So, this one got kind of heavy.
Nita (Supriya Choudhury) is the oldest daughter, and second-oldest child, in a formerly-middle-class Bengali family now living as refugees near Calcutta. The family had been enjoying a comfortable existence in their former home until the 1947 Partition of India, when they were forced to move.
Not everyone is coping with the change all that well, however. Father Taran (Bijon Bhattacharya) is trying to run a modest school in the refugee camp where they now live, but since all the students are poor as well, it isn’t that lucrative. Mother (Gita Dey) is still bitter about the family’s diminished circumstances, and takes it out on all the kids. The oldest child Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) is determined to keep up with his singing career, eschewing work because it would cut into his rehearsal time. Younger son Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal) and younger daughter Geeta (Gita Ghatak) are still in college, but have a bit of a taste for bling. And while Nita would also like to keep up with her studies, she seems to be the only breadwinner – and often Shankar, Mantu and Geeta have sponged off what little she makes before she can turn the bulk of it over to her mother. She rarely has any left to spend herself, or to get little cheer-up gifts for her boyfriend Sanat (Niranjan Ray), a similarly-impoverished student himself.
I could go into detail, but overall, the film is basically the story of how everything else in Nita’s life gradually and relentlessly gets taken away from her, just like her diminishing paycheck every month. First she gets pressured to give up her studies and work full-time. Then Geeta starts flirting with Sanat and turning his head. Then Taran is injured and left too feeble to work. Then Mantu is also injured and needs a costly medication. Then… it’s a relentless parade of one damn thing after another, everyone asking Nita if she wouldn’t mind just doing this one little thing for them, or making this one little sacrifice, for the good of the family. And poor Nita bears it all stoically up until the very end, when it seems that even her life is about to be taken from her – and she finally protests, throwing herself at Shankar and wailing that “I want to live! I want to live!”
Director Ritwik Ghatak gives poor Nita very few options for escape from her fate. But what little option she has, she feels would be even worse – everyone in the camp criticizes Shankar for not working, since he’s the eldest and is supposed to be helping support the family. But Nita herself encourages him to pursue his singing instead – the pair have a close bond, being the more ambitious pair of siblings; more so than dudebro Mantu or boy-crazy Geeta. Nita doesn’t want to give up her studies – but Choudhury lets us see just how much Nita looks up to big brother Shankar, and feels that him giving up his passion would be an even greater tragedy. So, fair enough, she’ll quit school, it’ll be okay. Not like she can do anything about it. Choudhury stays so heartbreakingly stoic through all of Nita’s crappy luck it nearly sends you numb – just as Nita is herself going numb until that very last anguished cry. She still hurts – you can see her privately suffering – but it’s suffering she hides from everyone, never saying anything until she can’t stay silent any more.
Honestly, my only nit with the film itself is that it’s meant to lay some of the blame for Nita’s fate on their refugee status – but the fact that they are Partition Refugees is more hinted-at than it is flat-out confirmed; it’s possible that an Indian audience from the 1950s would have picked up on way more cues about the family’s status and it just sailed over my head. But it honestly felt more like Nita was just as screwed over by random bad luck and her own selflessness, and you can find that in any family in any part of the world, chipping away at someone until all she has left is a torn photo of her brother, an old love letter from an ex-boyfriend and very little time left.