What happens when you see a childhood myth rendered into celluloid? Even as you encounter the unfolding visuals, straggling between memory and the living moment, your mind creates a hyperreality in which one flows into the other, creating a montage of images melting into each other, welding the vivid imagination of a ten-year-old with the rust and sepia of experience.
When I watched Chander Pahar on celluloid, that’s exactly what happened to me. I had grown up reading and internalising the novel of the same name by the Bengali author Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. Published in 1937 and capturing a fictionalised narrative in the pre World War 1 era, the novel is an interesting take on the classic Bildungsroman.
Shankar, the protagonist, lives in rural Bengal at a time when India was still under British occupation. The time of the fictional narrative is significant—Bengal was divided into east and west along communal lines, the economy was broken because most of Bengal’s jute produce came from the east and the factories processed them in the west, businesses were failing, jobs were dwindling and inertia was being replaced by a robust anti-British sentiment in Bengal. However, there was no despair. Politics had not yet descended into intrigue. The World War 1 was a decade away and the soil of Bengal was yet to be stricken with the famished dead bodies of people starving owing to Britain’s expensive wars.
In locating the narrative back into a relatively less grisly time in history, Bibhuti Bhusan can credibly beckon his readers’ attention to the inner turmoils of Shankar rather than those surrounding him in society and politics. Thus, Bibhuti Bhushan’s understated prose gently skirts the impoverishment and colonial tyranny of the time, focusing rather on the surface, the happy advent of a job for Shankar in a jute mill in Kolkata.
Shankar, however, is not one to be tamed by a city job. He dreams of being an explorer, and sooner than you know it, you’re following Shankar in his wanderlust across the grasslands and veldts in Africa. Here he meets a middle aged Portuguese explorer named Diego Alvarez, who finds in Shankar an ideal companion to conquer the “Mountain of the Moon” (Chander Pahar) which supposedly held the fabled diamonds for which several explorers had given up their lives—and never returned to tell their tales. Alvarez wanted the diamonds. Shankar wanted the experience of discovering the wild—and in the process, as the story unfolds, the reader discovers a joie de vivre, the secret source of the wide-eyed wonder and energy that animates Shankar.
And yet, being the master story teller that Bibhuti Bhushan is, he doesn’t flinch in exposing the secret little fears lingering in the shadowy corners of Shankar’s mind. When he is tired and overcome with despair amidst the unending mountains and forests, Shankar prods on, afraid that expressing his despair would reinforce what the white man was wont to think about subjugated people—about their physical incompetence, lack of strength and courage. Alvarez, on the other hand, is impressed with Shankar—aware that this is the 20 year old’s first journey outside his village, but apparently unaware of the thoughts and complexes that motivate Shankar. Bibhuti Bhushan problematizes the relationship between the two with elan—without allowing the reader to lose track of the plot. And yet, as the story progresses, to the reader Shankar grows in stature from a boy with an impossible dream to an allegory of a struggling, stumbling nation in the making.
To the reader, it is clear that Shankar’s challenges are not limited to the terrain; his battles with the physical forces of nature assumes almost allegorical resonance with the battle he is fighting within—his quest being the elusive balance between inimical forces—between the oppressor and the oppressed, between want and greed, between nature and order, and between life and death.
The narrator’s voice in the novel, which informs and elevates the prose from the pithiness of what could have become a one-dimensional story of a go-getter becomes a bit of a set back in the movie.
When you show two men trudging along mountain passes with backpacks, you don’t need a narrator to tell you what’s happening. The audio-visual impact of cinema ensures that you don’t really need to prepare your audience for a shift in time-place continuum. Showing is enough; you don’t need to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining what you’re showing. And despite retaining the narrator’s voice in the movie, there is none of Bibhuti Bhushan’s understated narrative master strokes. Shankar in much of the movie shows no vulnerability apart from physical ones.
However, that doesn’t take anything away from the imaginative brilliance of some other scenes and sequences in the movie. The smooth transition of the entire narrative from a dialogue between Shankar and Alvarez to a monologue played out in action and dream sequences through Shankar’s perspective is an example. Then there is that scene in the cave where Shankar finds the diamonds—a hark back to the metaphorical Philosopher’s Stone—and unaware of what they are, he picks only one to mark his way out of the cave. This is the beginning of the philosopher taking over the explorer, soon to be followed by the superbly executed scene of Shankar tearing out and eating the meat off a roasted vulture as he talks with himself.
As a viewer, you’re bound to stare with open-mouthed wonder at the transition of a well-groomed, well-shaven young man into a brute living off the earth like an animal—knowing no better way to survive than by the bullet and no better reason than to die with courage. What exactly is civilization, you will wonder, as you look at Shankar and then turn the gaze upon yourself.
The movie deviates from the novel in several places, but that’s not terribly relevant to this post. What’s more relevant, to a global audience though, is the narrative continuity between this movie and another Africa epic: Blood Diamond. In this context, Chander Pahar becomes a pre-Lapsarian prophecy of what is to come, encapsulated in Blood Diamond. Both the movies use the same tropes and narrative devices (Blood Diamond being tighter and crisper with no animals, thank you); both deal with the subject of greed, destiny and a journey that ends with only one survivor. Interestingly, both the movies have dream sequences towards the end. And yet they’re as different as chalk and cheese when it comes to using these materials to create meaning. Blood Diamond is a disturbing movie—its meaning lies on the surface, its message direct. Chander Pahar is disarmingly childish—you can take your five year old to watch it, and yet as you drive back home, you will discover that there is more to it than the tale of an ordinary boy with an extraordinary wanderlust.
Chander Pahar is heart-warming because you discover—contrary to all forebodings—that the friends he has lost and the wealth he has found has not changed Shankar into a sadder or a vainer man. Shankar’s unbelievable feat is in retaining his sense of chaste wonder at the world around him. When he sets sail again, you’re almost relieved that Shankar has not fallen into the trap of losing himself into the mire of that which has claimed many a life before he made it out alive from that enchanted cave with diamonds.
Lest I forget to mention, there’s computer-generated-imagery (CGI) of a Bunyip—the mythical animal that protects the diamonds according to the Zulus (and looks like a dinosaur according to me), CGI of an erupting volcano, and lots of breath-takingly beautiful panorama shots across the movie. The actors have done their job, including the lions and hyenas. There’s a bit of blood and gore and a fully clothed skeleton—if that kind of detail interests you.
P.S. There’s no hot chick, no love angle, and no song and dance sequences.