Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

There is a flow of sympathy that Gautam Ghose’s ‘‘Shankhachil–Boundless / White Raven’’ (Bengali, Colour / Black and White, 135 mins) encourages, as the narrative focuses on the international border between Debhata (Bangladesh) and Taki (West Bengal). Ichamati river, a river bank and a bamboo bridge serving as a pontoon guides the viewer to the milieu, at the debut. A journalist from Bangladesh is being given a guided tour on a small steam boat by soldiers from Bangladesh Rifles. Another boat with Muslims from India, would like to attend a wedding in Bangladesh. The camera pans soldiers from BR marching past at Khulna border. Men, women and children carrying a ladder, try to jump over the barbed wire fencing. There is rifle firing, and a hand of human body, dangles on the barbed wires. A Border Security Force soldier brings down the fourteen year old boy, who has been shot in the face. The BSF commander agrees it is a forced Line of Control, and no border at all. Some of the village houses are half in India, and half in Bangladesh.

Badal (Prashenjit Chatterjee) is a school teacher in Debhata. His wife, Leila (Kusum Sikdar) is a housewife, who does the daily chores, in the dwelling place. Their teen daughter, Roopsha (Shajboti Anum Rehman Khan) is happy go lucky, and with a magnifying glass examines tree barks, insects and the eyes of a cow. The headmaster of the school, Hemant Bagchi (Mamunar Rashid) is compassionate. The dialogue brings out that the Bengalis had fought for their language, in the war of liberation from West Pakistan. Language has no religion. Bengali patriotic songs are sung in the school compound on Bangladesh Independence Day. Students play drums and march. The school has received funds for computers. Roopsha leaves a cycle to catch the setting sun. Birds flying into India, will return to Bangladesh. Through the barbed wires encircling the mela grounds in adjacent India, a friendship develops between Roopsha and Subedar Arjun Rana of the BSF, who hails from Rajasthan. Arjun fetches glass bangles for Roopsha. Bangladesh residents plead for the gates to open, for visiting the mela. Badal pulls out a huge bunch of old letters from a tin box. The letters from an old relative, Abdul Goni, addressed to Badal’s father, describe the trauma of partition. Black and white footage delineate refugees marching with belongings. Roopsha exclaims that she would never leave her own country. The rivers are full of boats with refugees, heading for Hindustan or Pakistan. Badal cries and throws the letters on the river bank. Roopsha carries home made sweets for Subedar Arjun. Ballons tied to a stone, are thrown over the barbed wires for Roopsha.

At school, Badal takes a class on migratory birds. Megratory birds are flying over Ichamoti river. Roopsha falls ill. The village lady medical attendant recommends medical tests at Khulna or Satkhira. The landscape becomes dark, with dark clouds, storms, rains and lightening. At night Roopsha invites father, Badal to watch all the stars. Allah listens to Roopsha’s prayers, as a tree without branches revives. Roopsha’s heart murmurs increase, and there is a demand for oxygen. The school headmaster, Hemant helps Badal with Indian currency, and Roopsha is shifted to Taki hospital in India. Without proper Visa, Bangladesh Rangers and India BSF help in the boat carriage. Roopsha and her parents take shelter in the house of a prosperous friend Sudipto (Dipankar Dey) in Taki. Sudipto’s bungalow has a Kali temple. Sudipto advises Badal to stay with a Hindu identity, and Voter Cards are obtained. Laila puts on red vermilion and white ‘Shakah’ bangles. Badal advises Laila to do ‘namaz’ in mind, and instructs her to state country as India, and not Bangladesh. Medical opinion is for a heart valve replacement on Roopsha, and she is shifted to Kolkata in an ambulance. She was born to Badal and Laila, after several years. Sudipto has arranged for finance and transport. Roopsha is admitted to a well equipped private hospital in Kolkata. Surgeon Dr Dasgupta (Arindam Seal) decides on surgery. Roopsha laughs aloud when she hears an old patient chanting Hindu mantras. Badal, listening to birds chatter, stumbles on concrete.

Fogs, streams and trees merge with Kolkata’s traffic and urban landscape. Roopsha’s heart valve operation would cost Rs 2 lac. Badal and Leila sell Bangladesh gold jewellery for Rs 80,000. On the street, a goon tries to snatch the cash, but is chased by bystanders. The helpful hospital lady executive (Ushasie Chakravarty) informs Roopsha’s parents that Roopsha passed away at night, before the operation. When the hospital administration is releasing the Death Certificate, Badal discloses that he is a muslim, and would like Roopsha to be buried and not cremated. In the case of trespassing, police arrive. Badal pleads for deportation of Roopsha. The BSF inspector is given charge to hand over body, after clearance from Dacca. Roopsha’s coffin is transferred from an India boat to a Bangladesh boat, midstream in Ichamoti river. The coffin is carried by village men in funeral march. Badal and Leila are in a police jeep. A white raven sits on top of Badal’s roof top in Bangladesh. Birds fly overhead.

Kolkata’s city vignettes with broad roads, car headlights, shops and restaurants, music and rock dancing are in sharp contrast with the peace and traquility of Debhata village. The anxiety over Roopsha’s illness creates a brisk momentum of an ambulance rushing, hurtles on staircases and lifts, and the rush through hospital corridors. The plot is naive and could have been realistic in the early 1950s. Badal’s crying over the old partition era letters is irrational melodrama. A surfeit of songs composed by Rabindranath, Kavi Nazrul and Jibananda Das fail to rise above playful nostalgia and love for the soil of ancestors, without enough pathos to hit the viewer hard. Though the characters in Ghose’s story and script are likeable and vibrant, they are quite thinly drawn. Till Roopsha falls ill, the film has tranquil settings. The narrative unfolds with warm naturalism, but is robbed of realism by unreason and melodrama. Ishan Ghose’s camera is brisk, and captures the tense, short, snappy developments and interludes of the softly, beguiling tale. Acting is compelling and measured, but at times the brooding and sonorous outbursts build up only theatrical reportage and melodrama. The Bangladesh rural visuals drift into overlength and repetition. Political elements in ‘‘Sankhachil’’ are under developed, while the trauma of a divided province are laboured over.

Vol. 48, No. 46, May 22 - 28, 2016