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Sitting on the fence

Posted on Jun 29, 07:21PM | IBNS

Crosswinds over Icchamati is a moving documentary on the plight of people caught in a strange imbroglio on the Indo-Bangladesh border. TWF Correspondent Shoma A. Chatterji in conversation with its director Subha Das Mullick

International protocol requires that approximately 137 metres on both sides of an international border are left fallow. But this has not been possible on the Indo Bangladesh border for various reasons. The 4000 KM long Indo-Bangladesh border meanders through paddy fields, marshes, villages and even back yards of homes in West Bengal. So the poor farmer whose farms fall on the so- called 'no man's land' has to sign a register every day before he crosses the fence to till his land. The last 148 Km of the river is fluid, formed by the river Ichhamati. The first border post on land is near a village called Panitar. It is a neglected village with about 30 families, almost outside the folds of the country's administration. The film Crosswinds over Icchamati by a woman documentary filmmaker catches glimpses of these people caught in an unusual situation and unforeseen problems .

Excerpts of an interview with director Subha Das Mullick :

What motivated you to make this telling investigative documentary?

I happened to visit the Indo Bangladesh border sometime in 2006 in connection with a film I was commissioned to do by Childline India Foundation. My first visit was overpowered by a rush of complex emotions - patriotism, curiosity for the 'other', an urge to defy the border and cross over to the other side. That was the beginning of my interest in the border lands. Around the same time, I happened to read The Final Cut, an article in special issue of Time Magazine (August, 1997) brought out on the occasion of 50 years of India's independence. It was about how Cyril Radcliffe was forced to divide the country within six weeks. This triggered my interest in the entire saga on Partition. That was the beginning of my research and my visits to the border.

What did you find during your pre-shoot visits?

People living along the Indo Bangladesh border are still coping with the disruptions caused in the daily rhythm of their lives that began more than 64 years ago. In the process they are often stepping on the laws of the land and harming the interests of the nation they belong to. The country was divided into two nations along religious lines. Along the margins of the nation, the focus of conflict has shifted from religion to that between the State and society. The people have accepted this conflict as a part of their lives.

Wasn't funding a problem with this kind of subject?

Yes. So I had to garner funds through my own resources mostly drawing from personal funds. I confined my shooting to North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal across Taki, Bashirhat, Ghojadanga, etc and Petrapole, the entry point to Bangladesh. The BSF office helped me a lot.

How long did it take you to complete the film?

It took five long years to complete the film. The last round of shooting was done in 2009.

Wasn't there some personal nostalgia involved too?

My grandfather was very fond of narrating tales of his pastoral childhood in East Bengal- now Bangladesh, where rivers blend with meadows and meadows melt into the distant horizon. His stories of catching big fish in a small pond and playing football with bare feet smelt of fresh greenery and the moist earth. He was a police officer in British India and retired on 15 August, 1947. He could never go back to his native village in Faridpur. Things had turned too violent and gory. The loss haunted him the rest of his life. I have grown up hearing his stories and a picture of Bangladesh is etched in my mindscape. One part of me refuses to accept Bangladesh as a foreign country.

What touched you the most?

It's difficult to pick out just one. It's not just a story of 30 families cloistered in a group. The border is a grey zone of half truths, fuzzy nationalities and dubious vocations. But innocence was not lost in a day. The transformation began 64 years ago when Cyril Radcliffe's pen turned brother into the other. Partition has changed people's lives. Market places where farmers went to sell their products suddenly went out of bounds. Playgrounds where children flexed their muscles fell on the other side of the fence. Close relatives living on the other side of the river, became foreigners overnight. Radcliffe was instructed to demarcate the boundaries of the two parts of Bengal "on the basis of ascertaining the contiguous areas of Muslims and non Muslims. In doing so it will also take into account other factors."

You have shown the historic Durga idol immersion that involves people from both side of the Icchamati River. People gather from across both lands to watch this event every year.

The Roy Chowdhurys of Taki celebrate Durga Puja. You will find them at all odd places across the world. The Durga Puja of the Roy Chowdhury household was an event for rejoicing for all their subjects on either side of the river Ichhamati. On the last day of the puja, the idol was immersed in the river. Subjects on both banks of the river took part in the celebrations. The tradition continues, although the feudal bonding has broken down. The BSF turns a blind eye on this day.


Personal chronicles

The film chronicles personal accounts of several eye-witnesses and direct victims of this Partition. Among them is 95-year-old Mani Mohan Sardar who has seen the cross migration after the Partition, the slow but sure way in which the border began to get tightened that brought about a marked change in the demography in the neighbourhood where he lived. He cannot understand why the country needed to be sliced up into two pieces and who did it and who benefited from this division. The 16,000 inhabitants of the village comprises 80 per cent Muslims and 20 per cent Hindus who live in harmony but are forced now to face the everyday problem of an excuse to defy the borders.

The director talks to some important people of the village, explores the gateway on this side of the border where cattle, dogs and fish have to be cleared by the border police along with humans and often, are smuggled across only to be caught. The scenes of the Durga immersion are beautiful and touching.

(Shoma A. Chatterji is an award winning film critic)