The Drift Will Carry Us Through Time: Rivers in Indian Cinema

It is largely felt that art is the product of necessity. A necessity born out of the immensely human desperation to express something. This necessity can originate from the very many things that impact our consciousness and among them, the environment is the largest. Let's put it this way, the storyteller/the filmmaker is the product of this necessity, hence he is naturally, a product of his environment. Sometimes this is explicit in their work and sometimes it is subtle. But the environment of a filmmaker finds ubiquitous expression in his/her films. 

Call it extraordinary or whatever but for ages, rivers have played a massive role in cinema. The river symbolizes the first instance of life on Earth. It is much larger than our existence. It's only natural that the existence of something so majestic has been a part of many human creations. 

The filmmaker who should be spoken of first in this discussion is Ritwik Ghatak. He was born in East Bengal and made films in West Bengal. A director massively influenced by the Partition of India and the subsequent exodus, his films often showcased and portrayed the stories of common people, the unfortunate classes. This visionary filmmaker treated the environment as a distinct character in his films. Effortlessly, and masterfully he would transition his vision from the environment to its inhabitants.

A Ritwik Ghatak film always gives a completely different perspective of Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is quite visible that he had a love-and-hate relationship with the city. At heart, he still was a  boy from East Bengal. His hearth and spirit had been devastated by years of unemployment, drunkenness, and frequently precarious living situations when Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titash) arrived in 1973. It is a relentlessly tragic film, a story that leaves you with a haunting feeling of numbness. 

The film is the tale of a river shifting its course and how it affects, transforms, and even destroys a fishing community, depriving it of its source of livelihood and dignity. 

The river and its water are used as a leitmotif: On the one hand, it is the giver and sustainer of life; on the other, it is the destroyer - One by its presence and the other by its absence. 

For more than three-quarters of its running period, the film is submerged underwater. It opens with scenes of rain and fishing boats, some of which are attempting to return before a deadly storm catches them. Images of water that are almost tactile are captured via black-and-white cinematography. 

Here, the lack of color is a gift since it helps focus the image, which endows it with an otherworldly character. It's the course of the river that gets influenced according to the laws of nature. Human beings are nothing but a trivial entities in front of nature, just like the fishing community was in front of Titash. There is nothing that we humans can do but accept our fate in front of nature and fight till our last breath. 

Another film where nature and human life are connected by a river is Xagoroloi Bohu Door (It’s A Long Way To The Sea), a film made by Jahnu Barua. This film connects man and nature emotionally instead of treating both subjects existentially. 

In the film, the majestic Brahmaputra flows through Assam, unmindful yet witnessing the lives of people around him. Lives are difficult and strenuous, money is scarce and age is catching up. The story involves a simple boatman who has lost everything and everyone except for his little grandchild. His dream is that the little boy will become someone respectable in his family, where many members have lost their lives while rowing boats in the Brahmaputra. 

With the dream of providing his grandson with a proper education, the man takes him to Guwahati where his successful younger son lives. The child in this story symbolizes nature much like the free-flowing river. The old man, to his surprise, gets to know from a letter that his grandson is being treated like a servant in the city. The film is an excellent depiction of how injustice works. It is almost like a docu-fiction. With greed at the forefront, relationships fall behind. 

When a bridge was built for crossing the river, the boatman basically loses his only source of earnings. Affected by the unfortunate turn of fate he decides to destroy the bridge only to be stopped by his grandson, who is the symbol of hope. The film ends at a particularly undecided place yet with the hope that everything will eventually be alright. Most of the time, the Brahmaputra seems murky and brown, much like the grandson and grandfather's life. The light suddenly takes on a lovely, honeyed quality as the elderly man chooses to try his best to raise the youngster, solving the most difficult challenge in his life. There are literal glimmers of optimism reflected in the water.     

Unfortunately, there hasn't been much symbolic usage of rivers in Hindi cinema. Rivers have mostly been used for song picturization, to enhance visual appeal, and as an addendum to sexual visuals as well. 

Guru Dutt in Jaal (The Trap) had coastal Goa as its location. The movie became one of the highest-grossing movies in India. The songs became immensely popular. Among the four songs, two of them had scenes of water bodies as an integral part of them. In fact, water bodies played a massive role in this crime noir. Pighla Hai Sona Doore Gagan Meye (loosely translated to 'Molten Gold Lights the Far Horizon') was shot at night with fishing boats making their way home after a day at sea. Their presence subtly enhanced the song's romantic vibe, with the excellent Geeta Bali standing on the boat and lip-synching to the music of S D Burman.  

Another distinct example would be Raj Kapoor’s first major hit film Barsaat  (1949). How can we forget the song Hawa Meye Urtaa Jaaye Meraa Laal Duptaa Mulmul Kaa (loosely translated to 'My Red Mul Mul Scarf Flutters Gaily in the Breeze'), which is told to be the first visual image of the Indian youth on screen. The song directed by Ram Ganguly and erroneously credited to two of his assistants Shankar and Jaikishan (who later became the legendary music duo) is still heard all these years later. The melody of the song was mostly picturized on Nimmi, one of the two female leads in the film. The actress largely projected sensuality, intensity, and vulnerability in a heady mix with a beautiful river gently flowing in a mountainous valley in the background. 

It is interesting that most of the filmmakers who used rivers as a part of their cinematic storytelling were from the Eastern region of India. Shakti Samanta used the river Hooghly for song picturization in Amar Prem (1972). The inclusion of rivers can also be seen in his early movie Sawan Ki Ghata (1966). 

On a side note, it will be unfair if the film Jagte Raho (Stay Alert) is not mentioned here. Directed by Shambhu Mitra and Amit Maitra under Raj Kapoor’s R K Films banner, it represented a significant departure from previous monotonous storytelling. Though short-lived, the film's influence was massive. 

There were no visuals of rivers in this film per se but it had an excellent depiction of water in the story. It was the first significant attempt by a commercial Hindi film to employ water as a metaphor, and it was directed by two deserving former members of the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), the cultural branch of the unified Communist Party of India. 

In the film, Raj Kapoor plays a peasant who has come to metropolitan Calcutta to find a job. In the middle of the night, the man without a friend or a place to stay helplessly roams around to find some water to drink. Hungry, thirsty, and penniless, just when the man finds a water tap, he is chased by a policeman, who thought he is a thief. The man scared for his life runs into a block of flats and takes us into the world of the so-called elites of society. 

The whole night he is chased by different tenants of the flats and, meanwhile, we also get to see the lives of these people. The film presents a marvelous account of human actions and reactions, it documents the idiosyncrasies of capitalist social structures using excellent humorous writing. It is a dive into the intricacies of society, the tenants in this film represent different classes of people, and the peasant is an outsider through whom we get to witness the different events. Anyway, after spending the whole night in fright and flight our protagonist, at last, manages to find water at dawn when the sun is rising.  He finally gets to quench his thirst with the water given to him by a devotee played by Nargis, from her Kalash while singing Jaago Mohan Pyaare (Wake up My Beloved Krishna). 

Water in the film is the carrier of a message that demonstrates the need for socio-political justice and a more humane way of life.  The adroit seriocomic nature of this film makes people think. The water depicts the necessity of recollecting lost values, it is something that you do not deny to your worst enemy if he is parched. Just like a river, water represents a quest for a decent and equitable society in this world.  

It is perhaps most appropriate to end on that note. Rivers flow into an ocean. And the ocean that this article seeks is one of realization and thoughtfulness. Filmmakers use many tropes and devices to tell us stories that cannot be told using words alone. By using rivers, they have sought to excite our senses and engage our minds, whether at a base level or a profound one. We would all do well to seek out these messages through the literal streams of our consciousness in order to discover our own humanity. 


Satyaki Paul

A student of law with a widespread interest ranging from politics to cinema and everything in between. I'm almost always fascinated with understanding human psychology and everything that directly or indirectly affects them.

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