Riveting saga of a river that gives and takes

  • 30/05/1993

"THE PADMA takes away as much as it gives," says Kuber, the protagonist in Padma Nadir Majhi (Boatman on the River Padma). It is a line that both sums up the vulnerability of fisherfolk and forms the theme of this award-winning film.

Goutam Ghose's stark saga, set in Bangladesh, won the national film award this year for best direction and the runner-up award for best feature film. Besides directing it, Ghose also did the screenplay and camera-work and composed the music along with Alauddin Ali. Ghose seems to be following in the Satyajit Ray tradition of taking upon himself more and more aspects of shaping the total production.
Impoverishing the poor Marginalisation of the poor is a perennial theme in alternative cinema. Nature and humankind combine to further impoverish the dispossessed. The river yields the fish that the fisherman sells to feed his family, but when in spate, the river smashes his fragile craft into smithereens. The moneylender comes to his rescue with rice for his bowl, but the payment he asks is different: the fisherman's thumbprint on a piece of paper.

Padma Nadir Majhi has some superb performances. Hossain Miyan, the enigmatic trader and cargo boat-owner who is benign and sinister in turn, is wonderfully played by Utpal Dutt. Kuber, the sturdy fisherman who has weathered many a dangerous storm, gives a fine portrayal, alternating between bewilderment and rage as fate buffets him and his family. Indeed, the entire cast achieves the East Bengal dialect with effortless ease.

The real star of the film, of course, is the river Padma -- sometimes broodingly calm, sometimes in a fury. It is a river on which the film-maker never tires of focussing. Ghose's camera-work is superb, particularly in the storm and lightning sequences. The pace of the film is slow at the beginning, but picks up thereafter.

There is a dark continent in the background throughout the unfolding of Padma Nadir Majhi. This is Moyna Deep, an estuarine island covered with jungle, where Hossain Miyan is resettling people from Ketupur, the village where Kuber stays, and giving them pattas for the jungle land they clear. For Kuber, Moyna holds a fearful fascination, which began the first time Hossain Miyan took him there. Kuber discovers Moyna Deep is the ultimate exile -- connected to the world only by Hossain Miyan's boat.

Kuber returns to Ketupur, indebted to Hossain Miyan and haunted by Moyna. He vents his anger on his lame wife. He gets his daughter married and wonders in moments of private terror whether she and her husband will one day be sent off to Moyna at Hossain Miyan's whim. But fate again intervenes. In an act of revenge, his daughter's former suitor, whom Kuber rejected after first accepting his offer of marriage, frames Kuber in a theft case. Kuber has to flee. Where to, but Moyna?

There is a slow, timeless quality to this saga that skilfully captures the beauty of the surroundings. The river journeys are filmed well and the music is an evocative blend of East and West. Ghose's touch is masterly. There is little heavy-handed melodrama in this tragic tale -- only an understated irony and a sense of inevitability, which is depressing.