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The Circle of life: The Silence of Motherhood

A review of the movie Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma (Mother of 1084), based on a book by Mahashweta Devi by Prithvijeet Sinha

Bengal, long considered to be the literary, artistic and social fuel for India’s colonial and post- colonial demeanours, has particularly fascinated cinema’s conscious annals. Satyajit Ray, Aparna Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghose, Tapan Sinha and their likes all found a level playing field here to sound timely sirens and orchestrate photoplays celebrating its collective regional character, with finesse of the highest caliber.

Mainstream Hindi cinema, too, has often turned to Bengali talents like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Bimal Roy and Shakti Samanta apart from several stellar musicians, to find beacons of time-tested reverberations in its hundred year sojourn and counting, with the flint of creative risk taking crossing thresholds of language and alighting corners of the mind deep in slumber.

Mahasweta Devi’s Hajaar Chourashir Ma in Bengali (1974)

Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma (Mother of 1084, released in Hindi in 1998) based on iconic Bengali writer Mahashweta Devi’s eponymous novel, is another betokened facilitator of Bengal’s political and social gravity, veering towards its not so distant Naxalite past and post-communist undertow. Director Govind Nihalani’s power-packed screenplay is a further rejoinder to the porcelain vapidity of educated middle classes and is a heartfelt diagnosis of personal loss and extermination of identity, finding its bruised heart in actress Jaya Bachchan’s tacitly mounted well of emotional ebbs and lows.

***

Structurally, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma uniquely evinces the ‘coming of age’ trope for Sujata Chatterjee (Jaya Bachchan) in a manner few works are meant to do. She is a solitary wanderer trudging along life’s thorny paths, right from the initial shot of her younger self walking in to the maternity centre in time for her delivery for her youngest child, all alone. Within the seemingly genteel but cloistered, moth-balled utopia of the bhadralok, the quintessential Bengali gentleman, she has been assigned her status, in observing the holy rite of passage necessary for survival: to observe the vow of silence, almost akin to a ritual.

Owing to this, she has spent years building walls of inconspicuous silence around her, hidden behind iron curtains of her household’s clashing beliefs and veneer of respectability. Bachchan’s essentially benign yet melancholic look sheds light on her feeble social standing that has been overruled by materialism and of course patriarchy. We have all been in the throes of this reality and so we recognise it on the part of our mothers.

A corollary to this is the gender specific clutches of egoist hubris which hold sway over her husband Dibyanath (Anupam Kher), a man ruling his family with an iron fist. On one end of the spectrum, Sujata is financially independent in terms of her designation of a working woman (she is shown to work in a bank) but it’s a consolatory one and deeply ironic to her general station in life. On the other end, her life-force rests in the lively spirit and unimpeachable trust she shares with her youngest son Brati (Joy Sengupta), a bond oblivious to the Chatterjee’s stiff posturing and restricted worldviews.

He is like a ray of sunshine falling over a wilting flower, giving Sujata the opportunity to fully breathe rather than gasp for her moment of reckoning. So, it’s natural that Brati is looked down upon as a black sheep by his father and siblings. His opinions and unorthodox bent of thought question the rest of the family’s air of ‘liberal conservatism’ in which their worldly desires cloud their larger humanity. This relationship is, hence, one where both mother and son plot a diurnal escape from their bleak personal realities, present in the conversations they have and look of mutual fondness being showered on each other.

Brati is more so at a crossroads in his young graduate years where all that he can dream of is to change the world and bridge social gaps. It’s this ideology which ends up becoming his mortal enemy and bites him in the face, in a culture where regimentation abet conformity while iconoclasm of any kind is brandished as another substitute for a death sentence. A breach in the bond between Brati and Sujata ensues as a result of his secretive identity and the appendage of the Naxalite movement’s heyday spreads like a wildfire in the Chatterjee household.

Set as it is in the timeline of the seventies, Sujata’s world comes crashing down when she is helplessly made to receive the painful title of Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma, a mark of Brati’s dead body, his last remnant. In view of this realization, Sujata traces the grey alley of moral complexities where she has to negotiate the blanks left as open wounds by her beloved son, now a disgraced individual and rebel trampled upon by society functioning on selfish resignation. She questions her silent, muffled existence, the Naxalite cause as a transmogrifier of an intensely clustered class hegemony and the mindsets prepared on a whetstone of rage and dissatisfaction.

As she negotiates these agendas peculiar to her predicament now, she attempts to find her true calling as a woman of reserved strength, with an unfaithful husband and a thankless coterie to boast. Nandini (Nandita Das), Brati’s sweetheart and fellow revolutionary and Seema Biswas, as his slain friend Somu’s mother, authenticate the undulating, challenging terrain of personal awakening for Sujata as mother, guardian of her son’s lost dignity and posthumous legacy. In the process, the sequencing vocalises the resurgent and still fledgling voice of reason, especially one accorded by females.

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The colour red; red of the Communism epoch of Bengal, red of the young fervour of Naxals, red of a hapless woman’s external shringaar (make-up) and the circle of life symbolized by the bindi on her forehead, then becomes a visual signifier of great agency.

There are a volley of questions the movie bounces off its omnibus and in the mesh of political churning, there is a grave personal tragedy simmering inside Sujata’s crestfallen demeanour. She is a woman of the world, beaten down by words and decrees of society and yet traverses the unfamiliar land of discovery in her middle age to make a breakthrough. This cinematic adaptation thus is genuinely propulsive though a bit long-drawn and in its performances, mines gold out of its socio-political concerns.

However, above all, it is the actress Jaya Bachchan, whose silences speak the language of passive melancholy. I reiterate that its a reality we recognise as we see in all our mothers.

Prithvijeet Sinha is a writer who belongs to the multicultural, literary hub of Lucknow, an artistic haven since centuries. A student of literature having completed his M. Phil two years back, he has been writing and publishing his poetic works and essays on the worldwide community Wattpad since 2015 and since June 2018 has been contributing his articles on various facets of cinema and culture on his WordPress blog An Awadh Boy’s Panorama. His works of various hues including poetry, film and book reviews, travel pieces, letter to the editor and opinion pieces have appeared in journals and magazines like Reader’s Digest, Gnosis Journal, Cafe Dissensus Magazine, Cafe Dissensus Everyday Blog, Confluence Magazine, Thumbprint Magazine, The Medley, Wilda Morris’ Poetry Blog. He has been published on Cafe Dissensus Everyday, The Medley, Screen Queens and Confluence in 2020 so far. Poetry is his first love and judicious defence against mediocrity while cinema and music are bulwarks to guard his conscience.

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