A classic of Odia cinema gets another chance to shine

A still from the restored ‘Maya Miriga’. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation
A still from the restored ‘Maya Miriga’. Photo courtesy Film Heritage Foundation


A restored version of Nirad Mohapatra’s 1984 Odia film ‘Maya Miriga’ will play at the Cinema Ritrovato Festival this week

Forty years after its original premiere, the Odia film Maya Miriga (1984), a touchstone of the Parallel Cinema movement, will be presented in a restored version at the Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna, Italy, in June. Directed by Nirad Mohapatra, Maya Miriga was part of the Critics Week at the Cannes Festival in 1984. The film has been restored by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, in association with Digital Film Restore and Prasad Corporation in Chennai.

A graduate of the 1971 batch of the Film and Television Institute of India, Mohapatra made numerous documentaries, television series, industrial and educational films across his three-decade career, but Maya Miriga remained his sole fiction feature. “I had conceived the idea [for the film] in one of my intense moments of loneliness and deep depression and it had undergone several changes in various phases.", notes the filmmaker. Shot by Rajgopal Mishra in a warm, sober colour palette, the film demonstrates a great feeling for the interplay of harsh natural light and deep shadows—a sensuous quality that can be appreciated fully in the pristine new version.

Set in the town of Puri, Maya Miriga is the saga of a joint family driven to disintegration by ambition, opportunity, festering resentment and, simply, changing times. A stern but honest headmaster on the brink of retirement, Raj Kishore Babu (Bansidhar Satpathy) lives in a fairly capacious house with his elderly mother, wife and five children: the dull and reliable college lecturer Tuku, the IAS hopeful Tutu, the self-doubting MA graduate Bulu, the rebellious and cricket-obsessed Tulu and the only daughter Tikina. While the men pore over files or hang out on the terrace, Prabha, Tuku’s wife, bears the burden of the upkeep of the house. The apparent stability of the home comes undone when Tutu cracks the civil service examination.

The narrative spans many months and proceeds by substantial leaps in time. We witness Tutu becoming a bigshot who marries into money, Prabha suffocating under the patriarchal order of the house, Tulu trying to break out on his own, Bulu imploding when surrounded by high achievers and Raj Babu grappling with post-career emptiness.

Through gradual buildup of dramatic detail, the film shapes into a poignant tragedy of a middle-class family torn apart by its own cherished values. The father’s insistence on academic excellence, the pressure on the sons to find respectable jobs, the irreconcilable expectations of wealth and traditionalism from the daughters-in-law—all turn out to be ticking time bombs for the household.

We also learn that the family has property back in their ancestral village that no one takes care of, suggesting that Raj Babu is himself a migrant who left his landlord father for greener pastures in Puri. Mohapatra’s film thus captures a crucial moment in Indian social history between two generations of labour migration, one giving rise to joint families inhabiting independent houses in towns and the other producing nuclear families looking towards metropolises.

Maya Miriga is a veritable compendium of middle-class mores and codes of behaviour: how do individuals get their decision ratified by other members of the family, what are one’s duties when returning home after a stroke of success, how should guests comport themselves? With finesse and grace, Mohapatra’s film illuminates the gendered division of labour, the intergenerational etiquette and power hierarchy that holds sway in an undivided family.

An abandoned site spruced up for the film, the house itself plays a central role, exercising a gravitational pull that the characters struggle to escape. Actors move in and out of its dark recesses, as though consumed and spat out by the structure. Its imposing pillars, bright courtyard and open terrace all seem extensions of the power relations binding its inhabitants.

Maya Miriga is certainly a melodrama, but on a subtler register than seen on most Indian screens. The influence of Satyajit Ray, especially of a work like Mahanagar (1963), is discernible here, but Mohapatra’s film also shares lineage with the innumerable family dramas of contemporary theatre and popular cinema across the country. “The balance that I ultimately wanted to achieve", the director remarks, “was between realism and simplicity on the one hand and my preoccupation with a certain cinematic form on the other."

An admirer of Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Mohapatra strips away his material of all dramatic fireworks. The non-professional actors are all filmed in mid-shots, and never in close-ups, in a way that integrates them with their surroundings. Their emotions are muted; the dialogue, music and reactions whittled down to a minimum. A sense of serenity reigns over the film, which progresses with relative equanimity through both joys and sorrows.

“The question, to my mind, is an ethical one—to excite the senses to the point of disturbing their rational thinking is a certain sign of disrespect to the audience", writes Mohapatra, proposing that filmmakers must leave the viewers “a margin to move closer to the work and have a more active participation, a greater sense of involvement in the process."

Maya Miriga represents the FHF’s second restoration project this year after Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976), which had its premiere in the Classics section of the Cannes Film Festival in May. Carried out in association with Sandeep Mohapatra, the filmmaker’s son, the restoration process was long and arduous. The original 16mm camera negatives, found abandoned in a warehouse in Chennai, were severely compromised and had to be manually repaired over several months before it could be scanned in Bologna. The results were complemented with material from a 35mm print of the film from the National Film Archive in Pune, which also served as the source for the soundtrack. With the revival of this seminal film, Odia cinema promises to draw much needed attention from the rest of the country as well as the world.

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