London Indian Film Festival: Banished (Nirbashito) Review
Writer and activist Taslima Nasrin has lived more than twenty years in exile, first fleeing from her home country of Bangladesh in 1994, and then from Kolkata in 2007. Banished (Nirobashito), directed and written by Churni Ganguly (writing credits also to her husband, Kaushik Ganguly) is a retelling of her first expulsion to the West.
Following unrests in Kolkata, where she lives, a controversial female writer (who remains unnamed throughout the film) is whisked away from her apartment, forced to leaving Baghini, her cat, behind. Ganguly herself takes the title role, which she plays persuasively. The writer takes refuge in Sweden, where the country’s PEN International association welcomes her. Ganguly’s brilliance lies in showing the country from the perspective of a worried outsider: Sweden is painted as cold, grey, and strange, its people almost threatening.
There, the writer is moved between borrowed houses, never allowed to settle anywhere. Her only company is that of her Swedish bodyguards. In dubious acting performances, they both look on her with a sympathy which comes across as forced. The writer also befriends her PEN ‘guardians’, Wilma (Lia Boysen) and her husband (Lars Bethke). She subjects them to frequent rants, complaining about the extent of her isolation. While her feelings are wholly justified, it’s not always clear why they are directed to friends who are only trying to help and protect her. Therein lies the film’s principal flaw: in the plot-line set in Sweden, the dialogues are often off-mark.
Meanwhile, the cat is handed over to a close friend (Saswata Chatterjee, here a master of the deadpan), and quickly becomes a source of tension in his marriage. Ensues a farcical sub-plot in which he attempts, via numerous government officials, to courier the animal back to its owner. This segment is filmed in part from the perspective of the cat, who is extraordinarily expressive. The animal is a comic parallel to the life of its owner: both are stuck in a political dead-end, surrounded by people who don’t quite know what to make of them. Ganguly also delves into the struggles of the friend’s marriage. The couple’s scenes feel genuine and poignant. The otherwise humorous tone is in complete contrast with the rest of the film’s contemplative, melancholic mood.
Banished is an interesting meditation on homesickness. In the light of the loss of her family, friends, and country, the writer is wholly unmoved by the honours showered on her by Sweden and the international community. Ganguly successfully conveys why - the audience too feels like scoffing when the woman’s Swedish friends joyfully produce yet another official letter of congratulations. However, the main character’s consistent sullenness at times becomes frustrating - surely not everything is awful in her new country.
While Nasrin is openly referenced in text at the beginning and end of the film (and her poems are used as voice-overs), Ganguly is careful to avoid any specific mention of her political ideals or biographical details throughout. It’s a clever device, which the director hopes will allow Banished to be shown in Nasrin’s home country as well as West Bengal in India. However, the compromise leaves the feature a little toothless. If the film is to denounce political exile, then surely some concrete discussion of the political must be involved.
Banished is an admirable concept, based on the life of an extraordinarily brave woman. The quality of its script and acting is variable, mixing great dialogue and performances with poor, melodramatic moments. It is however painfully ironic that a film about censorship has to be itself so self-censored. While it is to be hoped that its release will at least open a conversation about exile in the countries Nasrin has had to leave behind, it unfortunately seems like it is still ‘too early’ to make a film about the writer which will do her full justice.