The Day Shall Dawn

06/12/2017

Pakistan / 1959 / Urdu

Directed by AJ Kardar

With Zurain Rakshi, Khan Ataur Rahman, Tripti Mitra

Still from 'The Day Shall Dawn'In a lacquered night scene, fishermen call to each other across the water in sing-song voices. Huge catfish writhe and gulp in the boat. The dark of the water merges with the dark of the night, people’s lucent faces encrusted by lamplight. Here in the Ganges delta, water is everywhere and everything: it acts as road and neighborhood, a collection of capillaries and veins matting at the Bay of Bengal. The water sits all around, hangs vividly in the morning light, and runs with the people’s blood. They live and die by it.

In the morning the men gather on shore to sell their wares. The middleman gives the money to the older fisherman, the head of his boat crew. The old man puts his hand out for more but the middleman just apologizes. “The price has fallen, chacha.” So he divvies up the money to his crew and they leave, disappointed.

One of them, a quiet sort named Mian, goes to give some royalties to his boss. Day after day, it seems, Mian can’t save enough to buy his own boat. His colleague Ganju, who has almost saved enough, takes him over to the boat that’s being built for him, stroking the prow proudly. He nearly has it, but unlike Mian, he doesn’t have a big family to support. They both return home from the night shift. Slowly, with gracile strength, the boat pilot pushes them off the shore with a long pole used to move the boats. All along the river, life – fast and slow – whirs around like piles of leaves in wind gusts.

Mian returns to his village to find he has a new son. He enters the house unhurriedly – first dawdling with a replica bamboo boat, then giving his young son Mandu a paise coin – before joining his wife Fatima, who lies in bed with the frail newborn. After exchanging a few words, and giving her the money he’s taken home, he leaves to summon her sister to care for her. Over a shared meal of fish and beaten rice, he asks his brother Kasim to go to another village to fetch the sister, a young woman named Mala.

Meanwhile Ganju goes home to his listless mother, who sits on a platform outside the house, staring straight ahead. He tells her that a boat of his own is soon to be a reality, but she doesn’t register that she’s heard him. In between tubercular coughs, he plans for the future.

Still from 'The Day Shall Dawn'On his way to Fatima’s home village, Kasim glides on the river, maneuvering the boat around bridges and sunken boats, working with pole and foot as he shifts his body weight to steer. He arrives in Debiganj and is directed to the house of Karim Baba. There he meets the old couple, the parents of Fatima and Mala, and tells them of the new baby. Mala peers at him shyly from the curtain door. Because of the family’s hospitality, he isn’t able to leave for his village until the next morning.

Men crowd around as the government agent disembarks to start the fishing rights auction. Lal Mian, whose local fishing monopoly has just expired, must out-bid the other rich men who show up to take it from him. After winning the contract, Lal Mian ceremoniously informs the fishermen that they’ll have to pay him an additional three rupees each month – a heavy price just to be able to fish. Thus he recoups the money he put down to win the contract – and then some – by charging the fishermen rent on the boats they use. The auction seems just a public ritual to justify wringing a little bit more from their tired bodies.

Kasim comes to shore in the village, taking Mala with him. Lal Mian scoffs at the young man, whom he calls “impertinent” and who saves the money he makes fishing for himself, rather than investing in the dream of a boat like Mian and Ganju. The boss looks lasciviously at Mala as they pass by. Mala enthusiastically greets Fatima’s children. Fatima is weak and bed-ridden, and seems happy to be reunited with her sister, whom their parents have allowed to stay over for the next month.

At the fun fair, Kasim catches Mala talking to Lal Mian (who walks around imperiously, wielding a boss’ black umbrella), and flies into a rage, telling her to come home with him. They steal a tender moment, alone together before the waves. She thaws his anger. They sit wordlessly, near nymphaeaceae drifting by on the brackish stream. When they return to the fun fair, they see Mian and Fatima’s eldest daughter, Maina, getting her leg broken by a charging bull.

Lal Mian, the local health insurer, brings a medicine man to the family’s house to help the girl. The medicine man does a quick triage by waving a burning owl feather, and decides, without asking questions, that an evil spirit is responsible. Lal Mian finds the opportunity to accuse Kasim and Mala of being an item. Fatima asks Kasim what the man means. Kasim changes the subject by demanding he be allowed to take Maina to a hospital. Before Fatima can properly answer he picks the girl up, as she cries out with fear, and carries her away, with Mala helping. This is a big deal for the village, who (as with anything unusual or to be condemned) crowds around and follows. Lal Mian takes this as a provocation. Before anyone can stop them they’re on a steamboat headed for town.

JagoHuaSavera1Mian often seems apathetic, gazing at his model boat. But Lal Mian decries him for letting this business between Kasim and Mala happen under his roof pushes him over the edge. What has happened is actually very little – just things that the rich man can’t control. So Lal Mian distorts the picture of what’s going on for the poor people. He’s probably been doing it his whole life, and so it comes effortlessly. It’s a way of getting back at Kasim for defying him all these years. At home Mian gets so angry he throws his hookah at Fatima, and the whole family ends up crying. Maina has to spend the night in the hospital. Fatima and Mala miss the steamboat home and have to sleep rough in the town.

Amazingly Lal Mian has been true to his word (he must be, to remain ingratiated with the community), bringing the newly-finished boat to Ganju. A group of men carries it all the way to the man’s hut. The village crowds around, as it is wont to do, but Ganju is ill in bed. Everyone is dispersed. Ganju manages to come out and touch the boat, crawl over it, his dream. Entranced, he imagines being on the river with it. The boat is a symbol of autonomy, of some degree of freedom from the dreadful existence in which they toil. Mian cannot hope for such a boon to come his way, only to keep his family alive and exercise the small ration of daily joys that he is allowed.

Fewer than 10 films per year were produced in impoverished East Pakistan, and it’s no surprise that Karachi didn’t allow many resources for movies to find their way there. Locally-inflected films in the colonial era had the potential to stir up nationalist feelings and, in this case, not the right kind. Ayub Khan’s government found it preferable to send their own propaganda to the East rather than to support a local film industry there. Days before The Day Shall Dawn‘s Pakistan premier, the government forbade producer-composer Nauman Taseer from screening it. Everything about it – the exhortative title, the neorealist portraiture of the wretched of the Earth, the cast and crew’s connections with progressive people’s theatre – must have alarmed Pakistani officials.

The relationship of the fishing boss, Lal Mian, to the fishermen who work for him is a little bit too much like that of a paternalistic regime and its far-flung colony. East Pakistan had to be repressed, often violently, if it was to be kept. Ideas of democracy, egalitarianism, or even basics like language and cultural identity were repeatedly tamped down, with ever-increasing desperation and brutality. The population there outnumbered that of the West of the country (where most of the power was concentrated), so if they were allowed to decide on their own future, control from Karachi would be in jeopardy. At the time the film was shot, East Pakistan was under martial law, as the government had to deal with the rise of communism, a Bengali language movement, and widespread civil disobedience.

Criticism of the government and its support of feudal practices is not overt in the film, but it’s a wonder that any made it into the story at all. The only sign of the powers that were comes in the form of the government agent, arriving in the village on a boat that bears the Pakistani flag. Though ordinary villagers don’t seem to encounter it regularly, the government acts as a facilitator to the petty rulers, from whom they, in turn, extract capital. Local strongmen such as Lal Mian maintain a tight system in the village, for the remainder of the year, until the next time the contract expires. He does his job by keeping the fishermen loyal and monetarily indebted, bating them with promises of a new boat, if only they can bank enough of their earnings with him.

Still from 'The Day Shall Dawn'We aren’t presented with a collective solution, or even any relief. There isn’t much in the way of political consciousness among the fishermen, and they all have too much to lose to take on the bosses. Nonetheless it’s clear that the film’s nascent Marxist critique of the social system was too much for Khan’s paranoid government to allow, particularly during a period of martial law. Indeed the screenwriter, Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed, was imprisoned in an anti-communist purge at the time of the film’s premier in London. The Day Shall Dawn won gold at the Moscow Film Festival, and then promptly disappeared until its recent revival. Taseer’s son located prints in France, Britain and Pakistan, and had the film pieced together for restoration.

However, more than fifty years on, its problems getting screened were far from over. Gautaman Bhaskaran, writing in The Hindustan Times, reported that the film was dropped from the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival due to the “prevailing political climate.” Evidently swept up in a broader attack on Pakistani actors and Indian productions that they’ve worked on, the organizers of the festival bowed to pressure from a shady “NGO” that filed a formal complaint against them. Nationalist intolerance is, once again, keeping great cinema from being seen, just as it did nearly six decades ago when the film was released. The Indo-Pak rift, which began as quite jagged and rancorous at the point of partition, has only grown more so, on most counts. It comes out in both complicated and crude conflicts, obvious ones and subtle.

As Bhaskaran notes, a once-thriving film industry in Lahore had much of its talent drain away to Bombay following partition. Pakistan submitted The Day Shall Dawn to the Academy Awards (where it didn’t win), one more film in 1963, and then no more for another half-century. It feels as though we’re seeing a vision of what could have been, a different course for South Asian cinema to take, but one that was blocked off by scared tyrants. The poetry of everyday speech, as well as the rough truths of life, visual clarity and thoughtful pacing, are all so far from what would follow it in Pakistan.

Even if the film hadn’t been lost to the ages, it’s unlikely that the conditions that produced it could ever have been replicated. It’s a triumph of transnational cooperation, more so than would seem possible. Floating in the wake of Bandung-conference optimism, a Punjabi director joined with a British cinematographer and an Indian-Bangladeshi cast, to make a film based on a story by Bengali writer Manik Bandopadhyay. You can practically feel the anti-progressive hackles on all sides rising in response. The strange circumstances that brought such a crew together continued into a strange period of shooting, at least according to cinematographer Walter Lassally’s priceless recollections. They shot it on five types of stock, as the supply line regulated by the government was haphazard. Interiors were done in a model hut built for a prior documentary.

While Satyajit Ray is hailed as something of a poet of quotidian life, this image of him arises from his highly exportable first two films, and has less to do with the varied career that came after. Likewise Ritwik Ghatak, although never called a neorealist, was enamored of seeking a unified epic voice in ordinary people, marrying melodrama and the primal. The resulting works are extremely uneven, at times as sloshed as the auteur himself.

The Day Shall Dawn is a more classically realist film than anything by those directors but, sober as it is, it doesn’t bore our senses. It’s gorgeous, but its gorgeousness doesn’t compromise the grit. The gliding of boats, the beating down of the sunlight, the rough juxtapositions of peasant life, are all felt at one point or another. Taseer’s music is relaxed but melodically open, like the strumming of a tambor, somewhere between ragas and folksongs, almost prefiguring the West’s flirtation with Indian modes. Lassally seems fond of the silhouette shots that the film returns to often, suggesting that life is still in the shadows for the villagers, and the dawn eluded to by the title, that inevitable dawn, is yet beneath the horizon.

JagoHuaSavera6It’s true that the film probably could never have come about without Ray. But rather than building to an artistic legacy as Ray’s refined aloofness did, it seems to have a greater service to ordinary people by bringing them into the conversation, flaws and all. Kardar’s film finds us in a Bengali fishing village, but away from Ghatak’s exaggeration and the violent drama of partition. Not everything has to have clawhammer political ideology suffusing it, and that is, consequently, the film’s most revolutionary implication.

While the “political climate” that holds the film back in the present day is different from that when it was made, we must consider the parallels. The same qualities that made it threatening to the Pakistani state are also what put Indian nationalists up in arms. Admittedly, the latter camp haven’t watched it, and are interested less in the content of the film than its country of origin.

But let’s look at the content, as well as the form: it works from lucidity and values truth. Valuing truth, both in art and public discourse, is a threat to group-think, macho pride and eternal war. So while this relatively sedate film gets shelved over and over, bellicose films that manufacture tribalism are successes at the box office. In Pakistan, India and, indeed, Bangladesh, it’s becoming increasingly dangerous for truthful voices to make a sound. Then, the importance of The Day Shall Dawn, looking beyond its nationality and directly into it, should be clear to anyone. The dawn is a long way off, but for those under attack by pervasive and willful ignorance, films like this are a lantern to fight by.

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