Director-duo Leena Gangopadhyay and Saibal Banerjee’s Maati is about a young Bengali woman’s search for her roots in Bangladesh. Meghla Chowdhury (Paoli Dam), a lecturer of History, has a deep engagement with Partition — not the least because her own family was forced to migrate in 1947 from their ancestral village Kutubdiya in East Bengal, and her paternal grandmother (who stayed put) was killed by a Muslim retainer. Meghla inherits a resulting sense of betrayal from this episode, but also simultaneously, a great desire to re-visit the place, the home, that she insists “was once ours”.
The opportunity comes in the form of a wedding invitation from erstwhile neighbours in Kutubdiya, who return a diary maintained by Kumudini Debi (the grandmother, played by Aparajita Adya). This diary is a revelation. The distant figure of her long dead ‘Thami’ comes alive for Meghla in its pages; as do the land that Thami had loved and the life she had shared with those she thought her own.
That life and that story unfold over a period of three days when Meghla goes to Bangladesh, when she is forced to reinterpret the past and reasses the present. The figure through whom that happens is Jamil Hussain (Adil Hussain), the new owner of her ancestral home.
He was supposed to be only a tour guide for her during her short stay and is the very picture of the generous host; but their interactions turn confrontational as Meghla, brought up on nostalgic family memories centring round the house (and freshly reinforced by her reading of her grandmother’s diary), is unable to accept the current dispensation. Jamil is patient with her at first and politely rebuffs her self-righteous attitude, but he comes down heavily on her on the question of how history should be remembered and interpreted. He argues that she should differentiate between the historical past and the realities of the present; between what she has heard/read about a place and what she is herself seeing/experiencing. “If you have any illusions about this country [Bangladesh], that would be very wrong. This country is not a fairy tale land, the fairy tale is in your mind”, he tells her.
Meghla’s long-nursed rage at what Partition had done to her family subdues in the face of Jamil’s calm logic and candidness. And it turns to admiration when she comes to know from his mother Amina (Sabitri Chatterjee) the sacrifices that he and his family have made for three generations for their ‘maati’, the soil of their land. She realizes then that far from being enemies, they in fact share a common bond. Their parting gifts to each other are symbolic of this new understanding.
The film thus ends on a note of hope: the renewal of trust that had once been lost. It is in this quiet message that Maati scores the most. This film is about the afterlife of partition, not its aftermath. It is an eloquent plea to move on – after 70 years – from the painful memories of rupture to a new understanding of present realities. It is bound to resonate with Bengalis on both sides of the border; in fact, with partitioned peoples the world over.
The Radcliffe Line & a porous border
Maati is the fourth Partition-centric Bengali film in four consecutive years — the other three being Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini (2015), Goutam Ghose’s Shankhachil (2016), and Kaushik Ganguly’s Bisorjon (2017). This trend has come after a long hiatus. Ritwik Ghatak, an East Bengali refugee himself, had made the theme his own way back in the 1960’s. In a memorable trilogy (Meghe Dhaka Tara, 1960; Komol Gandhar, 1961; and Subornorekha, 1962), he had laid bare the trauma of the event, the overwhelming nostalgia of those displaced for the life left behind in East Bengal, their impoverishment and their relentless struggle to build a new life in India.
The four recent films engage with partition differently. In Rajkahini, a brothel keeper (Begum Jaan, played by Rituparna Sengupta) and her inmates defy the Radcliffe Line that passes through their ‘home’. The three films thereafter are set in the present and are all taken up with the contemporary ramifications of partition. And interestingly, the porous Bengal border finds its way in almost every story. The porosity, in fact, makes the stories possible.
While the Border Security Forces on either side try hard to maintain security on the India-Bangladesh border, it is common knowledge that it is routinely crossed illegally by those on the borderlands, mostly for reasons of livelihood but sometimes also for medical emergencies — like the hapless village school-master Badal (Prosenjit) and his wife Laila (Kusum Sikder) in Shankhachil, who are forced to fake identities and cross illegally into Taki in West Bengal for an immediate treatment of their daughter Rupsha (Shajbati).
Hindu-Muslim romance is a staple of Partition narratives. It is given a new twist by Kaushik Ganguly in Bisorjon by making one of the characters an impostor, an Indian Muslim (Abir Chatterjee) masquerading as a businessman, who unwittingly falls in love with a Hindu widow (Joya Ahsan) on the banks of the Ichhamoti after she saves him from drowning and nurses him back to life.
The operative metaphors in Bisorjon and Shankhachhil, of the borderless river and free bird – though poignant and poetic – are dispensed with in Maati. Its idealism is of a different kind: it doesn’t say that the border doesn’t exist or that it is fallacious; it doesn’t envy the natural world for blithely ignoring the rules of the human either. It just emphasizes the need for a conscious effort by humans (especially with contested histories) to remain humane.