Friday, March 30, 2012

Magic Realty…erm…Reality: The future of the ghosts…well…secure- A review of 'Bhooter Bhabishyot'

In the rather lackadaisical prelude that takes almost 15 minutes to arrive at the core narrative, Sabysachi Chakraborty who volunteers to share a plot idea with the aspiring director Parambrata Chattopadhyay, tells the latter that his story has “layers”. As Aneek Dutta’s Bhooter Bhabishyat (The Future of the Past) progresses with amazing alacrity after that, the audience laughs through the exploration of these ”layers”, while, in the spirit of a good comedy, being compelled to think. Bhooter Bhabishyat is not mindless entertainment, but an amusing social satire that demands considerable attention.

Delightfully auto-reflexive, Bhooter Bhabishyat brings back the benign spook, the kind popularized by Ray’s Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen (Parambrata’s cell often breaks moments of eerie silence with the benevolent Bhooter Raja’s ghostly articulation of the three boons) The crew of ghosts Dutta introduces is comprised of well-known caricatures: the North Kolkata zamindar, a British official of the East India Company, a yesteryear heroine of Bengali cinema, a “Bangal” refugee, a Bihari rickshaw-puller, a royal Muslim chef (from Sirajudaulla’s kitchen), a Naxalite, a colonel who lost his life in the 1999 Kargil War, a pseudo-intellectual band-singer, a college girl spurned in love, and a hilariously ruthless mastaan.

The bhoot is all about recalling history: the arrival of the East India Company, Sirajudaulla, the British Raj in Bengal and the complicity of the Zamindars with the colonial rulers…the Partition…black and white Bengali cinema of the 1940s… the Naxalite Revolution and its martyrs…the Kargil War…Down to the Rizwanur case, and the obsession with band formation…"revolutionary music” that is ear-splittingly cacophonic and demands a lot of attitude! This history needs to be preserved…and hence, the fight to save Chowdhury Mansion which has drawn the greedy attention of Ganesh Bhutoria, the avaricious promoter. Since, everbody (read the State) is completely nonchalant about preserving this heritage the band of ghosts takes upon themselves the Herculean responsibility. The mission is accomplished, and the ghosts “live” happily ever after. The story-within-the-story ends happily indeed. But this is mere wishful thinking…in reality nobody is bothered about the future of the past. Therefore, the story of the past needs to be told…and what can be a better medium than cinema? In order their voices are heard the ghosts produce a film. And the film is Bhooter Bhabishyot. For you!

A superlative ensemble cast keeps you in splits all through: Paran Bandopadhyay brings in his inherent comic talent to the portraiture of Darpanarayan; George Baker plays the representative of the British Raj with a pampering concern for the “natives”, the lesser mortals; Biswajit Chakraborty’s colonel is too full of nostalgia, playing out with utter faith his patriotic leanings much to the annoyance of the other ghosts; Swastika Mukherjee goes full retro with remarkable credibility; Saswata Chatterjee surprises us with his maastan act; Samdarshi, the self-proclaimed revolutionary and Mumtaz, who has been badly betrayed by her boyfriend, bring in the romantic streak; and the Bangal refugee, the Muslim chef and the Bihari rickshaw-puller are much too real…magic real?

One of the most cerebral films made in recent times, Bhooter Bhabishyot uses double-entendre to an amazing effect…the film shows how one can be intelligently crass. The film merges the elitist and the populist to a commendable degree, resulting in full-on entertainment. As I have said earlier, it remains true to the spirit of good comedy, never losing sight of the Shavian dictum that comedy is not about mindless laughter…it should make you think while you laugh.


For the first time ever I have been compelled to add to a review written almost a month back. I am precisely talking about “Bhooter Bhabisyot”. Many found the film “bad” for it is simply repeating some caricatures; and caricatures cannot make for a good comedy. I would like to debunk this take by arguing that the film in good humour mocks the cultural memory of middle class Bengalis, which, incidentally, is nothing but a string of stereotypes chronologically placed. The film deliberately reiterated these stereotypes as brilliant caricatures. For instance, post-Partition, the Muslim has entered the collective memory as such a ‘violent’ Other (constructed through several narratives which have by now acquired the status of myth), that the Muslim character is made to speak Urdu/Hindi, but not Bengali. The ‘othering’ is thereby reinforced. This cannot be read as racist, but a comical take on the constructedness of the image of the Muslim in the collective memory.
            The film, reportedly, has displeased some for being much too middle class. But the fun lies here: the film, intentionally or may be unintentionally, addresses the fact that it is the cultural memory of the middle class that hegemonizes and controls all other memories. This is because, the middle class, the neo-colonial class (to allude to Frantz Fanon) has stepped into the shoes of the former colonial master and till date by consent or sometimes even violently eliminated all other cultural memories. This is not only true of Bengal, but the entire postcolonial nation. The film mocks this dominant middle class perception of history, and the source of humour is the film’s auto-reflexive take on the subject. 

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

'Kahaani': Fact of fiction of fictitious fact

What is Kahaani all about? Kahaani is, well, about a fiction…erm…a story. Kahaani, technically speaking, is also about storytelling…as in how to tell a story…Well, Kahaani is also about fabrication, what fiction usually does…and the truth literally turns out to be stranger than fiction…a truth which is fictive, but not impossible. And like all good kahaanis, Kahaani too unfolds catalyzing in every reel a nail-biting curiosity of “What happens next”, finally leaving you bewildered, baffled, and confounded. Once the initial bewilderment wanes and the kahaani sinks in (both these happen in a jiffy), a deep pleasure is all that you feel: it’s akin to having finding your way out of a bemusing labyrinth on your own. Sujoy Ghosh and Advaita Kala (in association with Suresh Nair and Nikhil Vyas) have done a marvellous job! Namrata Rao’s scissors and adhesive have cut and joined the frames with remarkable adroitness attributing to the narrative just the right kind of pace.
The film has employed the mother-motif to an unforeseen effect: a pregnant woman in search of her husband. Sympathy rarely rains on her, as she finds herself caught in a quagmire of dangerous crimes that lurk in the underbelly of an apparently warm city. Kahaani tells a hitherto untold story of Kolkata, jolting the audience into an awareness of evil that resides in the interstices of the city. Here, Kolkata is no longer the romantic city of Tagore’s poetry and rosogolla revolving around the pleasant colonial hangover of the Victoria Memorial; nor is it the city of the unassuming Bengali bhadrolok. In fact, on closer observation, the city does not seem to belong to Bengalis any more. Ghosh de-romanticizes Kolkata to an extent no Bollywood film has ever does. The brief prefatory fragment metonymically related to the main narrative invokes an anxiety about the city that is increasingly intensified not to be resolved ever. A sense of uneasiness refuses to desert you long after the curtains come down. (I was half in mind to avoid the Metro while returning home) Kahaani has ended up defamiliarizing Kolkata sufficiently. The Benjaminian concept of the city as labyrinth has hereby acquired a new dimension.
Vidya Balan enacts a pregnant mother with so much credibility that, well…you know…I mean she carries the baby bump really well. The way she walks, the anxiety of not finding her husband that grows with every passing moment and in her lighter moments with the two children (Vishnu and Poltu)…Vidya, erm, Bidya is perhaps the most believable of all on-screen carrying moms we have seen so far. Next year too the National Award for the Best Actor (Female) should be in her custody. Thanks to Roshmi Banerjee, the casting director. Parambrata, Kharaj, Dhritiman, Nazawuddin Siddiqui and Shantilaal are perfect choices for the roles they have essayed. However, it is Saswata Chatterjee who steals the show, cold-bloodedly. I still feel goose-bumps as I think of his Bob Biswas.
Kahaani is after all based on an age-old theme; I wont tell you which. But it has been given such a makeover that you do not realize that all along you were watching a known story. That’s why I said in the beginning that Kahaani is also about “how to tell a tale”. One of the best films in the recent years, Kahaani deserves no less than a nine out of ten in all the categories, except perhaps in the musical one. In any case, music is not its mainstay. It’s the kahaani!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

‘Hugo’: Of machines and emotions!

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo destabilizes the machine/emotion binary, locating human emotions in a labyrinth of revolving clock-wheels literally. The film sufficiently revamps the thriller genre (and the biopic as well) and keeps you on your toes till the end when the mystery is eventually revealed. A strange mystery seems to lurk in the heart of the automaton which Hugo’s father sets out to unravel, but is killed in a museum fire. Little Hugo takes upon himself, the responsibility of completing his father’s unfinished task, only to arrive at a fascinating truth. What is this truth that is hidden in the heart of the automaton? Well, you have to find that out yourself.

Most of the film is shot in a busy railway station, where little stories unfold with remarkable poignancy. The film filters out from the milling crowd those who are stationed for life in this very transitory space, and tells their stories: Madame Emile, the coffee shop-owner and Monsieur Frick, the newspaper seller; the superbly funny Inspector Gustave and the beautiful flower-girl Lisette. Little tales of romantic attachment punctuate a story predominantly torn apart by the war. The Inspector’s ailing leg is a constant reminder of the terrible experiences of the battlefield; while Georges Méliès’ tragedy owes to it completely.

The film offers a powerhouse of performances: especial mention should be made of Asa Butterfield as Hugo and Sacha Baron Cohen as Inspector Gustave. Ben Kingsley as George Méliès brings into his performance a sense of loss that becomes almost palpable.

Hugo is truly different. Shot in 3D, the film is a tribute to the yesteryear masters of filmmaking, the very foundation on which Hugo itself has built itself. I would suggest that Hugo should be seen in conjunction with The Artist (both films being biopics of sorts) which bagged most of the important Academy Awards this year. You would agree with me that Hugo deserved no less. My guess is that the Academy Award jury has of late become more affectionate towards the populist, and this is exactly why The Artist won.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Eleven Bollywood Flicks and their Woman Protagonists

On International Women’s Day let us recall some Bollywood flicks that have tried to break through conventions in portraying women. The non-agential heroine, providing only the oomph, is still very much a part of Bollywood even today (think of Bodyguard or Agneepath); most films targeting a heterosexual male audience are more often than not incorrigibly sexist. In a male-dominated industry with a male-dominated audience, very few films can afford to be politically correct, for they must play to the gallery in order to conquer the box-office. I select ten plus one films and their woman protagonists here. Please add to the list, for I am surely missing out on many!

Achhoot Kanya (1936): Devika Rani plays a Dalit woman Kasturi in love with Pratap, a Brahmin boy. The film addresses the plight of the doubly marginalized Kasturi poignantly. With a nation struggling in its gestation period, such themes were relevant, for the national imaginary was to be largely dominated by the upper caste heterosexual male, post-independence.

Mughal-e-Azam (1960): The disarmingly beautiful Madhubala plays the love-struck Anarkali with such dignity that she effortlessly overshadows the magnificently powerful Mughal Emperor. She buries alive with herself, as it were, the freedom of choice of which women are usually deprived of, perennially.

Bandini (1963): Nutan as Kalyani shines through as the quintessentially imprisoned woman in a patriarchal set up. Although the film was not iconoclastic, it focused on the contribution of the rural woman to the freedom struggle, a phenomenon often overlooked in history.

Aandhi (1975): Suchitra Sen plays a charismatic politician who meets her erstwhile husband after a period of separation. Loosely based on the lives of Indira Gandhi and Tarkeshwari Sinha, the film tosses with the eternal conflict between women’s liberation and conventional feminine accomplishments. Although the film betrays Aarti’s desire for a happy conjugal life over an alluring political career (much in the same way as The Iron Lady does), Aandhi at least situates the woman beyond the confining boundaries of the home.

Bhumika (1977): Smita Patil in one of the best on-screen bhumikas she has ever essayed! A woman caught in the big bad film industry heroically balances her career and love life, sacrificing a lot in the process. Although essentially a victim, Usha’s tragic predicament unmasks the hypocrisy of the archetypal patriarch.

Umarao Jaan (1981): Spurned in love, an emotionally devastated Rekha pours her soul in this role of a tragic courtesan failing to fathom why Justujo jiski thee usko to naa paaya humne. A poet in her own right, Umraon Jaan Ada left ‘out there’ to be devoured by preying men, braves all odds with a dignity that deserves much applause.

Arth (1982): What Ibsen did in Europe with The Doll’s House Mahesh Bhatt did with this path-breaking film starring a magnetic Shabana Azmi pitted against an equally compelling Smita Patil. Betrayed by her husband, Pooja walks out on him abandoning a comfortable home to live life on her own terms. Refusing to be rescued by a man who professes true love for her, Pooja lives out her independence to the full.

Mirch Masala (1987): Smita Patil’s literally outrageous performance as Sonbai is till date unchallenged. Her war against the lusty subedar and a system at large is a telling tale of a woman’s fight for her very right to live.

Fire (1998): Patriarchy felt a terrible existential crisis when Radha and Sita snubbed men to lock themselves in each other’s arms in this ground-breaking love story of two sisters-in-law. Situating same-sex desire in the Hindu middle class household, Deepa Mehta called into question compulsory heterosexuality. Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das kindled the passionate fire as sparks flew galore.

Chak De! India (2007): An army of rugged women not only beat up prying boys, but also win the World Hockey Championship and how! No make-up, no designer outfits and no conventional affectation the Bollywood heroine is known for. Real women animate the screen even at times shoving to the periphery the majestic Shah Rukh Khan in one the best roles of his career.

Mirch (2010): An effervescent Raima Sen and a mischievous Konkona Sen Sharma throw the conventional womanly virtue of lajja to the winds in this no-holds-barred celebration of woman’s sexuality. The film naturalizes a woman’s sexual urges, and attributes the women remarkable agency that makes the men appear in pitiably poor light.

Please add to this list; there are far too many examples I have left out.

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