The film-script of The Quest (Moner Manush) is much more than a biography of Lalon Fakir. It reveals the stages of a simple young man’s emergence as Lalon Fakir, the prevailing social scenario, a disciple’s faith in his Guru and man’s endless journey in quest of the single entity that his heart craved for. Lalon’s songs were devotional lyrics – poetic and passionate, carrying deep philosophical annotations in tune with the music of the Baul community of rural Bengal.
The baul community renounced all recognized institutional religions and revolted against long-established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith they had found a large expanse under the sky, which had served as bountiful meeting place for many religions. In Lalon’s words, they were like ‘a rudderless raft in a shore-less river; a ‘hidden current’ where those who wanted to get lost can get lost’.
Gautam Ghose (b. 1950) launched into documentaries, group theatre and photo journalism in 1973 after graduating from Calcutta University. His second documentary, Hungry Autumn won him the main award at the Oberhausen Film Festival. Since then Ghose has produced several documentaries on prominent personalities like Ustad Bismillah Khan, Satyajit Ray and HH Dalai Lama, in addition to ten feature film and a number of advertisement, corporate and short films. He has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Ballon, Nantes film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Taskent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival. He is the only Indian to win the coveted Vittori Di Sica Award and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of Italian Solidarity in 2008.
Shankar Sen (b.1936), an engineer and a retired bank executive, writes prose and poetry in both English and Bengali and has had nine books published since 2005. In addition to his own collections of poems in English and Bengali and short stories in English, he has translated in English the best poems of Shamsur Rahman, some rare poem of Utpal Dutt, selected short stories of Buddhadev Guha, five adventures of Saradindu Bandyopadhyaya’s Byomkesh, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Datta and Tarapada Santra’s writings on the folk arts of West Bengal.
The seeds of an idea for producing a film on Moner Manush were probably sown in 1989 while I was making a documentary on Bharatratna Ustad Bismillah Khan. Reminiscing on his youth Khan sahib had said, 'My brother and I used to bathe in the holy Ganga very early in the morning, read our namaz in the mosque and then go down to the Balaji temple where we played the shenhai. Life was very simple and happy: When I heard this, I asked myself - was this simple way of life mentioned by Ustadji the mysterious, solitary path which every human being craved for? Khan sahib had also said, 'There are seven scales and five flat notes lie hidden in them. And it is in the combination of these seven scales and five notes that every single tune of this world is held. Music, my friend, has no caste or religion: To me, Khan sahib had then seemed to stand out as a living symbol of the composite culture of this ub-continent.
The demolition of Babri Masjid occurred soon after that, followed by extensive communal riots. I was shocked and mortified like countless other people of this country. My first reaction was to produce a film on this devastating episode, but the next moment I realised that producing a film on a riot was nothing but displaying violence and blood-shed. Rather, it would be a far more responsible act to produce a film on a non-institutional and non-sectarian worshipper like Kabir or Lalon. I even set out to do some research on Lalon Fakir, but for various reasons it had not been possible to produce a film on Lalon at that time. Many years passed thereafter. With the advent of the new millennium the world seemed to be struck by an even stronger wave of intolerance, as if seized by a surge of prejudice in matters related to religion, politics and culture. I decided that it was the right time for launching my project on Lalon Fakir.
In its autumn issue of 2008 the Bengali magazine Desh brought out a novel on Lalon Fakir - Moner Manush, written by the renowned literateur, Sunil Gangopadhyay. Sunil-da's writing filled me with a strong urge to embark on my project. 1 started reading the articles written on Lalon Fakir by various researchers and studied the songs composed by Lalon with close attention. In the end I realised that Lalon stood out as a truly amazing figure in the backdrop of our nation's scenario in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He seemed to have dropped down like a noor - a spark of divine light from the endless sky into the Bengali society, which then lay shrouded in prejudice and superstition.
Annada Shankar Roy had once written - 'Just as Ram Mohan Roy played an important role in the revival of Bengal, so did Lalon play a vital part in lighting up the minds of the common people with the joy and hope of a Diwali festival. We are overwhelmed by the enormous impact created by a single individual on the prevailing folk-culture of a country. And thus, while the educated urban society had started experiencing the reviving impact of renaissance the illiterate rural people were stirred by a different sort of emotion, the like of which they had never known before’.
The pundits are not in accord about Lalon's date of birth. But judging from the political scenario of his time we may assume that he was born shortly after the East India Company was granted the right of governance of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It would thus appear that Lalon's life had been spent through an important stage of British rule.
Radical changes in the land-system following the implementation of the Permanent Settlement had led to the birth of a new class of feudal lords. And it were these men, who founded the babu culture and remained its staunch patrons for generations thereafter. With the support of the British rulers they came to be identified as educated middle class Bengalis who thrived with the city of Calcutta as their nucleus.
English education and the influence of European authors and scientists had helped a few Indians to unearth certain ancient theories and past glories with the support of foreign experts and thereby raise a spirit of reawakening in their society. But that spirit had failed to gain entry into the non-communal consciousness of the general public. On one hand there was the ultra-conservative outlook of the illiterate Bengali Muslims, who had been denied the benefit of modern education and on the other hand there was the gross neglect and indifference in which they were held by the Bengali Hindus, who staunchly stood for separatism in religious faiths. These realities posed severe constraints before the Bengali Muslims in taking part in the reawakening. But then, this reawakening was not an outcome of any joint effort of Hindus and Muslims nor had it brought them in close harmony. Rather, it had served to make the conflicts, differences and many disparities between the two communities even more pronounced. And thus, even today the dictionary of Bengali language is divided - one dominated by Persian and Arabic and the other by Sanskrit. The fact remains, however, that Bengali language was originally derived from Prakrit, but had been joined later by Persian, Arabic and Turkish words and eventually by Sanskrit as well, all of which had occurred due to historic reasons.
Side by side with the renaissance in the urban population another reawakening was occurring among the people living in the rural and suburban areas of Bengal. This emergence had found particular support in Lalon's practices and songs, which had served to bring the people of rural Bengal closer and united them into a single unit, irrespective of caste or religion. There were thus no divisions in Lalon's dictionary and a larger and far expanded Bengali language had gained its birth by a mingling of its original version with Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Sanskrit words and expressions.
It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and their implied significance it seems as if he was an erudite scholar, tutored in an age-old system of education. Lalon's religious thoughts used to find expression in his songs, which carried the radiance of a very deep philosophy. His faith was not guided by any particular religion. Rather, it could be said to comprise the mysticism of Sufi, the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberal spirit of the Tantrik sect of Budddhism, which allowed a devotee to act as per his instincts. I am inclined to accept the views expressed in this regard by Annada Shankar Roy who had once said -'The main stream, I believe, is Buddhist liberalism, with Islamic Sufi and Vaishnavism running alongside. These three streams had united in Lalon's religious pursuit and in his thoughts and actions. In fact, Buddhist liberalism had created a field for religious pursuit since long, which is evident from the Charjyapada - lyrics composed by the liberal Buddhist sect.
Lalon's religious quest was undertaken through the medium of human beings. Lalon's religious practices were not organised in any established pattern, which is why he had been the victim of contempt, vilification and enmity of both Hindus and Muslims all through his life.
In the words of Abul Ahsan, eminent researcher on Lalon Fakir - 'Time and again his religion of love had been subjected to reproach and humiliation by the religious Gurus who were well-versed in scriptures and by the then heads of society. But Lalon had progressed in a calm and composed manner towards his destination, undeterred by any handicap and unmoved by any constraint. Just as a river runs ceaselessly towards the sea passing over all obstacles, so had Lalon Fakir ignored all animosities and moved steadily towards what he believed to be the truth, looking for the single entity which his heart craved for. Lalon was a seeker of truth, which is why any personal feelings caused by those repeated blows were not reflected anywhere in his songs:
The Baul community had renounced all recognised institutional religions and revolted against long-established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith they had found a large expanse under the sky, which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Counted as one of the principal folk- groups of Bengal, the Baul community composed its own songs, which symbolised devotional lyrics and were aimed to expound the deep mystery of the Baul religious culture to followers and disciples. No conscious effort to create any artistic effect was found in those songs. This latter feature was also noticeable in the songs sung by Lalon Fakir, who did not compose his songs out of any artistic design but with the sole objective of providing benefit to his followers. And yet, by virtue of their deep sensitivity and emotional appeal those songs had crossed the ambits of objectives and necessity to enter the select circle of artistic creations. Lalon's songs were thus devotional lyrics on one hand and on the other hand, they carried deep philosophical annotations in addition to being poetic creations embellished with an artist's passion.
The life-story of this ever-compassionate devotee, who preferred to remain immersed in himself and was totally averse to publicity - is shrouded in mystery. And because no description of the successive events of his life were available, the chroniclers had to rely on heresay and assumptions in several places. But nevertheless, the researchers who devoted themselves to finding out about the life and teachings of Lalon Fakir from the later period of the nineteenth century till this day have done a most commendable job. Although they are divided in their views on many matters there is no dispute among them on two pieces of documentary evidence. One is an article which appeared after Lalon's death in a periodical named Hitakari on 31 October 1890 and the other is a portrait of Lalon Fakir in an advanced age, drawn by Jyotirindranath Tagore, elder brother of the poet Rabindranath. Incidentally, Lalon's hamlet was located in the forest of the Chheuria area, which fell within the zamindari of the Tagore family.
While I was composing the film-script it had struck me that Lalon Fakir had visited the house-boat of Jyotirindranath Tagore at the latter's invitation, when his portrait was drawn. At that time there must have been some interaction between the two, one - a young man, enlightened and highly educated in the prevailing tradition and the other - an ancient sage, who had no book-learning. It is based on this assumption that I had drawn up the script of Moner Manush. Sunil Gangopadhyay had based his novel on the findings of many researchers, some assumptions and on his own perception of Lalon's songs. And based on Sunil-da's novel with the added input of my own understanding and thoughts, I have tried to compose this film-script in the language of cinema.
It is often seen that when a film is produced on the basis of a published work of fiction the viewers have a tendency to compare the film with the text of the original novel. In reality, such comparison is in no way feasible, because literature is not translated into a film, rather, it is transformed into a motion picture and in the process, the author's feelings and experience merge with the feelings and experience of the film-maker. Just as literature has its own language and grammar so too does a film have its separate language and grammar. Then again, the perceptions of a reader and a viewer in their reading and viewing are different. When we read something the words, the sounds and the sentences enter our intellectual perception first and then the visual perception is formed, with each reader creating his own image in his mind. But just the opposite happens in a cinema. The moving picture enters our visual perception and then we apply our intellectual perception to understand its meaning and grasp its Significance. Thus an expression of literature can never be used as an expression in a film, rather, it has to be given a new cinematographic form if necessary.
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