A MOTHER’S SILENT AWAKENINGby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri June 1 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 28 secs
Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at one of Jaya Bachchan’s most feted performances in a rare Hindi film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa that addresses the Naxal movement with authenticity and feeling.
It’s a call that an entire generation of parents in Kolkata dreaded receiving - the police calling them to the local station or morgue to identify a corpse. Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa opens with a similar call to the Chatterjee household in the dead of night. Thus begins what will turn out to be a life-altering encounter for the family matriarch Sujata (Jaya Bachchan), whose upper class, conservative and rather complacent life will be shaken to the core.
Thanks to financial constraints, censorship issues or plain creative inertia, few Indian films have depicted real-life events with any degree of verisimilitude or authenticity. For example, we have nothing in our mainstream cinema that measures up to something like, say, Mississippi Burning (although Priyadarshan made a hash of a remake with the 2010 film Aakrosh). The Naxal movement, one of India’s most divisive conflicts for over fifty years now, is no exception.
Cinematic representation of the armed insurgency has been woefully inadequate. The one exception that comes immediately to mind is Mrinal Sen, whose films, Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1972) and Padatik (1973), captured the zeitgeist of the times and its people brilliantly. Satyajit Ray made tangential references to the unrest sweeping Calcutta in his films Pratidwandi (1970) and Seemabaddha (1971), while Buddhadev Dasgupta’s Andhi Gali (1984) and Goutam Ghose’s Kaalbela (2009), playing out against the backdrop of the movement, are commendable efforts. Krishna Vamshi’s Sindooram (1997), Venu Nagavalli’s Lal Salam (1990), S.P. Jananathan’s Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai (2015) are among other laudable films around the subject.
However, Hindi cinema, particularly mainstream, has by and large shied away from exploring the subject. Even a filmmaker like K.A. Abbas, noted for his understanding of socio-political issues, came a cropper with his film, Naxalite (1980), despite starring Smita Patil and Mithun Chakraborty - the latter often rumored to have Naxal links before he joined the industry. Ananth Mahadevan’s Red Alert: The War Within, a true story, was also a vacuous outing despite it being written by Aruna Raje. And Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh (2015) was a pedestrian film (the basic story idea sourced from the 1964 classic Becket and its 1973 Hindi remake Namak Haraam) peddling a routine action flick in the garb of ‘realistic’ cinema. The only Hindi film that portrayed the times with any degree of authenticity is Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003), though even that largely played out, not in the killing fields of the movement, but with the personal lives of those who came to be tangentially associated with it before finding greener, safer pastures.
In the face of this, Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998) is probably the most important film addressing this chapter of India’s recent history, society and politics.
For one, it is based on Mahasweta Devi’s 1974 novel Hajar Churashir Maa. The writer is hugely regarded for her unflinching look at socio-political inequities and for actually living the lives of the protagonists of her many works. The director said, ‘through her writing, you get to hear the voice of a part of the community that is otherwise voiceless. She is very concerned about the fate of her characters, about the dignity of their lives, about the survival of the community, the exploitation they are subjected to, the hardships they face, the official indifference and apathy. She does not stop with merely shedding tears over the plight of the tribal community; she goes beyond that to explore, to implant the seeds of protest and struggle. In this sense, her works are valuable - I do not think any other writer in our country has dealt with such themes with such depth, such literary style and substance.’
Given his own record of telling some of the most hard-hitting and realistic stories of contemporary Indian society and politics, the judicial system and the marginalized in Aakrosh (1980), the police in Ardh Satya (1983), the vacuous elite in Party (1984), the trade union in Aaghat (1985), the partition in Tamas (1987) and terrorism in Drohkaal (1994), there is no doubt that no other filmmaker in Hindi cinema was more equipped to handle the subject. And above all, it starred Jaya Bachchan, making a comeback to films seventeen years after Silsila (1981), with a character unlike any she had played in her heyday.
As the film’s title cards roll, you hear the strains of the Salil Chowdhury-Hemanta Mukherjee classic ‘Pathe ebar namo saathi’, a ‘revolutionary’ song calling for the proletariat to take to the streets and unite, setting the tone for what is to unfold. The Chatterjee household gets a call in the middle of the night, asking them to come and identify the body of their son Brata (Joy Sengupta making his debut). The father Dibyanath (Anupam Kher), an affluent society elite, refuses to have anything to do with it, afraid that his family name might be besmirched with his son’s killing in ‘suspicious’ circumstances. The mother, Sujata, is left with the task of identifying the body, marked number 1084, now disfigured beyond recognition and recognizable only from a mole on the neck. As the family refuses to receive the body, she watches, too shocked even to grieve, as Brata and four other colleagues are cremated surreptitiously overnight. Over the next few days, Brata’s family makes every conceivable effort to altogether obliterate his presence from the house.
Sujata, however, cannot be party to this apathy and erasure of her dead son’s memory. As she reminiscences about her twenty-year-old son, she embarks on a journey to find out about his involvement with the Naxal movement. How is it that given their close relationship, she could never, as a mother, figure out Brata’s association with the downtrodden and the marginalized? She is wracked by guilt as the police officer (played by Milind Gunaje) tells her, ‘You have not brought him up well.’
What was it that drove someone like Brata, who belonged to an affluent family, to take to the path of revolution? Through her flashbacks, we begin to get a glimpse of Brata, his disapproval of his father’s way of life - as his father tells him during a contentious argument, ‘Bribe money keeps rotating in the economy… bhooke pet kranti nahin hoti, police ki goliyan se pet nahin bharta… wealth is the mother of all happiness.’ Has she, Sujata, in any way failed in her duties as a mother? Has she been, as she rebukes herself, an ‘andhi, behri maa’, a deaf and blind mother?
Determined to find out about her son, despite the family’s opposition, she goes on to meet the people he was associated with. The journey brings her to the shanty of Somu, a fellow revolutionary, who was killed along with Brata. The meeting with Somu’s mother (played by Seema Biswas) leaves her shaken. In an interesting depiction of the class divide, as the two mothers meet, Somu’s mother wails and laments the passing of her son, while Sujata has to bottle up her emotions, be content with drawing the pallu of her sari tighter around her.
Somu’s mother introduces Sujata to facets of Brata’s life and experiences, including the chain of events leading up to the fateful night. Sujata also meets Nandini (Nandita Roy, also making her debut), Brata’s love interest and a Naxal revolutionary herself. The viewer had been witness to her torture at the hands of the police in the opening sequences dealing with the identification of Brata’s body. Now, Sujata gets a first-hand account of the hushed, closed-door meetings, the workings and ideologies of the band of young men (including Yashpal Sharma in a cameo), the arguments on the killing of class enemies, the infiltration of their ranks by vested interests and the final betrayal.
It is for Sujata as much a journey to understand her son, as it is an odyssey of self-discovery, because she begins to question the petty certainties of her life as a bank worker and as part of the bourgeoisie elite. It is through her voyage that we get a glimpse of what could have driven hundreds of young men, many belonging to the privileged classes like Brata, to take up arms against the government.
The film climaxes with a party, two years later, celebrating the engagement of her daughter. The family has all but pushed away the memory of Brata. So much that the engagement has been scheduled on the birthday of Brata, which also happens to be the day he was killed. The proceedings at the gathering echo Nihalani’s trenchant critique of the ‘partying’ class, with its phony intellectual concerns about the suffering proletariat, its empty discussions of poetry and the arts and ‘revolution’ over copious downing of alcohol that we had seen in Party. Sujata, increasingly agitated and disillusioned, and obviously suffering, passes out screaming, the scream a metaphor for an entire generation of youngsters who gave up their life for a cause they held dearer than their own selves.
The novel ends with this scream. The film adds a coda: twenty years later, Sujata runs an NGO dealing with human rights. Her husband has reformed and is now part of her journey. Nandini is still fighting for justice against the police brutalities she had to endure and the case is finally limping to a conclusion. But conditions have not changed. Those working for a change in society are still subject to unimaginable violence. An old colleague of Brata’s has come to meet Sujata. As he exits her office, and she comes out to escort Nandini to the car, she is witness to the colleague being gunned down by unknown assailants. Those responsible for her son’s death have gone scot-free. But now, she is no longer a silent witness to injustice and atrocities, and finally finds a way to become part of the struggles and ideals that drove her son to his death.
However, for all its strengths, the film never quite measures up to the novel. Its major failing lies in its verbosity. At close to two-and-a-half hours, it is a stretch with parts sounding like a treatise on the Naxal ideology. The meeting with Nandini, for example, involves a long-winded monologue articulating the ideology. What makes for gripping reading in the novel ends up as a labored passage in a film. I got the feeling that the film follows the novel too closely to break out as a visual work - it is almost as if the writers are putting the text from the book on to screen, which takes away from the film’s overall effect.
Yes, it is the story of a mother piecing together bits and pieces of information on her dead son’s life, but from a filmmaker who gave us the gripping Ardh Satya and Aakrosh, there’s a lack of visual fluidity. The party scene, for example, plays out like a pastiche of his more celebrated film, making all-too-pointed and obvious comments on the gentry. And the coda, making the point that nothing has changed (the communist government that came to Bengal in the wake of the Congress atrocities on Naxals, was equally savage in the way it came down on young students), suffers hugely from the unconvincing reformation of the father figure (Anupam Kher is saddled with a rather one-dimensional role).
If despite these flaws the film works, it is because of its effort to understand the dynamics of the movement up-close (which no Hindi film has done) as it is for Jaya Bachchan’s brilliantly underplayed character. As the quiet mother who leaves behind her sheltered ways and gets drawn to her son’s world, the actress delivers in spades. What makes it work so well is the lack of any overt histrionics on her part! It is without doubt one of the iconic mother figures of Hindi cinema, yet with none of the melodramatic tropes that we normally associate such portrayals. Jaya Bhaduri as Sujata is a study in restrained grief, dammed up, never losing hold of her emotions, even when her universe is crumbling as she discovers the world her son had embraced and made his own.
This is arguably her most atypical Bollywood character and you can see that she recognizes what it offers in terms of opportunities as an actor. In the 1970s, she had been a most bankable star (with hits like Guddi and Jawani Diwani) and an actor called upon to deliver some of the era’s most iconic roles (Koshish and Abhimaan). By the time she withdrew from films with Silsila, Jaya had been somewhat typecast in her giggly ‘Guddi’ image. Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa offered her the opportunity to break away from that image and show a new generation of viewers what she was capable of. It’s an opportunity she grasps with both hands.
Sadly enough, none of the films that followed (barring Khalid Mohamed’s Fiza, to an extent, which too, interestingly, casts her as the mother of a son who has joined an ‘outlawed’ organization, this time a terrorist group) tapped into her potential as an actor. Nihalani’s film remains a high water mark in the career of one of our finest actors.