Monday, October 1, 2018

Bipasha বিপাশা (1962): A tale of three rivers

Bipasha (Bengali, 1962) is concerned with reconciling cultural beliefs about spatial identity and meaning with the political realities of independence and division. It also intends to redeem the personal trauma and shame of the children of Partition. In order to achieve these monumental tasks, Bipasha engages in an aggressive and relentless flow of narrative symbolism. But if you can manage to rise above the torrent of religious, nationalist, and spatial mythology, it's a film that will reward patient viewers.

GEOGRAPHIC BACKGROUND


Bipasha, our heroine, shares a name with the traditional Sanskrit title for the Beas river, Vipas विपाशा or Vyasa. In Bengali, as "v's" become "b's", the protagonist is alternately called Biyash or Bipasha. This scripting choice seems to intentionally link the heroine to the mythological river as it is known in both the Rig Veda and Mahabharata.

Beas Watershed (Stanford, 2012)
Historically, the river is also legendary for defeating Alexander the Great's ambitions in the subcontinent--for at the banks of the Beas, Sikander's armies lost their taste for war and refused to march any further.

The modern Beas flows through the Punjab Plain, and is a major tributary of the Indus. In the Partition of the Punjab, the Beas fell on the Indian side of the line. Post-partition, the Beas remained a subject of contention between Pakistan and India. After a number of stop-gap agreements, in 1960, the Beas was officially allocated to India's governance under the Indus Waters Treaty. In 1962, India's newly-minted official claim to the river may have been fresh in the minds of Bipasha's politically informed viewers.

THE STORY


Bipasha (Suchitra Sen) has just passed her exams at a Catholic mission college, but is seemingly filled, like many a graduate, with existential doubt about her future prospects. Even her friend Yashoda cannot seem to lift her spirits with a healthy prescription of procrastination.


Predictably, (for those who have seen a few Uttam and Suchitra pairings), Bipasha is abruptly pulled out of her melancholic reverie by the obnoxious neighbor in the flat next door, one Dibendu (Uttam Kumar). Dibendu is engaged in loudly declaiming a poem about how he has conquered a Bipasha, reached into her heart, and stolen a pebble from it. Fuming, Bipasha storms into his flat and demands an explanation for his rude behavior. He claims that he dove into the river, Bipasha, and retrieved a rock from the bottom. He's also darn proud of it, and swears that everything's been a funny misunderstanding, a coincidence one would only expect to see on stage. Bipasha isn't convinced, and walks out after a hefty tongue lashing.


Of course, she spies a news story in the paper that confirms his story about the engineering student Dibendu Chatterjee's exploits in the Beas river. Shamed, she tries to make amends, but finds he has moved house permanently. She then visits her swami-ji (Chhabi Biswas), but surprisingly not for confession, but rather to tell him she has gotten a tribal scholarship (i.e. a murky plot device) to work in Panchet on the Damodar river, also the site of a newly completed dam. He tells her that she has "fought much in her life, but can proceed without fear" (see image #1 above). It is the audience's first clue that perhaps the source of Bipasha's moodiness goes beyond her quarter-life crisis.


Bipasha's first order of business in Panchet turns out to be attending an elaborately choreographed performance of the story of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the holy Ganges. (You can watch the performance here: [3:37-13:33] or search for the film on YT with English subtitled narration of the myth of Ganga and Shiva. I treasure the often thoughtful dialogue of '60s Bengali films, and heartwarming serenades are everywhere, but it is a rare treat to see an extended group dance sequence, especially of this caliber, in a Bengali film of the period.)

Suchitra Sen as Bipasha displays perfect degrees of increasing intensity here. Her reactions to Ganga's lines about the river's greater purpose--to give life to the nation--feel visceral and authentic. It's a great example of the power of showing over telling. Later we hear a single flirtatious line comparing Bipasha to the goddess Ganga, but here we see her realization of this metaphorical connection play out in real time.


Bipasha is shocked to find that the author and director of the play is ... Dibendu! A coincidence actually occurring at a theatre this time... how droll, what delightful foreshadowing. She goes backstage to make her apologies, and finds that he is quite unaffected by her insults, and just happy to see her again. All is as it should be, who could stay mad at that sweet upturned face for long? It also turns out Dibendu is working as some sort of engineering management position related to the newly constructed dam. SYMBOLISM, guys.

I AM PANDIT-JI'S INDIA, HEAR ME ROAR

After a flirty chai-time visit and an accidental run-in or two, the two strike up an acquaintance, and we find out that Bipasha's mother was Punjabi, and her father, a Bengali Brahmin--thus explaining her fluency but her "non-Bengali" looks. (Whatever that means, but y'all, my money's on the short hair.)


But since things are progressing a bit slowly, Bipasha takes matters into her own hands and decides to be rather blunt in laying out what she wants...


... Further visits from her one friend in town, Mr. Dibendu, सिर्फ, শুধু. The look on his face as he realizes that she's no longer flirting, but deadly serious, is delightful--it is the sort of pay-off one counts on in the famous chemistry of Uttam and Suchitra's onscreen partnership. Like a properly educated Bengali boy, Dibendu asks about the massive Punjabi quotation on the wall. Bipasha no sooner recites the Sikh saying then she falls into a fiery flashback of her experiences running from the Partition violence in Punjab.


She recounts to Dibendu the horrors of the flight to India. She and her father were part of a group that was beaten to death on the road. She fell into a ditch and escaped the violence and rape, but woke to find her father dead. A kindly Sikh man and his son took her under their wing, but the son died in the course of the journey, trying to protect Bipasha and his father.

Trained in filmi ways as I am, I fully expected the Sikh fellow to adopt Bipasha. But instead he leads her to the safety of the new border post and then tells her that though they both SEEM alone in the world, the entirety of India now belongs to her. (Also, have a nice jeevan, beTi, while I pledge my remaining days to asceticism).

PROPS TO THE FREAKISHLY ACCURATE CASTING/PORTRAYAL OF THE YOUNG BIPASHA

Eventually she found her way to the Swami-ji, and the mission school, but she continues to feel alone in the world. Dibendu admits that he too has no close family either, but was raised by his grandmother, who alone showed him love amongst his aunts and uncles, and left him her property when she died. Two little orphans, united by their PTSD and loneliness. A "dil-squish" moment if ever there was one.

From this new stage of intimacy, Dibendu and Bipasha get cozier in the rain and by the river, etc. etc. Finally, Bipasha asked to pay a sick call on a dubiously healthy looking Dibendu. After re-making his bed and thus proving her domestic skills, they settle into a cuddly wink-wink discussion of the future: theirs to be precise. 


From his portrait on the wall, Tagore looks down at the young lovers with the grim appraisal of the seasoned poet laureate, noting that the course of true love doth never run so smooth.

I'M IN LOVE WITH THIS RIVER, NO WAIT, I'M IN LOVE WITH A RIVER GODDESS, NO WAIT

Yup, on the eve of their wedding, Dibendu receives a mysterious letter and disappears before the ceremony.
I WILL NOW PAINT MY PARTING WITH THE SAME CARE I GIVE MY EYEBROWS

Refusing to admit that he has abandoned her, Bipasha gravely covers her own parting with sindoor and proclaims herself Dibendu's wife ... to the horror of everyone in attendance. She sets off to track down Dibendu. On her own again, but this time, full of purpose.

IF YOU HADN'T NOTICED, THIS IS MY DEVI SIDE. MY RIGHT SIDE IS FOR DOMESTIC SCENES. 

Spoilers below...

Bipasha's detective work leads her to follow the address of the letter to Dibendu's uncle. Turns out Uncle served some rather nasty family history to Dibendu the night of the wedding, with some ugly legal action on the side.

BENGALI REMAKE OF "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE." MR. POTTER: SCREEN TEST #38

Surprise! Dibendu was born a month early, and his father denied that Dibendu was his son IN COURT. Dibendu's mother admitted she was not married to his father at the time of Dibendu's conception. IN COURT. So, yes, Dibendu, we are disinheriting you because apparently that is something we can do despite your grandmother's wishes because COURT. Also your parents are alive but want nothing to do with you, obviously. Bipasha proudly, if sadly declares to Awful Uncle that she is Dibendu's stree, but only sort of, because it is now obvious he ran off to save her the shame of his parentage.

A brief aside: I maintain that अदालत-drama is always the worst in filmidom, even when it happens long ago/far away and doesn't consign the majority of screen time to legal high jinks.

Meanwhile, a dejected and decidedly gone-to-seed Dibendu is searching the kotha district of Allahabad, where his uncle claims his ma was last seen. He gets it into his head that the tawaif's voice he hears is also his mother's voice, making a fool of himself by stumbling into a private performance.


Rushing to overtake him, Bipasha arrives in Allahabad, heading to the police station first. Here the police are helpful for once (shades of Kahaani), and somehow direct her straight to Dibendu.


But Dibendu wants nothing to do with her and screams at her to leave. Because she's a faithful stree, and frankly, Dibendu looks ill, she plops right down on his armchair as he falls into a nightmarish sleep.


Nobody rocks a fever-dream sequence like Uttam, and this particular picturization is as chilling as Nayak's. A crowd runs after a black-clad Dibendu through a claustrophobic alley, taunting him with various insults about his parentage, his mother, the shameful state of his birth. Finally he breaks from them to cringe behind a pile of garbage, while the crowd yells, "Kill yourself." Dibendu wakes up in a cold sweat, with these last two words pounding and repeating in his ears. His eyes light on his shaving kit. No prizes for guessing his next plan.

Poor Bipasha gets to awaken to his suicide note, and his heartbreaking confession that he cannot let her be tainted by the sin of his birth. She runs after him, but is confronted by a crowd around a pool of blood on the street. Not a great way to start one's day. Seems that the suicide attempt was not completely successful, and Dibendu has been rushed to the local hospital. Bipasha tries to visit, but is rejected by Dibendu once again.

OH NOW THAT YOU'RE ACTUALLY SICK YOU DON'T WANT ME HERE, HMM. 

She takes comfort from the presence of her swami-ji, but all is not as it seems. For the swami-ji is taking the details of Dibendu's story RATHER personally and seems to be doing some investigating of his own.

At this point in the film, a person familiar with masala tropes might guess that the shame of Dibendu's parentage will be resolved after all. And yes, there's a Nirupa Roy-level "Ma-BeTa" reunion to look forward to. Furthermore, Allahabad is obviously not a coincidental destination for the climax of this story. Allahabad is the home of the Triveni Sangam, or the confluence of the three holy rivers, the Ganga, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati. This is the site of the Kumbh Mela, where every 12 years impossibly massive crowds of believers come to find spiritual cleansing and a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

I would not have been surprised  if Allahabad had just been a symbolic location, a place where Dibendu was fated to meet his parents and find out that the truth of his parentage was not as awful as he had thought. And while these things certainly happen--this is popular cinema, the public expects a certain payoff--they only happen after a much more personal climactic event.

Bipasha convinces Dibendu to have a real talk. Not the kind where he has a meltdown and pushes her away. She speaks eloquently, softly, and powerfully.

DAMMIT SHE SOUNDS SERIOUS. 

In her kind but firm way, she tells Dibendu that he was an innocent child and should bear no sin for what his parents did. Their marriage or children will not carry the weight of the past generations. Dibendu will be their first ancestor, the beginning of a new line.

SHH, THIS IS FILMI-LAND, WHERE WE LIVE FOR AWKWARD FACE TOUCHING

This is some radical stuff. But hey, it's ok, because we know that Bipasha represents Ganga, and therefore Dibendu is transformed by her words. He agrees. With them, all things will be new.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Sure, you can find propaganda laced throughout Bipasha, but it's not a propaganda film. It is political, but it is also profoundly hopeful and radically modern. Where it finds a hurt, it also seeks to heal. In sum, its empathy surpasses its philosophical ambitions.

I have a great weakness for films that take a grand political problem or situation and project it on to the volatile passions between lovers. But often in Indian cinema these stories end tragically, or, alternatively, present a moral solution that is somewhat stilted or fatalistic. In this case, Bipasha succeeds in telling a story that deals with a raw recent past, engages in some serious steps towards philosophical and emotional catharsis, and manages to give the main couple a happy ending. Ok, yes, it does take a hard pass on telling Bengal's own history of Partition (into West Bengal and East Pakistan) in favor of telling a safer, more distant tale of violence, destruction, and displacement in the Punjab. But to me, this was a brilliant way to address the overarching pain of the displaced Bengali, without opening the local Pandora's box, so to speak.

The use of a Sanskritized Hindi rather than Bengali, Urdu, or Punjabi (not to mention the word "Hindustan") for the flashback scenes was also an interesting choice. It places the film firmly within new national borders and nationalist sentiments. Yet neither Pakistan nor Muslims are mentioned, as far as I could tell. Its worldview is structured by a Hindu-centric, Nehruvian ideal of public space. Building the new nation is paramount, a nation that is neither held back by the fear and trauma of Partition (embodied by Bipasha's experiences) nor the sins of one's forefathers (embodied in Dibendu's family history).

Together, Bipasha and Dibendu present an ideal model for the emerging Indian citizen. Bipasha, the displaced and orphaned citizen of a divided land, is healed by her partnership with Dibendu. In him she finds the companionship, belonging, and family she has so long lived without. And likewise, Dibendu's shame is washed away by Bipasha's loving absolution. His caste, his parentage, his inheritance--is nothing--his future with Bipasha is everything.

One walks away with a clear message: the children of Nehru's India should rise above loss, caste, and the crimes of the past and work to bring prosperity out of the land. After all, it's no accident that Dibendu the engineer (the industrializing mind that tames the river) falls in love with Bipasha (the representation of the river goddess) living and walking near the new Panchet dam project. Ultimately, Bipasha and Dibendu must overcome their obstacles and come together as one, as their partnership represents the symbolic marriage of human aspirations and nature herself.

Still, I can't help but bless the production team that decided to give this story a progressive and redemptive twist. The same message could have conceivably been filtered through heavy-handed moral scare tactics or misogynistic plot devices. Instead, this film begs the viewer, "Be healed. Heal one another." Bipasha is a certainly a symbol of the displaced, traumatized child of Partition. But she is also a real person with agency, a survivor who fights for a better life for herself and her partner. She pursues Dibendu in good times and bad. He may have written the play in the first half, but she writes the new script for their life together. And in the moment Dibendu listens to her, and chooses to be the first of a new generation, we viewers, regardless of our nationality, can also choose to be free of our own ancestral burdens.

In this way, for me at least, the situated questions of a postcolonial, industrializing nation are transformed into timeless answers for anyone who cares to listen. Good art can do that.