Akaashi Pullover is the intriguing title of a Bengali feature film that has gone to Cannes to be considered in one of the competition categories. Akaashi is the Bengali word for “sky blue” while “pullover” as we all know, stands for a sweater having been knitted for somebody for someone. Directed by Orpheus Mukhoty on a story scripted by Ratnamanjulika Mukhoty, Akaashi Pullover that has a screening time of 88 minutes has been jointly produced by Naveen Agarwal and Neerraj RC Gohil.
The story revolves around Subha Mitra, a retired teacher who once taught stitching and embroidery in a Kolkata school, now spend almost her entire time knitting. Age and loneliness has turned her into an irritable, easily annoyed woman who is eccentric and an insomniac to boot. “Knitting” is the key word in this film as is the character of Subha Mitra, very ‘everyday’, very identifiable with old ladies living all alone by themselves who find time and space placing them in an emotional and social vacuum and not knowing what to do with themselves, alone, without friends and family.
Knitting one may note, is almost exclusively associated with the female of the species, barring men in Nepal who were once very skilled in knitting woollens probably because they belonged to a country with a long and chilly winter. But one has no clue whether Nepali men today still knit or not. Associations with knitting as a creative indulgence or necessity or both have made their presence felt in literature and cinema across the world. So, Akaashi Pullover is not exactly an original idea. But it is the first film whose very title suggests knitting as a significant character, act, and metaphor with sociological and emotional linkages to the person engaged in this creative exercise.
Knitting as a social commitment became evident during World War II and again during the Indo-China war in 1962 when women across the world and Indian map picked up their knitting needles to knit sweaters, pullovers and cardigans for the soldiers at war. This has also been dubbed “patriotic knitting” by Alison Lurie in her brilliant paper The Sweater Curse (The New Yorker, August 28, 2013) who, like me, recalls how she, as a teenager, would find women bent over their knitting needles that constantly worked through knits and purls as they commuted to and back from wherever they needed to travel to.
I felt truly guilty when, as a teenager in 1962, I found all my mother’s friends and our neighbours knitting for the soldiers of the Indian Army who were defending us at the borders during the Chinese aggression. The ‘guilt’ came from the fact that I could not knit to save my life. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, both Jo and Beth do so during the Civil War, Beth happily and uncomplainingly and Jo with some irritation.
This unfolds the geographical classification of knitting as an inherent skill in women, sharpened with experience and over time. Girls in the eastern side of India did not learn to knit at all unless they chose to because Mumbai does not have a winter to speak of. Every woman in the North East, in Leh and Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal including Punjab and Haryana are excellent knitters purely because of the extreme winter in these areas. The Southern women also were not keen on learning to knit because they did not need to – no winter.
Alokananda Roy, who portrays the protagonist in Akaashi Pullover, who made her historic debut in Satyajit Ray’s Kanchenjungha, remembers how the character played by Karuna Banerjee in the film keeps knitting, perhaps to forget the casual treatment she gets from her arrogant and egoistic husband and also as a replacement for her talent for singing that she is no longer associated with mainly because he did not like her to indulge in music.
As Subha Mitra, Alokananda’s character is designed to be envious of her young maid who lives with her not because she wishes to but because her employer, who got her married, does not permit her to live with her husband. Why? Perhaps Subha is jealous of the freshness of youth the young maid exudes and that has left her long ago? Or, maybe, as her own husband has abandoned her, she subconsciously stands in the way of the maid getting close to a man, never mind even if it is her husband; which also suggests that knitting for her, is not quite the replacement for human company one believes it to be? One does not know because no one has watched the film yet.
Perhaps the best example in Indian cinema that focusses on the heroine’s obsession for knitting comes across in Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (1962). Shanti (Waheeda Rehman) becomes the “other” woman in filmmaker Suresh (Guru Dutt)’s life as she falls hopelessly in love with him knowing that he is a married man with a daughter. As Darius Cooper (In Black and White – Hollywood and the Melodrama of Guru Dutt, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2005) rightly comments: “When Shanti wants to step out of her characters and approach Suresh as a woman, she interferes not only with the process of sublimation but also disturbs the process of identification. Hence, his need to avoid any physical contact with her.” Her need to touch him in some way is conveyed by what later evolves into a manic obsession for knitting sweaters that he will never wear. Yet, she hopes to embrace him vicariously if only in wool.
Shanti’s passion for knitting is introduced as an innocent time-filler when she begins knitting on the sets during breaks in the shooting. Later, when Pammi’s insults force her to retreat into the village and turn into recluse from films and fame, Shanti presents Suresh with a sweater, the only one she could manage to give him. Years later, during the shooting of a film, as the female lead, in a scene she is supposed to do with a bit player, Shanti recognizes Suresh who steps in as the bit player from the sweater he is wearing when he removes his costume. It is full of holes now, but he still wears it, almost like a second skin. We last see Shanti as a doomed Penelope figure obsessively knitting sweaters for her Odysseus who will never return to claim them or exchange them for the one with the holes. Her cupboard is spilling over with sweaters. But now, it is no longer an innocent exercise to kill time. It is an obsessive act indulged in by a woman who is insanely in love with a man who both afraid and incapable of loving her in return. It is an act of hope too. It is an escape route for a woman who is aware of the futility of her act.
She is like the proverbial ‘dying man clutching at a straw’ that cannot and will not save her in the end. “A dying woman knits them for a man who refuses to die in her memory,” writes Cooper.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time