Is it possible for the tragedy of Partition to have a happy ending—where friends-turned-foes become genial neighbours again? Such a scenario might be hard to realize in real life but the magic of cinema could help us imagine, even embellish, such a fantasy uninhibitedly.
In 1954, at a time when India was still reeling from the aftermath of the division of the subcontinent, a Bengali movie titled Ora Thakey Odhare (They Live On The Other Side), based on a story by the acclaimed Bengali writer Premendra Mitra, turned a familiar plot line of warring neighbours into a successful romantic comedy.
Starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, one of the best-loved on-screen lead pairings in the history of Indian cinema, the story is set in a middle-class neighbourhood in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1950s. Chanchal (Uttam Kumar) belongs to a respectable family of ghotis (as Bengalis from West Bengal are colloquially known), who live in a rented house, belonging to a mildly avaricious, though harmless, landlord (played by the comic actor Tulsi Chakraborty). Across them lives a family of bangals, a term used for the Bengali migrants from East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh), of which Promila (Suchitra Sen) is a member.
Under Sukumar Dasgupta's deft direction, the plot unfolds crisply, with perfect comic timing by such exceptional actors as Bhanu Banerjee, Molina Devi and Chhabi Biswas. The ground for conflict is set early on. The ghotis and bangals may come from the same geographical region but their identities could not be more culturally distinct. The culinary style in the east, for instance, is spicier and features recipes involving greens and fish that are not as favoured in the west. Then there is the ancient rivalry between the football clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan—a flashpoint that can make and break families and friendships. The ghoti-versus-bangal civil war for cultural supremacy is as intense and long-standing as the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues in William Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet.
Ora Thakey Odhare invokes these well-known tropes, still hotly debated in contemporary Bengali society. Being relatively large families living in strained economic circumstances, both sets of tenants in the movie are in the habit of sharing everyday resources. From the lone iron to the one sewing machine to a ramshackle radio, gadgets are circulated for daily communal use. The young children of the families are inseparable. Chanchal offers free private tuitions to Promila. The patriarchs help each other out when finances are tight. And yet, the overall situation is far from rosy.
The men of both families are quick to lose their tempers over every perceived slight. They are as prone to flaring up and flinging the choicest insults at each other as the women of their families are calm, reasonable and compassionate towards one another. Into this volatile maelstrom of male egos arrives an elderly aunt from a village in the east, played by Molina Devi. Fortified with her simple trust in people, innately affectionate nature and sense of goodwill, she sets out to ease tensions between the feuding families.
The Bengalis from the west are more polished and sophisticated than the country bumpkins from the east—this is the long and short of the hypothesis offered by the ghotis in the movie. The bangals, on the other hand, having lost their original homes and been forced to start anew in an unfamiliar setting, are understandably touchy about their self-respect. From making saris to a rich literary repertoire, their heritage is no less than anyone else's. However, their canny worldliness, along with near-paranoid sensitivity to any remark that could be construed as condescending, results in hilarious scenes of misunderstanding. A genial tea-time adda between the men of the neighbouring families suddenly erupts into a tempest, where both parties claim to be humiliated, aggrieved and threaten the other with the direst revenge.
Ora Thakey Odhare is not unique in its comedic treatment of neighbourly tensions through the language of cinema. In Sare Chuattar (Seventy-Four And A Half), another uproarious comedy where Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen made their debut as the first couple of the Bengali silver screen in 1953, community plays a key role too.
In contrast to these laughter-filled stories stand the movies of Ritwik Ghatak, like Subarnarekha (made in 1962 but not released until the late 1960s) and Titas Ekti Nodir Naam (A River Called Titas, 1973), where he kept returning to the irrevocable sense of loss spawned by the partition of Bengal.
If the tragedy of Ghatak's vision lay in his elegiac portrayal of the plight of individuals left without a country to call their own, the mirth and optimism of movies like Ora Thakey Odhare and Sare Chuattar arose out of the unexpected solidarities forged among communities meant to regard each other as historical antagonists. In Sare Chuattar, for instance, the story unfolds in a typical "mess bari", a quintessentially Calcuttan mode of communal living, usually reserved for men who moved from the suburbs and villages to the city to pursue education or employment. Many Bengali movies from the 1950s and 1960s were set in such messes, where men from different castes, educational backgrounds, social and economic status were thrown, pell-mell, into a cauldron of collective coexistence.
If one character was conspicuous with the markers of his Brahmin identity, his roommate might well be an alcoholic gambler. Almost invariably, there would be a man speaking in a distinctly bangal dialect (one of the many varieties of Bengali spoken in Bangladesh)—Bhanu Banerjee was routinely cast in such a role—always ready with a wisecrack or often turned into the butt of jokes. Then, there would usually be an odd-job man, a shrivelled creature lurking in the shadows and passing around gossip like the mythical sage Narad muni, legendary creator of rifts and disputes.
In the years following independence, as the nation struggled to heal the scars of Partition, Bengali cinema held up a world of possibilities, where fighting neighbours could learn to coexist harmoniously and enact simple acts of kindness towards one another. At a time when the trauma of rupture and displacement was fresh in the collective memory of millions of Bengalis, hopefully these happy endings on screen soothed some troubled souls.