BITTER MORSEL (Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979)

In black and white, plainly influenced by the cinema of Bengal film artist Satyajit Ray, especially Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1957), Neem AnnapurnaBitter Morsel—is a trenchant study of an impoverished family that has moved to Calcutta in hopes that Brojo, the husband and father, would find a job after famine wiped out his small village, closing the school where he taught. Based on a novel by Kamal Kumar Mazumdar, it is in the humanistic and neorealist traditions. The Bengali film, his second, was written and directed by Buddhadev Dasgupta.

It opens with a scene of revulsion: a woman, Pritilata, unable to keep a meal down. This image will reappear almost at the end of the film, finally explaining the film’s title, and making of the narrative, formally, a closed circle to which the poverty that the film portrays is correlative. Denied immediate explication, the opening shot alerts us to the film’s likely employment of metaphor and symbolism. The film is a slice of life, but also it is more poetic than this suggests. As in the case of Aparajito, when a torrent of birds suddenly filling the sky signals the death of Apu’s father, it is a film whose emotional depth is as rooted in figurative imagery as in the daily existence and fates of its characters. One is inextricable from the other, convincing us that the figurative aspects of the film are as much a part of the design and an expression of the way things are as they are the poetic inventions of Mazumdar and Dasgupta. The unpleasantness of the opening event in Bitter Morsel quickly grounds the film’s poetic procedure in life’s—for most of the world’s people—irreversible harshness.

The scene of revulsion is a pre-credit sequence. The film proper opens on board a train presumably transporting Brojo, Pritilata and their two daughters, Juhti and little Lahti, to the city. Through the window we can see the landscape whipping by, the rapid motion a symbol of aspiration and, perhaps, of possibility, the possibility of improved circumstance. Brojo, the voiceover informs us, had once believed what he had been told: that Calcutta is a place of unbridled possibility, where no one dies of hunger—the antithesis, that is, of their home village. But the next cut reveals an overhead shot of the tenement shacks in one of which the family now resides: a scene of squalor, poverty, snuffed hope. The father hasn’t found employment and is three months behind in paying rent, an elderly tenant (glimpsed through prison-like bars of a window), who secures his private stash of rice by begging, is audibly dying of tuberculosis, emphysema or lung cancer, and Lahti has been caught “pilfering” food from the food dish of a fat neighbor’s pet bird. (Characters shown through vertical bars is a recurrent motif in the mise-en-scène. The bird owner’s cruelty is absolutely believable. She tells Pritilata that her thieving daughter will grow up to be a whore.) A lone bird of prey in the sky, espied by Lahti, suggests the graveyard that the homes below are gradually becoming, while the cry of a cat in the street piercingly embodies the stress and dire circumstance of these people’s lives. The compression of Dasgupta’s method can be of the most highly expressive sort.

The film is at times quite poignant, in its evocation of the girls’ childhood as they navigate the streets hand in hand, for example, and in the conversation between their parents when Pritilata reminisces about her first meeting with Brojo. Her eyes light up with love as she recounts how her parents loved him. The sight and sound of a passing train revives our sense of the hopes that have been dashed for the still young couple. Their daughters, outside, converse about “rich people” as clouds move across the sky and an airplane flies overhead: for this younger generation, a different symbol of aspiration and hope. The whistle from another train—this time the train isn’t shown—links the children’s fates to their parents’ current circumstance. The two girls, along with other children, come across the body of a boy in the road—his death from poverty and hunger, an embodiment of the omnipresent threat to all their lives.

A struggle ensues between them when the old man discovers Pritilata trying to steal some of his rice, killing him. The beggar’s corpse is carted away. Pritilata and her family have not eaten for days, but now she is able to prepare for them a feast of rice. But guilt and self-disgust make it impossible for Pritilata to keep the meal down, and thus the film nearly ends precisely how it began. The voiceover returns to tell us that, soon after, Lahti was killed when she was run over by a car. When in addition Juthi leaves home for good, her parents’ lives disintegrate. Meanwhile, many, many others come to the city by train.

In one passage of the film, roaming the heart of Calcutta, Brojo finally secures employment beginning “the day after tomorrow” but relinquishes the job before it has begun when he is beaten up for “stealing rice,” that is, taking the job away from others who have been waiting longer for work and are presumably needier. This outcome, it seems to me, unbalances Dasgupta’s judicious blend of naturalism and symbolism, and is less than convincing as a result. Here, the “meaning,” the import, if you will, supercedes reality, replacing it. Indeed, one must raise another quiet objection to the film. Working in Ray territory, Dasgupta is unable to summon either the extraordinary visual impact or the profound humanity of India’s greatest filmmaker. I understand that Dasgupta has since created a style of his own, making his more recent work of much greater interest than Bitter Morsel, to date the only one of his films I have seen. Perhaps this means that his work no longer invites comparison, to its detriment, to Satyajit Ray’s.

Monideepa Roy is superb as Pritilata, and whoever the child is who plays Lahti—perhaps Jayita Sarkar, who is listed in the credits as playing somebody—is haunting and heartrending.

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