Has the volatile political environment in contemporary India changed the very definition and meanings of terms like “hero”, “henchman” and “common man”?

Have our conventional morals taken a somersault within an ambience of fear? The fear that sustains before and after any election not because of the candidates representing the different political parties but because of the fear that is created and held in suspense by the chief henchman of the party in power?

Saibal Mitra takes up serious issues which are underpinned with a social agenda of a serious nature both in his feature films and his documentaries. He does not make films for the box office and is not overly bothered by whether his films get a good review or not.

For his last film Chitrakaar (2017) about a famous sculptor who is going completely blind, he has raised questions about how anyone and everyone during the post-modern era can become an artist, why do many of us state equivocally that art is dead, or, does an artist have the ability to create something that can really be called a work of art?

Takhan Kuasha Chhilo, a Bengali film directed by Saibal Mitra raises these questions and throws the questions to the audience leaving it to draw its own conclusions. Fear lies at the core of the common people in this small town somewhere in West Bengal where the retired school teacher Akhil Babu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is constantly dogged by the fear of the ruling MLA Nagen’s main henchman Sachin forcibly marrying his grand-daughter Mou (Basabdatta Chatterjee) who lives with him. She is a quiet girl who holds on to her dignity never mind that the whole town carries tales of her being a prostitute who has bedded every young man in town.

That does not deter Jayabrato or Putu (Saswata Chatterjee) who loves Mou silently but does not have the guts to marry her though Akhil Babu requests him to wander aimlessly, and passes his time at Neeta’s tea shop. At 45, he is unemployed, useless and is thrown out of his ancestral home by his elder brother and his wife because he is a failure and they think he is planning to marry Mou which is not true at all.

Based on a novel by Syed Mustafa Siraj published in 1985, Mitra has placed his film in the 1980s and this reflects the political ambience of that time dominated by the fear created and sustained by Sachin though his muscle power is shown more through his absence than by his presence. When he suddenly disappears, the possibility of Nagen’s rival Kalo Choudhury winning the forthcoming elections becomes a possibility. But he does not have a henchman like Sachin. So?

Set against the greyish hues of the town shrouded in an intrigue of mist reflected in the misty skies through the day with a leafless tree gracing the landscape, the story weaves it way through the sudden metamorphosis in Putu’s life as, in a sudden fit of rage, he murders Sachin hiding in the hills within the forests, completely drunk and wanting to become a “common man.”

Once it is discovered that Putu has murdered Sachin, the town rejoices because they are now hopeful that Nagen, who they hate, will now be replaced by Putu now the new henchman of Kalo Choudhury and therefore, the new “hero.”

He is arrested for the murder but with the connivance of his would-be political boss Kalo Choudhury with the local police and comes back to his hometown to discover that the same Neeta’s teashop owner treats his with a mixture of respect and fear because they now looking up to him as the new “hero” as he is the new “henchman.” He is now a dangerous man and no one is more surprised than he is at this new labelling his town is labelling him with.

When he visits Mou with his new identity, she slams the door on his face. Akhil Babu taught both Sachin and Putu at school but while Putu grew up to be a very good-natured though unemployed wastrel. Sachin took the wrong path.

The basic story reminds one of Tapan Sinha’s film Atanka also about a retired school teacher who witnesses a murder by one of his students but is terrorised by the student to keep his lips sealed. Takhan Kuasha Ekhon may be called a sequel of the earlier film brought to live up to the times it is set in.

Mitra takes too long to come to the point but he uses this staggering screenplay to fill with some beautiful dramatic moments. One is where Putu’s older brother upturns his plate as he is having dinner and the food gets scattered across the floor. Another very touching moment is the one where the weeping Sachin, drunk, wants to become a ‘common man.’ The music is low key, subtle and moving. The film loiters and wanders across the landscape with a bicycle passing by, the sky suddenly filled with a flight of birds, and the mountain rock called Jagaddal which does not ever move that proves to reveal a hiding and tearful Sachin.

The film would not have become the way it now is without the sterling performances by every actor with special pat on the back for Soumitra Chatterjee in one of his last performances complemented frame for frame by Saswata Chatterjee who expresses his helplessness, his uselessness so well with his body language, his naïve response to the neighbouring wives he serves in ways like massaging their body to fetching their rations.

Basabdatta is maturing very well in roles infused with a rare dignity even in negative roles. Barun Chakraborty is also very good in his very brief appearance as Sachin.

Takhan Kuasha Chhilo is not a political film but is shows what happens to an entire small town and its people in the environment deliberately constructed by the political powers-that-be who draw strength from their chief henchman who actually runs the show.

A very unusual film throwing up a unique perspective on the changing meanings of “hero”, “common man” and “henchman.”

Are the three terms interchangeable? Or, do they hold different meanings to different people at different times and places? Think about it.