ALL ABOUT FRIENDSHIPby Prof. Ajanta Dutt February 5 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 7 mins, 39 secs
Dr. Ajanta Dutt highlights the pathos of a friendship between two boys - an unusual story, Dostojee, filmed in the backdrop of the Babri Masjid mayhem.
Dostojee, opened to an almost empty hall in South Delhi, although it was the day of the MCD elections and a holiday. I was lucky because a friend told me where to catch the movie. The one other friend willing to see it and I sat among rows of empty chairs with a dozen family members of one of the cast members nearby. I am sure the neighboring Chittaranjan Park would have delivered a hefty audience, if only the film had been advertised a little.
There was a time in Delhi, however, when Sunday mornings meant that Regal Cinema would be teeming with Bengali families exchanging their weekly gossip and discussing other Bangla films running elsewhere that day. In the 1950s Delhi was small and Bengalis went to the cinema because there was no other platform to hear and speak the language. Partition had happened and romances from a bordered India were already appearing on screen, as were child actors, especially when Satyajit Ray’s Apu mesmerized movie-goers at Cannes.
Dostojee, written and directed by Prasun Chatterjee was eight years in the making for the lack of funds. It is not an unusual story filmed in the backdrop of the Babri Masjid mayhem. Its immediacy and unique treatment connect it to recent communal discord with Supreme Court’s problematic verdict leaving innuendoes for probable unrest. Yet Dostojee is refreshing because it focuses on the uninhibited friendship of two eight-year-old lads, and follows them through their rewards and punishments as they run away from the bleak scenes of the schoolroom and their homes, and enjoy the brightness of unbridled nature. We wait for Hindu-Muslim riots to break out because of inflamed speeches for a “Chota Babri Masjid” in the village, disturbing news reports on the radio that people listen to in a ramshackle tea-shop, impassioned Ram-Lila celebrations when Ravana declares behind-the-scenes that actors are friends who engage in pretended warfare on stage.
The two young friends, Shafikul - Arif Shaikh and Palash - Asik Shaikh, (are they really brothers?), carry on regardless, tracking their noisy toktoki, saving money to buy a kite that must have its inevitable fall. They do homework together and pose like the hero of heroes, Amitabh Bachchan, for a snapshot. It is the usual world of rural Bengal, anonymously placed in Murshidabad district, close to the Bangladesh border. No one has to cross lines for religious unrest to begin and poor Shafi is beaten by his father for daring to go to the incendiary Ram-Lila show.
What may be a strange fact for North-Indian audiences is that Ram as God is quite alien to Bengal. In this movie, people find him a place in the Shiva Temple while actually celebrating Jhulan dedicated to Radha-Krishna. Palash’s father, the Hindu village priest, ponders about hunting through the scriptures for rituals of Ram-worship. Palash’s mother (Jayati Chakraborty) seems to have intuitive fears about remaining in this village, but where can they run to? Living as they do, in adjoining huts with Muslim families, it is interesting that separate quarters do not exist, and distant areas have not been demarcated despite the troubled decades surrounding India’s independence. Ironically, when tragedy strikes, it has nothing to do with communal riots. The poverty-stricken men-folk of the quadrangle walk together, silenced by a shattering grief.
The young protagonists make the movie immensely touching as children know more about human values than their adult relatives. Chatterjee shows himself among the progeny of Satyajit Ray who gets Tuhin Biswas to train his camera on the feathery kaash-fields and the striking thunderstorm by the village pond. When the two boys attach fireflies to their hand-made crowns and play at being warrior kings, we are reminded of battle-scenes in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969). The sheer magic of glowing lights illuminates the world of ensuing darkness. Although Big B is made note of in a Bollywood poster, Chatterjee is undoubtedly paying a heartfelt tribute to the great Ray through the symbolism.
The movie can be criticized for its slow-paced development of the details, especially after the tragedy, which reminds us again about Pather Panchali (1955). Like Ray, Chatterjee in his debut-film shoots with unknown actors. He admits that the two boys had never seen a camera before, nor travelled on a train until they went to Kolkata for dubbing. Chatterjee gathers local villagers for crowd scenes like Ray did in Boral earlier, and shoots through changing seasons to capture contrastive nuances of winter. In controlled, almost wordless acting, Palash’s mother reminds us of Apu’s mother too. She breaks down and cries only when the children’s caterpillar she has fed with tender leaves, flaps its wings and takes flight into oblivion.
Emotion-packed is Shafi on the horse-cart returning from school, but he keeps his eyes tightly closed when the cart trundles past the water’s edge. Chatterjee suggests, too, the generosity of a travelling toy-seller who accepts metal pieces from the boys in lieu of money. They save up for the still-photograph where the skull-cap is the distinguishing marker in their twin-like smiles. The boys fight over a broken kite when Shafi vows never to speak to Palash again. Street-smart Shafi gets caught while stealing household money, but saves one coin in his mouth for a shared toy. This is reminiscent of Durga in Ray’s classic. Although Palash is clever with books, it is no surprise that Shafi studies diligently later to make his tutor proud.
It would have been peculiar if the dismissive schoolteacher had recognized why Shafi made the rudimentary scuba-diving equipment for his class-project. As this is realistic cinema, Shafi does not get a rank in class but only an honorable mention. His reward comes when his tutor takes him to the mango-grove on his bicycle and there Shafi loses himself in answering the calls of the birds. Chatterjee knows he must close his film at this point to leave the audience wondering whether the government will help a gifted child or will they be forever wrangling over volatile non-issues like mandirs and masjids, which are in surplus anyway. Perhaps the large number of children seeing Dostojee in Kolkata ensures that some educationists are socially aware.
The two sisters of the boys ought to get honorable mentions too. The elder sister is a strict disciplinarian for Shafi, but she follows the doctor’s instructions to nurse him back to health when he is left delirious after the physical and mental storm. She is so much the mother-figure in the Muslim weaver’s family that it is a shock to find out Shafi also has a nondescript mother. On the other side of their dividing wall is Palash’s little sister (Hasnehena Mondal) who is a voyeur to Shafi’s sorrow. She watches him get beaten by his teacher and also observes an almost wordless exchange between her mother and Shafi. The little girl gives him water in a glass kept separately, gets punished for eating the forbidden seemiya on Eid, and watches as Shafi opens the lid and her mother crumbles in the final “butterfly moment.” It is her innocence, like Apu’s, that highlights loss for unsuspecting children and their helplessness. Her face records the voiceless sub-text of the film as she watches and listens, but cannot react.
Chatterjee suggests he has made a “fluke” hit. His sensitive use of music/sound defines quiet sequences when the breeze shushes across the screen or there are brief, joyous notes in a background score. The romance of childhood is marked upon a tree where the boys pledge their troth to each other. The lilting village accents in every conversation are musical too but remote for the urbanized Bengali ear, like the kite floating across the border into Bangladesh.
Two poignant movements emphasize the underlying pathos. One is when the weaver asks for his umbrella and starts following a Hindu funeral procession at a respectable distance. The other is the village madman, accepted by neither community, who finds his special territory usurped for the new mosque. His incoherent ranting and clapping revoke Tapan Sinha’s madman in Kshudhita Pashan (1960). We almost expect to hear this one shout: “Tafaat jao…sab jhoot hai!”
But everything is not false as affirmed by the title - Dostojee. Dost, the word for friend, has been endearingly elongated to combine with ‘jee’ affixed for respect. “Soi patano” was a tradition among young girls in Bengali homes of the past, and they would address each other by adopted names, perhaps of flowers chosen to replace their proper names.
Here the boys are doing the same to establish an unbreakable bond forever. Friendship becomes most significant, and nature presented through fish in the waters and the birds in the sky relates to the boys who see the glory of life despite the terrors around them.