Frames per Second: The burden of the river

In Raj Kapoor’s last directorial venture, “Ram Teri Maili” (1985), the lead characters undertake two voyages mirroring each other and tracing the course of the river Ganga, which is holy to Hindus. Narendra Sahay (Rajeev Kapoor), known as “Naren”, travels 2,000 km north from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Gangotri, the source of the He wants to escape the claustrophobic atmosphere at home and also discover his country. At the village, he meets and falls in love with a local girl, also called (Mandakini), and gets married to her in a pastoral ritual. Later in the film, Ganga makes the journey downstream to find Naren, with whom she has a son. And, like the river, which gets polluted on its way to the sea, Ganga too encounters all sorts of morally corrupt people and eventually enters a brothel in the holy city of Varanasi.

The film is a caustic comment on the betrayal of many of the promises of Independence that had informed Raj Kapoor’s early ventures such as “Awaara” (1951), “Boot Polish” (1954), “Shree 420” (1955), “Jagte Raho” (1956), and “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai” (1960). The optimism and idealism of these films and their imagination of the nascent republic had been eroded away and replaced by an all-pervasive corruption in the private and public lives of the people. “Everything is permissible in politics and business,” says Jeeva Sahay (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Naren’s industrialist father, early in the film. A little later, when he is asked if it is impossible to live an honest life, he replies: “The honest have become martyrs or are perishing from hunger.”

Film critic Rajni Bakshi points out that “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” is a sort of a companion piece to “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Beheti Hai”. The earlier film, directed by Kapoor’s long-time cinematographer Radhu Karmakar, was inspired by the story of a Gandhian schoolmaster who spent time with an indigenous community, classified as a “criminal tribe” by the British, as well as efforts made by Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan to get dacoits across the country to surrender and enter mainstream life. Kapoor’s character in the film, Raju, is a simpleton like the Chaplin-esque vagabond Raj in “Awaara” and “Shree 420”, who tries to reform a band of violent robbers. (The other big hit of 1960 was another bandit-themed narrative, “Ganga-Jumna”.) “Jis Desh…” also had the eponymous song, composed by Shailendra and set to music by Shankar-Jaikishan, which imagined a utopian India with the Ganga as its soul.

“Ram Teri Ganga Maili” operates with an operatic, melodramatic canvas, which is both its strength as well as its weakness. The canvas is perhaps a necessity as the narrative of the film reworks several Hindu mythological stories. First, of course, is the story of Dushyant-Shakuntala, which originally appeared in the Mahabharata and was then reworked by Kalidasa as “Abhijnanashakuntalam”. The city-dwelling, rich person arriving at the village to fall in love has been a popular theme in Hindi cinema, inspiring several hits such as “Kashmir Ki Kali” (1964), “Himalay Ki God Me” (1965), “Jab Jab Phool Khile” (1965) — which reverses the gender equation to city girl and village boy — and even as late as “Taal” (1999).

While premarital sex was a strict no-no in Hindi films till recently, Naren and Ganga are allowed the licence of one night of union through a pastoral ritual represented in the song “Sun saba sun…” Strangely enough, they conceive immediately — a male (what else?) child. In the mythological tale of Shakuntala, this child is called Bharata, whose descendants are the Pandavas. But more importantly, he gives his name to India, which is also known as Bharat. In the film, Naren must return to the city, only to find that his family is preparing to get him married to Radha (Divya Rana), the daughter of Jeeva’s political associate Bhagwat Choudhary (Raza Murad). He is unable to break off the wedding as his grandmother falls sick and dies, and later he is convinced that Ganga is dead.

This creates a deus ex machina ending where Ganga, now a baiji, can perform at Naren’s wedding, leading to the climactic moment of revelation and recognition. The final song of the film, “Ek Radha Ek Meera”, sung by Lata Mangeshkar, references the myths of Radha and Meera, both devoted to Krishna through their love. Two other mythological references are also from the Mahabharata. The first is of the union of the human with the river, like King Santanu of Hastinapur (a descendant of Bharata) and the goddess Ganga. The second is of the disrobing of Draupadi by the Kauravas at the end of the dice game. About halfway through the film, Ganga, a baiji in Varanasi, is called upon to perform at a private event for Bhagwat Choudhary, and when she refuses, is disrobed by one of his henchmen, leading her to sing the titular song.

The title of the film, however, has a more historical source. It does not reference the hero of the Ramayana, but the 19th-century Bengali reformer Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Kothari, in her essay, mentions a story that Kapoor had heard while shooting for “Jis Desh Me…” at Dakshineswar, a suburban locality of Kolkata where Ramakrishna had served as the priest of a Kali temple:

Raj [Kapoor] met a sadhu who told him the story of Totapuri Maharaj, a naked sadhu from Rishikesh who once came to meet Sri Ramakrishna. As Raj [Kapoor] tells the story: They met at the geographical point where the Ganga is at its filthiest, and Totapuri Maharaj said, “Ram, yeh teri Ganga kitni maili hai” (Ram your Ganga is filthy). Looking at him steadily, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa replied “Maharaj, this is but natural. As she flows down from Rishikesh to here, the Ganga does nothing but wash the sins of human beings.”

Kapoor uses this anecdote to comment on the real of the river, and the nascent efforts of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to clean it up.

This has been a long-standing — and unsuccessful — project of the Government of India. One of the earliest projects launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after coming to power in 2014 was Namami Gange, or the National Mission for Ganga, which had a budget of Rs 20,000 crore (200 billion) to clean up the river. In 2019, a new ministry, Jal Shakti, was formed to find solutions for India’s water problems as well as clean up the river. But recent studies show that Ganga continues to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world, bearing the burden of organic and inorganic substances originating primarily from agriculture, industry, and municipal sectors.

If this were not bad enough, over the past week, reports have emerged of bodies of people who have succumbed to the raging second wave of Covid-19, being dumped in the river in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A ground report by the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar claimed that more than 2,000 had been buried in shallow graves or abandoned on the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh. Prime Minister Modi on Friday admitted that the disease had spread in rural India and promised to combat it, but several international agencies have laid the blame for the unfolding human tragedy of the second wave at the door of his government. It is ironic that this government had set out to clean the river, which now bears the most potent and horrific symbol of its failures.

The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020.

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