Film Review: SD – Saroj Dutta and his times

by Ilina Sen

Frontier | Oct 06, 2018


[Kasturi Basu, Mitali Biswas (dir) and Scripted by Kasturi Basu, Mitali Biswas and Dwaipayan Banerjee]

This is a film about the life of the Communist poet Saroj Dutta, and the turbulent days of the Naxal movement in Bengal in the sixties and seventies, where the poet and his context become inseparable from each other.

Saroj Dutta was a well known leftist literary figure in post independence and post partition Bengal, whose political and literary column under the pen name of Shashanka in the Bangla Communist journals of the time were eagerly awaited by readers.  His death in the early morning Kolkata maidan in a fake encounter by the Kolkata police who had picked him up from his hideout forms part of the urban folklore of both Kolkata and a turbulent period in its history.  Although no official acknowledgement of his death has ever been made by the state, ‘eye witness accounts’ of this ‘encounter’ have been making their rounds in public consciousness for over 45 years now.

For many of the city’s youth today, battling with the same questions about political solutions to inequity and exploitative development that engaged Saroj Dutta (SD), the history of this period as well as certain lives that were centre stage then, hold a particular fascination. It is this that has motivated the young researchers and directors of this film to undertake the journey culminating in this film.

A committed communist thinker since early youth (although he became a formal member of the party only later) SD chose the field in which he could put his talents to best use: culture and publications. He worked as a full-time journalist in the leading daily newspapers of the time, before giving it up to work full time on the editorial boards of the Bengali party organs Desh hitaishi, Swadhinata, the party-led literary magazine Parichay and later the CPI (ML) paper, Deshabrati. To finance a new printing machine for swadhinata, which reached popular audience, he sold the jewellery of his comrade and partner, Bela Dutta. He was a passionate writer with a sharp political sensitivity, deep sense of history and vast knowledge of Indian and international art and literature. He was also an avid translator, and had translated several Russian and other language classics into Bangla. He was one of the first writers to introduce Pablo Neruda and Patrice Lumumba to Bengali readers. As if all of this was not enough, he led the debate on possible trajectories for a revolutionary cultural movement in Bengal, and felt strongly that this had necessarily to connect with ongoing class struggles. An animated debate with Samar Sen, the iconic editor of Frontier, is part of this episode in his life.

The film takes us over this tumultuous and buried history, and is successful in capturing this remarkable narrative of a man and his time to a very large extent. There is a lot of original archival material that has been generated, for e.g. in the interviews with Kunal and Bela Dutta (SD’s son and wife respectively), although one wishes Bela Dutta had spoken about her own active political life and theoretical insight. The film includes also the testimonies of with Deviprasad Chattopadhyay, and his wife Manjusha, from whose home Saroj Dutta was arrested, and who were possibly the last friends to have seen him alive. The film also includes a brilliant analysis of the genesis of the naxalbari movement that belies much of the current statist misinformation about this ‘greatest threat to the country’s internal security’ being the creation of certain malevolent and crazed minds. It is important that we understand the historical legacy and complexities of the movement today.

On the whole the film does a remarkable job of  recreating the history of the turbulent sixties in Bengal, The film ends with the voice over that the dream for which SD and others gave their lives has not been realized, but that this does not mean that the dream been lost There are of course no easy answers to this proposition, but one wishes that there was an analysis of the complex challenges that the movement for social justice has faced at different junctures in the last forty years. Also, one is not sure if ‘the movement’ was ever one undifferentiated whole. Unfortunately, there is no critical analysis of the roadblocks and bumpy trajectory of the movement after its initial days of triumph.  Unless we are able to engage critically with this important history- a history that took so many lives and so much blood- Saroj Dutta will remain a romantic figure, and we will have learnt nothing from the sacrifices he and others made for a better world. At a very personal level, I also had a desire to get to know the man behind the legend, the human figure with his courage, passion and quirks. If the film has any shortcoming, it is really this inability to blend the personal and the political to arrive at a human retelling of this story of hope and pain.



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