Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Barnali

brain: What a line.
rest of self: Take me now, Soumitra.
This is a darling little film I stumbled across while digging through youtube for Soumitra Chatterjee films with subtitles, and what a find it is: gentle, sad, and incredibly dear, with quiet but rich performances from Soumitra and Sharmila Tagore.

I had no idea what to expect of it going in because I haven't been able to find a single opinion about it online in English (though I did see something labeled "review" in Bengali on a torrent site). Maybe because the film is so straightforward and simple people haven't felt there's much to say about it. I also know nothing about what would have been hoped or expected of its director (Ajoy Kar), music director (Kalipada Sen), writer, etc. when it was made almost fifty years ago. Maybe some of you can tell me whether the film was overlooked when it was released.

The lead actors, of course, are a different matter. Barnali feels like the story Apu and Aparna from Apur Sansar deserve to have had had if only their lives hadn't been so cruel. I can't help but wonder if that was on the minds of the filmmakers (especially since their only other collaboration thus far was Devi, which doesn't give them a happy ending either). Ashesh (Soumitra) is a doctor in a big, comfy house with a gaggle of bright, jolly friends—what a contrast to Apu the orphan, the wandering, devastated writer. On the other hand, though, Apu is free to make his own, sometimes quite dramatic decisions, while Ashesh humbly does the bidding of others, acting on their principles of pride, greed, and self-interest even though he obviously finds the effects harmful, the regret heavy in his eyes.

Aloka (Sharmila) has a family who supports her becoming an accomplished adult, letting her stay up late at night studying and having no issues with her socializing with this kind man they've all just met. I don't know if I'm actually right about this, but Aparna in Apur Sansar seems so much a girl and not a woman until the very end; there's something more mature and well-rounded, solid, stable about Aloka. She is a young woman of deliberation and principle and carefulness, one who speaks her mind and is adult enough to admit when she's wrong.

None of this is to say that I think there is any intended reflection on Apur Sansar by Barnali; it's just that seeing Sharmila and Soumitra's faces makes me think of that indelible film and their beautiful work together.

Their work together here is wonderful, too. There's nothing very dramatic about the story—they meet by accident, there is an obstacle to their love, their responses and responsibilities to that impediment are very different and perhaps even repelling, and everyone has to decide how to handle the truth. I love the way we grow to understand these two people as they grow to understand each other. Their first meeting is uneasy, but Ashesh soon finds her really intriguing and, I think, worthy of attention when Aloka's dad mentions that she's doing her honors degree in philosophy. 
Which is still not an excuse for staring at her in the middle of the night while she's studying.
This is a triumph of the brainy girl unlike anything I can remember from any other Indian film, and obviously I love it with all my heart. Aloka only becomes interesting to Ashesh when he knows she's smart. She's not even a scientist (like he is). His reaction to this statement by her father is fantastic—it's like he sees her for the first time despite having spoken to her before. 
She, in turn, really starts thinking about him in a different way when they visit his family's house, where he is clearly most comfortable and happy. It's also where Aloka realizes he's been lugging around a burden on her behalf, no doubt a sudden explanation for the reticence and concern in his demeanor. Without giving away the story, I'll just say that both of these people seems a little afraid to express themselves and ask the questions they need to have answered, and it is that fear, more than the actual roadblocks, that threatens to dampen the blooming of their clearly very dear affection for one another. 
It's a very sweet lesson in why you should tell people when you feel good things about them, try to understand why they act the way they do, ask why they're sad, and not think you know everything from a glance or sentence or even that magical evening you spent together. USE YOUR WORDS, PEOPLE. It's also a study in the importance of forgetting and letting go of ideas that don't do you any good anymore. 

To me, the strength of this film is the script, but the actors within it, enlivening it, are perfect. Sharmila Tagore has so much more presence here than she does in Kashmir Ki Kali from a year later. She's clearly playing a young woman, but she's not silly or slight. Aloka is buffeted by a series of discoveries, and Sharmila does a great job at expressing the thought Aloka requires to make sense of them and sort herself out. Soumitra gets more to do because Ashesh has to juggle several responsibilities—to his family, to Aloka (in a few different contexts), to Aloka's family, and eventually to himself—and there is a calm, very professional ferocity to his portrayal of some of them. 
He's a very kind and sensitive person, but don't mess with the people he likes. I don't know the names of the other actors, but they too were good. I especially liked Aloka's father (with the mustache below), who, like Ashesh, is incredibly darling but has his limits and will not tolerate transgressions of decent behavior or thought.

There are even more ways I could rave about Barnali, like its reflection on particular social values, its purposeful quietness, and its lovely music.* Instead, out of concern of swamping it (or preaching about it so much I drive you away), I'll just finish by saying it is thoughtful, sweet, sad (but not at the very end, of course!), and delightful. Watch it on Angel Video's youtube channel here

PS And because the world needs more pictures of this vintage of Soumitra Chatterjee in a suit....
And here, I've even got a non-shallow reason to include it. It shows how well this movie does at saying things visually. Look at the contrast in these two characters: upright, smooth, in command; squashed, disheveled, ridiculous.
* imdb says some of the lyrics are from Tagore. I have no idea, but I found the subtitled versions of them very nice, especially with the music itself and the gorgeous black and white version of nighttime Calcutta, rain, and a river boat. My favorite stretch of the music is here; it starts with one of those "wandering through the city with the person you love as neon signs flash by" kind of montages but set to something that reminds me of a ceilidh, then changing to a simple, contemplative song on the boat with ghostly strings. 

10 comments:

Blissfully ignorant said...

you know its amazing that you keep discovering such marvels from bengali cinema, the reviews are just fabulous. My interest in bengali cinema and Soumitra is a very recent one and your blog has been really helpful in letting me explore more.

Bollywood and Hollywood Dhamaka said...
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ojas job portal said...
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Beth said...

Blissfully ignorant - Great user name. :) The Bengali films I've seen so far that aren't by Ray are a combination of recommendations from friends and pure dumb luck looking at options on Netflix and online. I am not sure how many films with subtitles Angel has on its youtube channel, but I'll be enjoying as many there as I can.

Maalai said...

Thanks for the information... I really love your blog posts... specially those on Local Tamil News

Pat said...

The dad is played by the veteran actor and music rasik, Pahadi Sanyal.

He plays a pivotal role in Ray's Kanchenjungha as the bird-watching uncle.

BTW, a super review, Beth. Loved it.

Pat said...
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rgb said...

Nice film I have never heard of ... watched it on youtube.

I am not certain, but I believe one of the two songs is a tagore song, but the other one is not.

The director of this movie has many popular Bengali movies which were great hits to his name.

The squashed, disheveled ridiculous guy is N. Vishwanathan.He was also a professor of Literature in real life, and I believe I have seen him speak at a public forum once. He also plays a somewhat similar role (though not in character) in Kanchenjunga.

Beth said...

Pat - Thank you! I will look out for Pahadi Sanyal in the future - he was quite endearing here.

rgb - Glad you enjoyed it! Thank you for the actor ID - he was really great as the blustering, clueless academic. :)

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