A tale of wonder: Sahaj Pather Goppo

I came to know about Sahaj Pather Goppo (Colours of Innocence) absolutely by accident. Sure, there was a small feature on the two child artists Nur Islam and Samiul Alam, who won the National Awards this year in the entertainment supplement of a Bengali daily. But apart from that and a small review in another Bengali daily, the mainstream media of West Bengal was largely silent, perhaps studiedly so, about this film. There were no hoardings (only a few posters attesting the remarkable cinematography that the film contains) and the entertainment supplements that usually studiously chronicle promotional events, the lives and diets of cine stars, seemed to have avoided the film to the greatest possible extent.

How did I know about the film then? It was through the Facebook status messages of a handful of people who are in the knowhow of Bengali popular culture much more than I am, who took it upon themselves as individuals to urge others to watch it, share dates and show timings and at times, offer to fund the viewing as well. I hardly know these individuals, but somehow, when a convenient time cropped up, I went with a friend to watch it, and wished for more, a lot more.

First, a note on the title: Sahaj Pather Goppo, is translated to Colours of Innocence (a translation that well captures the innocence that is crucial to the formation of the film as well as the narrative movement), but this is not a literal translation. Sohoj Path by Rabindranath Tagore is the series of Bengali primers carrying images by Nandalal Bose and small rhymes and simple texts that gradually introduce the young child to the mysteries of spelling, complex sounds and long sentences. ‘Sahoj Path’, is also translatable into easy/simple lessons, lessons learnt in childhood, perhaps also lessons of childhood? ‘Goppo’, are stories, so stories from/of Sahaj Path, or the stories that actually impart the ‘path’, the lesson? Although the translated title doesn’t leave space for any of these complexities of interpretation, it nevertheless works, since this is a film about childhood innocence, an innocence that refuses to be beaten down and ‘ways of seeing’ that impart in Bengali cinema a distinctly different aesthetic.

Adapted from Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay’s extremely short short-story, “Talnabami” (the ninth day when sweets made from the fruit of the palmyra tree are to be consumed), this film is about two boys, living lives at the brink of starvation with an ailing father and a mother (Sneha Biswas) trying her best to make ends meet. The older one, Gopal (Samiul) and the younger one, Chhotu (Nur) find ways to amuse themselves while fighting hunger pangs with Gopal slowly taking up the mantle of the provider by foraging, gathering, selling vegetables and also doing odd jobs in the neighbourhood. The two children find out about an upcoming feast in the nearby landlord’s house, a feast to which every child is expected to be invited. While Gopal wants to sell them the palmyra fruit to make a quick buck, Chhotu wants to give them away for free, hoping that it would ensure their invitation. What ensues forms the barebones of the narrative, the sketchiness of which is filled in by long visuals, information about the family that merges with the backdrop and is present in dialogues, many of the dialogues taking place only between the two children, narrating their hopes, fears, loves and the possibility of a better future.

A short three page story that chronicles the expectations and the disappointment of two children, in the face of a feast that one can barely dream of, has been lengthened to an 81 minute long feature film and quite predictably, calls forth comparisons with the other Bibhutibhushan classics like Pather Panchali, adapted to film by the ever glorious Satyajit Ray. Pather Panchali’s protagonist is Apu (also a young impoverished boy), whose wonder at the beauty and marvel of the world around him enables the urban Indian audience to access rural Bengal in ways that were unprecedented. But perhaps, apart from the innocence and wonder that the children display, that carries the narrative and directs camera movement, it is best to leave aside further comparisons or questions of to what extent the director had been influenced by Ray.

Instead, it is better to marvel at the wonder that this film is. In frame after frame the audience finds pleasure in looking through young Chhotu and Gopal’s eyes, and at other times, with them. The somewhat more worldly wise Gopal who decides, after a violent dream sequence to be of help to the mother, nevertheless is amused by his brother’s antics, and at each instance, the audience feels scared for their vulnerability, protective of their innocence and shaken out of the impunity with which parents dress up their children and send them to school with a tiffin box, while asking other children to sweep, clean and mop, in exchange for a meal or two. The urban middle class impunity with which we, the multiplex audience of this day have learnt to navigate stark social inequalities is repeatedly battered while watching the film because poverty here, is nothing like poverty we have witnessed in the representational realm through the past few decades.

Food, predictably occupies centre stage in this film. The children are constantly hungry, Gopal throws the plate when he sees that for the umpteenth time their mother has plated up rice and boiled greens, Chhotu accompanies Gopal to clean the well at a neighbour’s house in the promise of food, and the much awaited feast at the landlord’s house fills up his days and nights. Specific items of food, in this case pulao, the likes of which he hadn’t even heard of occupy his imagination.  Gopal sells food at the market collected at the commons around the pond and under the tree—the kind of visceral hunger that is embodied in the figures of the children is a revelation, because while we all know of poverty, we hardly ever experience it empathetically. The mid day meal at school, that Gopal can no longer partake since he has to work at home and outside is also a matter of fascination for Chhotu—he tries to compare between different schools and their meals, while Gopal fears that he may never go back to school after all.

There are two dream sequences in the film, in both cases, there are subtle hints as to their being dreams, but resonating as they do with the deepest fears and desires in the minds of the children, and without breaking narrative continuity, the audience takes a bit of time to convince herself that it is indeed a dream, and feels alternately relieved and shattered that it is so.

As for the children, their acting is of course the best thing about the film. But so is the cinematography, capturing visuals that now exist mostly in the folds of documentaries or travel shows; rain falling from the leaves or on water, a non descript man collecting shapla in a small round boat, children running in rain with a kochu pata as their umbrella, half of them buck naked, the ubiquitous kashphul, a random man scolding a child who he assumes has strayed too far away in the fog, a house with a single aperture for a window, where the ailing father lies—the cinematography takes the familiar (as a recurrent trope in lifestyle magazines, travel supplements and the ‘subject’ of most amateur photography) and weaves it seamlessly into a story of wonder, resilience and hope.

The director has spoken at length about being particular about the dialect that he wanted spoken in the film, and therefore the need to find authentic speakers in the form of a couple of school boys from North 24 Parganas ( a district adjacent to Kolkata, one that shares the border with Bangladesh). This also reflects back upon the fake, forever slipping dialects Bengali popular culture is currently replete with, betraying the refusal to do the even the rudimentary bit of research. It then, is no wonder that the film garnered no recognition at home, while its kitty was quite full abroad.



About the Writer

Samata Biswas teaches English literature at Bethune College, Kolkata, India. Her doctoral research was about body cultures in contemporary India, analyzing fitness, weight loss and diet discourses. She is interested in visual culture, gender studies and literature and migration. At present she is trying to map Kolkata as a sanitary city, focusing on access to clean sanitation or the lack thereof.  She also runs the blog Refugee Watch Online.