Here in the west, especially today, we don’t know much about the 1947 Partition of India – the rapid and chaotic creation of Pakistan as a breakaway nation following (and as a condition of) India’s independence. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus lead to a panicked flight of Muslim Indians to Pakistan, seeking a safe haven where they wouldn’t be a religious minority, with an equally large number of Hindu Indians fleeing from Pakistani territory to India for exactly the same reason. Both brand-new countries thus found themselves with huge refugee crises to handle on top of setting up new governments and starting to plot their own courses. Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak made the aftermath of the Partition a repeated topic of his work; this film is actually the third in his “Partition trilogy” (the first in his trilogy, The Cloud-Capped Star, is one we’ve seen already). However – I’m not so sure that the Partition is really the issue here.
Iswar (Abhi Bhattacharya) is a Bengali refugee, now living in a camp near Calcutta with his much younger sister Sita (Indrani Chakraborty plays Sita as a girl, Madhabi Mukhopadhyay is an older Sita). His friend Haraprasad (Bijon Bhattacharya, no relation) has drafted him into helping set up a schoolin the camp, but Iswar is always on the lookout for a better situation so he can get himself and Sita out of the camp. But Iswar is also kindhearted enough to take in the abandoned boy Abhiram (Mater Tarun as a child, Satindra Bhattacharya as an adult – also no relation), even though he’s of a lower caste. Soon after Abhiram joins his little family, Iswar runs into an old college friend who offers him a job as a clerk in his factory, complete with lodging. Iswar jumps at the chance, appeasing Haraprasad with the news that he’ll take Abhiram along too.
Things are peaceful for a while; Iswar is rapidly moving up the ranks in the factory, while Sita and Abhiram get a proper education. Sita soon distinguishes herself as a musical talent, while Abhiram gets high marks at a boarding school. The proud Iswar decides to do right by both kids – he secures a spot in a prestigious German college for Abhiram to study engineering, and arranges for Sita to be married off to a wealthy man. He announces his plans to both on the very day he’s made manager of the factory, assuming they’ll all celebrate their collective fortune. But there’s just two problems – firstly, Abhiram wants to be a journalist, not an engineer. And secondly – even though Sita and Abhiram were raised as brother and sister, they know that they’re really not….and they have fallen in love. A panicked Iswar forces Sita and Abhiram to go ahead with his plans – but they are just as determined as he, and run away the day of Sita’s wedding. Iswar lives another decade without knowing how Sita and Abhiram are doing, until a chance encounter in Calcutta shows him just how bad off Sita’s life has become.
Ghatak may have had a thing about the Partition, but it’s the caste system that really comes out of this worst. Throughout Abhiram’s life, everyone assumes he’s in the same class as Iswar and Sita – but when news spreads through the factory that a now-grown Abhiram had come upon a dying lower-caste woman in the center of town and recognized her as his long-lost mother, everyone suddenly turns on this formerly well-regarded and promising young man, to the point that Iswar’s own job is now at risk (his boss is all-in on the caste system). It’s caste that drives his refusal when Abhiram asks to marry Sita, and it’s caste that drives him to send Abhiram away – not knowing that Sita will be following along. Caste also gave Iswar a leg up out of the refugee camp – had he been lower-caste, his college friend would never have offered him the job – hell, he probably wouldn’t have even befriended Iswar in college (assuming Iswar had even able to go).
So I’m not as clear that this is about the Partition, even though it figures heavily in the very beginning. And actually, Cloud Capped Star wasn’t “about” the Partition either. Fine films both, but….maybe misnamed?