Saturday, October 18, 2014

Marutirtha Hinglaj (1959)

There was a moment early into this film when I began to furiously take notes, something I rarely feel compelled to do until after watching. The first of those scattered thoughts? "This film has more conscience than it knows what to do with!" But I also wrote that I didn't expect its conscience to continue to resemble my own. We are all familiar with the curse of a film's concluding minutes, when all one's ethical hope is dashed. But in that cynicism, I think I may have been proved wrong.

Marutirtha Hinglaj is a self-conscious and often sentimental portrait of a group of pilgrims headed on a long journey through the desert to reach a goddess's shrine at Hinglaj (beginning from Karachi, Balochistan) and the nearby volcanic shrine of Baba Chandrakoot. Both holy sites promise that a pilgrim can be washed of all his sin provided that (a) he work out his penance through the harsh desert journey, and (b) that he confesses his sins truthfully upon reaching the first shrine.

As befitting such religious journey stories (The Canterbury Tales might come to mind), the would-be devotees are a rag-tag bunch, from many different walks of life and castes; of both Muslim and Hindu faiths. Along the way, the larger group rescues two dying travelers (Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee), who claim to have been trying to catch up and make the pilgrimage themselves. It is clear from the flavorful euphemisms and shocked behavior that the group does not consider these two to be respectable company. However, they are in need, and the kind ascetic/monk, if not the sour pandit, convince the rest that the right thing can only be to take them along and care for their safety.

After some public histrionics between the two apparent lovers, Pirimal (Uttam Kumar) relates their sad tale. It turns out that they are married, but not in the eyes of "most"of society. Once upon a time, she was a young, abandoned wife; he was the [con man] astrologer who had been hired to find the missing husband of several years. They fell in super-cute puppy-love, and decided to run away together. Tragically, they found no place where they both could belong. When trying to walk in merchant class circles, they were turned away because of the apparently *obvious* caste difference; and when they tried to make money through street performance, Kunti (Sabitri Chatterjee) was repeatedly propositioned. Finally, they decided to travel with the pilgrims, but left too late, and were robbed and [Kunti] raped by dacoits. Perhaps because desert treks are boring, the romance and drama of their story wins over even the more judgmental travelers.

Despite the support of the compassionate monk and passionate appeals from Pirimal, Kunti almost immediately shuns the company of her beloved, telling him she has taken a vow of asceticism and feels that their sufferings are a direct result of their "sinful" love. This is too much for Pirimal, who starts to experience worse and worse bouts of [filmi] madness. While hilarious on an Uttam Kumar fandom level, this proves devastating during the journey's touch and go survival scenarios. More and more, the conscience of the group is tested, as they are forced to choose between the well-being of the majority, and the safety of struggling individuals.

[Spoilers ahead.]

Fair warning, this film doesn't bore, but it might offend in places. I mind not, as long as there's something to pick apart and the story is tight enough to actually satisfy. I would put Marutirtha Hinglaj in the same category as Oh My God (2012): commercial fare simultaneously aiming to reinforce and critique religious beliefs.

Beyond being entertained, I was moved by this film. It may be a bit dated, but there's so much to think about here, that I will probably be dwelling on this story for some time. As it was based on a real life-inspired travelogue by Bengali author Kalikananda Abhadut, AND shot in the desert, it hangs on urgent questions of life and death. The parallel moral journey is thus impossible to dismiss. When belief and devotion play out in extreme survival scenarios, it seems important to take them seriously.

For some reason, I've never considered the ingenious nature of the pilgrim narrative in its ability to be a microcosm of the issues of society as a whole. Perhaps such a religious journey is more likely to be taken by people of middle to lower financial status, but beyond that, you can pretty much include any "caste" of characters you like ... any social problem ... any moral dilemma.

For example ... the same ascetic who vouches for the protection of the oft pagol Kailash also acts as a confessor to some of the travelers, which leads to some shocking revelations, such as infanticide ... a sin one of the pilgrims hopes is not too big for the goddess or Baba Chandrakoot to cleanse. Though horrifying, it seemed to me a brave topic to bring up and condemn--considering that the practice is still common in many places--but I've never heard it talked about it in an Indian film before in a serious way. Cackling masala villains often try to do away with the infant son of their enemy, but this film tackles the baser motivations of murder ... a man *simply* wanted to preserve or raise a child from his own lineage, rather than his brother's, and is haunted by this choice for the rest of his life.

"Paap" or "sin" is, understandably, a central question of the film. Is there such a thing as too big of a sin to forgive? Is it a sin to leave a priest's body behind in the desert, without the proper rituals? Do people suffer because their "faith is being tested," as the kind ascetic [a la Book of Job philosophy] maintains? Or do they suffer because of their trespasses? If you do something out of compassion or love, can it be a sin?

The central lovers act out these questions on a very personal stage. In the height of Kunti's emotional self-flagellation, Pirimal tells her that they don't need to repent, as she believes. Instead, he says, "Wrong! They've taught you the wrong things...How can love be a sin?"

Perhaps the film's most morbid moment best sums up its symbolic punch. When the pandit falls ill and unable to walk during the longest stretch between wells, a barely sane Pirimal (someone the pandit did nothing but shun) offers to carry him through the night to save his life. But at some point, the priest dies, and in his exhaustion and determination, Pirimal does not realize. The pandit's post-mortem grip nearly chokes Pirimal to death.

Ultimately, "sin" and "holiness" are portrayed as gray areas. The much hoped-for monastery that the three would-be monks/nuns are directed towards turns out to be a desert mirage. The resident Brahmin is clearly the least loving and most expendable person in the group of pilgrims. The super-spiritual guide who seemed to be in charge of all the important pilgrimage rituals [if he had an official title, I didn't catch it], and performs them with a terrifying perfection, is the first to raise arms against a pilgrim "refusing" to confess at the first shrine. Once again, it is the ascetic who stays his hand.

And, just as the kind monk doesn't judge anyone, viewers are similarly expected to be open minded. There are two sides to every belief, every moral position. For all the unquestioned devotion of certain pilgrims, there are also angry accusations and doubts. Through such moments, the film pushes the viewer to question, "Does God really punish us? Or are society's unjust rules the cause of our ills?" The final minutes of the film seem to advocate the latter.

10 comments:

  1. Hmm, interesting. Very interesting. Your review makes me want to watch this for myself. Any chance of it being online?

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    1. 'Tis available on YT with subs :) I don't think it will disappoint.

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    2. I second Anu Warrier's comment. Your review is profound and thought-provoking. It makes me yearn for the return of this period of Bengali film.

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    3. I second Anu Warrier's comment. Your review is profound and thought-provoking. It makes me yearn for the return of this period of Bengali film.

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    4. Thank you, Samina. This film still stands out to me among all the Bengali things I've seen for it's ideas and setting and the interesting mix of archetypal characters interacting with on another.

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  2. I have seen this one and i quite liked it. Esp it's performances, music, story-line & direction are praiseworthy.Yet, i am not too fond of this film as i find it quite depressing. :(

    Such pilgrimage travel movies were quite popular in bengali cinema of yore. Apart from MH, other notable films in this genre inlcude Mahaprasthaner Pathey (Yatrik In Hindi) & Bigalito Karuna Janhabi Jamuna. Among the 3, i rate Mahaprasthaner Pathey the best.

    p.s: The role of the priest in MH was played by the director Bikash Roy himself. He is regarded as one of the best character actor ever in bengali cinema, next only to Chhabi Biswas & Pahadi Sanyal. :)

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    1. raunakjoy, so good to make your acquaintances. Glad to have another Bengali film comrade in arms!

      I feel like I should have been depressed by this film (what does it give you to be happy about, after all?!) but I happened to be in the right mood for this sort of philosophical travelogue. Also, I haven't seen the other pilgrimages stories you mention, so it was a relatively new experience.

      Director Bikash Roy playing the priest--since the names were the same I figured it was probably the same fellow. At first I thought it slightly suspect (lol) that he played the most positive character in the story ... but it does make sense--given that the other leads are romantic/tragic. The narrative role is better suited to a character actor--and it perhaps was just another function of maintaining the story's message.

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  3. Uttam Kumar's character is Thirumal. Not Pirimal. :)

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    1. Ha! I might have been misled by subtitles. Thanks, Pathikrit!

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  4. Thanks to all. Really interested in watching the movie. Have been out of touch from Bengali movies especially since I left Calcutta. This blog kind of reignited my nostalgic moments of my childhood and growing up days. Thanks once again.

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