Pradipta Bhattacharyya’s Shikor is a portrait of a village in a moment of transition. But that’s on a surface level. For fans of Bakita Byaktigato, he’s going back to Mohini gram, the place where every visitor magically falls in love.
It’s something that filmmakers have done time and again, particularly those who operate in the overlapping of real and fiction: to return to their subjects. Kiarostami went on to make a documentary on Sabzian, the proud film buff con-artist at the centre of Close-up, now presenting him unscripted.
Bhattacharyya does something similar — except the subject happens to be his ancestral village, Tehatta, in the Nadia district of West Bengal. We had seen a fictionalised version of it in Bakita Byaktigato; now we see it for what it is, through the eyes of a filmmaker who places himself in the film yet keeps a distance as he turns the camera on his parents, relatives and acquaintances.
The scope of his exploration is wide: from the complex relationship between his parents, to the tales of a time when hyenas and tigers would roam the forests surrounding the village. “I was a boy when the last two tigers died,” says a very old man…
The scope of his exploration is wide: from the complex relationship between his parents — she doesn’t like going back to Tehatta, while his father longs to return to meet the remaining of his friends; they live in Behrampore for the most part — to the tales of a time when hyenas and tigers would roam the forests surrounding the village. “I was a boy when the last two tigers died,” says a very old man, seated at an addar thek. After a while, when he realises that he knows the filmmaker’s father, the man is delighted. Bhattacharyya connects them on the phone and films this little reunion.
A wonderful spirit of community runs through Shikor, that paints a picture of the place through its people. For all that’s changed in Tehatta — the river, once wide and full, a life force to the village, has shrunk; the old houses have given way to new — there’s some that have remained unchanged: foremost of them being its syncretic character, which has been able to resist communal forces trying to make their way. Bhattacharyya has been able to make this film with funds from Films Division, India, and it’s going to have its first public screening at Niranjan Sadan in Kolkata on December 24, as a part of a cultural event called ‘Agriculture is our Culture’ along with musical performances and a painting exhibition.
In a revelatory scene, one of Bhattacharyya’s uncles who appears in the film, a marriage registrar, alludes to him receiving threats that he better doesn’t allow inter-faith marriages; while in another, the additional SP of the village sits and tells him about how it owes its communal harmony to its unique geographical position — the fokirs of Gorbhanga to the North, the land of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to the West, and Kushtia of Bangladesh to the East, where Lalon, the great Baul saint, hails from — which makes it ideal for vibrant cultural exchange.
All through, the fluid camerawork characteristic of Bhattacharyya’s films, and the keen sense of sound design, propels the documentary. In a scene at a verdant green school playground, the camera (Subhadeep Dey) starts behaving like the games the children play, spinning like a top, following them, hop and skip — not in a way that calls attention to itself but by becoming a part of it.
But where Bhattacharyya does something truly unconventional is the way he trains the camera on his own family, which extends to its branches and sub-branches, probing them gently about their subtle casteist history. The final act, so to speak, unfolds in the last two days of the Durga Puja at his uncle’s place. Amid the fun, laughter and reminiscing of their big annual joint family reunion, Bhattacharyya doesn’t shy away from showing the fissures when, in a quiet moment, his aunt laments the loss of the old ties of bonding and describes all this as superficial: “People are complex,” she says. Interpersonal relationships: that’s the deepest collateral damage of this change that the film talks about.