Although at the onset of Megeh Dhaka Tara , the Director Dr. Kamaleshwar Mukherjee states that the story line is fictional and has no direct or indirect connection with any character, living or dead; even the crow scavenging at Kolkata’s depleting garbage dumps knows that the Meghe Dhaka Tara is largely based on the life and works of the late maverick filmmaker of Bengal, Ritwik Ghatak.
Set in the period during late 1960s when Naxalite turmoil had engulfed the intelligentsia of Bengal & Calcutta , the story is placed metaphorically at a mental asylum in Calcutta. The protagonist Neelkantha is an award-winning but commercially unsuccessful film maker and also an alcoholic, who has been admitted in the asylum by his wife to treat him for his addiction. While trying to delve into the psyche of Neelkantha in order to understand the root cause of his addiction, the Doctor in charge of the hospital gets gradually drawn in by the talented Neelkantha’s account of the background of his life and his works both in theater and films. Neelkantha talks about his childhood in East Bengal , the riverine delta of Padma, the great Bengal famine of 1943, the migration to Calcutta of West Bengal, the separation of Bengal, the oppression of the colonial rulers on the protesting farmers, the inevitable emergence of the people’s theater by a group of committed artists ,theater workers, film makers; the influence of Brecht, Gorky etc. on the art-forms of people theater; the struggle for livelihood & the consequent conflicts with ideology. The Doctor is still clueless whether Neelkantha’s addiction is an inspiration for his creativity or merely an expression of his frustration at his commercial failure. Neelkantha’s angst, his uncompromising stance of using art as a weapon to fight the oppressive arms of the state on behalf of the people or his conviction that he can betray everything excepting his beliefs & thoughts get to re-express themselves at the asylum when he decides to stage a play with the inmates of the asylum. In between there is a police raid & an identification parade of the inmates (which the Doctor protests calling it ironically “an insane act” ) in the asylum looking for a fugitive Naxalite which angers Neelkantha but doesn’t deter him from smuggling in bottles of alcohol with the help of some of his inmates. The Doctor upgrades his treatment for Neelkantha from medications to Electric shocks but can’t calm down Neelkantha as he struggles, shouts, cajoles, pleads, chides to motivate the inmates of the mental asylum for staging the play. The play is finally staged and the film ends with Neelkantha going out of the backstage to an open field with Phulmoni ( a raped tribal girl & a mental patient) as if liberated, finally.
The film constantly moves between 1943 and 1969 as Neelkantha describes his life , his failure to earn money, the loss of most of his comrades and friends to lure and lucre of commercial films, his running battle with addiction and his love for the common man , the mentally-tortured man. In a way Meghe Dhaka Tara sets to the viewers a background to explain the sustenance of leftist philosophy, although deviated in principles, in Bengal. The devastation of the famine ; the uprooting of significant population of Bengal during 1943, 1947 & 1971; the oppression of the state , the conflict between communists and nationalists are portrayed thoughtfully and artfully in Neelkantha’s accounts to the Doctor.Meghe Dhaka Tara is pictured in Black and White and brings back the romance of B/W pictures, the juxtapositions of light and shadow and inscribes an archival quality to a story that the director claims is neither a documentary nor a biopic. But the crow at the garbage dump realizes that the movie is heavily inspired by Ritwik’s Ghatak last movie, “Jukti, Tokko, Golpo,” not only in its narrative but also in the names of the characters as well as in some of its shots & frames. Like the dancers in black during that play in the asylum or the dream sequence which shows the killing of the protagonist in the Sal forest caught as he was in a crossfire between the naxalites and the police.
The soundtrack is excellent and the selection & rendition of background songs (moder kono desh nai or bondor, bondor etc.) are superb. Debojyoti Mishra’s fantastic music just blends seamlessly with the film. The editing is structured as it flashes the symbols and the cinematic moments (which are in plenty) without dwelling on each of them for eternity.A mention must be made of Shaswata Chatterjee , who was simply marvelous in his portrayal of Neelkantha and deserves a national award. The restrained acting of Abir Chatterjee as the Doctor and that of the supporting actress Ananya Chatterjee as Neelkantha’s wife , Durga can’t escape an ordinary viewer’s acclaim.
There are other characters in the movie which the crow alleges are inspired by other notable personalities such as filmmakers like Mrinal Sen & Hrishikesh Mukherje; actors like Shobha Sen, Kali Bannerjee, Bijon Bhattachrya, Charuprakash Ghosh, Supriya Devi; music directors like Salil Chowdhury etc. But the viewers will be disappointed if they are bent on identifying them during the movie for the the director hardly dwells on sketching their characters.
Overall, Meghe Dekha Tara was an audaciously unique audio-visual experience for a Bengali movie goer in a time when well-packaged spoofs or irrelevant urban angst set in high-rises of Calcutta are being heralded as new age films. Most importantly, the movie evokes rational thinking as strongly as emotional feeling among the viewers. Kudos to director Kamaleswar Mukhopadhyay for showing the audacity to make his fourth film, Meghe Dhaka Tara and I , for one, will be waiting with anticipation for his fifth venture, Chander Pahar based on Bibhutibhashan Bandopadhya’s novel of the same name.
JAS rating : 9 out of 10