The story of the subcontinent’s first feminist poet

At a time when the Bangladeshi film industry is sorely experiencing the lack of powerful storytelling and proper storytelling; be it commercial or historical or any other genre, Chandrabati Kotha (The Tales of Chandrabati) directed by N. Rashed Chowdhury is showing some light for the industry. Her courageous attempt to portray the life of the first feminist poet of the Indian subcontinent, Chandrabati, took more than five years of pre-production work, including research work, collecting ballads from a particular region of Bangladesh, Kishoregonj, etc. makes the film worthy of catching people’s attention, especially for scholars and for those who love the historical genre. Finally, it was released in October 2021.

Set in the 16th century, this period drama not only explores the elegiac life of Chandrabati but also tries to capture the contemporary social and political life where multiple storylines go hand in hand. The story begins with ballads of a famous contemporary bayati (a former Bengali village minstrel storyteller) Nayanchand Ghosh – found in Mymensingh Geetika (Ballads of Mymensingh) – performing his lyrics based on Chandrabati’s love life. However, her love life ends in tragedy with the betrayal of her childhood lover Jayanand who is also a poet. He leaves her on the eve of the wedding for another woman. From this moment her life takes another direction, a life of isolation which probably opens the way to a deep reflection on life and connects with the sufferings of Sita in the Ramayana. Heavy-hearted Chandrabati, the daughter of veteran poet Dwij Bangshi Das who is the composer of Manasa Mangal, decides to spend the rest of her life in devotion to God Shiva and write her own version of the Ramayana.

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Previously apprenticed and trained by her own father in composing lyrics, this early Bengali feminist poet is seen in the film questioning the portrayal of Sita in the epic – Sita forced to prove her chastity by walking on fire – this is why his version of the Ramayana becomes a story of Sita instead of Ram metaphorically representing years of female subjugation. The director of this film, N. Rashed Chowdhury, in one of his writings on this film, said: “According to some experts, Chandrabati’s version of Ramayan is actually Sitayan! He barely talks about Ram; rather becomes an elegy of Sita.”

Previously apprenticed and trained by her own father in composing lyrics, this early Bengali feminist poet is seen in the film questioning the portrayal of Sita in the epic – Sita forced to prove her chastity by walking on fire – this is why his version of the Ramayana becomes a story of Sita instead of Ram metaphorically representing years of female subjugation. The director of this film, N. Rashed Chowdhury, in one of his writings on this film, said: “According to some experts, Chandrabati’s version of Ramayan is actually Sitayan! He barely talks about Ram; rather becomes an elegy of Sita.” Apart from weaving the journey of Chandrabati, other plots including the portrayal of the Dewans of that era and the life of the followers of the Vaishnabites are also told in the performance of the bayatis which engages its audience in the journey and brings them back to a 400 year old Bengali riverside village. However, Dewans’ story seems to be loosely tied to the film’s eponymous character.

Produced by the government and Bengal Creations, this 105-minute biography stars Dilruba Hossain Doyel as Chandrabati, Imtiaz Barshan as Jayananda, Jayanta Chattopadhay as Dwij Bangshi Das, Gazi Rakayet as Dewan, Arman Parvez Murad as Qazi, among others. Brilliant performances from veteran actors and junior rising stars add another dimension. In particular, Doyel’s role as Chandrabati is more of acting and giving expressions with little dialogue provides a realistic portrayal of the central character.

The excellent musical composition of Satyakee Banerjee, a folk song artist from Kolkata, creates a more ground-bound ambience, giving viewers an opportunity to get an authentic taste of medieval rural Bengali music.

Watching this film, one realizes that illustrating the story in a 16th century context and presenting characters with the local language in their language was the most difficult task for the director. But the filmmaker triumphs over this difficult ordeal and shows his craft with prodigious cinematography, costume design and exclusively the delivery of dialogues in dialects. In short, it can be said that this biographical drama has added a new dimension to the history of Bangladeshi cinema as it will summon creators to dig deep into the riches hidden under the ground. Therefore, watching this cinema is both living a meaningful moment and feeling rooted.

Abdullah Al Mamun is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Skills Enrichment and Technology (USET).

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