When Manas Mukul Pal was five, his father gifted him a collection of short stories by Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. Every Sunday, his father would read out to him from it. One of the stories from the collection that stayed with Pal was Talnabami, which captured the innocence of childhood. Pal kept revisiting this story and, years later, when his career as an actor failed to take off, he adapted it into his first feature film. Titled Sahaj Paather Gappo (Colours of Innocence), the film is one of the two Indian movies in the “International Competition” section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa.
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The story revolves around two young brothers, Gopal and Chhottu, who remain optimistic in spite of the hardships that the family undergoes when their father meets with an accident. The original story is of three pages and adapting it into a script for a 86-minute movie was not easy. The film uses a Bengali dialect that’s spoken in the West Bengal-Bangladesh border region. “My mother, who comes from that area, speaks this dialect, which has an inherent sweetness. Those who talk in chaste Bengali tend to look down upon this dialect as the language of rustic folks,” says Pal, who lives in Barasat, on the outskirts of Kolkata.
As a youngster, Pal wanted to be an actor. “All I was getting, however, were bit roles in Bengali movies,” he says. Pal started working for a Kolkata-based NGO and teaching at a school in Shyambazar. During his days as a teacher, he would often observe the children living in a neighbourhood slum. “In spite of poverty, they seemed happy. I loved their free spirit and positive attitude. Watching them reminded me of the two brothers in Talnabami, who always bounced back after every setback and cheered each other up,” says Pal, who has had no formal training in filmmaking.
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For the movie’s authenticity, it was necessary to cast children who spoke the dialect and had the body language of rural people. Pal went to a number of schools in North 24-Parganas district. Even after he spotted Nur Islam and Samiul Alam, who play Chhotu and Gopal, respectively, getting them to act required a lot of cajoling and an eight-month-long preparation.
Sahaj Paather Gappo joins films, such as Sairat (Marathi) and Thithi (Kannada), which have explored rural locations for cinematic impact. Filmed in and around, West Bengal’s Bolpur, the film captures the beauty of rural Bengal. “I made multiple trips to this place in 2014. I used to hire a ‘toto’ (battery-operated autorickshaw) and explore the areas in and around Bolpur. I made mental notes of locations as well as photographed them,” says Pal. He shot the film in three schedules — during the monsoon, autumn and late winter. Some of the nature shots, including the last scenes when the two brothers are lying in the kaash fields and staring at the flight of birds, were taken by cinematographer Mrinmoy Mondal on Piyali Island in the Sunderbans.
While watching the film, a sense of sense of deja vu is inescapable. The innocent world of siblings, the beautiful but harsh rural life and the landscape remind of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), which is based on Bandopadhyay’s novel by the same name. Pal shrugs off any influence of Ray and says “These similarities exist probably because both the films have been adapted from the stories by the same author.”
Sahaj Paather Gappo gives a contemporary touch to the legendary author’s story. Most of those changes, such as references to mid-day meal, education and Mithun Chakraborty’s popularity among rural viewers, help the narrative though some changes strike a jarring note. Yet, this is one of the few Indian movies that narrates a captivating story of two children, who exude optimism.