Sita Rati and Nirab Jhada

Ashok Palit

It is with the advent of Manmohan Mahapatra that Odia cinema might be said to have reached its apogee. Two black and white films, the first features of an immensely talented director, stand out amongst the finest works of the Indian art house cinema : Sita Rati (1982) and Nirab Jhada (1984). It is in these two superb films that Manmohan sought with breathtaking effect to expose the variety of viciousness that festers behind the outward serenity of rural Odisha. His unsentimental humanism is reminiscent of Ray, while the artistic brilliance of his camera work, the long takes and the tantalisingly gentle pace of his films reminds one of the great poet of Malayalam cinema, Aravindan. There are indeed excellent films amongst the rest of his work also, but his first two films are cinematic gems. Most of his films are based on a thin storyline, comprising a series of moments, which have a cumulative effect on the viewer, where the characters, the situations, the minor story elements all ensemble into an experience. It is observed that Mahapatra deliberately underplays the dramatic moments of the films; in fact the de-emphasis of drama happens to be an integral part of his cinema. His films rarely use a close- up and mostly with mid shots and long shots along with elliptical cutting he creates an ambience which has a distinct style.

Manmohan Mahapatra's first film Sita Rati (1982) was set against a backdrop of feuding factions in a village, and their petty politics. The film describes the love affair of Aruna and Pranab—an affair threatened by the authoritarian father and the conformism and ambivalence of the boy. The girl is disillusioned when she realizes that the boy is unable to stand up to the social pressure exerted on them. She accepts the situation. The film is about the self realisation of a woman within a traditional rural mileu.

Sita Rati or 'Winter Night' establishes much that characterises Mahapatra's best work: a commonplace plot, terse dialogue, meticulous attention to the details of atmosphere, a thought-provoking slowness of pace, and a trenchant significance barely concealed within the seemingly inconsequential. Innate to Indian tradition is the custom of arranged marriage and dowry, and whereas Sita Rati has a number of important narrative elements to it, such as patriarchy, venality and petty local politics and corruption, the custom of the social contract of marriage also involving an economic treaty is basic to the film.

There is an interesting logic in the cut from the cremation ground to the railway station where the train bringing Pranab is arriving, as it is, in a melancholy sense, a cut from dead father to potential husband. Mahapatra makes much visual value of this short sequence, anticipating certain ideas that will recur in subsequent films. The concentration on the station and then on the incoming train highlight the significance of the arriving character, while in the overall environmental context the railway line and the station provide a significant contrast. This distinction between the natural and the mechanical—between grass and iron, as it were—suggests an appropriate poetic basis for the film as well as something of a metaphor for its two central characters, underlined by the following sequence in which Pranab is seen being carried on a bullock cart and Aruna walking along beside the cart. There is also the more general applicability of the metaphor to suggest such contrasts as movement and bondage, and progress and tradition. In the closing scene Aruna returns to the school where the students are mechanically repeating the multiplication tables. Situated side by side with this image of traditional learning by rote is courageous Aruna. She does not lament the break-up of her affair and is ready to confront life, head on.

In Nirab Jhada, Bhamar and Haria are the archetypal peasants of India who are trapped by their ignorance and poverty into a cycle of exploitation that continues to push them towards a de-humanised existence. Yet they have the audacity to dream of a more fulfilling future. Their instinct for survival will not be crushed under the soul destroying drudgery of their lives. Haria's little son dreams of the wide roads and coloured lights of the city. Phoola desires home of her own with the man she loves while Bhamar knows that he must come back to his own land. Generations of submission to obsolete feudal laws of the land have not managed to annihilate the human spirit. Within their own confined worlds, Bhamar and Haria will continue to battle against forces that daily attempt to snatch away their last possession—their human dignity. But one day the many individual worlds will unite. The gathering storm will break and its resonance will sweep away the dust of a decaying system and make place for a new generation whose dreams will be their reality.

Mahapatra shows to the viewers a father and his daughter walking away from their home, the camera emphasising their isolation as they cross the fields of the village to which they were born and to which they belong. There is a brief and intensely emotional moment of hesitation, and then they move away into a very long shot showing a huge expanse of heavy cloud hanging over them as they cross the frame from right to left. At the station, Bhamar's assurance that they will soon return and own their land once again only serves to underline their helplessness, especially as it has been anticipated by Haria's distressful experiences. The film closes as the camera pulls back to an extreme long shot of the lonely and forlorn pair standing on the plalform, the picture and its accompanying music movingly rendering Bhamar's simple hope to be a cruel fantasy.

Eminient film critic John W Hood wrote in his book The Essential Mystery that 'Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Manmohan Mahapatra's better films is their pace, making them so elegantly drawn out. Indeed, Mahapatra, like the great Kerala film maker Aravindan, is a master of 'slow' film. The rhythm of his films is the rhythm of village life, and the measured concentration of pace, often enhanced by silence, is vital in facilitating the full intensity of the emotional implications of a film, allowing the audience to closely share in the cinematic sentiment rather than have the experience limited by intellectual detachment.'

Vol. 46, No. 22, Dec 8 - 14, 2013

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