India / 1968 / Bengali

Directed by Tapan Sinha

With Swarup Dutt, Chhaya Devi, Samit Bhanja

Still from 'Apanjan'A frail widow of many years, named Anandamoyee, speaking to a young woman in their rural village, recounts the day of her wedding, when she first met her husband, a magnetic, mischievous and hard-drinking thespian. No sooner has she finished her story than a well-dressed man of the city approaches her, claiming to be her nephew, and subsequently brings her home with him to Kolkata, to live with him and his family. Life away from the village precipitates something approaching culture shock, as she is compelled to don footwear for the first time in her life. In the city she is met with children begging on the street, the sight of day-to-day violence, and – perhaps most bizarre – women working at office jobs. The urbane, westernized couple who have taken her in enlist her to care for their toddler, which she does gladly, out of familial obligation.

After an encounter with another disingenuous, so-called relative, she becomes savvy to her exploitation and demands some compensation from the family. This precipitates a standoff that finds her leaving the family and cursing the need for money that has entered into her life so dramatically. She disappears into the depths of the urban sprawl, to care for the two beggar children, Chunchuni and her brother Tuntun, who are squatting in a disused house. She is drawn to them because they demand little more than compassion.

The children are under the protection of a local street gang, a group of angry-young-men led by Brother Ravi. They are the sort of excitable, thuggish, class-conscious students that seem mainly to exist in India, and with whom West Bengal in particular abounds. Over endless cups of tea they debate politics, when they are not going after Chenu’s gang with pistols and bombs. Roguish and overeducated, they do most of their living on the streets, while seeing their parents only twice daily for meals. Controllers of the establishment have eschewed them and consequently Anandamoyee feels a kinship towards them. Beyond this there is a maternal connection, made complex as she belatedly experiences both the surrogate of a standard family life (which she did not have with her husband) and the romance associated with being with lawless blackguards. Ravi’s anarchic charisma transports her back to the dashing dacoit who took refuge in her house all those years ago, shown in one of several flashbacks to her married life. As a young woman she looks on shyly, her husband telling the young bandit that he would have liked to have run away to join up with his crew, if only he weren’t married – that makes two of them. Now as an old woman she sees the unmistakable economic benefit of being associated with the gang, and uses it to help the two orphans. They are a family of outcasts – the destitute orphans, the pseudo-revolutionaries, and the elderly widow – and somehow perfect for one another.

Still from 'Apanjan'Violence seems to go off at any opportunity; the college students riot and smash up their classrooms in a scene made somewhat surreal by the presence of a lone man playing rock and roll on a guitar. The exams for which they have all been studying diligently have been postponed – again. There are so many of them who strive, but they are being shut out from finishing. It is no wonder that Ravi and his retinue are disillusioned with the value of education, skeptical of the integrity of democracy, and all too happy to participate in the crooked political system. A local politician recruits them to his side, perhaps less for their charismatic canvassing than their ability to strong-arm the neighborhood’s residents. The boys participate in this for the validating power of being political, to uphold and convey a message, even if it is not their own. Of course it is clearly just the corrupt status quo, and they are not making a stand for vision or equality, or elevating their neighborhood in any tangible way. They merely vie for votes against Chenu’s gang, who have taken up with a rival politician. This migration of the seedy squabble of two nihilistic street gangs into the arena of an election draws a telling parallel pointing to the banal dishonesty masquerading as populism that so beleaguers Indian politics.

While Anandamoyee proves to be inspiring to the young men she has befriended, and reveals them to be actually quite tender and thoughtful, the relationship that they develop comes off as bittersweet. There remains the inescapable message that they spend much of their energies perpetuating the deleterious values of individual aggrandizement that so deteriorate urban societies. The climactic and melodramatic battle that wrenches the neighborhood brings this all too powerfully into focus. But as large and tragic an eruption as that is, it is destined to be absorbed into the inexorable pace of the seething metropolis, to be deposited as a blip on the next day’s newspaper.

Still from 'Apanjan'


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