Vol. 5 Num 747 Tue. July 04, 2006  

Movie watch
Nacholer Rani: A tale of indomitable courage

BASED on the tumultuous years (early 1950s) of Ila Mitra's life, Nacholer Rani, a feature film directed by Syed Wahiduzzaman Diamond and produced by Pankowri, was released in theatres recently.

Ila was a veteran communist leader in the subcontinent. She was popularly known as 'Nacholer Rani', as the landless peasants and Santals christened her as their uncrowned queen for her altruistic contribution to the 'Tebhaga Movement'.

Interestingly enough, Wahiduzzaman opted to set the theatrical release of the film on June 30, which was observed as the 150th anniversary of 'Santal Rebellion'.

The film drew national and international attention when the Bangladesh Film Censor Board demanded that certain scenes be removed (an image of Mohammad Ali Jinnah at the police station where Ila was brutally tortured, for instance). The Censor Board also declared that permission from the Indian Government was needed as Ila was elected four times as a member of the West Bengal Assembly between 1967 and 1978. The film eventually got the green signal from the Censor Board earlier this year.

The film opens to vignettes of Ila getting involved in the 'Peasant Movement' with encouragement from her husband Ramendra Nath Mitra. Ramendra, despite being a member of a zamindar family of Ramchandrapur, in the then Maldah district, was an organiser of the communist movement in the area.

The Mitras were deeply involved in the 'Tebhaga Movement'. The objective of the movement was that a cultivating peasant must get two-third share of the total yield divided into three and rest one third would go to the land owner (mostly zamindars in British India). Zamindars and jotdars (middlemen) exploited the dirt-poor farmers to the brink of starvation.

The British Raj ended with Partition (1947) but the plight of these have-nots did not change. The movement gained momentum. Ila and her comrades found themselves waging a war against the zamindars, backed by the law enforcement agencies in the newly formed East Pakistan. After a violent crack down, while trying to escape arrest, Ila disguised as a Santal and a few of her companions were spotted by the police near the Rohanpur Railway Station on January 7, 1950. They were immediately arrested and sent to Nachol police station.

Then began the torture that was documented (Ila Mitra's statement at the Rajshahi Court in January 1951) but too hellish to fathom. The 'ingenious' methods of physical and psychological torture, aimed to demoralise her included downright beating, pressing hands and legs in between two bamboo sticks (the infamous 'Pakistani injection' scene), kicking delicate parts of the body with boots on, starvation, gang rape, verbal abuse and more. Ila was eventually released on parole and was allowed to go to Calcutta for medical treatment in 1954.

It is apparent that Wahiduzza-man has done extensive research on Ila Mitra's life and times. His narrative is a frame to frame depiction of accounts and history but the film lacks aesthetic sense. It is understandable that the torture Ila received needed a bold portrayal but there are more ways to make a compelling statement (even if the subject is horrific or gory) artistically.

In a movie such as Nacholer Rani, which tends to be categorised as non-mainstream, violence should have an overpowering impact on the audience and should stir gripping emotions such as empathy inducing trauma and not just disgust (think of the interrogation scenes in Strip Search or the concentration camp scenes in Schindler's List).

The cinematography was bland. The director should be credited for casting hundreds of members of the Santal community. However, one can differentiate them from the actors playing major Santal roles with 'very fake -- just smear some grease on the face' make up.

The highlight of the film is the remarkable performance by Shahana Sumi in the title role. The film literally rests on her fragile shoulders. The actor with a sound theatrical base looks at ease in a difficult character. More powerful are not the torture scenes but the aftermath when you see the agony, humiliation and unbreakable valour in the actor's eyes.

Other actors seemed to stick to formula acting and often overacting prevalent in mainstream movies. Music by Imon Shaha is nothing to write home about. The film may not be suitable for children with its strong language and some graphic scenes. However, Wahiduzzaman gets a nod for bringing to the big screen the story of an indomitable spirit -- Ila Mitra, whose life and conviction continue to inspire.

Shahana (3-R) with co-actors in a scene from the film