Sohoj Pather Goppo: A true Bengali cinema, successful, thus international too

Posted by Kaahon Desk On September 14, 2017

The trailer of Sohoj Pather Goppo was a pleasurable watch. Normally, images of rural Bengal remain absent from trailers of films. Trailers tend to become noisy, visually jumbled up affairs. But to return to the point…Bibhutibhusan’s short story Taalnabami was made into a film by Dhananjoy Mondal. The name of the film was Taalnabami, which I did not get to watch. I have watched Padmapatar Jwal and a couple of documentaries made by Mondal. These days, the word ‘organic’ is doing the rounds – I have always felt that Dhananjoy Mondal was an organic director. The way he made films with his own funds, the way he worked with non-actors or shot in villages, the way he went around distributing DVD’s of his films at the Gangasagar mela (all learnt from accounts given by sound artist Partha Barman), make him, to my mind, a genuinely independent and alternative filmmaker. I am saying all this because Sohoj Pather Goppo, directed by Manas Mukul Pal, is based on Taalnabami and I wanted to use this opportunity to remind ourselves of Dhananjoy Mondal, about whom many of us seem to be unaware of. But it is time now to take a look at Sohoj Pather Goppo.

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I will request those who have not read the story or remember it only vaguely to first watch the film and then read the story. The story revolves around two brothers, Chhotu and Gopal, aged around 6 and 10 years respectively. Their father who used to be a van-puller lies bed-ridden, incapacitated by an accident. The family has practically no income and the mother struggles to run the household. Gopal, realizing that he has to work in order to earn some money, tags Chhotu along with him and begins working. The jobs include cleaning people’s wells and selling taal at the local market. Around this time, an affluent Brahmin family organizes a grand festival on the occasion of Janmashtami, the highlight of which is treating the entire village to a feast of pulao. Gopal begins to plan of selling taal and making some money during the festival, while Chhotu, who has never tasted pulao before, dreams of the treat. I will let the film reveal the rest of the plot.

Let it be said quite plainly that I liked the film. The manner of presenting the narrative is simple and straight-forward, something not very easily achieved by scriptwriters or directors. Generally, during writing or directing (taking shots, selecting frames, planning and executing dialogue, editing, selecting location and costume) personal experiences and philosophies quite understandably seep into the film. But what becomes a problem is that these experiences and philosophies are projected through stilted, bookish dialogue, loud background music and outlandish visuals that might seem arty initially but turn out, upon some consideration, to be rather silly. Such blemishes are absent from Sohoj Pather Goppo. For the most part, there is nothing forced about what has been said. There is no jugglery of images, no meaningless montages. Shots have been taken with patience and edited with patience in such a manner that no sense of restlessness is betrayed. And yet, the film generates a sense of unrest. It does not allow one to come out of the theatre after watching the film and sit down at a restaurant to plan the next day over a carefree dinner. This is because the Sohoj Pather Goppo presents characters, events, sequences and moments that are quite rare in contemporary Bengali films. We Bengali directors believe that nobody is going to watch a movie about a van-puller’s sorry life and thus, at the very stage of writing, we transform the van-puller into the driver of a Mercedes so that we can show bright lights, good clothes and familiar handsome faces. Such thoughts are completely absent from this film where unknown people have acted. The director and his team deservedly earn a long round of applause for this.

The train sequence is unforgettable with all departments of filmmaking – sound, acting, screenplay, editing, shot-taking – coming together brilliantly. Without giving too much away, it can ne be mentioned here this sequence and a few others will unfailingly evoke memories of Pather Panchali. The sequence has great impact. However, I have issues with the use of dissolve in a scene within the sequence.

Speech plays an important role in the film. The characters use a dialect found in rural North 24 Parganas and it becomes quite clear that the actors have trained long and hard to perfect the dialect. Apart from a few instances of stiffness (which can easily be ignored), dialogue delivery seems effortlessly natural. This film reminds us that there are places in Bengal outside Kolkata, there are dialectical variations, there are hierarchical relationships between the rich and the poor. The film moves away from the practice of presenting sipping scotch and singing Rabindrasangeet as major markers of Bengali cultural identity. We see here the matriarch in the Brahmin family keeping things under her benevolent control, even as she herself is controlled by the old man who remains invisible. It is not difficult to identify the invisible patriarch with the sprawling mansion that seems to have been built on wealth unfairly amassed by not paying the rightful price to a poor child for the taal taken from him.

When the family is about to collapse, we see the elder brother Gopal forsake his studies and his childhood innocence to begin earning money. Chhotu is unable to do that and this is where the story of the first lesson kicks in (Sohoj Pather Goppo). Gopal sells his taal for Rs.10 when the going rate was Rs. 15. We see how a man manages to persuade Gopal to sell the taal for Rs.8, underlining the hierarchical nature of society. However, one wonders how Gopal is able to just gather the taal lying unclaimed in order to sell it. Why does someone not stop him? Who owns the taal? What was free during Bibhutibhushan’s time is not free anymore. The film does not go into these details about who owns the taal trees and why Gopal is not stopped from doing business selling taal.

The acting deserves special mention. Noor Alam as Chhotu, Samiul Islam as Gopal and Sneha Chowdhury as the mother have been perfectly cast and they all perform wonderfully.

The film, to my mind, is deeply political in its selection of dialect, character, actor and costume as well as in its shot-taking and generally in the method and materials used in the filmmaking process. The conflict between rice and pulao carries the film a very long distance.

Dream sequences are significant in the film. However, Gopal’s dream sequence has more impact than that of Chhotu’s because the latter is quite predictable. There are instances of disruption of continuity. Once or twice, one’s attention was called towards camera and sound, something that does not generally happen at the first viewing of a film that one has liked.

The film has background music which could have been done away with. Instead, sound design could have played a more important role.

It is almost inevitable that rainfall is an important part of the film.

Bengal’s local markets, umbrellas, kolmi saak, wells, kirtaan and azan had to be and are present in the film. We can call this film an international film because it is a successful Bengali movie. Sohoj Pather Goppo is a significant addition to the list of Bengali films. And since Bibhutibhushan has been keeping filmmakers alive for decades, he can rightly be considered the saviour of Bengali films.

Pradipta Bhattacharyya

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