Book review of “Bimal Roy – The Man who Spoke in Pictures”

I have just finished reading a very enjoyable book. It is a collection of essays on Bimal Roy, the filmmaker. Edited by his daughter Rinky Bhattacharya and his granddaughter Anwesha Arya, the book is a new edition of the previous version published in 2009.

Bimal Roy is primarily remembered for some of the classics of the black and white era: Bandini, Sujata, Do Bheega Zameen and Devdas. In this book we have the memories of many of the people who he worked with and they give an insight into his method of working. There are also the memories of those who knew him but who hadn’t actually worked with him. Names like Ritwik Ghatak, Mahasweta Devi, Shyam Benegal and Khalid Mohammed are some of the well-known ones which you will find in the content page.

For film buffs this is a must read. He had that sobriety and that social purpose which was so sorely missing from Indian Cinema afterwards for several decades. Interestingly, his films were based on novels and short stories which make them very clearly structured. This practice of making screenplays from published works was quite common in Bengal and Bimal Roy is perhaps the one who has to be credited for making this common in the film industry of Bombay. I say “Bombay” because that was the name of the city then to which he moved.

He was surrounded by other Bengalis like S.D. Burman and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. This created the right ambiance he needed to get the precise look or sentiment that was required. Bimal Roy trained an entire batch of technicians and directors who picked up the craft by working with him. So his influence went deep and far even after he had died. The well-known director Basu Bhattacharya was his son-in-law.

Most people don’t know that Bimal Roy started his film career as a photographer and later cinematographer with Calcutta’s New Theatres. He worked with PC Barua and learned much from him. Bimal Roy was the cinematographer of the almost unknown 1936 Hindi version of “Devdas”, starring KL Sehgal and Jamuna.

This book has writers from both Bengal and Mumbai. The pages are full of anecdotes and stories from the world of cinema and fill up all our gaps in understanding of this rich and fascinating world. Today’s Indian cinema owes a lot to those who helped it grow in the early years. And for those who are young now the book will open out a whole perspective and show them that Indian cinema was much more than the singing and dancing for which it is known now glabally.

I have particularly enjoyed reading this book as my copy was given to me by Anwesha Arya who is the granddaughter of Bimal Roy. She has co-edited this edition with her mother Rinky Bhattacharya. I went to spend the afternoon with her in her house in Rye in the UK where she lives with her actor husband Sagar Arya and their four children and practically finished reading the book on the train back to London.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys watching films and has hopes of being a film critic.

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Review of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (available on youtube)

This summer I attended a short course, actually it was a series of lectures, at the British Film Institute which was about the screen adaptations of books in Hindi Cinema. The selection of films which were discussed was good and I had seen most of them already so I could enjoy the lectures. The best of the pick was, of course, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.

This film starring Meena Kumari and Guru Dutt is among my favourite films and watching it once again filled my heart with joy because I had only seen it on a small screen before, probably on an old VHS video cassette. This film is based on a Bengali novel by Bimal Mitra (Shaheb Bibi O Golam) and was made into a Bengali film before being made into a Hindi film. When I came back from the lecture on Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam I decided to watch the Bengali version just to see how it was different from the Hindi version. I was thrilled to find it on youtube.

Before I say anything else let me tell you the story in brief. Set against the background of the British Raj when the feudal lifestyle was declining and the new middle class emerging we see this wealthy but unhappy family. The younger brother in this joint family spends all his nights with the dancing girls while his young and beautiful wife waits for him in vain. A young man, a relative of an employee, comes to live in the complex which is the sprawling mansion. He soon becomes the confidant who shares all her sorrows and joys. She wants to have her husband near her and is even prepared to drink to keep him near her. Her husband comes to her but she turns into an alcoholic. Soon the fortune of the Zamindars turns and they start losing money. The story ends in tragedy.

Meena Kumari plays the Chhoti Bahu and I don’t know of a role played more perfectly by an actress in Hindi cinema. She actually lives that role perhaps because in many ways she was playing herself. Chhoti Bahu’s deep sorrow of not being able to get her husband’s physical presence is something that is visible to the viewer even when she is smiling. And in Meena Kumari’s life this was a reality too but even more close to her real life is the way she took to alcohol and became an addict. There is something in her voice that brings out the bitterness and pathos so well.

The Bengali version is very close to the novel and we see that the young man, played by Uttam Kumar, is not as naive and simple minded as Guru Dutt interprets him. In this version the Chhoti Bahu ( or Chhoto Bouthan as she is called) is a sad but sweet woman and her transformation into an alcoholic is tragic in a way that shows a broken woman but in the Hindi version we see Meena Kumari’s downfall as something more frightening as there is also her anger, frustration and humiliation simmering behind.

The Bengali version shows more of the social history of the times. We see the Brahmo Samaj and the return of Swami Vivekananda. There are also references to the revolution that is slowly manifesting itself against the British. We also see the emerging business class. The novel is more about the fall of the feudal class and the story of Chhoto Bouthan is one of the streams of the plot. But in the Hindi version Abrar Alvi, the screenplay writer and director, takes the story of this woman and brings it to the center of the stage.

Guru Dutt wanted the novelist to be involved in the screenplay so he rented a flat near Mumbai and brought Bimal Mitra from Calcutta to spend two months with Abrar so that they could work undisturbed and together. This is one of the rare instances of a novelist and screenplay writer working harmoniously together to produce a perfect script. The elements that are changed from the novel are about the way the feudal lifestyle. Abrar Alvi has taken out almost everything about the Brahmo Samaj, also the story of Jaba, the second woman in the story, is simplified. In the Bengali version the relationship between Jaba and the hero Bhootnath is shown in greater complexity.

I know that new films have been made with this same title or adapting a little but they have nothing to do with the original story. I have often wondered if a real modern remake can be made of this film. With a few changes here and there it would make an interesting screenlpay.

Both films are available on youtube. Do watch them. They are both very well made, particularly the Hindi one which has touched excellence in almost every department. Abrar Alvi, who was a good friend of Guru Dutt, has directed the film but he has admitted that the songs were picturised by Guru Dutt. That was the verbal agreement that they had had before starting work. As Guru Dutt was acting in the film it would have been difficult for him to direct it also.

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Uma by Srijit Mukherjee

I am really sorry to say that this is not my favourite Srijit Mukherjee film. The idea is good but it has been stretched a bit too much. The screenplay is based on a true story of a Canadian boy who wanted to see Christmas but as he was not going to live that long the whole village gets together to host a fake Christmas.

In this film there is a young Bengali girl who lives in Switzerland and her one big wish is to see Durga puja in Kolkata. So her father sets out with a few friends to recreate Durga puja in Spring. He takes the help of a film producer and his team to do this almost impossible task. How he succeeds is the story of the film.

I did not at first understand that every character is supposed to be a symbolic representation of a character in the legend. So Uma is a symbol of the goddess Durga who comes from the hills (Switzerland in the film) and goes back to her world at the end. Her father is called Himadri and her mother is called Menoka. The man who will create the illusion is Brahmananda and the others in the others in the team are Arka, Borun, Gobindo and other mythological characters. There is even a character called ‘Mariam’ who pretends to be the estranged mother of Uma and with whom the father and daughter stay in Kolkata. Why is she called Mariam? Maybe because she is an unmarried woman who becomes a mother! There is also a character called Mohish Sur to represent Mahishasur. The man in charge of the electricity supply is called “Indra”. And so on.

When a film is made about film makers it usually gets boring because they have their own inside stories to tell. Also this film is full of scenes where everyone is overacting. The best part of the film is when an old director who had worked with the one who is going to create the Durga puja is dying and he wants to give some final advice.

You can see that poor Jishu is under pressure to act and please his audience so poor man he overdoes everything. His daughter is under no pressure to prove anything so she is relaxed and does her parts very well. Anjan Dutt, as the producer who is brought in to create the fake puja, does an awful job but that is also because he was given a bad script. There is too much melodrama where things could have been said more convincingly in a logically calm manner.

I was not at all moved. The idea could have been made into a better script with real tensions. I feel that the editing was not tight enough. The end is left open. We don’t know if Uma lives or dies. So there is hope that she will perhaps get well and see a real puja in her life.

The story is interesting. The actresses are all good. The participation of a few celebrities makes you sit up and watch. For me the best few seconds of the film were where you see briefly the two boys from Radio Mirchi Bangla, Agni and Somak. They have a web comedy show called “O Maa Go” which I watch every week. They are absolutely hilarious. So I was overjoyed to see them, even if it was for a few seconds.

I read somewhere that the film has had a commercial success which means that it has pleased some people. This means that Srijit has enough money to make another good film.

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Two star kids

The publishing scene in India has changed so much in the last 15 years that nothing is as before. The days when only literary fiction was considered worthy of being printed are over. We have now moved into a scene where books can be read the way magazines used to be read a decade ago. Thy are interesting but they are just for passing time, not for getting anything deep or lasting. Many books are published now in India that we could never have seen the light of day before.

In this new literary landscape I find something really fascinating. Two star children from Bollywood have become authors. They have both been through unsuccessful film careers first before turning to writing. One is Twinkle Khanna and the other is Soha Ali Khan. They are both daughters of the Bollywood hit pair of the 70s – Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore. Would we have ever imagined as we watched the screen couple looking deeply into each other’s eyes and singing S. D. Burman songs that one day their real-life children would be writing books?

I have to admit that when I first read Twinkle Khanna’s column in the TOI I thought it was ghost written by someone else. I just could not believe that a Bollywood kid was actually writing such witty stuff. Why? Because we associate Bollywood with silly stories and absurd thinking. It never struck me that the children of stars had access to good education and that they had a completely different life. Soha Ali Khan actually was at Oxford.

Twinkle Khanna started writing when she was offered a weekly column in a paper by a friend who was moving to another paper. She wasn’t sure if she could carry it off but in the end she did. I started believing that she was herself writing the books only when she brought out a book of her best weekly columns. Just goes to show how biased we are about Bollywood stars’ intelligence. She spoke so well during the promotion of the book that it was clear she had a fantastic sense of humour. Twinkle has now brought out her book of short stories which has been well reviewed.

With Soha it was a proposal from Penguin India, the publishing house, that set her off on the journey to the life of a writer. They wanted her to write a book, just anything. They knew that even if she wrote something very mediocre they could market it and sell thousands of copies because she is a celebrity. So she decided to write about herself and particularly about her being moderately famous.

Both have had the honesty to say that if it had not been for their famous parents or their own names being famous however moderately they would never have been able to sell that many copies of their books.

Twinkle Khanna’s success as a writer is also a life lesson. Instead of crying over the fact that her film career did not go anywhere (she actually often laughs at her failure quite openly) she went ahead and made another path for herself.

Soha is actually a very fine actress and I have seen her Bengali films which are very very unusual. So I will be very happy if she goes back to acting some day. I do look forward to reading her book which is like a biography because there are many interesting anecdotes about her famous relatives – her father, her mother, her brother, her sister-in-law … I don’t know if it also includes Taimur!

Twinkle’s book is called “Mrs. Funnybones” and “The Legend of Lakshmiprasad”.
Soha Ali Khan’s book is called “The Perils of being Moderately Famous”.

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Film review: Mayurakshi

This is a film that has many similarities with “Machher Jhol”. It has the main protagonist come back to India because a parent is suddenly taken ill. There is also the theme of meeting an ex, although in this film it is quite a different kind of relationship. There is also the city of Kolkata forming a background to the story. But that is perhaps where the similarities end.

The story of the film is very simple. A son who lives in Chicago comes back to Kolkata because his father, who lives alone, has a sudden dip in his health. He is 84 and he is slowly lapsing into dementia. His mind is wandering off. The son has his own problems and does what he can to help but in the end he has to go back to Chicago.

“Mayurakshi” has a cast that is made in gold. This means that even if there is no real plot or story with turns and twists there is still something to watch, still something to feel because of the fine performances. The father’s role is played by Soumitra Chatterji and the son is Prosenjit. The main female role is given to Indrani Haldar. These three on their own create an ambiance that makes the film so watchable. Particularly Soumitra has such a presence and such fine touches.

The director did not want to make film with a story but he has created these moments that will touch the heart of anyone who has ever had to look after an elderly parent. The stark realities are there. The way a man remembers all that happened more than 2 decades ago but can’t remember what he ate that afternoon will make the viewer think again about their won lives and the future towards which we are all headed.

My friends often tell me that looking after an old parent is like looking after a child. I would say it isn’t really like that because you know that you parent will slowly grow weaker and more dependent whereas those who are bringing up a child know that the child will grow stronger and more independent. In this film you see the dilemma of the son who has to deal with his own problems and also handle this situation where he can’t do anything. Dementia is something that we still don’t know how to cope with.

The film has small episodes that bring a smile to your face. The cousin who is being so helpful at the beginning wants to migrate to the USA, the relative of the colleague for whom the character played by Prosenjit has brought a present wants to send his daughter to the USA. These moments show the reality of our Indian life. The way the young woman (played by Indrani) is setting up her own business is also a sign of our times.

As the scenes unfold before your eyes you start wondering, “Who is this Mayurakshi?” The director takes his time to tell you who she is. That itself is an interesting twist in the tale. It is a pointer about the father’s mind going back into the past. By making this name the title of the film he stresses the point about the father going back in time in his mind.

The minor characters who build up the background are very good in their roles. The care-taker lady who lives in the house remains always within her boundaries. She is caring but at all times she is an employee. Only once do we realise that she too has a family to care for.

My overall impression of this film is that there is something missing in the script. The performance of the individual actors is far more attractive than the film as a whole. Yes, the son breaks down at the airport and cries to show how hard this situation can be and yes, the father shows signs of improvement at the end, but that still leaves us with a feeling that remains an unresolved issue. But perhaps this is what the maker wanted us to feel.

Go ahead and watch it but be warned it may be at times too close to your skin for comfort.

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Film Review: Machher Jhol

When I first saw a trailer of this film I thought, “This must be a boring sentimental film about cooking.” But I see now that it was not really that. I saw this film on a flight so I have not seen it on the big screen which means that I haven’t had the full visual experience that the maker wanted to give to his audience. But the subject is such that it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

The story is about a man from Kolkata who has moved to Paris and become a celebrity chef where he lives with his French girlfriend. He returns to India after many years because his mother is seriously ill and he is face to face with many realities of Indian life and his own life. His father, who has never forgiven him for leaving, is not too happy to see him. His mother asks him to cook fish curry as he had done 25 years ago and the chef is now in a situation of being tested. He does finally make a fish curry that his mother likes. And then he returns to Paris. Doesn’t sound that exciting, does it? Well, the film is not in the story but in the moments that the man lives, in the way in which things unfold.

Perhaps it would be easier if I said that it is a Bengali version of the theme of “Three Idiots” because the whole argument is about the fact that the hero wanted to be a chef but his father wanted him to be an engineer. This decision of disobeying the father and doing what he really wanted to do is the base of the story. The whole film rests on this line of thought that you can make a success of any career if you put your heart to it and that no job is too low.

The story has too many threads and it leaves the viewer a bit distracted. The suspense is kept till the end about whether he will want to come back to Paris to the woman he has left behind. One can see that the actress playing the part of the French girlfriend is acting in a little exaggerated style only because she wants her style to match with the rest of the cast. But somehow there is no chemistry between the Bengali man and the French woman. There is a far greater chemistry between the other women in India who are linked to him. Paoli Dam excels in her role even though she has often very little to say. The look she gives him speaks volumes.

Mamata Shankar is good in her role as usual and she manages to bring out the sweetness in the bond between her son. The actor playing the father is also very convincing in his role. The role of the young trainee chef is a bit unconvincing. The scenes of cooking look like ads but do give the feeling of passion that the man feels towards this activity.

I have to add this detail. When the French woman asks what is the time difference between India and France he answers “Four hours.” I beg your pardon, that should be ‘four and a half’.

I enjoyed the film and must say it has a lightness that makes time pass very quickly. Directed by Pratim D Gupta it has some new points to reflect on, that we rarely see in Indian films.

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The Bridge of Love

It took me about ten years to write this book. But don’t think that I sat at my desk everyday for ten years writing it. In fact, I wrote this novel in between doing many other things, like editing a quarterly magazine, putting up stage performances, writing articles for various papers and journals, repairing my old house, painting pictures, rehearsing my dances, looking after my mother….

I must admit that I enjoy writing short stories and it is that format that suits my way of looking at a story. The structure of a novel is a different matter altogether.This is why it took me a long time to decide the path this novel was going to take. The structure of the story evolved as I wrote, it wasn’t planned from before.

The chapters are often conversations between two people or more and this is the main aim of the novel. It is the exchange of ideas between people of different cultures. There are many facets of life that are seen in completely different perspectives by people of Western societies which the Indians find hard to understand and vice versa. These discussions form the body of the novel.

All love stories are complicated and this one is no exception. There are two people who are trying to find a common ground on which they can stand in order to live together. How difficult it is in the world in which we live! Of course, the story is set in the mid-1990s so many things are not the same anymore. However, human nature remains the same.

The more one looks at the news every morning the more one sees divisions between groups and there seems to be more and more hatred than there was even a decade earlier. But behind all this is something that is preparing itself that will bring about a greater understanding between the various cultures of the world. I hope that the reader gets a glimpse of that something in this novel. All I want is to get people to think that Human Unity is a possibility.

(The book is available in India from Notion Press: https://notionpress.com/read/the-bridge-of-love
Elsewhere it can be bought from Amazon.)

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Screening of Raja Harishchandra (silent film) at the BFI


On Saturday 20th May, Dada Saheb Phalke’s film “Raja Harishchandra” was screened at the British Film Institute. But it wasn’t an ordinary screening. The silent film was screened with live music and a presentation about the early years of Indian cinema.

The brain behind the show was Lalit Mohan Joshi of SACF (South Asian Cinema Foundation) and it was executed with the help of his team which included his wife Kusum and daughter Uttara . The music was composed and conducted by Pandit Vishwa Prakash.

This film was made 104 years ago and is the first feature film made in India. Dada Saheb Phalke had been an assistant to Raja Ravi Varma in running his printing business. So he happened to be invited to the first screening of a film when the Lumiere Brothers came to Bombay with their new invention. He was totally fascinated by this new way of telling a story. He soon set up business himself.

The copy which was screened at the BFI was only 20 minutes long but this is all that remains of the 40 minutes which was the original length. We know that most of the early films were sold and recycled to get the silver out of the celluloid and there are many famous films which are lost forever. The most remarkable thing about this film is that all the female characters are played by men. I had read about it many times but when I actually saw the scenes I couldn’t believe that the demure queen Taramati, sadly wiping her tears with the end of her sari, was actually a man! Apparently no women wanted to act in films in those days because they felt it was something shameless to be seen by everyone. The man who played the role of the queen was a cook in a small restaurant.

Pandit Vishwa Prakash must be given the credit for bringing to life this silent story. He not only composed the background music of the scenes but also the dialogues, some of which were sung and some were spoken. Among the very able singers was Pandit Vishwa Prakash himself for the male voices, while the mother-daughter duo, Uttara Sukanya Joshi and Kusum Pant Joshi, sang for the female roles.

The musicians who accompanied them were Surmeet Singh on the sitar, Avatar Singh Namdhari on the dilruba and Mitel Purohit on the tabla. It was the harmony among them that created the beauty of their music. The dilruba (also known as esraj) gave the strains like the human voice which touched the heart and brought out the pathos of some of the scenes. The point to note is that the music, the singing and dialogue were all done as the film was playing and they took their cues from the visuals. It had to be perfectly synchronised.

So, what was I doing there? Well, Lalit Mohan Joshi had the idea of having two women selling tea and paan/bidi to the music composer, just as they would have done a century ago in a little cinema hall in Bombay. I along with a volunteer Charu Smita enacted that scene before the musicians sat down to play in front of the screen.

The second session which took place after a break of an hour was equally enthralling. In answer to Lalit Mohan Joshi’s questions Pandit Vishwa Prakash recounted some very interesting and unknown anecdotes about the music of the early decades of the Indian cinema. There were relevant clips from the films he spoke about bringing before the audience scenes that they would not get to see easily. Pandit Vishwa Prakash also sang bits of the songs to illustrate a point. The show ended with a song from the film “Guide” sung marvellously by Uttara Sukanya Joshi.

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London hanami

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The Man who knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity

About 8 years ago I saw a play in London which showed scenes from the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Tamil mathematician whose genius was recognised after he went to Cambridge University. Since then I have had a curiosity to know more about him.

A couple of years ago I found a DVD of a Tamil film, simply called “Ramanujan”, which showed his life. It depicted very vividly and in great details the life he lived in Madras and Kumbakonam before he left for England. Evidently, the parts which take place in England were not without their flaws. But I liked the film for its sincerity. It was a heartfelt narration of a story that is so little known about a man who was a giant in his field. Ramanujan died in his early 30s so it is a very sad story too. To me this was the life of Ramanujan seen from the Indian perspective. And even though we see him singing with his wife shortly after their marriage, in the typical Indian cinema style, I still felt that there was a lot of truth in the way details of the story were depicted.

When “The Man who knew Infinity” was out in the cinemas I couldn’t wait to see it because this would be the point of view of the British. I also knew this would be the technically better film. Moreover it had one of my favourite actors, Jeremy Irons. Fortunately I saw the film on the big screen and enjoyed it. Once again, I can say that although this film had a better script and had some very good actors it was not without its own flaws. But if I put all the flaws on one side it would still be a trifle compared to the good intention of making a film on the life of this genius.

Dev Patel doesn’t have the physical resemblance neither could he portray the genius as the shy and ill-at-ease man that Ramanujan was when he was at Cambridge. But Dev was sincere in his efforts and that is what counts in the end. In the Tamil film the actor (Gemini Ganeshan’s grandson) playing Ramanujan has a greater resemblance in appearance and in body language but Dev has the star appeal. And it is his name that will bring the audience into the cinemas, so his presence in the cast is justified. Physical resemblance is less important than the overall success of the film.

The role of the wife too was slightly out of synch because in real life she was a teenager when her husband left for England and must have had reactions and feelings which were very different from what we see on screen. Nor would she have been allowed to walk alone on the beach in Madras when her husband was in England. I have first-hand experience of how Western film-makers don’t understand certain cultural subtleties and want to impose their own way of looking at things on the characters that they are showing on screen.

Jeremy Irons is very convincing as the eccentric mathematician. Actually, Hardy was only ten years older than Ramanujan but here he looks much, much older than that. Irons is really in his elements in this film and you can see that he is enjoying playing Hardy. All the scenes which take place in Cambridge are very beautifully shot and have a very authentic look.

On the one hand his personal life was full of difficulties and sadness but on the other hand Ramanujan’s work has been a gift to mankind. He is one of the iconic figures of India and deserves to be better known.

Moved by his story, I wanted to see his house in Kumbakonam but unfortunately I found it closed. However, I learnt something new when I read up about Namagiri Thayyar. Ramanujan always said that all that he had written down were revealed to him by Namagiri Thayyar, the goddess worshipped by his family. He said that she wrote those equations on his tongue or showed them to him in his dreams. He also said that a mathematical equation was nothing to him if it wasn’t a thought of God. I found out that Namagiri Thayyar is the form of Lakshmi who is worshipped at Namakkal as the consort of Vishnu in his incarnation as the man-lion Narasimha.

I heartily recommend this film to everyone.

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DVD Review – Kadambari (Bengali film) 2015

kadambari

This film was released last year and I had been eagerly waiting to see it. So I watched it with great eagerness and I wasn’t disappointed at all.

The film stars Konkona Sen Sharma and Parambrata. Both are among my favourite actors so this was an added joy. The director is Suman Ghosh who lives in the USA and he has himself written the script. The film has a slow pace which gives us the feeling of how life was slow-paced in those days.

The story is a well-known episode in the life of Rabindranath Tagore. In the spacious mansion in which he grew up his closest friend was his sister-in-law who was only a year older than him. She was married to his elder brother Jyotiindranath who was 11 years older than her. Naturally Rabindranath and Kadambari Devi developed a very close relationship. She was the first one to read his poems and he was the one to whom she could open her heart. When Rabindranath got married Kadambari found it hard to accept the distance that was created between them. Four months later she killed herself.

This is what is generally known about Kadambari Devi but the film takes the pains to show us that there were many other factors which led to the drastic step taken by her, so that the finger of accusation doesn’t point at Rabindranath. Suman Ghosh very carefully creates the ambiance in which she lived. She was alienated by the ladies of the family because she came from an ordinary family unlike them. Her father was an accountant in the Tagore household but as he belonged to the Brahmo Samaj his daughter was chosen for Jyoti as it was difficult to get girls from wealthy and cultured Hindu families for Brahmo men.

She and her husband had a loving relationship but they had no children. He was deeply involved in his shipping business and at the same time had a theatre company. He spent all his evenings at the theatre and in the company of various actresses, most notably with Noti Binodini. Kadambari was not a ravishing beauty but she was an intelligent woman and interested in literature.

There are some beautiful scenes between the two main characters. And the art direction is satisfactory. The cinematography is captivating.

Two things made this film special for me. Firstly the melodious song of Vidyapati sung with so much feeling by Rashid – our Rashid who used to come to Pondicherry when he was a teenager to sing at the Ashram Theatre. And secondly Konkona’s very moving performance.

This is not an easy story to tell and in reality we will never know what exactly happened between the people involved and what was really said by whom. But through this tale we are made aware of the difficult lives of women, who had no right it would seem to ask for affection. In spite of the wealth and the comfort of so progressive a family Kadambari had an empty life. She and Rabindranath were intellectual companions and that fulfilment was suddenly lost.

Many say that the story of Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata” which is based on Tagore’s novel “Nashta Nid” is actually inspired by the real-life story of Kadambari and Rabindranath. Tagore seems to have never got over that relationship. When we watch the film we already know what is going to happen to Rabindranath. That he will suffer all his life. She is gone but he is there and the story only ends when Rabindranath dies.

The story of Jyotirindranath’s relationship with Nati Binodini is also portrayed in Rituparno Ghosh’s film “Abohoman”. I also read the autobiography of Nati Binodini but, as expected, there is no mention of Jyotiindranath.

For those who don’t know much about the Tagore family or Bengali literature this will still be an interesting film as it gives us an insight into the difficulties that women in India faced, how their lives were limited to the house and the only people they interacted with were those who were within their homes . At the same time the film reveals to us how, in spite of so much progress, human nature is still the same.

Because of the nature of the story the visuals are mostly interiors, and much of the action is inside people’s minds. So be prepared before you start watching it.

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Bela Seshe

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This film just shows how far Bengali Cinema has progressed when it comes to themes and stories. Bela Seshe is about an old couple who are going to complete 50 years of married life when the man announces that he wants to divorce his wife. I do not want to reveal anything more about the story because I do not want to disturb the director’s work of revealing bit by bit the workings of the protagonists’ minds.

The screenplay has been written by two people, a man and a woman, Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee. This combination itself is perhaps the secret of the film because the details of domestic life seen from the point of view of a woman can add many layers that are invisible to a man to the narrative of a film. Nandita Ray is 60 and Shiboprosad is 41 so that also adds to the creative process. The freshness and daring of one can be balanced by the wisdom and experience of the other.

The reason why I wanted to see this film was because Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta team up after 30 years! I had loved ‘Ghare Baire’ and it remains one of my favourite films even today. I was stunned to see how much Swatilekha had changed physically but her skills as an actress were intact. Let us not forget that she belongs to the world of Bengali theatre and acting is in her blood. Soumitra, on the other hand continues to be good looking and charming. How unfair it is that the man continues to be cast in romantic roles, even being cast as the old husband of the luscious Radhika Apte in ‘Ahalya’ while the woman has lost all her physical beauty and can only be fit to play a grandmother.

It took me a while to recognise Swatilekha but once I did I was just full of admiration for what she was doing. From being Satyajit Ray’s Bimala in ‘Ghare Baire’ with those expressive eyes she has become granny and loving mother to a brood of adult men and women. The contrast is so sharp that it makes you sympathise more for the character she plays. One must remember that Swatilekha was totally rejected by the audience when ‘Ghare Baire’ was released and she suffered immensely from it. She admitted in an interview that in fact she had started thinking of suicide. It is true, the audience can be ruthless. In her case, in spite of being a very fine actress, who had years of experience from the stage, she was not considered good enough by the audience because of her unconventional looks. People expected a beauty like Madhabi Mukherjee who played the lead in ‘Charulata’.

‘Bela Seshe’ was so successful that the screenplay has been published as a book. At the book release event Sandip Ray, the son of Satyajit Ray, was full of praises for the film. The other path-breaking point is that this film has had an all-India release with English subtitles and it was Eros international which distributed it. This is also perhaps the first Bengali film to be released simultaneously overseas too. This film brought families into the cinemas and enjoyed the kind of commercial success that has not been the lot of many Bengali films and it proved to be as interesting for the older generations as well as to the very young.

The story deals with the love that grows and remains among married couples of an older generation, who have been brought together through the system of arranged marriages. Theirs is not the passionate love stories that we have seen in Bollywood films but the quiet affection that binds them is stronger than passion. In this film the very definition of marriage is discussed and we see all the other younger couples learning something from the old couple. Each of the married children realises where his or her own marriage has failed and what needs to be remedied. We start thinking about how generations of Indians have gone through this form of coupling without any great difficulties and yet now that women are educated and mobile the whole question of compatibility becomes so important. The problem with passion is that if it has come all of a sudden it can also vanish equally suddenly. What had taken time to grow will probably last longer too.

The film has an ensemble cast with many known faces from Bengali cinema and they all create the beautiful back ground needed for the main couple of the film. The dialogues are written taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the characters and sound very convincing. Sohini Sengupta, the real life daughter of Swatilekha, plays a small role, a guest appearance, but makes her presence felt.

There are minor hitches in the script but one can easily overlook that and enjoy this very engaging film. It has originality and depth, good performances and dialogues. This is such a beautiful film that I wouldn’t mind seeing it twice.

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Udta Punjab – killing three birds with one stone

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Abhishek Chaubey’s Udta Punjab has opened a new chapter in the history of Indian cinema. It set out to expose the drug abuse problem in Punjab but actually it has also exposed the outdated mindset of the Central Board of Film Certification as well as the unresolved question of piracy. In short, the film killed three birds with one stone.

The CBFC, which is supposed to certify films, has in fact been acting as an agency to censor them and to decide what the audience should watch. To everyone’s surprise it wanted 89 cuts in the film, mainly because of foul language, and also to remove the name ‘Punjab’ from the title. Everyone can now see how ridiculous this demand was. The dates of the release had been fixed and the promotion was in full swing. Blocking the release at that point was going spell financial disaster. The whole film industry stood united and supported the legal battle that the producers undertook at that point because many others had been victims of the arbitrary ways in which the CBFC had already demanded cuts in earlier films.

As if that wasn’t enough, someone leaked the film onto the internet only two days before the release. People could just download it and watch it for free. Anurag Kashyap who had spent stressful days and sleepless nights, fighting to get the film released without the cuts was now begging the public not to download the film. The stars were out on social media and explaining to the public that if they watched the film without paying for it they would actually be stopping the producers from getting back the money that they had invested. “If you want to see good films then you have to let the producers earn money,” urged Alia Bhatt.

In spite of such great difficulties, the film managed to get a clearance from the courts and opened in cinemas across the globe on 17th June. Not only that, but it has done very well at the box office. From being worried about not being able to show Udta Punjab at all or with cuts that would have reduced the film to nothing, and being faced with the prospects of not being able sell any tickets at the box-office, the producers are now celebrating a commercial success, after two weeks of its release. Not only have they recovered their money but they have also earned good profits on their investments.

Now that the dust has settled down on the controversy, everyone can sit back and reflect on the true role of the Certification Board and also on how to tackle the piracy issue. The CBFC has probably understood that the more one tries to stop a film from being seen the more the public will make a dash for it.

To come back to the first aim of the film – drawing people’s attention to the rampant drug abuse in Punjab – even that has been a success. Shahid Kapoor, the star of the film, said that he has received mails from young addicts who have decided to give up drugs after watching this film. “If it helps even one person to quit drugs, I am happy,” he said. So, all’s well that ends well.

The drug problem of Punjab is something more serious than a few teenagers falling into bad company – it’s almost an epidemic. To most people in India this may be a revelation but those who live close to Punjab know very well that this has been going on for ten years now. For the Punjabis this is a bitter truth and they know that they are fighting a losing battle. “Narco-terrorism” is a new word but it’s an old and dirty trick.

The film is about four very different characters who are all trying to fight this common enemy. How the four stories cross each other and overlap is the interesting part to watch. The screenplay, written after much research, holds you spell-bound.

The grimness of this story would have been unbearable had it not been for the antics of Tommy Singh, the rock star whose life as a singer is entirely built on his ‘highs’ and whose career is beginning to slide down. Shahid Kapoor shines in this role and Satish Kaushik, playing his uncle, provides him the right partnership in the comic relief he offers. Kareena Kapoor is a doctor who is running a de-addiction centre. She gives us the sweetness and light that grows even brighter when compared to the darkness in the life of the character played by Alia Bhatt, a Bihari migrant labour who is sucked into the hell that the drug mafia has created. Diljit Dosanjh plays Sartaj, a low rank police officer, who is trying to save his younger brother and teams up with the doctor to expose those who manufacture and sell drugs. This is his first appearance in a Bollywood films but Diljit is at ease. That’s because he is already a star in Punjab as a singer and an actor.

Abhishek Chaubey, the director, has co-written the screenplay along with Sudip Sharma. Although his name doesn’t sound familiar Abhishek has actually worked with Vishal Bhardwaj for a decade and one can see his master’s hand in his work. Abhishek was one of the writers of Omkara and one can see where he picked up the skill of blending the gritty realities of life with entertainment. Substance abuse is no laughing matter. So, how do you make a film about the dangers of drug addiction without making it preachy? When you watch this film you understand how the director has balanced the strong social message with humour and romance.

The casting of this film is remarkably successful. Getting a good cast is actually getting half the work done. Diljit is a new face and being a sikh he lends a touch of authenticity to the story. Alia is a surprise choice for this role but she has stunned everyone with her extraordinary acting skills. Once she appears on the screen she continues to hold us gripped till the end. But the real stroke of genius in the casting department is Prabhjyot Singh who plays Balli, the younger brother of the police officer who becomes an addict. Balli, played to perfection by Prabhjyot, is just so ordinary and pathetic, pimple-faced and simple-minded, that it becomes clear how the victims come from all social classes. It’s not only the wealthy rock-star or the uneducated farm labour who are caught in this trap but also the middle-class kid who has no idea about what he is doing.

This film is made by the Phantom Films team (Vikas Behl, Vikramadity Motwani and Anurag Kashyap) and they have once again come up with a creation which is entertaining as well as thought-provoking. This is the team that has given us films like Queen and Masaan. Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor are the main producers and credit must be given to them for financially backing such a bold theme.

Cinema is such a powerful medium and at last it is being used as an effective weapon to fight the powerful enemies of our society. One such is substance abuse and now there is such a well-made film that aims to shake people up and to tell them how every little effort counts.

While the film is continuing to earn money at the box-office, the papers are full of positive reviews. And in the middle of all the stories of how successful Udta Punjab has been, Kareena Kapoor has announced that she is pregnant! There seems to be no end to celebrations now.

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Veenapani Chawla

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Having met up with some theatre people in Paris and sharing thoughts on our common passion I have suddenly become nostalgic and remember Veenapani Chawla.

I am still unable to delete from my phone the text message that Veenapani sent me two years ago. It was sent the day after we had performed our Bengali adaptation of Chekhov’s play “The Bear”. She had not been able to see it as she had to go to Delhi a couple of days later and she had some paperwork to finish before leaving.

“Dearest Sunayana,” the message says, “I heard you were superb”. She continued the message saying that she wanted me to come over to Adishakti for a cup of coffee after her return so that we could just have a good chat and catch up. As soon as she was back I went to see her. It seemed as if it was only yesterday that we were sitting in the verandah of her house, surrounded by hibiscus flowers. Although it was supposed to be a chat over coffee we ended up having two tall glasses of watermelon juice. That afternoon was all red and pink and green.

We spoke of so many things, laughed remembering friends and made plans to have another performance of our play at Adishakti so that she could see it. She remembered some incidents from the time when she was at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. The one hour that we spent together flew away like minutes. It was perhaps the first time in many years that we had spent a quiet time like this, only the two of us. Little did I know then that she would never be able to see our play, that she would die before we could stage it a few months later.

Twenty years earlier we had spent so much time together when she wanted to teach us all the different activities that go with stage productions. For almost a year our small group of theatre-enthusiasts had spent three nights a week learning the craft of acting, and touched on the basics of lighting, costume and set design. That was several years before she built her theatre near Auroville.

I was not such a fan of her theatre creations but I loved her energy. The format which she had chosen was not what interests me but it was so inspiring to see someone live for her passion. There was nothing else which interested her other than her work and she was learning everyday so that she could progress. What struck me most of all was the fact that she was not looking for fame; she was looking for ways in which she could take her work forward. In this respect, what she achieved is colossal.

So many images flood my memory today. I knew her first as the young lady with the big red bindi when she used to come to Pondicherry in the 1970s. She used to always wear such beautiful saris with ethnic blouses. Later when we knew each other a little better she would always have a smile for me and when she saw me in a sari she always made it a point to complement me on my taste. And then in the last decade of her life she chose to be dressed very simply, in very sober kurtas and plain salwars. She looked completely different but her smile never changed.

She looked like a serious person, an intellectual even, but she had a fine sense of humour and could be fun to be with. I still cannot believe that she is no more. And yet every now and then I think of her because in the suddenness of her departure she has taught me a lesson. From the moment that I received the news of her death in the form of a text message from a friend I cannot get it out of my mind that every minute is precious and only those who are focussed like her can turn a dream into a reality. What has to be done must be done with a one-pointed devotion and all that is not part of that goal has to be thrown out. Thank you, Veena.

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Luck by Chance

Luck by Chance

This film was made way back in 2009 but it still remains a delightful film to watch. Having recently seen an interview with Zoya Akhtar on youtube I was very curious to see her work and particularly Luck by Chance, as she referred to it several times. This was the first film she wrote and directed and it is an in-house production as her brother Farhan Akhtar plays the male lead role. Her father has written the lyrics of the few songs that appear in the movie and the music is by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.

The story is about the young hopeful actors who come to Mumbai and try their luck at becoming a hero in Hindi films. It shows how the film industry works, what goes on in the minds of the producers and directors of the mainstream films. Evidently Zoya knows these stories and these details as she has grown up in this industry. Both her parents were part of the mainstream Bollywood films and she knows most of the star children who became actors.

As the story progresses we see the relationships which develop in this small world of cinema and how each one feeds on the weaknesses of the others. The title of the film refers to the way luck or the fact of being at the right time at the right place can make or break the future of these actors. The casting couch, the superstitious producers, the power of the media, all find a place in this story. There is also the subplot of the star daughter being launched by her mother, full of details that Zoya must have observed around her.

Farhan does a fairly good job of portraying the young struggling actor but the one to watch out for is Konkona Sen Sharma. She gets under the skin of the character and truly brings out the difficulty of the single woman trying to find a foothold in the industry. Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia are good too in their respective roles. There is a sequence a bit like Om Shanti Om where one after the other the real male stars of the industry playing themselves appear where they are supposedly being contacted by the producer.

Zoya is a special person. She is one of the rare women writer-directors of Indian cinema, there are a few others in West Bengal, and her films have something original in them. I liked Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara because the film revolves around the idea that you live only once and you cannot afford to play your cards wrong. This film got me interested in her work. She has an insight into the minds of the young Indians, particularly the urban Indian. Zoya works with Reema Kagti who is also a fiery young woman and who is on the same wavelength as Zoya.

This film has that ring of truth because she knows what she is talking about but at the same time it has a narrative style. Zoya is a part of the new breed of directors who nudge you to think about certain aspects of life as they entertain you. Until now we have not had very many intelligent women in the world of Hindi cinema. The educated film woman is only now beginning to emerge. The film industry used to be full of glamorous women who had little or no education or who in spite of being educated were so disconnected from life that they understood nothing outside the world of their own films. At last we have women directors, producers and script-writers.

Luck by Chance is a must watch for movie buffs for the good story, good performances and Zoya’s direction.

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Masaan

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This is a film which has touched me deeply and writing about it will be easy. It shows us in clear light the dark side of life in India. It is as if a thief has been dragged out of the dark hole where he was hiding. No, in fact, it’s not that at all. It is that ugly truth which we all know but can do nothing to change, so we continue living our lives. And now suddenly, this film brings it to our notice and asks us, “What are you doing about it?”

The few comments that I had seen on twitter about this film said that it was poetic. It was this word “poetic” that led me to watch a film that was clearly connected to death and dying. After all, the title “Masaan” means “burning grounds”. After watching the film the first word that came to my mind was indeed “poetic”. Images linger in the memory and the subtle way in which the story is told leaves so much to the imagination.

I would class this film as a short story. Two stories criss-cross each other and leave you intrigued, as you watch the scenes, about how they are related. The denouement at the end leaves you with the same feeling as at the end of a short story. The body of the story is also very compact. There is not a single scene you can take out.

The true strength of the film lies in making you feel that this is all real and not a film that you are watching. This effect of reality comes from several elements. Firstly, as the actors are unknown faces, even Richa Chadda who has acted in some good films, is still a face that doesn’t have a history to it. The four people who make up the two ill-fated couples are “people” and not stars. Sanjay Mishra is a good actor with a stage background so he gives a performance which is very real. Secondly, the sets are all very life-like and not dressed up to look like commercials. And thirdly, the language they speak is the everyday language spoken by people of that region and not a contrived Hindi that Bollywood uses so that everyone can understand it.

This feeling of reality is strongest in the scenes between the young couple where Vicky Kaushal is so convincing as the small town man falling in love that you keep feeling you are peeping into someone’s private life. How did he manage that? It is a master stroke. Richa Chadda says so much with her eyes. Her inner strength shines out of her silence. The casting is perfect and each actor is good in his or her role.

Many things are clear when you find out that this film has been co-produced by several companies some of which are French. That explains the choice of subject and location. It is a well-known fact that the French have a fascination for Varanasi because of the whole story of burning the dead on the banks of the Ganges which they find very “exotic”. After the success of “The Lunchbox” the French are eager to invest in Indian films and this allows film-makers to take up subjects that other Indian producers wouldn’t want to touch.
The creative group behind this is Phantom Films, the same ones who were behind “Queen”. They are young and they easily move between writing, directing, editing and producing so that they control every aspect of the film.

Indian cinema is changing and now at last young talented film-makers are getting a chance to say what they want to and to say it in the style they want to. Perhaps we should say a big “Merci” to the French for being so supportive of this new movement.

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Bombay Velvet

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This is not really one of my usual reviews. This piece is for those who have already seen the movie. I am just sharing my experience.

This was a film I was really looking forward to seeing. In fact, I had already seen it in its unedited version before it was released but it was in very special circumstances. And it was really special. After all, how often do you get to see a film before its release and screened by its director? You may get that opportunity if you are part of the cast and crew of the movie. But I saw this film as part of a screen-writing workshop with Anurag Kashyap. He showed it to us as it was in its final draft, when there was still some editing work to be done. So the version we saw had 20 extra minutes. And we had to say which 20 minutes could be removed. I assure you it was tough to say. That’s when you understand the difficult job of a film editor as well as the responsibility of the director who has the final say about what will stay and what will go.

Firstly, let me tell you how sad I am that the film turned out to be a commercial failure to the extent that Anurag is saying this loss will haunt him till the end of his life. He had really put a lot of work into it. But cinema is a medium that involves not just work but so much money. Because it happens over a long time and involves so many people in the end you can’t see it dispassionately. So when that money does not come back to the investors it is a loss that makes even the artistic team feel that they did a bad job.

The version I saw was more about the history of Bombay but the final released version is more of a love story. In that earlier version the whole story of Rosie’s fake death and escape was quite differently presented. There was also a scene where the police inspector and his aide go to the funeral in Goa and one of them hums a song from the 70s movie “Ram aur Shyam” and this was supposed to be a hint that the police has understood that the real Rosie is pretending to be her own sister. But luckily they removed that scene because no one today will remember that movie where Dilip Kumar plays a double role. It was a useless hint. In our discussions post screening, that scene was the only one I had suggested should be removed.

I am saying all this to point out how difficult it is to write a good script. The critics have all said that the script was weak and that no amount of good acting from all the actors could save the movie. I enjoyed the story and thought it was well-constructed. The part about the politician was a bit unclear perhaps. Karan Johar’s role was chopped off on the editing table. It was much longer in the version I saw. That’s why it was easier to get the complicated details about who was trying to get whom and why. And in the end this was the message that we took away from the workshop. You just never know what will work and what won’t. Even the celebrated Anurag Kashyap couldn’t get it right. He had come to teach us how to write a film script but he was humble enough to say that he didn’t know how to teach anyone this skill as he had not learnt it himself. He had picked it up through trial and error.

To come to the film itself, I think Ranbir did a good job. I also liked the silent and suppressed character of Rosie played adequately by Anushka Sharma. I was particularly impressed with Karan Johar’s acting as this was his very first acting role. But most of all I liked the way the era was re-created. The main sets were created in Sri Lanka as it is impossible to get that look in today’s Mumbai. The music was very effective too. Meticulous care was taken to get that uncluttered look of the city as it must have been at that time.

When I told Anurag that Ranbir looked a lot like young Raj Kapoor he said, “Also a bit like Guru Dutt.” Ranbir’s looks did suggest that we were seeing a colour version of Raj Kapoor’s black and white movies. There was that desperate desire to go somewhere and also the hopelessly in love hero.

I know that people will watch this film on DVDs and maybe online but this will not bring back the money that is lost. But at least the work will be seen and appreciated. Perhaps some viewers will appreciate some of the scenes for what the director has put in. The film may even bring more appreciation to actors like Ranbir and Anushka. It may bring them more good roles. Nothing is ever a total failure.

At the end of that workshop Anurag told us that the only way to learn how to write a script is to watch hundreds of movies and you will yourself understand what works and what doesn’t. But as time has shown, even if you watch hundreds of films you can never know what will work in the end.

Seen from a wider perspective, this film is a part of the new emerging cinema of India. From that point of view it has served a purpose.

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Hemlock Society (2012)– a DVD review

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For a couple of years I didn’t watch this film because I was sure that it was a pretentious film with people philosophising about life and death. But ever since I saw “Jaatiswar” I was curious to know more about Srijit Mukherjee’s work. And now with his new film “Rajkahini” out in the cinemas I am even more curious about his older works.

First of all let me admit that I watched it on youtube, on the screen of my laptop, and not on the big screen. But for this particular film it really didn’t matter because the whole focus of the film in on the dialogue.

Here is the story in short. A young woman discovers that her boyfriend of 14 years is in a relationship with another woman and leaves him even though they were about to get married. After this she decides to kill herself. So she goes to her father who is a doctor to get a prescription for sleeping pills and he gives it to her. The father lives with his second wife and has his own life. A young man who is at the pharmacy where she goes to buy the sleeping pills follows her to her flat and asks her to stop trying to kill herself.

He then tells her that he runs a school to teach people how to commit suicide successfully. It’s called Hemlock Society. He takes her to his school, which is within a film city where films are shot, and keeps her there for two days. Those workshops where teachers lecture on the various ways of killing oneself is so horrifying that she gives up all idea of suicide. She sees that all the reasons that she has for killing herself – she has broken up with her boyfriend, her father doesn’t show any affection to her, she hates her step-mother, she is going to be fired from her job – have no importance compared to the problems of others.

Not only that but she actually falls in love with the man who has brought her there. But he tells her that there is no future in their love because he is suffering from a terminal illness and has only a couple of years to live. So, that is the reason why he is doing everything he can to stop people from killing themselves. His mission is to make people see how precious life is and that one can’t end it for problems that can be overcome.

In the meantime the father of the young woman realises that he has neglected her. And now stands up for her when he sees her ex-boyfriend in a cafe with the new woman in his life. It takes a crisis like this for him to realise that his daughter needs attention too. His new wife knows very well that she can never replace the dead mother but she makes an effort to be warm and friendly with her.

The films ends with the ex trying to kill himself when the new woman in his life is not really interested in him. As he is about to jump into the river from a bridge the same man appears and tells him that he can take him to his school where he will teach him how to successfully commit suicide.

The male lead role is played by Parambrata Chatterjee and the young woman’s role is played by Koel Mullick. Srijit makes no attempt to hide the fact that this character is similar to Anand played by Rajesh Khanna in the 70s. In fact, he is called Ananda Kar, deliberately. Throughout the film he repeats that he is a movie buff and quotes from filmy dialogues. Parambrata flirts with the girl to make her fall in love with being in love again.

Koel’s role is well-written because you see that this character is at fault too. She is not a victim. As the film progresses you realise that she is a very sloppy person, shabby and unkempt. Because of this she is about to be fired. At the same time, having lost her mother some years ago she has not recovered from that and as her father has remarried she is alone. The viewer can see that she was looking for a father in her boyfriend. And that is dangerous. It is clear that the boyfriend didn’t want a shabby girl who treats him like a father. If he hasn’t married her in 14 years then there is something wrong already. Instead of seeing what was wrong with herself the young woman starts blaming everyone else.

The film can be called a dark comedy because it is making fun of a serious matter as suicide but on the other hand it is holding up a mirror to Indian society of today. India has a very high rate of suicides and people are influenced by cinema to do something drastic. Srijit has done the right thing to use cinema to try and reverse that trend and to show to the youth of this country that this is not a solution. The film has a strong message and by presenting with humour he makes the film enjoyable too.

There is a surreal aspect to the script but Srijit manages to pull it off. It could very easily not have worked. The actors have given good performances. The set design is good. The only thing that bothered me was the way one could hear every breath that Koel was taking – unless, of course, that was done deliberately to make us understand the inner turmoil of the character she was playing.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but this film gives an idea of the unusual ideas that are now pushing Bengali cinema. It is because the directors are being backed by producers who are willing to take risks that new intelligent films are being made. Let the masses have what they want. At least the intelligent viewer has something to watch too.

If you are a Parambrata fan then you should watch this film.

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Road Safety

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I am writing this from my bed as my foot is in a plaster cast and I can only walk around the house with the help of a crutch. All this because the roads of Pondicherry are so choked with vehicles that no one has any place to move. People like me, riding a scooter, are pushed off the road by bigger vehicles.

This is how it all happened. I was coming back from a friend’s house on Romain Rolland Street. I found myself in front of the Cluny hospital where half the road space is taken up by parked motorcycles. What is left of the road is too little for two way traffic. In front of me was a SUV vehicle so it left me with no space to continue on my way. I could have just gone back and turned into Surcouf Street and continued on Suffren Street. But that would be a long detour, moreover Suffren street is badly lit at night.

I decided to get off my scooter and push it on the narrow space left beside the SUV while I walked on the sloping cement bit that that was between the road and the pavement. Unfortunately my foot slipped and I fell down and my scooter fell on my foot. I got up, sat on the scooter and came back home. It was only in the morning that I found out, after I had it x-rayed, that my foot had a fracture.

I told the doctor at Nallam Clinic, while he was putting the plaster on my foot, that I was going to sue the Cluny hospital. His answer was: “It wasn’t the fault of the Cluny hospital. It was the fault of the Government.” I am sorry, but I beg to differ. In my opinion, it was the fault of the Cluny hospital which has done nothing to create a parking space for the large number of people who come there every day.

If the roads are used for parking then where will the traffic move?

I feel now that this fall happened to remind me that I have not done enough for the traffic situation in Pondicherry. So I am going to do what I had planned to do long back – create a booklet for children to teach them about road safety. I believe that only children will learn and they will teach their parents how to use the roads. I will distribute these books in schools and wait for the results.

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Jaatishwar (Bengali film) – a dvd review

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The film I am going to write about was on the list of available Indian regional films on the flight from London Heathrow to Dubai. The special point about watching a film on a flight is that you are a captive audience. Quite literally. Because you can’t go anywhere and there is nothing else you can do, so you are totally absorbed.

The film, Jaatishwar, is surely director Srijit Mukherjee’s best film so far. And I doubt he can actually produce anything that will surpass this film in story and content. At last, Bengal has woken up. And at last there are some producers ready to put their money into these projects.

This film has two tracks and the two tracks meet at the end. The first story is that of a young Gujarati boy (played by Jisshu Sengupata) who is in love with the beautiful Mahamaya. The role of the heroine is played by Swastika whom I last saw in “Bhooter Bhibishyat”. Rohit, the Gujarati boy, follows Mahamaya and wants absolutely to win her over. She finally asks him to write and sing a song in correct Bengali and sing it without a mispronunciation.

Rohit then goes off to continue his studies. His interest is in Music and Portugal. His third interest is in learning Bengali. So the only point where Bengal, music and Portugal meet is in the story of Anthony Firingi. Those who are old enough will remember the 1967 Uttam Kumar film with the soul-stirring songs of Manna Dey. And it may bring back some vague memories about who he was.

The second story begins when Rohit chooses the subject of his dissertation and goes to Chandannagar (also known as Chandernagore). He is in search of the details of the life of Anthony Firingi, the poet and singer of Portuguese origin. At the local library he meets Kushal, an assistant. The meeting between these two men becomes the starting point from which the story of Anthony Firingi grips us. Kushal reveals to Rohit that he was himself Anthony Firingi in his past life and that he has vivid memories which keep coming back to him.

As he recounts his memories of his past life we see Anthony Firingi come alive before us. We see how Anthony was part of the European community living in that area. He was gradually attracted to the Bengali folk culture and ultimately to the musical duel style of “Kobigaan”. Anthony rescues a widow from being burnt on her husband’s funeral pyre and marries her. One year he decides to hold the Durga Puja in his own house but the villagers are totally against this. During the Puja festival he goes out to sing in a Kobigaan organised by the local Raja. When he returns he sees that the villagers have burnt down his house and that his wife has died.

Rohit takes Kushal to a psychiatrist and realises that there is an urgency in getting his story out of him. One sees Kushal suffer this intrusion on his mind from these memories of a past life. Rohit continues to record all that Kushal reveals to him as part of his dissertation for his University. This work also helps him to learn Bengali.

The three men – Rohit, Kushal and Anthony – have different lives but there are many threads that bind them and many similarities. In the meantime, Mahamaya is busy organising a musical event, a rock band competition, on behalf of the radio station for which she works. Rohit finds out about this competition and decides to participate. In the meantime, Mahamaya and Rohit reconnect on Facebook. On the night of the competition Rohit finally sings the song that he has written for Mahamaya, the challenge that she had thrown at him. She is impressed and accepts him.

The end has a twist that I wouldn’t want to disclose because I want the reader to see the film.

The beauty of the film lies in the way the various strands of the story are intercut. Although it sounds like a complicated story the actual cinematic narration is very smooth. The scenes where we see Anthony Firingi are shot with a warm glow and luminosity. That is why they stand out as different. The scenes where we see Kushal are sombre and the background of an utter ordinariness. The stark contrast makes it visually totally different from the scenes which take place in the past life. The two separate time periods are kept well apart. The scenes where we see the life of Rohit are placed in our modern times and in many ways the cinematic language is different. This intermingling of different historical periods and personalities is what makes this film worth watching.

But that is not all. Prosenjit as Anthony Firingi and Kushal is brilliant. He is definitely one of India’s finest actors. It is really fortunate that when this new phase in Indian cinema has dawned we have such terrific actors who are available to the directors. You have the impression that the two roles have been played by two completely different actors. The genius of Prosenjit lies as much in the quasi-mystic aura that he gives to Anthony as much as the totally ordinary man he becomes as Kushal. No make-up, no wigs, no other help from anything, stooped, unsure of himself, he becomes the anonymous library assistant. Prosenjit manages to switch off his charisma and become a nobody. And yet when he is Anthony you cannot take your eyes off him. This is the mark of a great actor.

Flaws there are and mostly in the way poor Rohit’s role has been written. Although he is supposed to be a Gujarati boy he doesn’t manage the Gujarati accent at all. He speaks in a Marwari accent and that too not very successfully. His early dialogues are not written convincingly enough. The whole part where Mahamaya’s friends re-unite with her does not give us the impression that she is the only one who is still single and could be feeling the need for a companion. Her loneliness is felt when she is with her mother.

The strong points of the film are many. Casting is one of them. The actors playing minor roles are well-chosen and leave a mark. Mamata Shankar, who plays the mother, is brief but memorable. The whole film rests on the pillars of music, both folk and modern. The scenes showing the musical debates are very well done. The moments where Anthony listens to Lalan Fakir’s song is also very evocative. It must have been weird for Prosenjit to do that scene because in another film he has himself played Lalan Fakir. Another sense of revisiting a past life, he must have thought. Screenplay, editing, cinematography, dialogues are all quite impressive.

Trivia – the director himself plays the role of Mahamaya’s boss in the film.

Revelation – I didn’t know that the Portuguese had lived in Chandernagore, neither the fact that it was called Farashdanga earlier (‘Farashi’ being the Bengali word for ‘French’). I associated the town only with the French and had always believed that Anthony Firingi was a Frenchman.

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