Saturday, January 23, 2010

Rituparno Ghosh’s Abohoman: Men, Women and Love

Rituparno Ghosh’s latest venture Abohoman (Since Time Immemorial) raised storms as many found similarities with Satyajit Ray’s much-gossiped-about affair with actor Madhabi Mukhopadhyay, a claim Ghosh has been rejecting vehemently in every interview. Ray’s differences, due to this alleged affair with the actor, with his wife and son had come under media scanner, and were widely speculated upon by the Bengali middleclass. This affair has till date remained a luscious Tollywood scandal, although Ray and his family had always been rather guarded about it. But, Bijaya Ray in her memoir has often insinuated at this affair, but has drawn the line before revealing intimate detail. A film based on this scandal, or as it has been publicized by the media would definitely draw the crowd, especially middle-aged middleclass Bengalis. 

The connection with Ray is most evident in the manner in which Ghosh has designed Aniket’s study. Ray seated in an armchair amid a sea of books in his study is quite a familiar image to Bengalis. Ghosh revisits this image in Abohoman by way of which he quite unambiguously suggests what is being speculated. Shrimati alias Shikha’s (Ananya Chatterjee) arrival at Aniket’s funeral in full makeup, straight from the stage, is reminscient of Madhabi’s arrival at Ray’s cremation, with surma in her eyes. Apart from these two easily recognizable similarities, the film travels beyond the biography of a well-known filmmaker to narrate the tale of a director and his muse, an age-old story, as attested by the title of the film. 

The film within the film tells the story of Binodini Dashi, the legendary nineteenth century Bengali theatre actor, and her tryst with life on stage (till then an essentially ‘male’ domain), her admirers, and her mentor. Ghosh’s Binodini is proud, impulsive, seductive on the one hand, and emotional, unrelenting and persevering. Binodini’s self-anagnorisis lies in the acquisition of the knowledge that she is indeed an actor, a puppet hung from the invisible hand of the patriarch. Essentially the film is an artistic take on the position of women in the world of entertainment, a dreaded public space where they are most vulnerable. Even if there is recognition of their talents (in case of Binodini as well as Shrimati), they are never real actors, but passive recipients. Ironically, the film’s title, while alluding to the eternal romantic bonding between the director and his muse, also alludes to the broader man-woman relationship, in which the power dynamics are still unaltered, even in the new globalized world, and its neo-liberal hullaballoo about women’s liberation and empowerment. It’s the same power equation: the man vehicle of the agency and the woman the passive performer. The age-old binaries of the rational/irrational, active/passive, or intelligent/emotional do not seem to have changed. The housewife (played by Mamata Sankar) complains of betrayal; so does the actor of the nineteenth century as well as the present day. The complaint, I guess, is less against an individual; rather it is against a system so deep-rooted that it’s impossible to to be dismantled. Interestingly, even if we assume that the complaint is against an individual, say director Aniket or theatre-magnet of Renaissance Bengal Girish Ghosh, both these individuals are much too aware of the plight of women. Aniket, for instance, reads out to Shrimati tales of prostitutes: “Hinger Kochuri”, “Barbodhu”, and others. Tales of the ‘other’ woman, an eternal outlaw inhabiting the fringes; yet without whom the centre cannot function. Actually, the tales of these prostitutes in a way become commentaries on the eternally marginalized position of women: the prostitute’s ‘otherness’ is visible; the housewife’s isn’t. But both are equally dominated. And this story is really really old…as old as eternity: abohoman. But, as with all Rituparno Ghosh films, the victimhood narrative becomes a bit tiring towards the end. The film-with-the-film, in particular, makes of Binodini a sentimental heroine, and suppresses the other side of her story, for instance, the power she exercised in bringing out her autobiography, despite insurmountable odds. I felt that way Ghosh has not been fair to her. 

The film offers three very powerful performances. Ananya Chatterjee steals the show with her freshness, although she is not quite up-to-the-mark as Binodini. She seems to imitate Madhuri, perhaps, on Ghosh’s instruction, for he wanted Madhuri to play the role initially. Mamata Sankar emotes as effortlessly as she breathes. Dipankar De is extremely believable. The others are just about okay. The background score and the music would score really high. Ghosh’s attention to details is hardly questionable, although the scenes are mostly shot indoors, thereby the gigantic task of recreating early modern Kolkata has been cunningly avoided . However, I felt that the film within the film telling Binodini’s story could have been shot in black and white or sepia tone. That would have made it more believable. After two debacles (Khela and The Last Lear) and an average attempt (Sab Choritro Kalponik), Rituparno Ghosh seems back to his elements. He would not disappoint this time.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wrapping up a devastating decade!

What pains me most when I look back on the decade that was, is the changing nature of global terrorism. No other decade perhaps has been so fraught with paradoxes: on the one hand, the world was condensed into a small global village, thanks to the revolution in information technology; on the other hand, distances between communities, residing side by side, increased beyond measurement. While multiculturalism officially entered the state parlance, mad rush at ethnic cleansing reached a hitherto unforeseen level. In India, nobody seemed to have learned any lesson from the Babri Masjid demolition riots! The Godhra riots in Gujarat, the Malegaon blasts, the unprecedented rise of Hindutva, violence against religious minorities − all of these introduced the most dehumanizing chapters in the history of humanity. The 26/11 Taj Hotel massacre in Mumbai brought the drama of man slaughter to a climax, which, as things are, would never see a denouement. The decade closed under the dark clouds of the Telengana demand for a state separate from Andhra Pradesh, once again throwing into dismal relief the drama of fragmentation of the country that began after the independence and is still going strong. On the other hand, the demand for a Gorkhaland, separate from West Bengal, had been making headlines for quite a few months now! And to top it all, there was the unspeakably inhuman Nandigram debacle that marked a turn to the barbaric age. Amidst this entire hullabaloo for a separate state, religious purity, communal violence, emerged the Maoist rebellion, giving sleepless nights to the government. May be one good thing was the state recognition of same-sex desire as natural. But what was ridiculously ironic was the whole tragicomic drama that was played out by the media in the ‘highly saleable’ hype of legalizing (!) something that was always already natural.

While we were happy that we have finally arrived with high-end technologies entering the middle class home, none of was really bothered about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. All seemed hunky-dory, for the media represented it as such. No one really cared what happened in the remotest areas, miles away from the globalizing urban centres. The new Indian middle class were blissfully unaware of the world beyond McDonald’s, KFC, Shopping Malls, Coke and Pepsi. It took a Slumdog Millionaire to uncover the murky reality that co-existed with the glam and glitz of the country’s economic capital. And in remote villages of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, etc., people still starved to death. The impact of global warming was felt the hard way: in lots of villages the ground water level decreased considerably, super-cyclones hit eastern India time and again taking innumerable lives, and above all a remarkable change in the climate was felt across the country. And not to forget the colossal tsunamis that hit South Asia, almost giving signals of an apocalypse. The great Copenhagen Summit on environmental issues that closed the decade did not really predict a very bright future. However, we hope to live on! All we need are love, patience and a bit of selflessness. May the new decade ring out all that was depressing and ring in life, in true sense of the term!