Portrait of a rebel

Fire brand: A young Saroj Dutta as seen in the 115-minute documentary

A documentary that goes to the heart of the Naxal uprising through the life and times of one of its more famous leaders, Saroj Dutta

There is a story frequently told about the killing of Saroj Dutta, one of the leaders of the Naxalite upheaval. The impact of the short-lived first phase of the movement (1967-72) that flared up in rural Bengal and spread like wildfire to Kolkata and some neighbouring states may be questionable, but it is indubitable that Dutta made a place for himself in the city’s collective memory, particularly after the police gunned him down on the morning of August 5, 1971. It is said that Bengal’s matinee idol Uttam Kumar had witnessed the killing, although the police have denied it.

It is to the credit of three young filmmakers — Kasturi Basu, Mitali Biswas and co-director Dwaipayan Banerjee — that their eminently watchable documentarySD Saroj Dutta and His Times opens with this brutal display of state power, but resists the temptation of mentioning the actor. Moreover, as Basu herself said after the film was recently screened at Max Mueller Bhavan in Kolkata’s Park Street, they shifted the film’s focus from those dark days in the city to rural Bengal, where the peasant uprising reached a flashpoint even as the country’s Communist party splintered and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), or CPI (M-L) — which spearheaded the Naxalite movement — was born in 1967.

Remember the time: Bela Dutta recounts her role in the Tebhaga peasant agitations

 

 

Shot in location in contemporary Bengal and Kolkata, the 115-minute film becomes relatable to today’s young people. It is not just something that happened in the shadowy past and, as history keeps repeating itself, governments — irrespective of political colour — clamp down on dissidence with as heavy a hand now as they did in the past.

Though the film skips references to the reign of terror unleashed in the Kolkata of the late 1960s — save for the song ‘Naxalbari chingari fute...’, sung full-throated by Shiril Oraon, a partially paralysed peasant bard and political activist — it deftly charts the trajectory of the Communist movement in India and its many complexities. Alongside this, it etches a fine portrait of Dutta the journalist, poet, writer, translator and ideologue. It does this through interviews and the artwork of Somnath Hore, Chittoprasad and Debabrata Mukherjee, old footage, voice-overs and a rousing score that makes good use of the songs composed by unsung activists.

Rewind to an uprising

None of the three filmmakers has received any formal training, but Basu and Banerjee have been “film activists” since 2013, as members of the People’s Film Collective, which organises the annual Kolkata People’s Film Festival of political documentaries. To fund their documentary, they dug into their own pockets, besides help from friends and crowdfunding.

They began filming in December 2013, but took four years to complete due to a funds crunch.

“The centenary of Saroj Dutta was approaching. Instead of being judgemental, we were trying to understand the Naxalite movement in its past historical, contemporary international and local contexts. So we took a holistic view of it,” says Basu. They doggedly tracked down Dutta’s fellow-travellers. Many of their interviewees are dead now. Dutta’s wife, the spirited nonagenarian Bela, was a member of the Communist party long before her husband joined. In the film, she recounts to her son Kunal her stirring experiences during the Tebhaga movement — the Communist party-led peasant agitation in 1946-47 — which, however, fizzled out quickly as the party backed out unexpectedly, tersely telling the crestfallen activists to “go back to the kitchen”.

It was through an archive in Amsterdam that the filmmakers gained access to interviews such as the one of CPI (M-L) leader Kanu Sanyal and activist Shanti Munda in conversation with Abhijit Mazumdar, the son of another CPI (M-L) leader, Charu Mazumdar, and film director Utpalendu Chakravarty, who is in ill-health now.

Dutta’s former colleagues Mihir Bhattacharya and Nemai Ghosh, who had worked with him on the CPI(M) mouthpiece Desh Hitaishi before they were thrown out for their pro-Naxalbari stance, speak about the hard-hitting editorials he wrote. Dutta and his cohorts had, within a week, launched their own paper, Deshabrati, which proved to be a sell-out thanks to Dutta’s fiery column, which he wrote under the assumed name Shashanka.

Two elderly women, Meena Pal and Krishna Bandyopadhyay, recall the heady days when they were in the thick of the action as student activists. In Naxalbari, the village where it all started, two ageing leaders Khudan Lal Mallik and Khokon Majumdar give first-hand accounts of the flare-up. Debiprasad Chattopadhyay narrates how the police picked up Dutta before he went missing forever.

The filmmakers do not shy away from referring to the infighting within the CPI(M-L), especially over issues such as the decapitation of social reformer Vidyasagar’s statue in College Square and the shockwaves it created. It is through material such as this that the era springs back to life. However, instead of ending on a wistful note, the film could have mentioned how the “Spring Thunder” — as the Chinese had described the Naxal movement — is still alive, albeit in a different avatar.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

Published on October 12, 2018
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