That Montu is waving his new shoes in front of her face does not help. Father argues that it is her own money, and that he would never complain since he should be contributing more. Mother complains that no one understands what she is going through. Such ingratitude. Neeta tries to let it roll off her back. She is the primary breadwinner of the family, yet gets little thanks for it.
Father comes into Neeta’s room to ask if she wants to eat, but she says that she has a headache. He asks her not to be angry with her mother; that the weight of poverty has crushed her soul. Neeta claims that she is not angry, just unwell. As Father leaves, Shankar comes in to say pretty much the same thing, but Neeta just wants to be left alone. Instead of leaving, though, he recites a silly little poem about her trying to catch the moon, and eventually convinces her to come eat.
As Geeta checks out how she looks in her new sari, Shankar and Neeta eat dinner. Shankar reminds her of the money that he had asked for, but Neeta tells him that it is all gone. And next month’s pay will go straight to Mother. With barely a hint of irony, Shankar tells her that anyone who gives their money away is a full-scale idiot.
A month passes.
Neeta walks up to Bansi and asks for the bill. Nothing more, just the bill.
Mother scolds Geeta for reading some silly novel instead of going to class. Apparently, she is failing school. Geeta complains that there never anything in this hell-hole of poverty. Mother sarcastically suggests that she simply create paradise here where they can do nothing all day.
Neeta arrives home and hands her money to Mother. Finally Mother is happy. Out of the grace of her heart, she lets Neeta keep a little bit. And then she is back to anger, yelling at Shankar for taking money from his…uh…father. He argues again that he will earn money too soon enough, and has been getting lots of inquiries since a radio audition, which infuriated his maestro, who wants to have him practice for two more years before getting work. Mother mocks his maestro and tells him to set up a shop. If Shankar wants to eat at home, then he can pay for his meals.
Shankar silently walks out. Neeta follows. Shankar asks Neeta whether she told Mother that he was taking advantage here. Neeta repeats his little poem back at him, which just annoys him. She throws his own advice back at him regarding their mother, and tells him to just grit his teeth for two more years. She gives him the money that Mother had let her keep.
One day, Sanat comes to visit. It has been so long that Father did not even recognize him at first. They talk about how they are doing; apparently, Sanat had not even known that the family had moved here. He tells Father that he is looking for a scholarship for his doctorate research on…science. As he keeps going, Father gets more and more upset at Shankar for not doing anything with his life. Mother invites Sanat across the house for something to eat, but Sanat stops when he sees Neeta studying in her room. He goes in to chat with her while Mother gloomily observes from outside.
Geeta returns home, and rudely passes by her mother, saying that she has no time for whatever Mother wants. Mother tells her to take some tea to Sanat and Geeta is suddenly not too busy to do so. Geeta brings him the tea, teasing both him and Neeta for being inside studying on such a hot day before she leaves. Neeta…tries not to notice Sanat blatantly staring at her sister, and suggests that they go for a walk before her tutoring session. And since Sanat was not quite paying attention, suggests that they go for a walk.
Sanat and Neeta sit by the riverbank. Sanat tells her of his difficulties. He cannot manage without a job. He cannot find a scholarship to continue his research and had to interrupt his regular studies. Neeta tells him that it is just a few more months before she graduates and gets a proper job. She says that they can remove the distance between them by then. She then recounts an event from childhood. Her father took her and Shankar hiking through the hills to see the sunrise. Shankar teased her about trying to catch the moon. And he would continue to do so as the years went by. Sanat comes back to the present, telling her that she does not deserve all of this hardship, suffering, and responsibility. Neeta tells him to build a glass case and place her in there like a wax doll. She gets up to leave for tutoring, but Sanat gets her to stay just a little longer.
Father is walking by the train tracks in the evening when he falls down. He is barely conscious when he is taken back to the house. The doctor tells the family that he has a bone fracture. He tells Neeta that the fracture will take a long time to heal, so she will have to run the household. Mother breaks down in tears.
How much time has passed? It is uncertain, but Neeta has dropped out of school and landed a desk job in Kolkata.
Neeta stops by Sanat’s place to tell him the news. He is not happy about her quitting her studies (especially since his landlord had just given him grief about studying nonsense instead of getting a job that would pay the rent), but she says that it was necessary due to her father’s accident. There are so many people at home who are counting on her. She asks him to accompany her to the train station.
At the station, Sanat tells her that he will get a job so that she can continue her studies. But…then what about their wedding? Neeta says that it cannot happen now, when her family still depends on her. Sanat says that Shankar should take responsibility as the eldest son. Neeta tells Sanat that he does not understand Shankar; that he will be great one day, just as Sanat will. And then maybe her time will come. Until then, they will just have to wait. Can Sanat wait? Well, the train has arrived. Sanat says that he will come in a couple days.
Shankar gets another razor from Bansi who scolds him again for sponging off of his sister and destroying her future. It is causing a scandal within the camp. He compares the two of them to Sinbad and the old man riding on Sinbad’s shoulders. Only death will set her free.
Unable to do his regular teaching, Father has kids come to his house to tutor them. Mother notes that Montu has not been showing up to college for a month and has been struck from the rolls for not paying fees. What was college to him anyways? Mother says that it is a good thing that Neeta has a job, at least.
Neeta comes home, asking whether Father heard about Montu. Mother interjects, accusing Neeta of being happiest when the family is in trouble. Not addressing Mother at all, Neeta tells father that Montu has been working in a factory for the past month in order to play on their soccer team. Meanwhile, Montu stands outside, too cowed to even talk look at his parents. Neeta takes out his pay, saying that he had been too scared to tell them. Instead of being happy for the money, Mother is upset at all of this secrecy. As if she were the enemy. She shoves the money to the floor, telling Neeta that she can run the house and face the consequences. Meanwhile, Father is upset that someone from a middle class family could take factory job. Neeta says that those types of jobs pay better these days anyways.
Later, when Mother has calmed down, she tries to patch things up with Neeta. She acknowledges her harsh demeanor, but says that the last ten years had taken a toll on her mind and spirit. The responsibilities have become too much to bear. And now Father cannot be relied upon, even if he does physically recover. If Shankar were a real man, then he could set her free. But now, only Neeta can do so. Neeta argues that Shankar is a good man and that she should not worry. Mother does worry: Neeta has her own hopes and dreams. Neeta says that she has nothing without Mother, but that does not set Mother’s mind at ease. She considers Neeta to be her sole support, and yet Neeta frightens her. Her own daughter, so distant. Mother says that she never understood Neeta and walks off.
Neeta goes to talk with Shankar. He acknowledges having taken advantage of her, and feels immense shame for it. But Neeta tells her the same thing that she told Sanat. That she will wait. That she will hold off on her own happiness, her marriage, her own life outside of this house. Soon Shankar will be successful and can provide for them all. And then she will be free to live.
The story takes place around the present day, being 1960. While the story does not explicitly state it, the family and the community in general used to live elsewhere. The 1947 Partition forced them to move from what had become East Pakistan to what had become West Bengal, probably by the same railway line that we see throughout the film. The refugee camp where the family has moved to does not seem to be very far from the local station. The trains passing through may remind them of all that they have lost and all that is going on without them.
The family was unable to fully integrate into this new India. They live in a house that, while hardly tiny, is not in the best shape. Their middle class status has taken hits after hits. The father was an intellectual, full of knowledge about English literature that is totally useless to their current circumstances. So, he becomes a schoolteacher, which does not pay enough to sustain them.
Traditionally, the eldest son would step up to provide a second income. But since Shankar has chosen the life of a musician, he has to wait for years before getting paying jobs. He even has to reject offers for paying gigs. Whether this is to maintain the integrity of the craft, to maximize future business potential, or simply a matter of practical perfectionism, the family may fall apart completely before his time comes. That seems to flippantly ignore this reality makes him an irritant to his mother.
The burden of wages falls to the second child: Neeta. On top of pursuing her own degree, she takes up tutoring two children. She graciously and selflessly accepts the responsibility of providing for the family. This is not without drawbacks, though, especially as this flies in the face of tradition. The Mother is overtly resentful for this breakup of the natural order, if only because it invites scandalous gossip. Additionally, she knows that Neeta is old enough to get married, which would result in her leaving and cutting off the cashflow. Angry at the amount of power that Neeta has over the family, Mother takes out her frustrations on everyone, but particularly takes almost every opportunity to scold Neeta, even for things that are not really her fault. Father puts on the airs of a progressive intellectual, saying that it is unfair that women these days are expected to do everything and be everything. He exclaims that he should be doing more to help, to free some of the burden from his daughter. But, he doesn’t. Maybe he can’t, or doesn’t know how even with all of those smarts in his head. Either way, he doesn’t. No one does.
As Shankar pursues his passion of music, Montu pursues his passion of sports, and Geeta pursues…well, whatever, Neeta tries to find a compromise between finishing her studies and providing for the family. Doing it all and having it all. Eventually, it becomes clear that that balance is impossible to sustain, so she chooses providing for her family over both her studies and a marriage prospect. She sets aside her own chance for happiness to cover for her family. Her family who takes her for granted with ineffectual gratitude mixed with incessant neediness. But she takes it, because she is a good person.
The sweeping melodrama, the frequent shots of landscape, the beautiful music, and theatrical angles may initially make it seem that this is a story celebrating the embodiment of the self-sacrificial virtuous woman in a sea of people who walk all over her. Yet, it soon becomes clear that this is not quite the case. The movie celebrates Bengali history, lore, and culture, but points a finger at its mistreatment of women. Neeta is not meant to be a role model, but a warning. An accusation those who saw the problem and did nothing to help, even after they could have. But how reflective is it? Is director Ritwik Ghatak including himself here? Does he see part of himself in the Father? Shankar? Sanat? The shop owner? And what of the audience? Crying their tears and sincerely exclaiming meaningless phrases of heartfelt, but empty solidarity?
One thing that threw me when I first watched the movie was its style. It did not attempt to tell the story using stark realism like the movies from fellow Bengali director Satyajit Ray, but it stopped far short of the theatrical masala films that most outsiders think of when it comes to Indian films. There are a few scenes that are driven primarily by music, but they are either completely non-diegetic, simply Shankar singing, or focused on a local music group. Sometimes it may seem like Neeta is going to break out into song and dance, but she doesn’t. There is even a line in the movie where she states that she doesn’t do that anymore.
The facial expressions are also a bit heightened. The most immediate example is Father, who almost always looks goofy, even when he is trying to be serious. Geeta is absolutely unsubtle in her emotions. Even Neeta seems to have this mischievously coy smile on her face, as if her whole situation is a joke. The actors playing the parents were significantly younger than their characters, with the actor playing the mother not even being thirty. Their portrayals are deliberately heightened to both comic effect and…less comic effect.
There is also the way that characters turn away from each other during conversations, or how they are in different positions when there is a camera cut. It initially struck me as awkward bordering on amateurish until I found out that it was a deliberate stylistic choice, to heighten the epic unreality of it, to get into the minds and hearts of the characters instead of just looking at them. And speaking of looking, I swear that there is at least one time where it seems like Neeta is just gazing at the camera.
And, of course, stark realism would probably not have allowed for such beautiful opening shots like this.
This is not an easy film, let alone one with answers. But it made a huge splash when it was released and is still known as a classic. Personally, I really like it and you might as well.
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