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Upperstall Review

Synopsis


Chokh

Bengali, Drama, 1983, Color






1975, Kolkata in the midst of labour unrest, strikes and lockouts. Jadunath, a labour leader in the Jethia Jute Mill, is sentenced to death for the murder of Jethia’s brother, the owner of the mill and another worker. It is a murder he did not commit. Though he is innocent, he realises that his time his up, so he bequeaths his eyes to a worker who has lost his sight. The first workman on the panel of those waiting for corneal transplants is Chhedilal. At the other end is Jethia, hungering for a corneal transplant for his son who has lost his sight in some ‘Naxalite’ fracas, according to the old man. Asking the super to flout rules of unconditional donation, he insists that the pair of corneas be given to his son. Though the medical superintendent bends under pressure from Jethia, Dr. Mukherjee, an opthalmologist known for his integrity and rigid commitment to rules of law, refuses to perform the corneal transplant on Jethia’s son’s eyes. His logic is that the gift is a ‘conditional’ gift where the donee is selected by the powers-that-be and is not a person whose name is listed on top of the donee list. He puts his foot down also because the case is not backed by any papers detailing the names of the donor or the donee. Another surgeon is organized in a hurry. Chhedilal’s peers can do little but watch helplessly because Dr. Mukherjee cannot help them in the changed circumstances. As Jethia drives back with the file containing donor’s data, he chances to look up the details. He is shocked to discover that the eyes belong to none other than Jadunath, the labour leader who led a massive strike of workers of his mill demanding the reinstatement of 54 workers who were retrenched without reason. Jadunath, according to Jethia, has also murdered his brother. How can he permit his son to see through the eyes of the man who killed his brother and caused irrepairable damage to his production and his public image? Instead of simply asking the surgeon not to go on with the transplant, he demands that the medical superintendent hand over the corneas to Jethia’s goons to be destroyed for good. As word spreads about the political manipulation behind the transplant, the jute mill workers, backed by Jadunath’s grieving wife, rise in rebellion. She steps forward with the blind Chhedilal. As she takes the first steps towards the police cordon, other workers start to join her in small groups growing larger and larger...



Chokh (Eyes) is the first feature film of Utpalendu Chakraborty who drew attention with this strong indictment against a corrupt system where a sympathetic gesture like the donation of one’s eyes for someone who is blind can be subjected to political manipulation of the medical fraternity by vested interests. Watching the film 26 years after its release, against a changed sociopolitical backdrop, transitions in the form, content and even genres in Indian cinema, Chokh remains one of the first openly political films in India. Yet,one has misgivings about the treatment and the approach.

The film opens on the half-masked face of Jadunath, expressive in the granular details of a much younger Om Puri, till the camera backs to show the bars of a prison cell. The tap-tapping in the background is the sound of the prison guard’s footsteps. The credits begin and end on this flow of shots. The shot changes to one showing Jadunath pennning a letter to the authorities expressing his last wish to give away his eyes to some co-worker who has never seen light in his life. A bearded young man approaches a hospital desk to find out whether the corneas that will arrive from prison following Jadunath’s execution will actually be transplanted on Chhedilal. The narrative moves into flashback, in bits and starts, putting together the chain of events that brings out the shocking story of Jadunath’s death sentence. Utpalendu has kept away from making it a courtroom drama because that is not a part of the scenario.  

Chokh is a multi-layered film with a definite focus – the corruption that lies at the door of the medical fraternity that often bends under pressure from powerful industrialists, victimising the weak, the poor and the marginalised. Nevertheless, viewed in retrospect, it has loopholes in logic and in some detailing. Chokh is also a comment on the legal and judicial system that fails to probe into the truth of an innocent man manipulated by his employer and his goons to face the hangman’s noose. In one brief scene, the film underscores the fence-sitting attitude of political leaders who use workers’ movements to gain political mileage and under-the-table benefits by selling out to management. The shot showing the ambulance carrying Jadunath’s corneas driving away to the hospital suggests that the hanging is over without actually showing it. This is intercut with shots of  Jadunath’s wailing wife trying to run after the ambulance being held back by other workers. A remark by one of Jethia’s goons requesting the doctor to speak in Bengali instead of English is a sarcastic potshot taken at the kind of people an industrialist is satellited by. Scenes of visually impaired patients waiting for the gift of a cornea, or lying in hospital beds carry the touch of a documentary film. 

The characters, except that of Jadunath’s wife, which remains sketchy from beginning to end, are well-rounded and fleshed out. But the ethical polarities are in extremes. Everything about Jadunath is right while everything about Jethia is wrong. His empathy for his blind son evaporates the minute he finds that the corneas belong to his brother’s ‘killer.’ This is an irony because he knows better than others that Jadunath did not kill his brother. So, this means that his order to hand over the corneas by fair means or foul  only to destroy them completely is about power and ego and not about paternal love or ethics. Dr. Mukherjee’s is the most real character in the film. He is committed and honest, true. But he is also limited by the constraints of his official responsibilities. He makes no attempt to help Chhedilal whose name is first on the list and therefore, well within the rules. The medical superintendent’s domestic tragedy of a barren marriage is superfluous. The worker who approaches the hospital says he knows that a pair of corneas will be available for donation the next day. How does he have access to such classified information from within the jail? A very young and lean Om Puri gives a brilliant performance as Jadunath, complemented by an equally natural performance by Shyamanand Jalan as Jethia. Anil Chatterjee is a revelation minus the mannerisms he aquired with time while Sreela Majumdar as Jadunath’s wife has precious little to do except wail and weep. 

Utpalendu takes the darkness of his subject a bit too literally because the cinematography is more dark than necessary. Sometimes the darkness takes away from the visual quality of the film, keeping the viewer from getting a better grip on the proceedings.. The closing shot of the workers marching in front captured in silhouette against a yellow sky is a sharp reminder of Satyajit Ray’s final shot in Asani Sanket. Some shots of the roads are too long drawn out while the shots of the worker’s slums, the plaster-peeling walls of the hospital’s office are very good. The use of sound in the film is telling. It is loud, suggestive and pointed in turns, to fit into the needs of the screenplay. Music is used to sharpen out the class and cultural differences among the characters. Hindi films songs are heard in the workers’s slums. One gets to hear the soft sounds of a Tagore song or a thumri afloat in Mukherjee’s flat as his wife coaches their schoolgoing son. Jethia’s tastes vacillate between good music and popular music. He finds the car stereo disturbing when he goes through the classified files of the donor. The editing and direction of the scenes leading up to Jadunath’s imprisonment are so brisk and fast that the collage of shots begin to disappear before they begin to make sense.  

Chokh was produced by the Government of West Bengal when it was trying to consolidate its credibility among the masses as the party in power. The political bias in Chokh is unabashedly to the Left, which, at that time, were also the leanings of Utpalendu Chakraborty himself. Should then, 26 years after its first release, one read Chokh as a propagandist film produced by a Left Front government  rather than an honest, political film intent on revealing the tragedy of the poor, the marginalised and the deprived in an ambience of corruption and power politics? Think about it. Read it whichever way you like but Chokh’s archival value as one of India’s first political films can never be underestimated.


Upperstall review by: Shoma A Chatterji


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