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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 22, May 27, 2023

Malajahna was a Milestone Social Film on Rural Odissa | Radhakanta Barik

Sunday 28 May 2023, by Radhakanta Barik



SOMETIMES, LITERATURE PRESENTS a tragic end, pregnant with a revolutionary message. Poverty, unemployment, and social conservatism intermingle to create a classic story. Malajahna (Dead Moon) is a 1965 Odiya film, written and directed by Nitai Palit, based on a novel of the same title written a hundred years ago by the Odiya novelist, Upendra Kishore Das. The book and the subsequent film reflect society of the time and truth is embedded in the narration of the story in the cinematic language.

Two young people meet in the village at an event, that of sharing a beetle leaf (pan). Pan stands for the exchange of gifts in a traditional society. It creates a bond among different families by forging kinships. It functions as a mode of expression of love among young lovers. The lovers in the story exchange the pan. It happens in a rural setting.

It is a woman centric-novel. Director Nitai Palit creates lyrical movements in the lanes of the village houses and among trees. Girls play on various occasions. On Kumar Purnima, they dance and play and sing.

Once the girl grows up, she cannot choose her partner herself. Her parents decide according to the rules of caste, which are obsolete. In Brahmin society, the old landed gentry marry the young girls for fun. The landlord is surrounded by women in the home and they work as Poili, who provide him sexual pleasure. He has a child but marries the young woman, despite the protest of her lover. He is blamed by the girl’s parents who allege that he is jealous of the social and economic power of the Brahmin landlord. The young man is getting educated in the city and has fallen in love with her. He takes a stand on social issues in the village. It proves a point that education can bring social change. Educated youth can protest against social conservatism; but society has to decide to change itself.

The heroine is Sati, who gets married to the old Brahmin landlord but protests against tradition by not cohabitating with her husband. She rebels against her husband who sleeps with the poili. Her mother-in-law gives the key of the household treasury to the wife, but the husband hands over the keys to the concubine. The young wife tries to adjust in the marital household by playing with her step-son, taking care of her mother- in-law and doing puja. As this is the house of a rich landlord, there is a proper puja hall and Sati spends time there. In the Brahmin community, puja plays an important role in the family and community. Their elders spend a lot of time in the puja hall.

The angry husband decides to take her to a temple function in a far-off place and he leaves her there without telling her. Sati turns into an abandoned woman, but fortunately her lover Nathu Bhaina rescues her and the young people go to the city and stay there in a house. The young man looks for a job but does not find one as there was too much unemployment. This is shown in a poignant manner in the scene of a goldsmith’s shop where he sells his ring. Nathu loves Sati but he respects her wishes and they stay together, but without any sexual relationship.

Cholera hits the village and Sati’s parents die of the disease. Half of the village vanishes due to cholera. The village touts want to grab the land that belongs to Sati’s family. Sati decides to go back to the village and stay in the parental house. After the death of her parents, the house is covered with heap of leaves. It stands alone as no human lives there now. It is taken over by the trees and dead leaves. Nathu and Sati live in this desolate house. The land mafia want grab this ancestral land and house and start conspiring with some others and decide to ostracise the young people, especially Sati. Nathu is an educated person, so they do not do anything to him. Instead, they target Sati, tell the village, she is a married woman but is living in sin with someone else, not her husband. They allage, Sati is immoral.

Disturbed by the accusation, Sati decides to end her life and she sends a letter to her lover, where she talks of her pains and sufferings. That she finds him so near but they do not share any sexual bond. Their love relationship is demonstrated by their live-in relationship. It is a revolutionary step even today – that two people live together without sex – and this is a story from a hundred years ago. Sati feels depressed and decides to commit suicide in the nearby iver. The story ends with the flowing river carrying her footsteps, that is shown imprinted on the sand. Her footsteps are of cinematic significance. Lovers have to be bold and brave, to stand together against social conservatism. The messages on the mudbank has a meaning in today’s Odisha, which has a large number of love marriages, cutting across castes and communities, which is a healthy sign of social evolution.

The film has turned into a classic by retaining the spirit of the novel and proving the point raised by Satyajit Ray – that a great literary work needs to be adapted into cinematic language. In the history of Odiya filmmaking, this film is a milestone, as stage actors have acted under an able director. This has turned it into a successful film. Director Nitai Palit has used folk songs and folk instruments liberally. The Kendara, an instrument played by the Yogi community in village lanes, has been smoothly integrated into the narrative.

In rural society, specifically among the Brahmins, women occupied a very inferior position and the novel writer, as well as the film, have shown the oppression of women by the male members successfully in the narrative, creating anger against obscurantism and blind faith.

A song is used to depict Sati’s suicide and to explain the philosophical approach to life and society. Education cannot be a way to modernity without any corresponding changes in society, be it in economic or social life. The story is critical of the colonial state, when cholera swept through rural societies in India and killed thousands, without the authorities doing anything about the epidemics. The story depicts rural society in death, suicide, education without jobs, and the lack of empathy in a community that control land and education, both. The visual impact of the film has kept alive this classic story in Odisha’s collective folk memory.

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