Sunday, August 20, 2006

Vasthuhara (The Dispossessed)

Spoiler Warning / Note : This is my attempt to understand and analyse Vasthuhara, a touching story about the trauma of being a refugee. Vasthuhara was directed by acclaimed art director G Aravindan, who was part of the new wave of film making of Kerala that started in the early 70s. Detailed story ahead.

Vasthuhara(1991), a malayalam film by late G Aravindan is a social film which takes a look into the lives of partition refugees from East Bengal. At a larger level, its the universal story of refugees, the dispossessed.

The film takes place in Calcutta, 1971. Story begins with rehabilitation official Venu (Mohanlal) coming to Calcutta in one of his regular visits to shift about 35 - 40 refugee families to Andaman Islands. The current rehabilitation plan is only those who fall under the category of schedule caste farmers. People in Andaman too are not happy about taking in refugees. All the refugees have been staying in Permanent Liability Camp in Rana ghat, West Bengal for the past two decades. Experiencing the shattered lives of poor displaced people deeply hurts Venu, who in his silent moments alone in his small lodge room frequently finds himself lost in the thoughts about the lives of the refuge seekers he meets during the day. Living an oppressed life, their only hope being the occasional promises of land, cattle and other grants by the bureaucratic state.

Aravindan takes us closer into the life of a refugee when Venu realizes that the sorrow of one refugee family is his own. One day, an old lady, Arthi Panicker(Neelanjana Mitra) comes to meet Venu in his lodge. She speaks broken malayalam which surprises Venu. She's a refugee from East Bengal. She desperately wants to move out of the wretched Calcutta for a better future of her children, a daughter (who's completed MA but never appeared of the examination) and a son about whom she's very sad. Her daughter Damayanti(Neena Gupta) quit studies and is a communist revolutionary on parole. Venu realizes that they are no one but his own uncle's family, his uncle Kunjunni Panicker whom he admired so much, a poet and revolutionary who left home long back (probably to join Bose's INA) when Venu was a child.

Venu visits home in Kerala, a typical matrilineal nair household, to discuss about his chance meeting with Kunjunni uncle's family and also to secure their rightful share for them. Venu's mother has no sympathies for Arthi Panicker and her kids. Kunjunni uncle's land is in possession of Venu's aunt Bhavani(Padmini), who, as a beautiful teenager had secret affairs with both Kunjunni and his brother Anandan. Venu remembers his childhood days where he used to run secret errands for a young Bhavani played by Shobana. Aunt Bhavani is more sympathetic towards Arthi. Having never met the wife and children of the man she once loved, she's curious about them. She agrees to give them the land or money, whatever is convenient to them. (One gets the impression that at the late time of her life Bhavani is leading a lonely, guilt-ridden life, having destroyed the lives of both the brothers – She married Anandan who commits suicide, probably due to unhappy marriage.)

Venu returns back to Calcutta and reveals his identity to aunt Arthi. She is pleasantly surprised and she and Damayanti finally feel a sense of security and belonging in their lives. But Arthi rejects the financial help from her husband's family who hadn't allowed her to enter the compound of the house when she visited them years back. Arthi narrates the humiliation of having to return back on a hot summer afternoon from the locked gates of her husband's ancestral house, both she and Kunjunni breaking down on their way back. Immediately after their return back East Bengal, the country gains independence and in the consequent partition they seeked refuge in Indian side. Kunjunni dies of cholera in the refugee camp and a pregnant Arthi is left on her own in abject poverty, with two year old Damayanti by her side.

Venu meets Damayanti's brother who is also a communist revolutionary hiding from the police. Venu's arrival into their life brings long lost hope and happiness. But its short-lived as its time for Venu to return to the Andaman Islands with the selected refugees. As the rest of Calcutta celebrates Durga puja, a few bunch of refugee families are packed in the back of a goods truck and offloaded at the harbor. Arthi and Damayanti arrive at the harbor to see him off. Damayanti is not able to control her emotions and breaks down inconsolably as Venu hugs her, himself overcome by sadness. Arthi Panicker looks on emotionless, here face hardened by years of victimization.

The film ends tragically as Venu has to rush hastily into the ship about to depart, abruptly ending his goodbye to his uncle's family. As Venu rushes through the crowded stairways of the ship, a crying Damayanti shouts from behind, “Write to me Dada... Damayanti Panicker, Apilore Central Jail, Calcutta”.

The ship moves towards Andaman, beginning a new journey, a new era for a few Vasthuharas, towards the green shores of a new promised land somewhere in the eastern islands, a land new hope. But even as a handful of them find hope, another wave of exodus begins, which ends in the Indo-Pak Bangaldesh liberation war in Dec 1971.

Displaced from their homes, unwanted outsiders in their land of refuge, doing sundry small time jobs, working in abject conditions as bonded laborers, some wait to return back to their land, some simply give up, and some others like Damayanti and her brother, become rebels.

Vasthuhara won the State Film awards for best film and director in 1990.


Direction & Screenplay: G Aravindan

Cast: Mohanlal, Shobhana, Neelanjana Mitra, Neena Gupta, Padmini

Cinematography: Sunny Joseph

Editing: K R Bose

Music: Salil Choudhury


Blogger Varun said...

This was a wonderful almost like a novel. The story had slight similarities to Arundhati Roy's 'God of Small Things' (though Roy wrote her novel much later)...

I have never seen a Malayalam film (though I know, it's a great loss for me) but after reading this, I am sure Malayalam cinema is much ahead of other regional and Hindi cinema in terms of content and it's devotion to historical social issues.

Thanks a lot for the link on Orkut.

1:49 AM  
Blogger Anand said...

Its been a long time since I saw the movie. The review was really good and did remind me of how wonderful the movie was!!

4:52 PM  
Blogger Happy-Go-Lucky said...

Thanks for the encouragement guys.

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice review rahul,u cud better add a critics/interpretation of the film as u hav keenly watched it.
it was an adapted work from c.v.sreeraman's shortstory.
The sequences of abandoned train bogies in ranaghat really holds the essence of the film.the feling of DISPOSSESED...more grave than a refuge..... SAMEERAN.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the review was well written, poetic. felt better than the film in fact. just saw it recently and felt that aravindan was struggling with this one. mohanlal seemed clueless...reminded me about how he acts today. felt the film could have been made tighter and less of a dragging affair. cnt be compared with his other works like kanchana seeta, thampu, kummatty, chidambaram..

8:10 AM  
Blogger bodhappayi said...

Nice write up.

2:57 AM  
Blogger Sunny Joseph said...

Just to say that Mohanlal did a wonderful job in Vasthuhara. One of his finest performance. You will be surprised to know that a Japanese critic has written half a page of comment on Mohanlal's last close-up shot in Vasthuhara. Well, Vasthuhara also has its place in Aravindan's creations. And one of my most favorite films. I consider closer to my cinematography in the film too. Giving a personal opinion in the negative does not invalidate the worth of a work of art. Vasthuhara is a "Mirror Of Love", akin to the Mirror of Sree Narayana Guru. Love, Sunny Joseph

7:24 PM  
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