If absolute helplessness has a face, Naseeruddin Shah wears it as he stands at a grilled window listening to the taunting of a small time clerk. In Goutam Ghose’s Paar (The Crossing, 1984). Shah plays Naurangia, a low caste labourer from Bihar who is now stranded in the overwhelming city of Kolkata.

There are no jobs in Kolkata, the clerk says acerbically, none for the literate, and certainly not for village idiots who tumble in with their bundles thinking the city will welcome them. The mills and factories are closing down. A pregnant wife with him as well, eh? And no money to even buy a ticket back to their village? In that case, Naurangia is even less than a village idiot. The clerk finally finds his heart and offers Naurangia a little money. Swallowing any dignity that his wretchedness allows, Naurangia takes what can buy only a measly breakfast for a famished couple.

If complete humiliation has a face, Shabana Azmi hides it with a sob in the folds of a sari she has hung out to dry. Azmi plays Rama, Naurangia’s wife. She has just been told that she and her husband are freeloaders. They are not trying hard enough to find employment. They cannot expect to be eternally humoured or accommodated by the impoverished woman who had offered them shelter in her rickety shed.

Subtly and heartbreakingly enacted, neither of these moments come from Samaresh Basu’s short story Paari (Journey), on which Ghose’s National Award winning screenplay is based. Using mere suggestions from the text, Ghose creates a context for Naurangia and Rama to leave their village and establishes how and why they are now marooned.

The sagacious schoolmaster (Anil Chatterjee), who had helped Naurangia and his ilk stand up against the injustices of their landlord (Utpal Dutt), has died in a suspicious road accident. Seeking revenge, Naurangia and three others murder the zamindar’s aggressive brother (Mohan Agashe).

Payback is swift. The zamindar’s men set the village ablaze and Naurangia and Rama flee into the night. A journey made not of out of choice but circumstance takes them eventually to the footpaths of Kolkata. In spite of misgivings, being deceived and down on luck, there had still been some energy to fight the odds but now there is penury, fatigue, hunger and abject despair.

Fortuitously, a job appears on the horizon – a terrifying task which only the heartless can offer and which only the desperate can take on. Under a sullen sky, a drivel of pigs must be herded across a rolling river. Boats are an unnecessary expense, and naturally, there is no assurance for low caste lives. Pigs, on the other hand, are valuable livestock. Any loss will mean imprisonment. A successful crossing will mean a paltry payment to tide the couple over their immediate misery.

The film’s most uncompromising demand on its bedraggled actors begins when Azmi and Shah, waving flimsy sticks to drive the reluctant swine before them, begin their descent into the turbid waters. The land slips away from beneath their feet and with tantalising cruelty, Ghose’s camera captures their floundering in the waves that crash around them. The darkness of the clouds blinds their vision. The wind rips their voices out of their throats. Yellow clay water gushes into their mouths. The terrified animals huddle together but then, incredibly true to Basu’s story, Ghose films a pregnant, panic stricken sow breaking loose. Cut to a close up of Azmi’s expression. A pregnant woman holding life within her womb knows what a pregnant animal feels. Azmi cleaves her way through the swirling water to guide the sow back to the drift. An exhausted, sodden, heaving mass – man, woman and every single pig – finally make it across the river. But unlike Basu who now brings then nightmare to an end, Ghose does not.

Ghose’s scenario, music, photography and direction make Paar a visceral experience like no other and in their ninth film together, Azmi and Shah are as perfectly matched as they were when they played an uptown couple in Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom just the year before..

In an interview in 1992, Azmi said, “…Naseer and I had decided that the message of the film was very important; that is why we surrendered to the roles. What the film was trying to say was more important than any display of histrionics.”

Tight on the thorax, Basu’s story may well be allegorical. The fight to survive the elements could be a fight to survive in society. The text is colloquial. Spare yet vivid allusions, typical Bengali expressions, symbolism and onomatopoeia create a terse atmosphere that engulfs all the senses. The low caste couple have no names. Younger than their cinematic counterparts but as hungry, weary and hapless, they are described merely as two beings. The woman is not pregnant, but the river, personified as a young girl who has come of age, is a full blooded life force – demanding, capricious and willful. The author’s tone is dispassionate, and in a manner that has no visual equivalent, describes the ferocity of whirlpools, wind and rain. On that terrifying evening when lightning pierces the steel grey sheath of water, two nameless beings with the fearlessness of children decide to take the plunge.

Basu’s story finds a sincere and unadulterated representation in the final moments of Ghose’s film.