In the documentary Way Back Home, Ranjan Palit’s camera shifts from a woman’s face to the crows on the terrace’s parapet, but these aren’t the Bhushundi crows of her childhood. Gayatri Sen (then Dasgupta) recounts how children invited crows at dawn to their homes for a nabanno (harvest) feast. Her grey hair, wrinkles and furrows, tears and half-smiles tell many stories. The birds in the skies, unlike her, aren’t bound by borders. In 1947, when Mahatma Gandhi boycotted the celebration to go douse the communal fire in Noakhali, Dasgupta’s family still hoped they could continue living in the then Hindu-dominated river port Muladi in Barisal (now in Bangladesh). But, in 1950, a riot killing Hindus and Christians forced many families like hers (including her then future husband 25-year-old Sripada Sen’s family) to leave. They escaped alive with the help of a Muslim customs officer. The 11-year-old also left behind her cousin Kamali didi, repudiated for loving/marrying a Muslim. Dasgupta’s life resembled Supriya Choudhury’s Nita’s in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), providing for her family, quelling her own desires.
Two decades ago, their filmmaker son Supriyo Sen took his now-late parents to their homeland. Once there, they shot clandestinely, the Bangladeshi government had changed. Sen’s wife even hid a controversial cassette within the clothes on her body. Ace cinematographer Palit has poetically captured Sen’s expository, observatory and philosophical quest in trying to reconstruct a homeland from his memories in the personal documentary, which won the National Award in 2003 even as Doordarshan never telecast it. After 17 years, Way Back Home, along with his other National Award-winning documentary Hope Dies Last in War (2007) and Utpal Borpujari’s Memories of a Forgotten War (2016), is getting an international premiere on MovieSaints as part of a ‘War and Dehumanisation’ series. On the menu is also the brave Estonian black-and-white film In the Crosswind (2014), on the forcible deportation of an Estonian family to Siberia by Stalin’s Russia.
In Way Back Home, Sen’s father tells the person steering the steamer on the river Padma, “you are my own, it doesn’t feel like home there (Kolkata), I can once again breathe the same air, speak in my own language/dialect.” Later, young men gather to hear stories and tell him sorrowfully, “Apnara amader shunnyo kore chole gechhen (With you all who left, the life has gone out of here).” “Language is lost, too, along with life and property (in forcible community displacement). Class divide was established through linguistic supremacy here (West Bengal),” says Sen, 54, who grew up in the refugee para Laha Colony in then Calcutta. “Colony” was a taboo word. His Bangal bhasha was reprimanded at school as “the tongue of the unlettered uncouth”, even films showed caricaturish representations.
The second half of Way Back Home coalesces the personal with the political; with footages of the-then-fresh Godhra violence (2002). “I wanted to show the cycle of violence, the similarity with the past/history. Noakhali’s revenge was taken in Punjab, Punjab’s in Bihar, Bihar’s in Gujarat,” says Sen.
Hope Dies Last in War speaks to the families-in-waiting of the missing 54 Prisoners of War (Indian Army and Air Force personnel) who never returned from Pakistani jails. Damayanti Tambay was 22 and three-week married when, in 1971, her Flight Lieutenant husband Vijay Vasant Tambay was called to duty. A father reads the many letters his young son Major Ashok Kumar Suri sent, saying, “Dear Daddy, please contact the government to expedite our release.” A mother says in the film, “This way the nation is betraying its soldiers. Love for nation and nationalism cannot be one-sided. On one hand, soldiers are being glorified, but can nation be a one-sided responsibility of only the soldiers?” as Tambay adds, “Why don’t politicians send their sons to fight at the frontlines?”
In Borpujari’s Memories of a Forgotten War, a man gives a bone-chilling account, matter-of-factly, of how he saw four Gurkhas who were looking after the bunkers were blown to pieces. The Indian contribution to World War II was over two million men. The Northeast remained a forgotten theatre of war until 2013, when the British National War Museum declared the Battles of Kohima and Imphal (in which Barack Obama’s grandfather, Hossein Onyango Obama, fought) as having turned the tide for the British in WWII by defeating the Japanese (majority of whom died owing to malaria, dysentery, lack of food and ammunition).
“We realised the only way the subject would be taken seriously and given legitimacy was by interviewing the surviving war veterans (like the now-late Lt General JFR Jacob). Britain and Japan came from different islands to fight a war on a foreign land. Nagas and Manipuris were the collateral victims,” says Borpujari, 53, a conversation with whom gave MovieSaints COO and India head, Anupama Bose, the idea to observe 75 years of WWII’s ending with this film series.
Borpujari and his producer Subimal Bhattacharjee went to the commemorative 70th anniversary events of the Kohima-Imphal battles in Japan and the UK in 2014. “Among the veterans who had come, the oldest was 96 and youngest, 91,” says Borpujari. They were in luck to find the wheelchair-bound British veteran soldier Roy Welland sitting with his former adversary the Japanese Isobe Kiichi like two friends catching up after years, at Tokyo’s Yashukuni shrine.
They got access into the barracks in the Kohima Museum in York and at Tokyo’s Renko-ji temple during the Shinto ceremony which offers prayers to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Defence and cybersecurity analyst Bhattacharjee, 47, recalls that outside the Renko-ji, a 68-year-old (Cherrapunji-born) Japanese waited for them with two suitcases bearing a letter and rare photographs of his liaison-officer father Negishi san (who lived in Calcutta as a young boy) and Netaji.
“Indians fought on both sides: on the Allied for the British, and on the Japanese, with the Indian National Army. It’s tragic that most of them were fighting their own friends,” says Borpujari.
A small ant (soldier) pulling the corpse of the bigger ant (war, weight of wrongful decision, loss) is a captivating metaphor that speaks of the futility of war in Souradeep Datta’s 2.5-minute experimental short Colour Palette of a Soldier (2020) on MovieSaints, though not part of the series, it’s tied to it thematically. “Juddho (war),” Sen recites Bangladeshi poet Nirmalendu Goon’s verse, “maane shotru-shotru khela/Juddho maane amaar proti tomar obohela (is a game of playing enemy/War is your negligence towards me).”
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