Born in 1926, Mahasweta Devi was one of India’s foremost literary personalities. She was a prolific author of short fiction and novels; a fiery politico-social activist who worked, lived and shared with tribals and marginal communities of eastern India for years. She learnt to speak their dialects, ate their food, slept with them, wore much-worn sarees and behaved without a care about urban niceties and decorum at any point of her life.
Director-writer Arindam Sil has ventured into the challenging terrain of some years of Mahasweta Devi’s life and to counter rebuttals, decided to state at the end the film, “Inspired from Mahasweta Devi’s Life” and ended up with a fictional account of the writer-activist’s jagged life. Mahananda, a feature film is the result. The film spans from 1900 to 2011. It starts with Birsa Munda and ends with Singur, which was the most important political phase of Mahasweta Devi’s later life.
Mahananda opens with the severe torture and death of Birsa Munda (1875- 1900) at the hands of the police while in custody. Birsa Munda was an Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe. He spearheaded a tribal religious millenarian movement that arose in the Bengal Presidency in the late 19th century, during the British Raj, thereby making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement. The revolt mainly concentrated in the Munda belt of Khunti, Tamar, Sarwada and Bandgaon. Birsa is known for challenging the Christian missionaries and revolting against the conversion activities of the Munda and Oraon communities.
This death defines the premise of Mahananda the film which renames Mahasweta Devi and elaborates on her non-conformist, rebellious life in which she gave up two husbands, her son and the Communist Party of which she was an active member for decades. She remained firm in her ideology and her complete conviction about justice to the marginalised, tribal minorities in West Bengal and when she discovered that their ideologies had diverted she parted ways with the party.
Director Arindam Sil says, “Mahananda is inspired by the philosophy and ideologies of author Mahasweta Devi. The film talks about the essence of her personal life, and political and social life; which is very important. Mahasweta Devi is an icon for all of us to look up to. She lived her life by sheer principle. That aspect intrigued me to make the film Mahananda.”
The script is anchored by Mohaal Basu (IshaA Saha) who aspires to do her Ph.D. on Mahananda Devi. She is determined to go ahead with her project though her academic superiors discourage her as they feel being an urban, modern woman, she might find it tough to internalize the mindset and lifestyle of Mahananda Devi. She comes with her lover Bihaan (Arno Mukhoadhyay), a political activist with aspirations to represent the then ruling party in the forthcoming elections.
After a few hiccups, the two women belonging to two diametrically opposed backdrops and commitments, bond strangely and the story of Mahananda comes across through her narrations. The film often cuts into the narrations with some characters created by Mahananda.
One wonders at points whether the film, disguised as a fictional biography on Mahasweta Devi, is actually an accusing indictment of the erstwhile ruling party and the Government which, at that time, ruled together with ulterior aims of exploiting the adivasis and even killing those who refused to surrender their lands for so-called “industrialization.” Tapasi Malik who was burnt alive is presented here as Manasi but she is shown as a much older girl than the original. Her gang-rape and burning while alive is backed by very badly orchestrated VFX of the rings of fire against a darkening sky.
But much more than these diversions in the local politics within the tribal areas of West Bengal, the flashbacks into Mahananda’s life are the more interesting facets of the entire drama. This would perhaps have not been possible without the brilliant performance of Gargi Roy Choudhury in the title role who imbibes the manner of speech, minus the slight faking of the voice, the body language, the way she drapes her saree and throws hints of her close bonding with the tribals she works, sleeps and eats with. She takes on the challenge of playing a much older character and does a fine job of it. However, her make-up could have been better.
In fact, acting, other than music and songs, is the USP of this difficult film as the protagonist is perhaps more difficult to present on celluloid than it must have been for documentary filmmaker Joshy Joseph who made Journeying with Mahasweta Devi in 2009 with Mahasweta Devi herself spanning almost every frame of the film.
“Theatre as a way to spread the essence and need for a revolution” comes across again and again through Mahananda. We get glimpses of theatrical experiments of Bijan Bhattacharya, an active member of the IPTA, Mahasweta’s first husband played remarkably by Debshankar Haldar. There are references of Sambhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra and their group Bahurupee which used theatre as a significant agency to make people in the margins and villages aware of the importance of freedom from British rule.
What attracts attention is Mahananda’s little boy who sticks to her desperately even when she walks out of her marital home, unhappy with her husband’s switching over to writing for films though they do not have money even to pay the monthly rent. That little boy grows up to become a very rebellious writer in his own right but the film skips his split with his mother later on. This is fine considering that Mahananda is the subject of the film and not Nabarun.
The music, by Bickram Ghosh is another very strong point of the film that brings back the folk numbers of the Adivasi folk songs with the beats of different percussion instruments on the sound track and also with the songs which includes one Tagore song. Some of the songs were penned by Subhendu Das Munshi. Timir Biswas sang ‘Apni Bnachle’, written and composed by him.
All said and done however, Mahananda is clearly an actor’s film. Even Arno as Mohaal’s boyfriend with strong political ambitions brings out the varied shades of the character with subtle touches and details that highlight the negative shades. The cinematography and the editing with the entire outdoor scenes shot in Birbhum are also quite cohesive with the rest of the film. The dialects used by Mahananda and Bijon are sweet and saucy and add to the multiple layers of the film.
The disappointing part is that the fierce writing of Mahaswets Devi is skimmed over almost completely. She once said, “In my writing, there is a mukti, a liberty. They (the characters) are acting on their own. With the liberation, comes the freedom to act independently which they don’t get in their real lives. I feel this should have been the norm. I just want things to be the way they should have been. So, the question of justice comes in. This process of writing … it comes from so many things: childhood rhymes, proverbs, containing so many stories.” But Mahananda does not show this emphasizing on the political changes rising across the horizon of which a fleeting mention is made of a flower and two leaves rising fast to replace the current party in power.