A frail, elderly villager seeking shelter from the burning sun inside a makeshift hut stares inexpressively into the camera as a trio of faceless, black-cladded apparitions perform a vibrant, ritualistic dance before him, perhaps in anticipation of the old man’s inevitable death. The dreamlike, surreal episode seemingly provides an allegorical – and intrinsically operatic – framework for the terminally unemployed intellectual, Nilkantha’s (Ritwik Ghatak) gifted, but equally encumbered (and squandered) life. As the story begins, Nilkantha lies abstractedly crumpled on the floor of an empty house under the numbing haze of alcohol as his long-suffering wife Durga (Tripti Mitra) meticulously removes any tangible object, including his prized phonograph records and books, that he may (and undoubtedly will) eventually sell or barter for a drink before leaving with their young son Satya (Ritaban Ghatak) and arranging for the sale of the house in order to start a new life in the rural town of Kanchanpur far away from him. Dispossessed of everything, Nilkantha finds an enabling protector in his former student Nachiketa (Saugata Burman), an engineering university graduate unable to find employment in the uncertain economy and turbulent political landscape of 1970s Calcutta. Sending the obliging Nachiketa on an errand to buy a bottle of liquor (using the house ceiling fan as trading fodder), Nilkantha soon finds himself joined in the empty room by a young woman named Bangabala (Shaonli Mitra), a refugee from newly independent Bangladesh who has entered the home in search of shelter under the mistaken belief that the house had been abandoned. Believing that she is the soul of his beloved homeland and touched by her traumatic plight, Nilkantha takes Bangabala under his wing. Forced to vacate the premises with the arrival of the new owners, the three begin to wander through the streets and, after rescuing an eccentric Sanskrit teacher named Jagannath (Bijon Bhattacharya) who coincidentally hails from his ancestral village, Nilkantha decides to lead his ragtag band of displaced brethren to a journey into the country, away from the cold, impersonal streets of Calcutta, in search of an elusive place called home.
Marking the final film by Ritwik Ghatak, Reason, Debate and a Story poignantly (and provocatively) encapsulates the recurring, overarching themes that have come to define the filmmaker’s passionate and indelible cinema: dislocation, exile, factionalism, division, cultural dissolution. From the opening sequence of marital separation (and Nilkantha’s subsequent eviction from home), Ghatak provides an intrinsically personal, allegorical framework to the sequence of traumatic history that have plagued the Bengali people (and culture) throughout the course of the twentieth century: the man-made Famine of Bengal in 1943 that decimated communities and ushered a wave of refugees struggling to survive, the Partition of Bengal in 1947 between India and Pakistan that further caused the forcible uprooting of families from their native homeland (often resettling in Calcutta in search of economic opportunity), the struggle for independence from Pakistan in East Bengal that led to the creation of the separate nation of Bangladesh (and further dissipating any hopes for the reunification of the two Bengals), the rampancy of political agitation from the contemporary Naxalite movement as insurgents strive to incite a peasant revolution (and consequently, land reform) throughout the region. By incorporating his own personal struggle with alcoholism into the story, Ghatak provides, not only a semi-autobiographical context to Nilkantha’s travails, but more importantly, introduces the idea of self-inflicted destruction that, in turn, serves as an allegory for the Bengali people’s own complicity in the dissolution of their homeland and culture through petty self-interest, abandoned ideology (note Nilkantha’s encounter with the former intellectual turned underground pornographic novelist, Shatrujit (Utpal Dutt) in an open field), and resigned complacency. It is this acceptance of individual human frailty in the face of a formidable social struggle that is reflected in Nilkantha’s comment, “Somewhere, at some new day, we shall learn that slipping is not death”, a sentiment of untiring activism and defiance against the extinguishing of a humble ideal – a unified homeland – that is reflected in his faltering words to his beloved wife Durga, “I have to do something, don’t I? I have to do something.”
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