The Irony of Watching “Dunkirk” in Bengal

Posted by S G Chowdhury in Culture-Vulture
August 1, 2017

Spoiler Alert

Two films, two iconic directors, in two different corners of the world. One spectacular event, 44 years in between.

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” and Satyajit Ray’s “Ashani Sanket” are essentially similar films. Both films deal with an event triggered by World War II. Both are films on survival against adverse conditions. The scenarios though, vastly differ.

While I was watching “Dunkirk”, something kept bothering me. Halfway through the film, I realised what it was. It was the irony of marvelling over a film made on World War II that unabashedly held up Churchill’s capability of bringing back almost half a million men who were stranded on the beach of Dunkirk. It was one of the biggest military feats in the history of mankind. You cannot help but cheer for the Empire’s fantastic endeavour until your own country’s history dawns on you.

World War II was the single most impactful event that thoroughly shaped the modern world. But before it changed the global power structure, it had a huge impact close to our home – in the east – in Bengal. Over three million people died in Bengal, due to what came to be known as the ‘man-made’ Bengal famine of 1943. Everything that was cultivated in the land was taken away by Churchill’s government to feed the royal soldiers fighting the war. This resulted in mass starvation, extreme price hike and ultimately death. It was genocide, plain and simple. And yet, this event finds few mentions in the history of the Empire. This huge blot even escaped Churchill’s memoir.

“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” Winston Churchill famously used these words at a War Cabinet meeting, when he was asked to explain the reasons behind the famine in Bengal. There was a lot that could have been done to avoid the catastrophe. A single Google search will be sufficient to tell you that so I won’t waste your time.

What stuns me is the power of films. “Ashani Sanket” was adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel. The film is based on the Bengal famine and it was Ray’s master work that enabled the film to evoke all the necessary emotions. After all, it is one of Ray’s angriest films. The ending of the film is a mix of hope and despair – as the famine torn village engulfs one life after another, Gangacharan and his wife Ananga (the two lead characters) can only hope for a better future for their unborn child.

“Dunkirk” also ends with a similar message of hope and despair. The evacuated soldiers return home, with a new hope for the future, but the effect of war and the loss of their fellow army men still creates a sense of despair.

Both these films upheld two aspects of Churchill’s ideologies. Ray was subtle whereas Nolan was obvious.

“Dunkirk” ends with a towering speech made by Churchill on the eve of the evacuation, where he said, “…we shall never surrender, and even if … this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle…”

How perfectly these words fit here as Churchill was right. Three years later, a part of His Majesty’s Empire saved the British fleet by giving up their lives in the process. Europe got their Marshall plan to recover after the war but where were Bengal’s reparations?

Films are a marvellous form of art. They have the power to bridge communities, countries and continents. In lieu of its language, “Dunkirk” is a global film; its message will reach people around the world. And few can contain themselves from cheering for the imperial British army; the irony, though, will persist. But as the British would say: keep calm and carry on.