At present, the educated urban class of people affected by ‘folk foreign’ syndrome considers Mansamangal, Chandimangal, Bidyasundar or even Kasiram Das’s Mahabharat to be folklore. We are mistaking anything of the past to be ‘folk’. Rabindranath Tagore commented on the nature on folk songs and compared them with the independent flow of a river. The river doesn’t follow a specific path; it always changes. Similarly folk tales also undergo changes. Folktales are born even today. Even today!
Needless to say that capturing such a subject on camera will inevitably result in a documentary. But Anindya Chatterjee’s film titled ‘Jhumura’ literally blurred the distinctions between forms. It is not a documentary but a feature film! And since the subject is Jhumur, the backdrop has to be Purulia. Jhumur reigns from Chhattisgarh in the west to Bankura district (West Bengal) in the east. The two most significant components of Jhumur are the flute and the Nachni. And there is Madol. There are several views about this practice of song and dance in various domains of society. In majority of the cases, the role of the Nachni is akin to the mistress of the Jhumur artist (Rasik or Naagor). And majority of the Nachnis are victims of the Rasik’s debauchery and extreme economic exploitation. Nachnis are not even considered as human by the rest. They are not even allowed their last rites after death. How can one make a feature film on a subject like this? It is hard to believe without watching this film.
The plot is nothing extraordinary. It is a usual norm for tales like Radha-Krishna or similar folklore being inherent within Jhumur songs. Before falling victim to the bandits of foreign music (Hemanta, Manna or Sandhya era), Bengali modern songs or Kirtan were indebted to Jhumur. A pair of young man and woman arrives at Ayodhya Pahar in Purulia to cover the life and art of Jhumur artists on behalf of a city publication. Their love-hate relationship is evident right from the word go. Their youthfulness may initially come across as a directorial naiveté. And there was also a slight predisposition towards a love triangle. Two women and a man; this triangle recurs regularly in Bengali folklore. Nowadays even in the potboiler soap operas on Television, there is a wedding every day and the appearance of the third person. But the skills of the director lie elsewhere. When the journalist and photographer duo visits an elderly Jhumur artist couple, they began recounting a contemporary love story. It is contemporary as the story feature elements like motorcycle; police station, local goon and the goon are still very much present! Then why is it a folk tale? Owing to the narrative style, the colors of folklore are already becoming evident. The exterior frames captured by the director and cinematographer are exquisite. Colors of folklore are evident there as well; just like a dream world. In whatever manner possible, there is always a magical light (like a sudden cloud capped sky).
While keeping the subjects in the foreground in sharp focus, sometimes the director has opted for shallow focus resulting in the backdrop going totally out of focus. The reason is not understood. And then again, often times the camera was fixed frame. Cut-to-cut; even that is also annoying. And the story that turned into folklore on camera is not brilliant due to the fact that the story is extraordinary. Stories are usually like this. It is a love affair between lower caste tribal girl Kusum and Jhumur crazy Brahmin boy Kanchan. Kanchan is forced to marry an ill-fated girl of same caste. Kanchan is reluctant to accept it. Following the death of his father, he forms his own band of Jhumur music with the tribal girl, his love, Kusum as the Nachni. After that, as usual the villain appears; the owner of a Jatra party and his apprentice. As a result of their nexus with the local authorities, Kanchan has to suffer prolonged imprisonment. And hoping for the return of her beloved, the girl surrenders to the Jatra party villain. This story unfolds on camera in between the ongoing interview. And here a wonderful skill in this narration is noticed. Since usually in cinema, normal reality is directly captured on camera, an attempt to narrate a fairy tale outside reality generally results in ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (by Satyajit Ray) fashion. That is not the case here. The progression is normal. But it becomes folklore when in the Police station only, the second lover waits crouching in front of the lock up for days or may be years, hoping for Kanchan’s release since it will relive his beloved Kusum of the agony. Blending such strangeness against a normal backdrop recurs often. Again, a Chhou mask vendor roams the markets and the meadows. This vendor is like a mobile montage. There were several masks. This image could have been used even more interestingly. Although this is where the story becomes folklore.
The writer-director has used an interesting tool of using the same pair of actors to play the same characters of different time and has successfully created a timeline where the emotions blend seamlessly between two different times and spaces. The question may arise that whose imagination is this? Probably the folklore is the answer.
There are only two points of carping. Firstly, Kanchan’s wife deserves somewhat more attention. And finally, the character of old Nachni played by Sabitri Chattopadhyay is redundant.
Arup Shankar Maitra