An Angel's Kiss
Lokkhi Chhele, revolves around the story of a baby girl whose 'goddess' status can kill her
'Lokkhi Chhele' the Bengali a phrase often used by parents to try and console/punish/reprimand an errant child translates as "good boy". But director Kaushik Ganguly chose "An Angel's Kiss" as the English title of the film. This transcends the literal translation to reach out to the wider horizon of issues the film chooses to address.
The film addresses several issues of national significance that have plagued our country since ancient times. It also reminds us of the killing of the rationalist thinker Narendra Dabholkar. Sociologist T. V. Venkateswaran had written on the killing in EPW's Spetember 7 issue, "the murder of renowned rationalist Narendra Dabholkar on the streets of Pune on August 20, 2013, was a wake-up call for the nation. While out on his morning walk, two unidentified assailants on a motorcycle fired at him from close range near the Omkareshwar bridge. As the news of his gruesome murder spread, spontaneous demonstrations took place across Maharashtra. In his home town Satara, thousands came out to pay tribute to this leading light of the anti-superstition movement who had taken on many a self-appointed godman. The all-party bandh called the next day was near complete with willing participants closing their businesses and shops. The chilling effect of the premeditated murder reverberated throughout the state."
This film tries to narrate a story along similar lines, where a superstition spreads across a remote village in Birbhum district in West Bengal. A baby girl with four arms is born to a poor Dalit couple. The parents are convinced by the elders that the baby is an incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. She is placed on show for long queues of worshippers to offer their donations and flowers.
The Dalit community is enchanted by two things. One, that the Goddess Lakshmi chose a Dalit family to be born into, and two, that the community once shunned by everyone suddenly discovers that 'higher' social status because of Lakshmi, the baby with four arms and four legs, which 'appear and disappear' from time to time.
Soon, the darshan venue builds up as a colourful fairground. There is food, drinks, prasad, flowers, loud music, percussion instruments and other paraphernalia seen. This offers small time business for the very impoverished villagers to make a living off, as pilgrims who come to offer their prayers to the little baby turn customers.
The local zamindar soon takes over the supervision of the fair to pocket the donations, and also use it as a winning ticket to the forthcoming district elections. The unplanned entry of three medical students turns the story upside down. They are shocked to discover that the baby is running a high fever and she might die without medication.
The baby's young mother is not pleased with this turn of events. She is persuaded to cooperate with the three medical students to save her little child, who was made a victim of blind superstition by different people for their own selfish ends. She does cooperate but is severely bashed up for this by the Dalit elders of the village.
The three medical students take on the responsibility of saving the infant from this abuse. They come back to the city and take the help of a senior doctor and her separated husband, a leading politician, to save the girl.
Do they finally save the infant? Yes, they do, but it comes at a very high price. To reveal this "price" would be to give away the significant twist in the tale so we will leave it at that. There is a communal angle too expressed through one of the three medical students who leads the crusade to save the girl. His name is Amir Hussain and when the villagers learn about this, their anger knows no bounds as they feel he has no right to intrude into Hindu beliefs and practices. This mirrors the political ambience in the country we are living in right now and no two questions about it.
The earliest Indian film that made a direct attack at astrological predictions was Ankahee (1985) based on a novel, Kalay Tasmai Namaha by C.T. Khanolkar. It was a beautiful film which set out to prove how people should never allow their lives to be doctored and manipulated by astrological predictions, never mind how scholarly they may be. Obviously, the film did not do well but it remains a landmark in dispelling long-held myths and beliefs that lack scientific reasoning.
Perhaps for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, the reality of the "parasitic twin" has been stated, analysed and questioned in Lokhhi Chhele. This expands the basic philosophy of the film to include medical science as well which justifies the involvement of the medical students in the entire process who focus their entire existence on saving the baby ironically named Lokkhi.
Kaushik Ganguly shot the film entirely on location in a village in Birbhum during monsoon. There were around 2000 amateur 'extras' reporting for the shoot from neighbouring villages. They came in crowded buses everyday not for the subject or the money, but for the free food they would be served as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The first names that crop up to commend are Subhajit Singha's editing and Gopi Bhagat's cinematography. The film begins with a heart-wrenching scene shot in bluish grey shades, the visuals blurred and vague. This is repeated later towards the climax when we get to know what happened and why.
The camera brightens up in the fair grounds and comes alive with music. Thus offering a deceptive façade of music and colour shielding the darkness and the tragedy that lies beneath. The second credit goes to Prabudhha Banerjee who has drawn from the treasury of folk music and songs of Birbhum to colour the narrative with.
Kaushik Ganguly needs several pats on the back for giving us a film that deals with not one but several significant social, casteist, communal and scientific issues, without muddling them at all. He weaves them together to make a cohesive film. His producers, Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy of Windows Productions have not only given him a free hand but also, unwittingly, engaged in excellent social service through food to the 2000 villagers who reported for the shoot everyday for around 20 days for 16 hours a day.
Three generations of actors add a lot of dynamism to the narrative and enrich its texture. None of the young medical students are prioritised, glamorised or romanticised in any way, so the credit is equitably distributed among senior actors like Pradip Bhattacharya, the slightly younger ones like Ambarish Bhattacharya and Indrasis Roy, the middle ones like Churni Ganguly and Babul Supriyo and last, but never the least, Ujaan Ganguly as Amir Hussain and Ritwika Pal along with Purab Sil Acharya who play his friends. Ambarish Bhattacharya offers an excellent cameo as their supporter and go-to friend. Churni and Babul Supriyo are good as usual and so is Joydeep Mukherjee as Amir's father.
Utpalendu Chakraborty made Debshishu (1987) produced by NFDC in Hindi. Though it dealt with the gross commercialisation of a deformed baby born to an extremely poor couple ravaged by floods who are forced to sell the baby, it did not go behind the reason for the 'abnormality' in the baby which Lokkhi Chhele does very well.
In a recent interview, Kaushik Ganguly said "Lokkhi Chhele is a concept." But to me, it reaches far beyond being a 'concept' as it touches almost every human emotion one can think of in the India we are living in today. Lokkhi Chhele may be called a tribute to the spirit of Narendra Dabholkar.
One last question: Would the result have been different had Amir Hussain not been a Muslim? Think about it.