Shibnath Mukherjee( Mithun Chakraborty) is a freedom fighter who was sent away to the Andaman’s for eight years.Solitary confinement (Kaala Paani) in the Andaman Islands was the most harrowing punishment meted out by the British and usually reserved for the more reactionary individuals among the freedom fighters. Tortured brutally, Shibnath’s mental condition deteriorates rapidly, and after Independence he is kept in a mental asylum for 3 years.As the film opens we see him being released into a free India, but he is far from normal,his country is far from normal.He is being escorted home by Bipin(Dipanker De), his old associate and the current benefactor of his family.
This not the same India for whose freedom Shibnath, Master of Arts and teacher, killed and was nearly killed himself.His village of Taherpur, where he was a well respected revolutionary, is now in East Pakistan.His wife has given birth to a boy in his absence, she was 7 months pregnant when he was arrested. Bipin was also arrested along with him but confessed and was let off. He has been given a ticket to fight the first elections in free India and hopes that Shibnath’s presence by his side during the campaign will burnish his freedom fighter credentials. Shibnath’s wife Hemangini (Anashuya Majumdar) and his children await his arrival in the hope that a free India will treat its liberators and their family well.
In an astounding initial sequence, while Shibnath and Bipin are walking towards his home, Shibnath suddenly turns and runs back. Instinctively we feel that he is flinching form the prospect of meeting his wife after 11 years. But the reason turns out to be something more devastating.He has sought refuge behind a bush, repeated shoving of the wardens baton up his anus has resulted in him not being unable to control his bowel movements.Mr Dasgupta returns to this fecal incontinence repeatedly and literally makes us share the shame.By the end of the film, life has come a terrible full circle for Shibnath, he is back to being a prisoner, this time of free India.The same little steam locomotive which brought him back to the village is taking him away.
Mr Dasgupta tackles the question of how Shibnath’s life may have turned out if he had not lost his mind by comparing his agony with his comrade Mohitosh, who also served time in the Andamans. He runs away when he sees Shibnath, so afraid is he of the past and so out of place in the present.This encounter emphasises the fact that the films subtext of a generations disillusionment is very central to the film.Mr Dasgupta was born 3 years before independence, the son of an altruistic doctor in the railway service, and by the time he was in collage this discontent had ripened into the flashpoint of Naxalbari.
India’s freedom struggle failed its freedom fighters spectacularly and the assassination of Gandhi did not help matters.Also the more reactionary elements of the freedom struggle were looked down upon, since their violent methods were not credited with the success of the freedom struggle. In one scene, a government officer calls Shibnath a terrorist.The officer is a relic of the British establishment and still speaks their language.In a free India, it is people like him who hand out character certificates to freedom fighters so that they can get a pension of 50 rupees.
Shibnath’s house is like an empty shell, a dried fruit without any sustaining material left in it and helps create a haunting mise-en-scene. The camera constantly tracks Shibnath as he hobbles along, his gait permanently damaged by the violation his his guts in the prison. His children give him unconditional love, he shares many tender moments with his 11 year old son whom he has met for the first time but things are more complicated with Hemangini. His wife is terribly conflicted by his poor condition and desire to see him play the role of the bread winner.Mr Dasgupta reveals their fragile relationship by very skilfully showing them sidestepping physical intimacy by turns.
The film is set in a remote place without even a village in close proximity and the wide open spaces create a sense of emptiness and foreboding, a feeling accentuated by long beautiful tracking shots. The background score is very sparse and perfectly complements the superb sound design and cinematography. It is not a coincidence that Buddhadev Dasgupta is called the Tarkovsky of India, the images he creates are some of the most haunting and organic in Indian cinema.Images like the falling fragments of a shattered mirror, his daughters prized possession broken by Shibnath is fit of rage, which are then overlapped with a dense forest into which Shibnath walks a solitary walk, creates an atmosphere where we can feel his pain intimately.
While watching Tahader Katha , I could not help but think of the thousands of volunteers who sacrificed time, money and energy to the success of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) in the recent Delhi elections.What if they were to find their efforts wasted and forced to pay a bribe? That would be a lesser tragedy compared to that of Shibnath, but revolutions do create Shibnath’s and it is the duty of the new establishment to ensure that their work is properly honoured.This theme makes the film universal and timeless.