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Shakha Prashakha: Some Reflections on the 1990s Bengali Society

Director Satyajit Ray’s filmmaking genius has adorned the world of cinema with invaluable gems throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. One of his more under-appreciated movies, Shakha Prashakha (“Boughs and Twigs”) (1990), accomplishes the herculean task of peering into the manifold social realities while providing glimpses into the human heart.  

Synopsis

The story begins in the family residence of Anandamohan Majumdar, an accomplished industrialist who rose to the top from the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and was famed throughout the region for his honesty and work ethic, on the eve of Anandamohan’s seventieth birthday, with a conversation between him and his second son, Prashanta Majumdar. The conversation reveals that Prashanta had suffered a massive car accident in London while studying Mineralogy resulting in his mental instability. Prashanta laments his joblessness while Anandamohan laments about the old days where the residence brimmed with his four sons, three of whom have moved away due to their jobs. He hails the principles ‘work is worship’ and ‘honesty is the best policy’ and expresses his belief that the same policies were the cause of his sons’ success. At this, Prashanta suddenly has an outburst, repeating the word ‘zero’ over and over again. He warns his father to be prepared as a thunder will shortly strike the banyan tree (“Baj Porlo… Chokher Samne! Toiri Theko!”). Later that day, in the citizen reception (Nagorik Sangbardhana) organized in Anandamohan’s honour, he suffers a sudden cardiac arrest which results in the hurried arrival of his other sons and their families i.e. Prabodh Majumdar, the eldest son, his wife Uma Majumdar, Prabir Majumdar, the third son, his wife Tapati Majumdar and son Dingo (full name is not revealed), and Pratap Majumdar, the fourth and youngest son. The story then focuses of the lives of these characters and it is quickly revealed that their lives are nothing like what Anandamohan imagines. Prabodh, the general manager of a large company, and Prabir, a businessman, deemed to be the more ‘successful’ of the four brothers, both indulge in du-nombori i.e. extra-legal and unethical means of earning money, to create and maintain an affluent life-style. Paratap, who seems to truly believe in his father’s principles, has been forced to leave his job due to corruption in the firm and has taken up acting as a full-time career. The terrible truth about Prabodh and Prabir is revealed to Anandamohan by the innocent remarks of five-year-old Dingo. The movie ends with the battered old man trying to find solace in his son Prashanta. 

Themes

Shakha Prashakha is layered in terms of themes. It primarily deals with the environment of moral-ethical degradation in the 1980s-90s Bengali society where honesty and hard work were not being considered enough for ensuring socio-economic survival and prominence. This is presented through the striking contrast of the value systems of Anandamohan and his ‘successful’ sons. However, a careful look will reveal that it also seeks to explore the binary of social usefulness/uselessness and challenge its simplicity. For example, 93-year-old Abhay Charan Majumdar who had led an honest and ethical lifestyle during his days as a teacher but has currently become senile due to old age, is deemed to have an ‘useless existence’ while Prabodh and Prabir Majumdar, in spite of their clearly unethical ways of earning money, are the most ‘successful’ and ‘useful’ members of the family. The question of whether human value consists of something outside this stigmatic ‘social usefulness’ is raised, and remains throughout the film’s entirety. Themes like the fall of socialism, patriarchy and the idealism/pragmatism binary in daily lives also remain in the background. 

Characters

Anandamohan Majumdar is a retired industrialist who was famed and respected throughout Anandanagar (erstwhile Shalgiri, renamed after him in 1980) for his uncompromisingly moralist and honest nature, intense work ethic and humanitarian accomplishments (ex.: building schools, hospitals and childrens’ parks and ensuring labour welfare). He joined Orient Mica Works at the age of nineteen as an apprentice and quickly rose through the ranks of overseer, manager and general manager to eventually become the company’s partner; all this having taken place due to his honesty, hard work and intelligence which had quickly gained him attention among his superiors. All this had taken place before the events of the movie and Ananda spends most of the film’s screen-time bedridden due to his illness. Even so, Ananda remains a towering presence in the other characters’ lives throughout the film, symbolising a joint feat of honesty and success that none of his sons could actually accomplish. This has a somewhat de-humanising effect on Ananda’s character in their eyes- he is seldom seen as a human being, rather, he represents an unattainable height to most of his sons and daughters-in-law except, perhaps, Prashanta. We as the audience seldom meet the human Anandamohan Majumdar, firstly in his conversation with his son Prashanta which reveals his swelling (and ultimately unfounded) pride in his sons’ successes, his yearning for his bygone family life and his disappointment in Prashanta’s misfortune and, secondly, towards the end of the film where he suffers from a terrible mental shock when he learns the truth from his grandson Dingo and tries to find solace in Prashanta;s presence in his life. 

Abhay Charan Majumdar, Anandamohan’s ninety-three-year-old father, who used to be an English teacher in the St. Columbus School in Hazaribagh, has lost his memory with age and currently lives in his son’s residence, leading a life of senility under the care of one of the family servants. His public presence is actively shunned and he remains confined in his room throughout almost the entire film. His two grandsons Prabodh and Prabir are indifferent towards his existence and refuse to meet him, Prabodh even calling it ‘useless.’ The ‘useful/useless’ binary is powerfully explored in Abhay Charan’s presence. Even if he is the eldest member of the household, he is cast into a corner like an old, useless object. The irreversible decline in his contribution to the social machine has resulted in a simultaneous fall of respect for him even among his family members. The eldest Majumdar, through his ‘uselessness,’ becomes an open document of how society views its members. 

Prabodh Majumdar, the eldest son of Anandamohan Majumdar, is the general manager of a big company. He uses corrupt means to maintain a high-end lifestyle which, to him, is a more prominent marker of social respect and ‘success’ than honesty. When Prabir reveals this fact resulting in Prabodh’s wife Uma receiving a severe mental shock, he explains to her that he has to do this as a matter of expediency, with the increase of income tax and prices. Corruption, to him, is a normal practice and honesty as a principle that can be followed does not exist. He tries hard, however, to establish the separation between professional corruption and moral corruption by positing himself as a family man without any vices like smoking, alcoholism or debauchery. Prabodh, therefore, emerges as a person who resorts to corrupt practices to maintain his social stature but does not acknowledge those practices for what they are. 

Uma Majumdar, Prabodh’s wife, is the archetypical devout housewife, loyal to her husband and respectful towards him almost to the point of worshipping him as the ideal man. She is sensitive of social relations and mindful of her role. She is the only person among the new arrivals who agrees to meet Abhay Charan, even if out of courtesy and duty She also has a keen sensitivity towards other peoples’ emotions and does not fail to notice Anandamohan’s mental distress at the end of the film. Her blind faith in her husband’s character shatters when his corrupt nature is revealed to all by Prabir, but it seems that Prabodh is quickly able to convince her that the things he has had to resort to were necessary expedients. Although her personal view on the necessity of honesty is different from Prabodh, she quickly submits to his version of the story. Thus, throughout the film, ‘devotion’ seems to be Uma’s defining characteristic.

Prabir, Anandamohan’s third son, is much more honest to himself compared to Prabodh because he is open about his vices, both professional and moral. He has no hesitation in declaring in front of everyone that honest people perish in this world (“Jara honest thakte chay tara rosatole toliye jay, they’ll perish!”). He is intolerant towards his grandfather’s senility and his brother Prashanta’s mental instability. He makes fun of his younger brother Pratap’s socialist beliefs in the context of the worldwide fall of socialism. He is an alcoholic, a smoker, a gambler and has had many extra-marital affairs throughout the twelve years of his marriage about which he is surprisingly honest and open to his wife. Unlike his other brothers, Prabir has no love whatsoever for his father who, he believes, unfairly declined him the opportunities for success that he had provided to his two elder brothers. His frustrations and vices, in his mind, somehow stem from his father’s unfair attitude towards him and he makes is clear to his wife that he has come in order to make sure that he is not denied one-fourth share of his father’s property in the likely event of the latter’s death. On the surface, it seems that Prabir is the most one-dimensionally ‘negative’ or ‘bad’ character of the film. However, Prabir’s most striking characteristic, his honesty, is also the key to his possible redemption. It is due to his honest acceptance of his vices (unlike Prabodh’s denial and/or justification of the same) Prabir is able to decide, for his five-year-old son’s sake, to become a better human being. Hints at his progress towards that goal are ample throughout the movie. 

Tapati Majumdar, Prabir’s wife, married him twelve years prior to the film’s events and has endured her husband’s debauchery ever since. Unlike Uma, however, she is neither a silent spectator nor a subservient “Mrs. Prabir Majumdar”- she expresses her concerns and disagreements freely and in many cases surpasses her husband’s ‘honesty’ and courage. Quickly discovering that her husband will never be the friend that she wanted, she seeks friendship, and finds it, in Pratap, her brother-in-law. She is the first to succeed in making Pratap discourse the reason behind his brooding silence during their stay in Anandanagar. The temporality of this friendship is rudely exposed to her when Pratap informs her of his impending marriage. Although not quite as subjugated as Uma as to depend on a male relative to make her own judgments, Tapati is, ultimately, made subject to the pressures of the patriarchal social order, as the only choice she is left with to occupy her time, energy and emotional space is to focus on rearing her son Dingo. Even though all does not seem lost for her as her husband Prabir, towards the end of the film, promises to pay back his debt to her, it is sad to see her dependant on her swami (husband/owner) for happiness that she rightly deserves. 

Pratap, on the surface, seems to be the only son of Anandamohan who followed his principles. Pratap Majumdar is a deeply emotional socialist who is facing an ideological identity crisis after the devastating events in socialist countries like China, Bulgaria and Poland. This collective crisis came with his own personal crisis when he found out of his trusted colleague and senior Ramen Dutt’s corrupt practices. As a staunch idealist, Pratap’s response was to resign and opt for a career as an actor in a professional theatre. Pratap keeps the truth from Anandamohan as he fears that the shock of the loss of the family’s prestige would deteriorate his health. Hence, it is clear that Pratap is suffering from a moral dilemma of choice, sensing that what he did, even if it was right from an idealist point of view, might cause a loss of honour for his family and, especially, for his father. Pratap sees him as a ’great man,’ a pillar of strength and morality, a person who rose to the top with integrity and hard work without making any compromises and also contributed to the society. He views himself and his more ‘successful’ brothers as a ‘bunch of mediocre people’ who have no contributions to society at large and are hence entirely forgettable individuals. Pratap also has a sensitive side to him which shows itself when he asks Prashanta of his well-being (“Ekta jinis amar bhishon jante ichhe korche. Tumi ekhon bhalo acho to?”). It would not be just to imagine Pratap as a less successful version of Anandamohan as situational differences (ex.: Aandamohan was his superiors’ favourite because of his integrity and work ethic while Pratap was called a ‘child’ and a ‘fool’ by his superior due to precisely the same reason) and personal differences (ex.: Pratap’s passion for acting had made it a readily available alternative career option to him) have had decisive roles in shaping their respective careers. Pratap, in short, is an idealist, but not blindly so, and is keenly aware of and sensitive to the social realities around him. 

Probably the most powerfully written character of this film is Anandamohan’s second son, Prashanta Majumdar. Prashanta was deemed to be the most brilliant of Anandamohan’s sons, but due to a major motor accident in England, had become mentally unstable and thus unfit for any kind of work. To members of his family, Prashanta symbolizes an ‘unfulfilled promise,’ a fact that is spelled out multiple times. The social usefulness/uselessness binary is interestingly applied in Prashanta’s case. The fact that he could be of immense value to his family is lamented multiple times, but amazingly, the presence of Prashanta as a human being is mostly degraded or dismissed as unimportant, as he is currently of no ‘use’ to society. Prabodh privately deems that Prashanta should be admitted to an asylum and Prabir refuses to deal with him during his outburst at the dinner table. Pratap is the only brother who treats Prashanta as a person and not as a damaged good, but fails to get through to him due to his overtly cautious approach. Prashanta, therefore, is dehumanised due to his social ‘uselessness.’ Prashanta himself is aware of his ‘uselessness’ and laments this multiple times during his screen-time. He also mocks this tendency of branding people ‘useless’ due to their lack of material contributions to society (“Tomra sobai kajer manush... bhalo!”).  Yet, it is not difficult to see that beyond this ‘uselessness’ Prashanta is a beautiful human being, conscious of aesthetics and values that his so-called ‘sane’ brothers are barely aware of. He lives in a world of beauty sustained by constant exposure to nature and fine music. He is intolerant towards any kind of disturbance in that world of beauty caused by the ‘real world’ where such beauties are overshadowed by the seemingly all-encompassing social-moral degradation (See Prashanta’s outburst in the dinner table in response to the knowledge of his brothers’ malpractices). Ray has added a prophetic/mystical dimension to this character, which is most prominent in the very first scene when Prashanta symbolically warns of the ‘banyan tree’ getting struck by lightning, a prophecy that comes true towards the end of the film with the revelation to Anandamohan by Dingo of Prabodh and Prabir’s du-nombori (corruption). However, what seems to be Prashanta’s most striking characteristic is the intense love for his family. Even though Prashanta is aware of his brothers’ current dismissal of him as a person but he still laments the moments of childhood closeness that they had spent together (“Brothers, brothers!”). He seems to be the only one of the brothers who sees his father not as a symbol or a means to an end, but a person to be loved as such. That is why his first reaction is to touch his father’s feet in respect when he learns of his seventieth birth anniversary. He feels a deep revulsion towards social pleasantries and, therefore, refuses to meet his father during the rest of the family’s visit to not become a part of the bandwagon of customs and courtesies. However, he is the first to visit his father after the rest of the family leaves. It is in this moment, when Anandamohan has realized the fallacy of his pride in his ‘successful’ sons that he is able to see Prashanta not as an unfulfilled promise, but as the beautiful person that he really is. He welcomes Prashanta into his life in all his majesty by taking his arms into his own and placing them over his chest. Prashanta, therefore, emerges by the end of the movie as the repository of human beauty and values that the contemporary ‘useful’ and ‘sane’ society has lost.  

Conclusion

Sakha Prashakha, with its colourful cast of characters and their relationship with each other, presents a complicated, bleak, yet vivid picture of the Bengali society. In the background of the fall of socialism in particular and idealism in general, as well as an environment of a tapid price rise, professional values were fast eroding, giving way to an almost normalisation of corruption. A degradation of human values was entangled with this professional degradation, where ‘social usefulness; was (and still is) considered the sole factor in deciding the value of a human being. Even while painting this bleak landscape, Satyajit Ray, the exceptional storyteller that he was, has constructed the powerful characters of Pratap and especially Prashanta as a stiff challenge to this seemingly all-consuming ambience of degradation. In the end of the movie Prashanta emerges as a beacon of hope for all who believe in the continuity of human values during these dark times.        


  


  

 

    

    


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Arka Chakraborty

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I'm a History student! I like ruminating about the past, expressing my thoughts through the ink and, nowadays, through the virtual space. My blogs involve mostly history and literature with a view of making it exciting for the reader. Hope to see you at my blogs!