Its been a really long time since I watched a Bengali film on screen and a two week trip to Calcutta (I really don’t like writing Kolkata!) seemed like a good time to catch up with ‘Tollywood’. I ran short of time of course, but managed to watch ‘Chander Pahar‘ – the current rage and ‘Ashchorjyo Prodeep‘ – the film that quite a few people did not seem to enjoy much. We ignored the lure of multiplexes and caught both at Priya Cinema, an old single screen theatre close to home. Here is my take on the two movies.
Chander Pahar (Mountain of the Moon) – Directed by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, the film is based on the Bengali novel written by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay in 1937. Titled the same, the book chronicles the journey of Shankar, a young man from humble, interior Bengal whose dreams of adventure and travel to exotic lands come true when he gets a job in Africa. It is possibly one of the most widely read and loved Bengali novels of all time – a true gem considering Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay had never visited Africa. The most expensive Bengali film till date, the adaptation stars Dev as Shankar, the protagonist.
The movie is a huge hit and I hear everyone say – a great attempt for a Bengali film. Publicized as ‘the greatest adventure in Bengali cinema’, it is fairly watchable. Africa is shown in all its glory, the cinematographer has made a lot of effort to capture the beauty of the locales and the story sticks pretty much to the book. The station master’s cabin and the old locomotive are beautifully created. The thrill of adventure in an unknown land comes across well and Gérard Rudolf as Diego Alvarezis as charismatic as the original character in the novel. Dev is watchable in parts and thankfully leaves behind all shreds of the asinine hero he usually plays in commercial Bengali films.
I watched the film from the perspective of a person used to world cinema and while I liked a lot of aspects, there were a lot that jarred terribly. The scenes between Shankar and the lion were really badly shot. Even the most unfit lion in all of Africa would be able to overtake a human being (however fit and fleet of foot!) in the time span shown in the chase scenes. I won’t bother mentioning the elephant since it is more of the same! In another dramatic scene, lava from an erupting volcano keeps spewing all around Shankar and Diego but they stand resolute in the face of it, waiting for that one spark that would burn their tents! This could have been a beautiful scene but is mauled to death. I also failed to understand why Diego, a Portuguese man is suddenly made out to be Bengali speaking. The narration which is supposed to pull together all the disjointed parts of the film is unimaginative and does not quite achieve what it is supposed to. Dev, while well suited to the role in terms of his build, lets the film down at times thanks to his lack of depth as an actor. The special effects are nowhere as special as they should be and sadly, the film which is essentially a a tale of adventure travel, gets extremely monotonous in parts because the director fails to weave the various elements tightly. Given that Bengal has given us fabulous story tellers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and AparnaSen, I see no reason to excuse poor direction and inept use of technology in a film where no expense has been spared. For me this is remains a decent one time watch; a film I wanted to love but could not; a film that could have been so much more.
Ashchorjyo Prodeep (Astonishing Lamp)– Directing a film that goes on to become a superhit would be every director’s dream, but having every film thereafter being compared to that one would be a nightmare. It will take Anik Dutta many years and possibly many films before Bengal stops using ‘Bhooter Bhabishyat’ his incredible directorial debut, as a yardstick for all he creates. Ashchorjyo Prodeep, his second film was obviously much awaited. Based on a short story by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay which is inspired by the the eternal favourite ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp‘, the film revolves around the life of Anilabho Gupta (Saswata Chatterjee).
Anilabho is the quinessential Bengali middle class man residing in a semi crumbling rented apartment in a not at all fashionable Kolkata address. His wife Jhumur (Sreelekha Mitra) is full of complaints about their mediocre living conditions and constantly compares their lifestyle to her sister’s very affluent one. She does not spare an opportunity to remind her husband that it is her additional income as a beautician that gets in extra money. Anilabho is a mute recipient to all her complaints and waits for her to visit her sister to take out his well hidden stash of alcohol and indulge in fantasies about a nubile young woman celebrity Mala (Mumtaz Sorcar). Anilabho picks up an old lamp from the street, hides it and forgets about it till a smiling ‘genie’ Prodeep Dutta (Rajatava Dutta) appears on his doorstep. Prodeep whisks Anilabho into a magic world where all his dreams of wealth and affluence could come true, all he had to do was command. Does Anilabho really get everything his heart desires? Watch the film to know more.
The film is dotted with the Anik Dutta’s usual humorous lines, some of them limerickish in rhyme and double entendre. Half the fun is missed if you don’t pay close attention to the dialogues; knowledge of idioms and colloquial Bengali phrases is a plus if you want to understand all that is said. The performances are great and Saswata Chatterjee proves once again that he is the one of the best actors Bengal has seen in the past couple of decades. Sreelekha Mitra is good and essays her role as the nagging wife with aplomb. The surprise package for me was Rajatava Dutta, cannot imagine anyone being a better genie.
The direction is taut and does not let the narrative hang at any point. The audience is drawn into the vortex of the climax and left almost suspended for some moments. The film leaves you pondering and does not try to tie up all the loose ends to give you a perfectly wrapped gift package. This unusual end, which has unsettled the average Bengali movie goer works well for my palate since I like to mull over movies I watch. And having truly enjoyed this one, I would be open to watching it once more sometime in future.
Copyright © Taraa Vermaa Senguptaa January 2014
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