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|April 11, 2000||
The old man and the society
Shoma A Chatterji
At times, however, it has gone to the other extreme, specially in Hindi mainstream cinema, where the negative elements of parenthood are stressed to an exaggeration. Parents in these films are carved out to be villains or vamps, standing in the way of two very unequal youngsters madly in love.
Lately, however, there is a happy trend to focus on the problems of the ageing and the aged among off-mainstream filmmakers. At IFFI 2000 in Delhi this January, the Indian Panorama was flush with a whole bunch of films unfolding the pathos of the aged. The award-winning film Karunam, directed by Jayaraj, on the loneliness and vulnerability of old age, went on to bag the top award from the International Jury.
Raja Sen from Calcutta pays his own cinematic tribute to the survival of the spirit of the old in his Atmiyo Swajan (The Family Chronicle) in Bengali. It won the Best Feature Film on Family Welfare Award at the National Awards last year.
Based on a story by Samaresh Majumdar, Atmiyo Swajan focuses on an aged couple beset by the oppression of a world that seems to reject them. An old man with a strict code of ethics is appalled and hurt by the abrasive circumstances that invade his, and his wife's lives.
The couple has three sons, settled with their families under the same roof. But they openly refuse moral responsibility and emotional support towards their parents. The two married daughters have problems of their own. The elder daughter's husband is trapped in a scam being investigated by the CBI. The younger daughter's marriage is on the verge of breaking up.
The old man fails to cope with these sweeping changes in his social environment, strongly reflected in the behaviour and lifestyle of his grown-up children. So, he persuades his wife to enter into a suicide pact. "This is the only way to step out of this unfeeling, corrupt world," he tells her.
She agrees, more out of loyalty towards him than out of her own volition. But twists and turns in the lives around them forces him to go it alone, because his wife collapses and has to be hospitalised. By the time she is released, she is already a widow.
Cinematically, the film is soaked with exaggerated moments of melodrama -- an over-generous use of glycerine set against an overdose of syrupy scenes -- that tend to dilute the intensity of the main message: presenting a totally new perspective on euthanasia.
Euthanasia, here, is a protest against the rejection of the individual. If this be true, then suicide is a rejection of one's own life and thereby, of oneself. The old man's suicide is his way of rejecting life, which means he is also rejecting the individual. The film is a strong statement against euthanasia because the social definition of man directly contradicts his individualism.
The overlong screenplay (by Ujjal Chatterjee), running to a screening time of 140 minutes, could have been tightened quite a bit, by editing (Mahadev Shi) out needlessly long sequences. At times, the colours appear a bit too loud despite an excellent cinematographer like Soumendu Roy handling the camera. The background score (Partho Sengupta) is moving in the closing scenes.
But it is more the content, the characterisations and the theme of the film that deserve praise rather than the treatment. Sen has coloured his characters with shades of grey instead of painting them in solid blacks or whites.
The old couple's children are not really bad. They are a bit too self-centred to realise their parents' need for emotional support. The old man and his wife too are trapped in a situation partly of their own making. The sons' families have separate kitchens. Why? Why not move out to separate apartments? Or, why not the same kitchen? The granddaughter (June Mallya), a medical student who is fond of the couple, adds a note of hope in a dark scenario.
This could also suggest that the director was shying away from making the film a stronger statement than it would have been had he not played it a bit too safe with the supporting characters. The old woman (a fairly good fleshing out by Supriya Devi) emerges as the strongest of them all, who throws away her sleeping pills from the terrace in the closing shots, backed by her granddaughter.
Soumitra Chatterjee, with his body language, a face that constantly fluctuates between sadness and shock, grief and surprise, lives the pains of an old man who finds his faith in the goodness of human beings belied in his last days.
In the closing scenes of the film, one finds the old woman explaining to her sympathetic granddaughter that life is for living, and to keep on living is also the moral responsibility of those who are alive. To commit suicide is to escape from that moral responsibility. This offers a positive note of hope to all ageing parents of a post-modern world who identify with the situation this couple finds itself in.
It also points out the irony of the old man's suicide. By escaping from a family he roundly accuses of having absolved itself of moral responsibility, he does not realise that he himself is running away from his own.
The film offers a cinematic definition of the decadence of human values in an urban, modern setting. It symbolises a microcosm of our social reality where the rise in the number of homes for the aged is the direct outcome of a fall in affection, respect and human feelings of children towards their elders.
A very good theme, a strong film, Atmiyo Swajan, is somewhat marred by melodrama working overtime.
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