Ritwik Ghatak’s searing Subarnarekha (1965) is considered part of his Partition trilogy, and is placed alongside Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Komal Gandhar (1961) as the movies that explore the unhealed wounds caused by the Partition of Bengal in 1947.

The Partition shadowed Ghatak throughout his tragically short life (lost to bouts of insanity and alcohol) and haunted his movies beyond this triptych. His rootless characters, forever in search of happiness, stability and meaning, have unmistakably emerged out of the great rupture of history, which created two nations at the time of independence and caused immeasurable agony across the subcontinent.

In Subarnarekha, the Partition uproots Ishwar (Abhi Bhattacharya) and his young sister Sita (Madhabi Mukherjee), leaving in Ishwar a lifelong obsession to call a new place home. Ishwar seems to have found his abode in the remote Chhatimpur village near the Subarnarekha river, where he manages a rice mill and watches his beloved sister grow into a woman against a stone-filled landscape.

Sita, a gentle force that mitigates the harshness of the surroundings, is blessed with a beautiful voice. She hums a few classical tunes, but the song she keeps returning to is Rabindrasangeet: Aaj Dhaaner Khete Raudra Chaayyaayye Lukochuri Khelaa. She learns the song as a young girl, and it gains talismanic force as she grows older. She associates Aaj Dhaaner Khete, a celebration of the play of light and shadow on a paddy field, with Aviram, an abandoned lower-caste boy whom Ishwar has adopted, and to whom she has lost her heart.

The song isn’t depicted in a traditional way, but emerges at crucial points in the story. The first version plays out on the abandoned airstrip where Sita can often be found. In the second, she passes on the song to her son Binu. The third rendition is by Binu, who longs to visit the place that his mother called home.

Bahadur Khan’s score plays a subtle role in Subarnarekha. The job offer to leave Kolkata and settle in Chhatimpur follows a music performance. A tanpura is Sita’s only prized possession, and despite her endless woes, her music keeps her going. Why do you always sing sad songs, Ishwar asks her at one point. She does hum the more uplifting Aaj Ki Ananda to celebrate her love for Aviram, but the long shadows cast by the Partition eventually reach her doorstep.

Music reunites the siblings in the tragic climax, and it is Aaj Dhaaner Khete that eventually endears Binu to Ishwar. The child’s innocent singing gives the gutted Ishwar a glimmer of hope. The search of yet another new home begins all over again.

Aaj Dhaaner Khete from Subarnarekha (1965).