ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Africa in a Time Warp

In the Bengali film Chader Pahar, director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee has wasted the chance for a course correction on Africa.

In the introduction to his 1937 children’s classic Chader Pahar (Mountain of the Moon), the novelist Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay confesses that he had never visited Africa before writing the novel. But he admits that he studied the works of British explorers Harry Johnston and Rosita Forbes before letting his imagination loose. Some 76 years later, when Kamaleshwar Mukherjee finally brought the novel – which was an integral part of the growing-up years of many young Bengalis – to the silver screen, one was left with a sense of loss, despair and anguish, hankering for answers, and often cringing at what unfurled on the screen. It took some time to muster the courage to admit that the film reflects no political development of the last century and instead takes refuge in the comfort zone of the text, cocooned in a time warp. Arguably, the film is a big step f­orward in terms of technological advancements in the B­engali film industry; but it surely is a giant leap backward for the politics and sensibility of popular Bengali cinema.

Africa, for much of the 19th as well as early 20th centuries, was labelled by Europeans as the “dark continent”, which lent a certain mysticism to the region, and valorised the explorers, invaders and exploiters who later came to misrule several African countries. Chader Pahar plays directly into this racist body of thought, unquestioningly. Barring a fear-mongering comic sidekick, a bit role for a Zulu tribesman and a Ugandan railway official, the film offers few A­frican characters who are central to the development of the plot. Their existence is reduced to cardboard roles – often relegated to the background – singing and dancing around a bonfire or bearing the white man’s burden as servants or slaves. Perhaps Bengalis can’t be blamed though – they are historically notorious for their near-complete refusal to e­ngage with caste issues within their own community.

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