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.

1 comment:

Pratyay Banerjee said...

Awellknit criticism of the film 'Abohomaan'.