Elections in Bengal are like Ma Kali, always thirsting for blood. The cycle of violence continues. Why should one bother about this crime, but not that one? Whataboutery is a convenient ploy to absolve oneself of guilt. Human sacrifice during elections still occurs with ritualistic expectations and impunity. Police has always been a bystander – mistress of the party in power. Universities resemble party offices with so many posters. One can get away in Bengal by labelling a murder ‘political’, even in this time and age. Urban middle class is too engrossed with families, festivals and livelihood to lose sleep over street violence. Tapan Sinha’s masterpiece, released in 1986, does not feel at all dated in 2021.
The film begins with the camera trained on a woman, holding hands of her two kids, as she passes by a wall filled with election graffiti. Some young men are seen throwing locally-made bombs. Urban middle class grown-ups are busy haggling, buying and relishing the prospects of eating, cheap fish and veggies. Toddlers are going to school in a steel cage-like rickshaw. Two college students walk past, having this rather fanciful conversation-
“Azhar’s backfoot drive reminds me of Joe Handstaff.”
“Who was Joe Handstaff?”
“The most stylish batsman in the world, who represented England in the 1940s.”
Mastermoshai Sugdhanshu Mukherjee, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, is seen giving home lessons to a boy. During their conversation he expresses dismay that the school teacher had not covered the entire syllabus. The boy tells him that he is required to write 120 words on election posters on college and house walls of Calcutta, which never get removed even after campaigning gets over. The Master does not seem pleased about falling educational standards, and entrenchment of party politics in campuses. It is late in the night, and raining heavily. While returning home in the dark night, the conscientious Master happens to witness a brutal stabbing incident.
Such brazen perpetration of violence leaves him terror-struck. His shock and disappointment knows no bounds upon realizing that one of the goons was his own former student. The unapologetic youth brazenly walks up to his teacher, and indirectly warns him with dire consequences in these ominous words-
“Mastermoshai, apni kichu dekhen ni”.
(Mastermoshai, you’ve seen nothing, I repeat, you’ve seen nothing)
The Master pays heed to this threat, and keeps his own counsel. He falls sick out of worry and is seized with terror, but dare not report the crime. On discovering the dead body at the crime scene in the morning, neighbours murmer in hush-hush tones-
“In Bengal, there is no socialism or capitalism, nationalism or federalism, only hooliganism”.
“One can’t live here, I’d go away for good”.
“Serving political leaders, you lose your life”.
“Bankim Babu used to say that politics fulfils one’s basic needs and makes one puppet”.
“Is this the face of Bengal? History doesn’t say so. A Bengali with a knife in his hand, with murder in his eyes! Who on earth are they, I don’t know them.”
The Master listens to this collective lament, but does not break. Everyone has an idea about the culprits, but no one names them expressly.
The Master struggles with the immorality of inaction, and burden of the knowledge of crime. He realizes that witnessing a crime was not the same as just reading about it. Does it entail some kind of responsibility upon him? When they coax the reason for his sickness out of him, his son and daughter beg him to approach the cops. Deep down he knows that the system is rigged, and that his children might come to harm. As a result, he is not able to push himself to risk the wrath of the malcontents. His movements are conspicuously tracked, the dialogue (Mastermoshai…) keeps ringing in his ears and the Master, the representative of urban middle class, keeps putting off filing his confession before the police.
Prosenjit (who gets injured while saving the Master’s daughter from being molested) tells her one day that his father was inconsolable when Senate Hall pillars were demolished in campus violence. “My dad fasted the day Vidyasagar’ s statue in the University was beheaded”, she replies back. But what did their fathers’ generation achieve with their Gandhian responses to vandalism?
One day, the Master gets fed up of being endlessly chased by goons and being bombarded with warnings, and thrashes one of them mercilessly with his lathi. Then he enters the police station and deposes against the killers. But the cops mock him, and dismiss his eyewitness’s account as unreliable. Despite low expectations, the eventual refusal by police to even take cognizance of his complaint, rather advising him to forgive and forget, comes as an eye-opener.
His daughter, an idealist, had always wanted him to report the crime even at the cost of facing reprisals, but is not only molested, but later becomes the victim of an acid-attack. His son is thrashed in the street. A lot of blood flows in the street drains before the Master is able to eventually summon enough courage to tell the goons what he thought about their bravery- “five of you stab one helpless man, throw bombs from afar and persecute, harass and intimidate educated and respectable people, who are afraid of losing their reputations”.
Given this turn of events, it is hard to find fault with his initial reluctance to approach the authorities. Why risk your own and family’s well-being in a thoroughly corrupt and rotted system? To denounce the teacher for his urban middle class self-centredness would be missing the point, when the streets had become unsafe for the common folk, and violence had become lingua franca of politics. Welcome to the Bengal of the 1980s.
Justice is eventually served. A powerful lawyer, the father of his student, knows the topmost cop, who himself turns out to be the student of the very same Master. But it gets served at what cost? His son is thrashed on streets. Acid is thrown on the face of the daughter. Is justice worth such trouble? In face of entrenched party politics, nexus between politics and administration, and use of violence as a viable political tactic, common man has no role to play except that of a bystander.
Why is this even surprising? Is this not how typical urban middle class people behave or should behave? How easy is it to berate them for their impotent angst, weakness and self-centred approach? The downtrodden are more aware, and less helpless, for they don’t possess enough to fear losing it. One reason for middle class minding its own business and not poking their noses in the affairs of others is their awareness of how ‘sab mile hue hain ji’. Atanka focuses on urban Bengal in 1980s, the truth of rural and semi-urban Bengal in 2021 is not much different.
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