Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The truth about Satyanweshi

The title of this review might appear arrogant for it seems to make a rather lofty claim of unveiling the truth about Rituparno Ghosh’s last film Satyanweshi. What truth needs to be told about this film given to truth-searching itself? The truth which a certain segment of the audience seems to have missed and the truth which might provide a counter-discourse to the mass-slandering the film has been an undeserving victim of. 

My first question: Ghosh had made practically unwatchable films, yet the media went out of its way to praise them. Example: Sob Choritro Kalponik. Example: Khela. Example: The Last Lear. Particularly the local media! Why?  Because, Rituparno Ghosh wielded such power that nobody seemed to have the guts to confront it? Now that he is no more, the slander that was long overdue is being unrestrainedly showered on a film which does not really deserve such harsh disparagement. I can vouch that had he been alive, Satyanweshi would have been, indubitably, espoused by the media as the best Byomkesh adaptation on screen! And such celebration, I would contend, would not have been conceited. Despite its many flaws, Satyanweshi is undeniably the best Byomkesh adaptation, although unfortunately, Ghosh did not have any reputed precedent to compete with: Satyajit Ray’s Chiriyakhana is pathetic, while the two Anjan Dutta films are better forgotten than remembered. 

What is remarkable about the film is that it commendably complicates Sharadindu’s Chora Bali which has a rather weak plot. In fact, Ghosh weaves together two totally unconnected plot strands of the original novel to unravel the complex domestic reality of a feudal family of Balwantpur, whereby a simple whodunit story acquires an intriguing dimension. A rather predictable murder-motive, which unfortunately, becomes evident only after a few pages in the original novel, is located within the larger discourse of patriarchal tyranny and its complicity with an economic base on which human relationships are founded or defined by. The death of the murderer in Satyanweshi is also the death of the tyrannical father, although his death does not assure agency to the daughter left behind. Both Alaka (Arpita Chatterjee) and Lila (Anandi Ghose), the first apparently powerful and the other, totally powerless, turn out to be unsuspecting victims of a system, rather than the brutal conspiracy of an individual. The women, Alaka and Lila, notwithstanding their opposing class positions, end up being (non)actors in a narrative designed and carried forwarded by a master-plotter. Harinath (Anirban Ghosh) is victimized as well, for having unwittingly entered the plot and impeding it, by revealing himself as a potential threat to the finely orchestrated conspiracy that was underway. Immersed in books and music and extraordinarily meticulous about his duties, Harinath offers a counterpoint to a more aggressive masculinity that must always control and eliminate any threat that impedes its mode of operation. 

Sharadindu’s simplistic Chora Bali, therefore, develops into a layered narrative of power dynamics that work within a class-gender nexus. The film demands painstaking attention from the viewer for the resolution is built-up through dialogue, not much through visuals (which is and has always been a significant drawback of Ghosh films); the activity of watching Satyanweshi is quite akin to reading a book or listening to a story, but that does not mar the experience of watching the film, for the entire film is more of an exercise of the mind for Byomkesh (Sujoy Ghosh), rather than action in the literal sense of the term. Please note how Ghosh very skillfully engineers a pun in the name of the site of action, that is Balwantpur, (on which Sharadindu does not even dwell) to connect it to the main plot. 

The film carries Ghosh’s auteuristic signature in its sets, costumes, music, mannerisms of characters, obsession with the film industry and deployment of intertexts. Like all other Rituparno Ghosh films, Satyanweshi remains a narrative-driven chamber drama (although North Bengal was the location for a major part of the film) and evokes the characteristic bourgeois nostalgia for feudal opulence (as is evident in period films). Through the deployment of intelligent intertexts (Bees Saal Baad, The Hound of the Baskerville, Chiriyakhana, etc.), Ghosh makes an attempt to place the film in the tradition of detective or mystery fiction, which again, has been a common practice with the filmmaker, who has often spoken back to the tradition of literature and cinema to which his own work is a new addition. What’s partially new is his experimentation with non-actors --- Sujoy Ghosh, Anindya Chattopadhyay, Sibaji Bandopadhyay, Anandi Ghose and Sanjay Nag! All of them are believable, although Sujoy’s stiffness comes across too glaringly in certain scenes. 

Now for the flaws: there are indeed far too many, few very silly ones, unexpected of a Rituparno Ghosh film. The film forgets to elaborate the conditions of the will left by the deceased king of Balwantpur on which the main plot is significantly based. It makes the characters speak in a language which sounds too contemporary; especially, the English words and phrases the characters use seem totally out of tune with the time in which the film is set; it’s ridiculous that Himanshu (Indraneil Sengupta) is taken to the dilapidated building blindfolded; wasn’t it dark enough for him to implement his extraordinary skill? Why does Kaligati (Sibaji Bandopadhyay) refuse that he has indeed removed two Ayurveda books from the library? Byomkesh and Ajit (Anindya Chattopadhyay) set a few questions independently and then compare them in order to solve the mystery of Harinath’s sudden disappearance. Surprisingly, the questions come typed on designer chits! When did they have the time to have the questions typed out and that too in a format that could only be possible with computers? There are far too many flaws which I refrain from cataloguing here. But, what I did not understand is that how is it possible that none, but one person in the entire estate is aware of the exact location of the quicksand, if it had always been there? The novel too provides no answer to this. 

Finally, I would like to raise this question: can we call Satyanweshi a Rituparno Ghosh film at all? It’s an incomplete work after all, completed by his team members. I have seen him shuffling scenes time and again till the last day before the film released! Had he been present on the editing table many flaws could have been eliminated. Had he supervised the dubbing neither Sujoy nor Indraneil would have spoken such accented Bangla. Had he seen the final cuts, he would have reshot entire scenes, for example the picnic sequence. Nothing looks more staged than that. But, Ghosh cannot be forgiven for such terribly constricted frames, even in outdoor scenes! Why is a huge palatial mansion reduced into a cramped corridor, a library, a temple and three rooms? Why isn’t the enormity of the palace at Balwantpur put to use in full to space-out the layered narrative? Why does Ghosh give the feel that it’s a television drama? Ghosh had indeed never learned to use the endless possibilities of the cinematic canvas! Perhaps he did not want to. Given that Satyanweshi is a Shree Ventakesh Films production, Ghosh wasn’t certainly working on a shoe-string budget to confine his camera within the walls of over-furnished rooms.  

Yet, despite its many flaws, the film is highly watchable. It would be unjust to dismiss the film as bad! No it isn’t! And, do not miss out the very subtle, almost invisible homoerotic strain that undercut the Byomkesh-Ajit relationship.
Image courtesy: SVF website.