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Paar, crossing the river of life. OP Srivastava takes us on the banks of Gautam Ghose's film.

Shabana Azmi & Naseeruddin Shah in Gautam Ghose's Paar(1984)

Paar (The Crossing) is a 1984 Hindi film directed by Goutam Ghose, who also did its cinematography and music, besides co-writing it with Partho Mukherjee. Paar stars Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Utpal Dutt and Mohan Agashe. The film is 124 minutes long.

Based on a Bengali story by Samaresh Basu, Paar is a story of human endurance, a person’s courage to fight against the caste-based oppression perpetuated in our society, especially in rural India. It is a cinematic expression of the voice of resistance. The filmmaker tells the story through wide-angle shots of each of the film’s characters, as his objective is to tell the story of a corrupt system, rather than that of a few individuals. The vastness of the river the protagonist tries to cross establishes the enormity of the challenge he is facing. It is David versus Goliath. Ghose’s eye for poetic imagery is vividly presented throughout the film and he succeeds in taking the audience inside the mindspace of his characters.

The scene when the paper with the address on it flies out of Naurangia’s (Naseeruddin Shah) hands onto the railway platform and he goes running after it, nearly getting lost in the crowd, makes the audience instantly empathise with the character’s helpnessness and fear. The scene where Rama, Naurangia’s wife, sits by the Ganga and reminisces about her happy days in the village as she hums a song will make your heart melt. Paar captures reality, not cinema.

Even in the scene where the villagers are beating the zamindar’s son under the cover of semi-darkness at twilight, the human figures are confined to a small corner of the frame, and the expansive landscape in the background signifies the larger context of the film. As the villagers grope around in the growing darkness, the flashes of torchlight capture their nervousness and fear. Ghose is said to have used low-speed film stock to capture the atmosphere and compensate for the lack of light when this scene was shot.

‘One had to create a sense of terror. I wanted to shoot the sequence like a documentary, as though we were right there. This is what makes the scenes believable and credible’. Ghose said.

The story, set in rural Bihar, is built around the exploitation of lower caste villagers by the powerful village landlord lobby. The landlord’s men torch a village and kill an upright schoolmaster. A labourer, Naurangia (Naseeruddin Shah), retaliates by killing the landlord’s brother. Naurangia and his wife (Shabana Azmi) run away from the village to Kolkata to save themselves from the landlords’s wrath. After futile attempts to find a livelihood in the city, they decide to return to the village. To earn money for the fare back, Naurangia agrees to transport a herd of pigs through the waters of a swollen river, even at the risk of his hurting his pregnant wife.

The hallmark of the film is this 12-minute sequence, where Shah and Azmi swim through the flowing river to drive the herd of pigs to the other side. This scene has made the film unforgettable; even today, filmmakers wonder at the audacity of Ghose’s method and the actors’ dedication to maintaining the authenticity and sensitivity in this scene. The squealing of the pigs was real. The heads rubbing with the snouts of the pigs in the middle of the choppy waters are the heads of the two actors themselves. The use of pigs in this scene, as a metaphor for the condition of human beings, took this film to a different level.

Shabana Azmi & Naseeruddin Shah in Gautam Ghose's Paar (1984)

‘In those days, everything was physical and you had to do it in front of the camera’, Ghose recalls. ‘It was a great challenge. We were courageous and that is why we could do it. This breed of actors (Shah, Azmi, Puri, all recent FTII graduates) was unbelievable – they said the risk was not a factor’.

The film was nominated for the Golden Lion Award in 1984 at the Venice International Film Festival, where Shah was awarded the Voli Cup for Best Actor. The film also won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 1985, with Shah and Azmi winning the Best Actor and Best Actress awards. It also won the 1986 Filmfare Award for Best Screenplay for Goutam Ghose and Swapan Sarkar.

From the heights of terror to the depth of tragedy, Paar will take you through a gripping, emotional story, which is bound to leave an imprint in your memory. This is the stuff great films are made of.

OP Srivastava is a career banker, having spent 35 years in public and private sector banks in India. His first feature documentary, Life in Metaphors, won the National Award for Best Biopic in 2015.

In 2019, his first book, Life in Metaphors: Portraits of Girish Kasaravalli, was released. Followed by Banking on Technology (2020), Krishna Calling (2021) and Pillars of Parallel Cinema in April, 2022. He also runs a not-for-profit initiative, ‘Oorjaa’, for making and propagating ‘Cinema for a Cause’. In February 2023, he completed a fiction film ‘Banwari Ki Amma’, which is written , directed and produced by him

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