Monday, August 26, 2013

Bengali film roundup

I meant for this to be a trio of reviews on Bengali films made in the last half dozen years, but Ballygunge Court was so bad—or at least "not inspiring patience, perhaps due to factors other than the film's inherent qualities (though perhaps not)"—that I turned it off after ten minutes.

Jora Dighir Chowdhury Paribar (1966)
Despite its screenplay by Mrinal Sen based on a novel by Pramathanath Bishi and starring many major names, I have found extremely little information about this film, including confirmation of involvement by that Mrinal Sen. It's a pretty film but also a sad one, which I have come to expect from any film that romantically pairs Soumitra Chatterjee and Madhabi Mukherjee. That feeling is also introduced right away with the titles scrolling over beautiful, desolate palaces, leading eventually an old man who stumbles through his abandoned-looking home.
Is he a ghost or an actual human? Hard to say, and the film implies it doesn't really matter, so ruined is his life. I'm also not certain who he is, but after seeing the whole film I think he is an aged Soumitra (I'm going to use actor names for clarity), who seems to be the most tragic male character in the film. Things start out nicely—you don't need subtitles to know that the scene below is shorthand for luuuurve—
but not long after Soumitra walks through the woods and sees this.
To be honest, the insertion of this little drawing threw me for a loop: there's nothing animated in the rest of the film, and I didn't pick up any cues that this was a hallucination or nightmare, so I have to assume the film is sparing us a realistic depiction of bodies hanging from trees. I really regret not understanding this scene better because I think it's the moment that alters the rest of the action. Right after this, Soumitra hears screams (and again I wondered "Ghost or real?") and tracks them down to Sabitri Chatterjee, who is being pursued by Tarun Kumar around a tent full of drunken men.
Sabitri Chatterjee in Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar
I don't know if she has been abducted from a respectable home or if she's a prostitute or what; she has a father who at first seems glad to see her again, but her facial expression indicates that she is not welcome back at home. Despite being in love with Madhabi, he marries Sabitri, I assume out of a sense of right and justice stirred up by the unfortunate victims he just saw; a wounded Madhabi very unhappily marries the despicable Tarun, who will eventually cheat on her with her friend Ruma Guha Thakurta.
Madhabi Mukherjee and Ruma Guha Thakurta in Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar
I'll pause here to say that I think Ruma Guha Thakurta (right) is one of the most stunning women I've seen in Indian film. For you trivia fans, she's also a playback singer and Kishore Kumar's first wife.
Where I get truly lost is an armed conflict between...frankly I'm not sure who's fighting or why, but this is the danger foreshadowed by the strange drawing seen earlier. The footage of torch-wielding fighters is very lovely, looking as much like fireflies, stars, or oil lamps on a pond as like the peril they really are.  
Madhabi and Soumitra are both involved in the conflict. I have seldom seen women in films take up arms, and her choice of joining the fight, of taking control, is a moving contrast to her married life in which she seems to be the distressed object of other people's actions. In the screen shot immediately below, she has just wrangled a bunch of men into some action or other by a combination of what sounds like inspiration and shame (she says "Chee chee chee!" a few times), and I love the image of her with her hands on her hips, accomplished and proud.
Based on what I think I understand, this is a story of sacrifice for what is right, written across several levels. That would probably also describe half of the older Hindi films I watch, but somehow it seems more direct here, firmly outlined by clear decision-makers and -sufferers and amplified by the drama of war. 

Maybe I've reached critical mass for familiarity with certain Bengali film visuals or maybe some of the movies set in the nineteenth century are just repetitive, but this film ticked many boxes that helped me understand the story despite not having subtitles. For example, a Durga Puja scene often seems to cement several ideas: we're in West Bengal, someone is pious, and there is community that chooses to come together, sometimes with a zamindar or other leader very clearly as one of the centers of their assembly and attention. 
I think it works all those ways in this film. I do not fully understand what the older generation of the central wealthy family (Soumitra's grandfather, I think?), who I assume is at least partly responsible for the Puja celebrations, is up to exactly or why local people in his sphere of influence take up arms. The astoundingly powerful  Devi also opens with a similar scene; in that film the sequence establishes the older generation as very pious, even obsessively so, but in this film it's not clear to me whether the early depiction of the goddess and associated violent imagery foreshadows conservative thinking or armed conflict.

You can watch Jora Dighir Chowdhury Paribar at the Angel youtube channel.

Kailashey Kelenkari (2007)
Whoever it was among my Bengali Cinema Advisory Team who said "Sandip Ray? Proceed with caution!" was so right. Not all actors can be Soumitra Chatterjee and not all directors can be Satyajit Ray, but my god this movie is terrible. It's not as bad as Bombaiyer Bombete but that's really not saying much. I have nothing at all against Sabyasachi Chakraborty as Feluda—nor do I really have a horse in the race of what actors playing Feluda should be like, other than effective as the character, and even then I don't have the impassioned history with and attachment to Feluda as a character that so many other viewers do*—but Joi Baba Felunath levels of badass he is not. I also loathe the portrayal of Jatayu, who comes off as a moron rather than the sort of naive but not completely incompetent friend in Ray's own films. As for Topshe...again, not a character I care about at all but each time I see Parambrata Chatterjee I am more convinced that his turn in  Kahaani was a one-off stroke of brilliance owing significantly to the writer and director.

What saved this movie from being switched off almost immediately:
1) a jolly assortment of actors I've come to know from across earlier decades of Bengali films, including Haradhan Bannerjee (Priyanka's kindly principal in Barfi! [and a zillion Bengali films, including Topshe's father in the first Feluda]), Biplab Chatterjee (who's a good-for-nothing in another Feluda film), and Dipankar De (most recently seen on this site as the hero's brother in Jana Aranya).
2) Tom Alter, whom I adore, and J. Brandon Hill, who does not impress me but whose career arc is amusing, and
3) the basic setting of the crime Feluda investigates, which is the looting and illegal sale of Indian cultural heritage. This is a topic near to my professional heart and it's rare to see it depicted in Indian films (or American ones either, for all I know). Even better, much of this movie is actually filmed at Ellora (and a few moments at the Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad), and it's so wonderful to see these sites up close that you can block out the clunky line delivery. Of course, you could get the same thrill and none of the annoyance from a good travel video, professional or otherwise.

I've spent a lot of energy thinking about Satyajit Ray in the last year, and so far the only thing I genuinely do not like about him is the absence of female characters of any scope or impact (and sometimes even simple presence) in the Goopy Bagha movies and the filmed Feluda stories. In Kailashey Kelenkari  there is one named woman, she has one line, and she is utterly unimportant to the main story. In fact, she reads like the low-budget non-musical version of an item girl, a woman plonked down in a story out of nowhere simply to provide "glamor" with glaring irrelevance, which in this case is even more pathetic than what else is going on (she basically sits still for the few seconds she's on camera). I truly hate this about these films, and I am completely unsatisfied with any explanation I've heard for why Ray didn't seem able to incorporate females into stories for children, especially when he is so good at casting wonderfully talented women and creating female characters who are well-integrated into interesting, full, supportive contexts in his other films. It's a failure in a person whose intelligence, creativity, and carefulness are otherwise beautiful, thrilling, and inspiring. In the case of Kailashey Kelenkari, it's another in a long line of problems with the film, but all the others can, I think, be laid at the feet of Sandip Ray. It's a perfectly good story (though in a bizarrely men-only world), but he can't do a thing with it.

Maach Mishti and More (2013)
This film has several things going for it in my book: Soumitra Chatterjee being alternately endearing, funny, and poignant; an animated title sequence; and discussion of culture clashes and local identities and worldviews.
Unfortunately, beyond those joys it mostly falls flat. I have no doubt that the better you know contemporary Calcutta, especially the conflicting (stereotypes of?) Bengali and Marwari cultures, the better you will understand this film and thus potentially also like it, but I think it needs better acting to be truly successful. Most of the main characters other than Soumitra (as the granddad of the central family) and Swastika Mukherjee (the wife of the family's oldest son) speak as though they're reading from slowly-revealed cue cards. Shauvik Kundagramim as the oldest, foreign-returned son (and Woody Allen-y in a very bad way) and Raima Sen as a manic pixie dream girl for Parambrata Chatterjee's cowardly middle son are especially grating.

Soumitra's role is also quite charming and he brings more sparkle and interest to it by simple, slight alterations of facial expressions that the rest of the cast put together can manage for theirs. In addition to providing an almost unspoken emotional focus for the family of grumbling middle-aged parents and three sons who all seem to be on somewhat unconventional paths, he has a cute relationship with a local teenager he runs into at the tea stall. Over the course of the film, he gives her relationship advice and thus quietly, and, without whining about the losses he has seen or grumbling about what's wrong with today's youth, ensures that some of the meaningful values of the older generation are translated to and find new relevance in the lives of the young.
Swastika, however, has an uphill battle as a wife largely uninvolved in her husband's business plan that brings them back to Calcutta from the US and then watches him dither around with new projects and forget her, and her sacrifice, completely.
The story is mostly structured around male characters, but each of them has at least one significant female counterpart, and I think the female characters function well both as individuals in their own right and as symbols (or embodiments?) of challenges facing the sons as each of them learns to grow up a little bit over the course of the film. For those reasons alone I wish I liked this more than I did; it's not egregious but working on more natural, or at least less boring, delivery would have helped immensely. Soumitra effortlessly proves he's still got heaps of talent and knows how to use it, and the film is a must-see for fans of Sonpapdi.

And as someone allergic to swimmy things, this makes me laugh.

Thanks to Bala for bringing this one to my attention and tempting me to watch it by tweeting cute screen shots of Soumitra. 

* You know Shashi Kapoor has played Feluda too, don't you? Oh yes. I haven't seen it, but you can imagine how badly I want to. Bollyviewer and I scoured the Devon Avenue movie shops for it but no luck.

3 comments:

Randeep said...

Your opinion on Parambrata Chatterjee, the guy who played 'Topse' might be wrong. He had delivered consistently good performances in Bengali telly serials for almost a decade before he switched to movies. Easy on the eye, he brought a freshness to his characters, which was missing from his contempories. He has also allegedly influenced the concept of a lot of path breaking Bengali movies relaesed in last few years..

Great to see you watched 'Jora Dhighir Chowdhury Poribar', It was my Granmom's favorite. She used to sit in front of the telly with great enthusiasm whenever they announced that film would be telecasted on sunday..During mid-90's they used to broadcaste a movie every sunday 4'O clockish..

Beth Watkins said...

Randeep - I don't think opinions can be "wrong." They're just different. It is, however, perfectly valid to point out that my opinion of Parambrata Chatterjee is based on relatively few of his film performances (6, I think), and I would never claim to be particularly familiar with his work.

I'd love go get to see Jora Dhighir Chowhury Poribar with subtitles some day to appreciate what I missed.

Randeep said...

Beth, you are true on the 'Opinion' part..