Neem Annapurna(1979) Bengali, B&W,90 mins. dir. Buddhadeb Dasgupta
Both films have sequences of a child stealing food. In the first, a teenage girl steals a guava from an orchard that has been taken from her family and in the other,a starving little girl perhaps eight years old resorts to something more desperate, she steals the grains from the bowl of a pet parrot and gets her fingers bitten in the process. In both cases, a war of words ensues between the aggrieved party and the mother of the child.In the first, the mother gets defensive and in the second, robust offence is used to counter the abuses.Both mothers are finding it very hard to feed their children.The first film is of course the unsurpassed flag-bearer of Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali made in 1955 and the second is Neem Annapurna which means “bitter morsel” by Buddhadeb Dasgupta made in 1979 based on a story by Kamal Kumar Majumdar.
A woman rushes up to the door and vomits, literally in our face.And then she catches her breath and looks at the camera with hollow painful eyes.This is the freeze frame that serves as a backdrop of the opening credits of this astonishing film.
In a brilliant scene in Pather Panchali the children go off on a small adventure to see a train with a steam engine, which represents an exciting new world taking shape far away from the village. In Neem Annapurna the sisters sit by the railway tracks, not excited but despondent.The younger one tells the older,”let’s run along the train like the other kids”.The elder sister rebukes her,”they are beggars”. Here 33 years after independence the promised poverty alleviation has not materialised and the urban landscape is a veritable wasteland.As the sisters sit and look at the train without much excitement an airplane goes by and the elder sister informs the little girl that its piloted by a man wearing black glasses and can see everything from up there.
Neem Annapurna opens with a scene in a railway compartment of a family of four migrating from a small town, where the father Brojo(in a remarkable debut performance by Sunil Mukherjee) has lost his job, to Kolkata of the late 70’s.It is the promised land, of which it is said that money literally flies around in the air and nobody sleeps hungry. His wife Pritilata and two daughters Latika and Jutika are with him. It’s almost as if the family of Hari from Pather Panchali took the train to Kolkata after departing their village in a bullock cart in the final scene. But then, that would be a jump cut of 25 years, which is what separates the two films.The protagonists of Pather Panchali go to Benaras and their life is chronicled in two landmark films which constitute the famed Apu trilogy.Here Dasgupta uses all of 90 mins to end his film on a note that leaves no room for sequels. We learn that Brojo passed his matriculation exam and taught at a rural school for sometime.He clings on to his genteel life by religiously reading a newspaper everyday which has filled his head with all kinds of useless general knowledge, of the type (man on the moon!) that cannot buy a small helping of rice for the family.While Ray’s Hari was a brahmin, well versed in the scriptures and an aspiring play write, Brojo is content to read the newspaper and becomes none the wiser about a dystopian world.
In Ray’s world of 1955, in the 8th year of post independence India there was hope in the air but 25 years later, the country is stumbling and West Bengal is lagging behind the rest of the states.Kolkata is in the grip of Marxist rule and factories are shutting down everyday.There is a constant wave of migrants who come to the city having lost their land despite the land reforms of the new government and find themselves in a hell that makes the poverty struck bucolic life of Pather Panchali look luxurious. In fact Pritilata looks back with nostalgia at the good times they spend together as a poor but happy family and yearns to return to her village where she is convinced things will be better.In the city, there is no social support system but Brojo has no inclination or energy left to hunt for his few relatives who may be there in Kolkata.
Between looking for work, Brojo makes paper bags which is not even enough to buy a handful of rice, he once smells rice being cooked and says even the perfume of rice boiling gives his tuberculosis eaten body strength. All his efforts to find work meet with only rejection and on one occasion even physical blows.Once when he is walking to find work we are shown a brief montage of shop windows decked with all the good things of life,the stories of which draw in hapless migrants like flies to a flame.They live in a shack and share it with an old man who is a beggar and guards his little cloth sack jealously. Brojo ventures a guess that it may contain rice and this sets up the most harrowing scene in the film.His wife who has refused her teenage daughter from working as a maid, which could have considerably salvaged their situation, as being the work of low caste people, now steels herself to commit robbery of rice from a diseased beggar.She is caught in the act and in the scuffle that ensues the beggar dies, perhaps out of exhaustion from his dire circumstances.
It is this rice that she cooks for her family that night and the scene of the family greedily eating plain boiled rice after a long time can haunt for a lifetime.She does not eat but this family dinner makes her throw up and we see the same opening shot again. In Pather Panchali the weary wife is unkind to her wizened old sister-in-law just before she dies but here the reality is much more sickening.
The film ends with a shot of a family strikingly similar to Brojo’s coming to Kolkata in a train.The framing and composition of both shots is almost identical.The same matter of fact voiceover informs us that Brojo’s family has scattered in the wind leaving no trace behind, Jutika has eloped with a loutish boy and Latika’s little body was crushed under a speeding car.The men in black glasses who fly airplanes have perhaps taken her soul away. Ray’s masterly portrayal of Durga’s (the young daughter) death is done in great detail and built up as the emotional climax of the film, while the death of the old aunt in considerably less dramatic, as a precursor of greater sorrow. Dasgupta places the old beggars death who is no relative of Brojo’s family at the moral centre of the film.
This is the angry voice of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, also a sensitive poet, who gave up a career teaching economics at a reputed Kolkata college as he could not reconcile the lessons he imparted with the reality of the times.Thankfully he turned to cinema.This film has none of the lyricism of Pather Panchali, both visually and in the music which is sparsely used and to great dramatic effect. Dasgupta has no time to show us anything but the harsh truth and this film becomes a powerful human document.It can be seen as a companion piece to Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Calcutta which is full of visceral images of the crushing squalor of Kolkata.
This is his second feature film of 13 outstanding feature films so far and obviously made on a shoe string budget. Therefore, his casting of relatively unknown actors imparts an invaluable freshness and a neo-realist touch. Brojo’s defeated face and the protruding bones of his ribcage tell the story of extreme poverty and disease.His wife carries few vestiges of a lost beauty, the last which can still be seen when she allows a smile to cross her face as she relives her few years of a relatively humane existence.The camera is ruthless, lingering on the scene when we want it to look away.The film is tightly edited leaving no room for the black and white tones to create any semblance of glamour.
The stark depiction of abject poverty will be unpalatable to many viewers. Indian realistic cinema like this has long been childishly criticised as poverty porn.This film is entirely without a ray of hope.But this is not a hopelessness in perpetuity but at a point of time in India’s, Kolkata’s and West Bengal’s checkered history.This film is a very effective problem statement that cries out for a solution. The director leaves it to the viewer and the establishment to do the soul searching.If you could afford to buy a ticket to see this film when it was released you were infinitely better off than the starving family depicted here.
In 2012, when one reads of people scavenging for food in garbage bins in first world countries like Spain, the enormous problems in China posed by unbalanced growth, the pitiful condition of migrants in big cities working in completely dehumanised sweatshops, the characters of Neem Annapurna becomes spokespeople for the suffering masses in a world where the trickle down effect of wealth and development is the biggest lie told by politicians.