THE BOUNTY OF BENGALI CINEMA PART 2

APUR SANSAR(1959) and CHARULATA(1964)

This post is a recreation of my original pithy writings, on the two Satyajit Ray classics that I was extremely privileged to watch in 2015. Those thoughts were documented in my notebook then and the transition to including them in a treasure trove like this points at the journey of this evolving cinephile. To honour the passage of time, a few enhancements will be made to the text.

I still write down everything in my notebooks first to ensure every thought is collected in a personal mould. So here are my words for you to savour.

***

APUR SANSAR (1959)

These were originally written on 11th October, 2015.

A Satyajit Ray retrospective comes as a blessing indeed. It is moreover like a moment of epiphany and a mirror to common man’s myriad, dignified struggles to just see light at the end of the tunnel. His works hark back to the post independent tapestry of human emotions, in the state of Bengal steeped in the urban – rural quagmire, sometimes within the big city, and handle with beauty the man-woman equation in all encompassing tones of individuality, striving for the kind of equal partaking of experiences common to a well rounded conscience. No wonder then that the two milestones talked about here go a long way in marking a paradigm shift for filmmaking in its self reflexivity and long shelf life down the years. They also introduce us to the kind of sepia toned, realistic cinematography (Subrata Mitra ), editing by Dulal Dutta and art direction by Bansi Chandragupta that avoid the hubbub of textbook regulations and brow beating conventions to convey even passages of mute silences with that rare quality, that is subtlety. In the process windows are opened to a familiar, timeless and evolving society that is rediscovering itself as an independent entity, staving off the past and reveling in the quest for a healthy post colonial standing. Ray’s cinema discards the ‘isms’ of social churning to focus on the intimacy of human bonding above anything else.

**

Talking about Bengali cinema, I cannot emphasise enough how we ingest the sights, sounds and general characteristics of Calcutta as well as mofussil Bengal from an Apu as he charts the latter half of his karmic bildungsroman (a literary term for coming of age) to emerge as an educated boy affected by poverty and unemployment, two perennial human allies, and still opening up his heart to his bride for a blissful union of two souls brought together under unexpected, abrupt circumstances, in the globally feted final and third part of the Apu trilogy APUR SANSAR (APU AND THE WORLD)

Saumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore rewrite, for me, the very definition of on screen partnership ( I dislike the word chemistry), with a little look here and a pretty smile there. My favourite scenes are when his future mother in law, on first seeing him with the cousin of the bride, expresses that Apu is like Lord Krishna and Saumitra’s affable charm makes us see why. At another, the new bride says, “ami ki nutun( am I new)?” as Apu longingly looks at her after waking up in the morning. Ditto the scene where in the early passage of this journey, he sings and plays the flute while on a boat ride with his friend.

When tragedy releases its doleful notes, Ray’s elegance of craft lets the internalization of pain and lifelong loss for Apu be alleviated by the cover of open nature, adding to the poetic sense of tragedy of this once budding writer; to be reunited with loved ones, after a spell of self imposed exile, forms the crux in the second half. That union with his son ( Alok Chakravarty ) eventually arrives. The final image is a happy one and suffice to say without suggesting a grand tolling of the bell for Apu’s inner world, it brings the curtains down beautifully on a humane study of the individual pursuits of one young man.

**

CHARULATA (1964)

In CHARULATA (The Married Woman), Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s book NASHTANIR ( The Broken Nest), written in the opening epoch of the 20th century just as his other groundbreaking work CHOKHER BALI, finds a nuanced yarn as regards pitches of tradition and modernity and complex contours of the man / woman bond , the kind that so called modern sloganeering can never dare to achieve. The idea of forbidden desires is treated with the same estimation of human loneliness and unfulfilled promises that sparks the flame of attraction as it so often happens in our lives. Ray deals with the minutae of such internal conflicts.

In this globally recognised, home grown classic like none other, Madhabi Mukherjee beautifully estimates her dormant world of desires as an intellectually bright better half of an erudite reformist (Shailen Mukherjee) who pines for the purity of a bond shared with her brother in law (Saumitra Chatterjee), in the wake of neglect from the former . She seeks a companionship of the spirit and as equals which her well meaning husband cannot give her and here the irony of human endeavours come into the larger picture, on the part of even those strong willed few who seek to change the world. This scenario and the visual conveyance doesn’t choose sides or exhibit the strength versus weakness contestations of the people involved. The life lived as it is appeals to Ray and the same is the case here.

For before we bat an eyelid over the plot, Madhabi as Charu, ensconced within wealth and external accoutrements of luxury, communicates her unrequited emotions through her sensory attributes as in the famous scenes featuring the ‘binocular’ and the ‘swing’. Aurally, long snatches of silence amplify her existential crisis as in the expertly crafted, extended opening. Ray and his creative team, combining their humanist worldviews, capture her changes in moods with simplicity and a thousand emotions get under our skin. The affability and innate decency of relationships far outsmart challenging consequences borne out of this triangle. The final freeze frame attests to the open ended reality of this dilemma, as in our everyday.

**

So watch these classics, easily available on YouTube and even Amazon Prime, to get up, close and personal with Ray’s worldview and the sheer melody of the Bengali spoken language. These are, in essence, nifty masterpieces that have and will stand the test of time.

**

Advertisements

THANK YOU NOTE

160 posts, flurries of words, spontaneous instances of wordplay and the zeal to commit to the written word despite limitations of time, personal setbacks and other assorted roadblocks.

These and the bottomless support and interdisciplinary exchange of ideas from readers add up to a composite whole for this writer, who has, today completed a full year of writing on this WordPress blog that he chose to name AN AWADH BOY’S PANORAMA : TRACING WORDS ON THESE FILIGREED, DISCERNING FINGERTIPS, honouring his empire of cultural bedrocks vis a vis the city and region (Lucknow and Awadh) he hails from and a precedent for the power of words.

Beyond the temporal distinction and the millions of words shared, there is the fire to write more, exercise more zeal and discover a wider world of ripe imaginations. So THANK YOU TO ALL WHO READ, WRITE, SHARE AND MAKE THIS SANCTUARY A PERFECT STOREHOUSE OF CREATIVE Unison. To 365 days of greater urgency ahead and beyond.

THE BOUNTY OF BENGALI CINEMA

Two other works of great merit are being written about here by this writer , in this third part on the treasure trove of Bengali cinema courtesy Satyajit Ray’s masterclass.

Most of these appraisals are drawn from the strength of memory alone since the time I watched them so we have to realize that the impact borne by these masterpieces have earned them that honorific. Here they are.

**

ARANYER DIN RATRI (1970)

Based on a story by Sunil Gangopadhyay, as was the norm with many Bengali films, ARANYER DIN RATRI (DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST) is simply unforgettable owing to its linear yet dense exploration of humanity, propelled by an all male group’s getaway trip to Palamau ( now in the state of Jharkhand owing to its tribal antecedents) The folklore and the mystique of the place doesn’t occupy the narrative. Rather it uses the camera vis a vis the eyes of its protagonists and the audience to gauge reactions in a practical vein, as is supposed to be the case with urban explorers. Here, the four friends do not have a set plan and the langour of the location serves them well in taking a break from the city.

We all sense and mostly experience adventure in travel, even if it’s a simple road trip. Here the realistic stakes and the procrastinated, almost there level of unraveling becomes pivotal to the expedition as the men encounter another family of three consisting of a patriarch, his daughter (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter in law (Kaberi Bose)

The strain of attraction between her(Tagore) and the charismatic young advertising professional ( Soumitra Chatterjee) lights up a flame. The observational travelogue narrative then gets subsumed in the moment by moment intimacy among strangers. All participants partake this casual meeting of diverse personalities.

Among the cast, we are pleasantly surprised at the presence of the ever sophisticated SIMI GAREWAL, a great television host and actor, particularly when she mouths the lines, “Babu, pauwa do na( Sir, give me a drink)”, playing a local Santhal tribal girl.

The real tour de force is the extended sequence centring around them playing a memory game in which the first player names a personality or place, the others chime in with their own and hence each participant has to memorise the other’s given name, his / her own and so a whole series has to be remembered. The winner will be the one who gets all right in the given sequence. This commonplace touch is something that gripped me and I kept thinking that in an era not far away, this was the innocent ideal of recreation and pastime reserved for picnics and spontaneous get- togethers. The spontaneity of this scene is a typical hallmark of Ray’s writing skills. Only a Bengali narrative will pay attention to such a detailed study of communal bonding and intelligible reckonings.

However, this exercising of the grey cells also makes way for an observational game of flirtation, one upmanship, many personalities within the rural setting. Sharmila and Saumitra hint at a great sensual awakening within this and remain the finalists in the game while Shamit Bhanja leaves for a dalliance with the tribal girl (Garewal)

As we move on with the progression of ‘days and nights in the forest’ , the urban world doesn’t really enroach upon this placid backwater / forested reserve so much as jostle for space within these limited number of days. So the question of the hunter / hunted paradox given the jungle and its sylvan sorroundings is far removed from the equation. Although we know that this meeting is a fluke and will cease to exist beyond this particular trip for each.

Another pivotal aspect is the haze like party scene centring on Saumitra Chatterjee. Also the one around Shamit and his bitter conversation with his lady back home ( Aparna Sen), implying a break up.

Among the other men apart from Saumitra who leads the pack, Rabi Ghosh- the comic relief , Subhendu Chatterjee–the quiet observer , Shamit Bhanja – the impulsive young man and rising cricketer, all invite an intermingling of classes, backgrounds, occupations and natures.

The understated passion play of the sexes as in the scene featuring Kaberi Bose decked in finery, suggesting a picture of repressed seduction and desires owing to her status as a young widow and the impact of the revelation to Subhendu’s virginal mind, is almost hallucinatory and conveys the unexpectedness of it all. The poignancy of the stake for Kaberi reaches us. Ray succeeds in showing us a legitimate graph of interaction among the two genders of every contour.

ARANYER DIN RATRI made me ask another question. In this age of exclusivity and indiscriminate luxury, would we even think about spending our moments of recreation in the lap of unspoilt nature, even a remote forested reserve in today’s times?

This journey is without an announcement of intent or a black and white payoff. The complexity of human emotions is starkly portrayed with the kind of novelty possible only in Ray’s cinema. The cinematography by Soumendu Roy and music by Satyajit Sir himself are naturalistic and exemplary, hinting at no overt statement. DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST is not to be missed because it will stoke memories of our own on trips undertaken by us.

**

JALSAGHAR (1958)

JALSAGHAR (THE MUSIC ROOM) reminded me of P. B Shelley’s seminal poetic examination of male ego OZYMANDIAS, a poem we have all read since the time we were in junior school. In this clearly elucidated tale of a man from an erstwhile Indian princely estate / landed gentry in Bengal, we find echoes of the same unchecked exorbitant display of status that is passed down as some kind of pre-requisite to the malefolk of such prosperous establishments, especially in a lop-sided social scenario as ours, here in the Indian subcontinent. But then this is the symptom of an universal elitist suffrage, a right to bite off more than one can chew. THE MUSIC ROOM is unique as it shows the protagonist ( Chhabi Biswas) indulging in no vice but solely in his love for the classical arts vis a vis music and dance recitals commonplace in the homes of upper crust society.

The film begins with the memorable freeze frame of the zamindar as if the halo of riches has been preserved in a haunted portrait. Or a cautionary tale that so often gets trampled by the well off. It is an experience of a lifetime to watch this trenchant tale of images. The silent imagery is everything here beginning with this. The past and present intermingle to show us the secret alienation of those we often envy for their singular stature.

We discover that these musical soirees, instances of generational patronage are continued by him at the expense of the estate’s greater future prospects. His source of competition with a middle class neighbour (Gangapada Basu) who has risen to the ranks is another strain for his pride in the exclusivity of his own position. Who is a patron of the arts?, the film asked this viewer as it will others.

**

Among the pivotal images from the screenplay, a few are especially effective, like the lightning on the overcast horizon invoking doom in the most naturalistic manner; another when the wife (Padma Devi) playfully asks him to not be naughty, reiterating his words to his son(Pinaki Sen Gupta) , before the latter two leave to go to her maternal home; the river water in spate and the receding coast by the later half, implying the change in fortunes.

Then comes the slow descent whereby the lone man of the house suffers from aristocracy’s final heaves. The idea of a higher living gradually morphs into an afterthought.

The crumbling mansion also made me question this Eastern idea of neglect. This is a zoom in and zoom out progression on wealth and an epicurean ideal slipping away at the hands of egotism.

Post Independence India had already abolished the once unbreakable ‘privy purse’ and so the aristocracy reeled from the aftereffect . The king, here, is left with his long serving servant (Kali Sarkar) like a ghost figure. Ray constructs it like an individual’s extended interior monologue and point of view.

Among other scenes, there is the final horse ride and a preceding shot of him driving away a bug from his portrait; that smug smile seals the deal for his own self destruction and simultaneous preservation . In the world of human interaction dwindling by the hour , his disintegration happens with non verbal creatures. But we enphatise with him because he knows no other way than to latch on to bygones and a storied history, extending it to a saturation point from where the present cannot benefit from vestiges of a glorious past.

In the film, stalwarts of the Indian musical pantheon such as Roshan Kumari portraying a Lucknow based danseuse in one of cinema’s unforgettable images ever , Lucknow’s very own Begum Akhtar( my city is such a cultural icon) , Ustad Waheed Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan all appear – upholders of a classical conscience in recreations of the musical evenings central to the title. The music by Vilayat Khan attests to it.

**

The contrast between the glory and the decay is well established by the cinematography and direction. It’s like a horror story, rendered with sepia toned clarity, shadowing the passage of an era for the upper echelons ; the most resonant and perforating look at the ennui and internal decay of the gentry.

As the lead, Chhabi Biswas is splendid, with his hauteur, vulnerability, pride and lonely calibrations adding to a great distillation of hubris by way of impaired judgement and humanity under duress. Based on the novel by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, it transports us to the psychological realm of this universal tale . Among other things, the musical performance by Roshan Kumari, the vocal rendition in it, the rhythm and the fluidity is etched in my mind. JALSAGHAR /THE MUSIC ROOM is unmatched in its artistry and revelation of truth.

**

IN THE NEXT POST, I will write about Bengali and by extension global milestones by Ray, namely APUR SANSAR and CHARULATA.

THE TREASURE TROVE OF BENGALI CINEMA PART 2

Sharing outstanding trendsetters of one’s own cultural pantheon with the larger world out there is, in itself, an act of responsibility. When it comes to the subcontinental diversity of India, there is no dearth of such examples as the sheer breadth of cultures and innate intricacies within them makes the act of experiencing akin to opening a window to micro worlds .

The flipside to this is that overflowing riches of creativity can easily be preserved in the vast majoritarian ring of geographical vividity amongst one national identity and actually we will not lose any of our composite lustre in representation . But universal terms of discovery rule our society and so it is my duty to let the best works reach out to a wider conscience.

It is a treasure trove indeed and hence in this second part of the series on Bengali cinema, I am spurred by the brilliance of works by iconic directors APARNA SEN and SATYAJIT RAY . Here they are.

**

PARAMA (1984)

PARAMA is a Hindi language film that conflates the enormous talents of two towering and enduring individuals, that is actor / director Aparna Sen and Rakhi, the major star of many seventies hits who always held a distinct place in the pantheon of performative luminaries. In the later part of her career, her maternal roles of unblemished strength and often avenging tempers became such templates that they are imitated, discussed widely and in the manner of democratic reflexivity, also spoofed by countless comic acts. Originally from the illustrious Bengali extraction, they both bring a touch of silence and realistic trickle effect to the unraveling in PARAMA.

PARAMA, like many honorifics of the maternal kind in India, mixes PARAM (ultimate) with MA (mother) ; hence the most well defined, worldly role assigned to a woman, especially of a certain middle age as shown here, sits on a high crest of singularity for the lady of the house, an on screen facsimile of millions like her everywhere. The overarching value of the title as in the mother figure will come to affect her selfhood as it so often does. The weight of the world heaped on one’s shoulders can be a silent killer and this is the irony explored here, of a cultural conditioning that denigrates womenfolk but almost always relies on ‘her’ for basic pleasures and joys of the everyday.

In Parama’s case, the bourgeois ethos of her family and sorroundings, the educated collective’s patter, wealth and security does nothing to simplify her being or make her immune to the indifference of her husband (Dipankar De) and three children, two of whom are grown up. It is discernible that an early marriage has only made her get inured to this ritualistic coop. Her vocation in instrumental classical arts remains her private leveller, open to no further acclaim.

This is until she is made to be the subject of a foreign returned family friend’s (Mukul Sharma, husband of the director) photographic endeavours in capturing the ideal Indian woman. Her natural poise and beauty, for the first time in years, are called forth for preservation even though she is deemed ‘old’ by diktats of society and the interior monologue in her own mind tells her this is way beyond her league. But then every man and outsider looks at her through their own prisms as someone who can be grasped and one so simple, guileless and naive so as to not stir a leaf. The irony of her unique station and a growing attraction between the two, denied by her, the traditional homemaker, and encouraged by him, the bohemian artist, implodes finally as a covert photograph is publicised, she discovers a new physical awakening with another man and persecution comes visiting her on all fronts, in the typical genteel Bengali way but none the more painful in the dismissive retreats, all the while as the husband continues to pursue dalliances on the side, like he may have for years, as when he sets his eyes on a secretary while on a trip in Bombay and is rebuffed by her, in response to which he calls her ‘bitch’

PARAMA comes with the brutal reality of this challenging scenario. They are willing to let her accompany the young photographer as his guide in the city and cultural anchor. This is another of her many extended roles. However, nobody even thinks that there could be anything more to this situation. The heart has its own ways and her dormant world finally lets another one in. Judgements creep in with sharp edges. She is an empty vessel, privy to the demands of her husband in bed, until one passionate moment changes everything. Rakhi beautifully realizes the core of that transforming high at the heart of a vulnerable individual’s moral dilly dallying. Her alienation within the home and her eventual mental breakdown become equally heartbreaking. Empathy becomes hard to come by from her kindred but as viewers, we identify her struggles. It’s because we instinctually know womenfolk within our familiar folds go through the same, in permanent shells of self – denial.

By the end, watching Parama with shaved head as part of her treatment, the image of a blooming flower that she couldn’t name all these months and her confession about not experiencing guilt over the life changing events paint a layered evolution. In the case of men, everything is rationalized as excusable owing to a genetic strain as some twits say. By being non-apologetic, Parama refuses to become a victim in the eyes of others. She has committed no crime. Her eldest child, a headstrong daughter attending college and who had, in an earlier passage, called out the institution of marriage as stifling a woman’s worth and questioning her own mother’s sublimation in the inner world of her marital home, is truly by her side. Parama chooses to walk alone by the time of this screenplay’s resolution , like the immortal Bengali lines by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore ‘EKLA CHOLO RE’

This echoes what my mother, herself a Bengali who has seen life in all hues, tells me about how a woman can never be so meek as to not ultimately hold the levers of her own future.

In PARAMA, the protagonist’s best friend (played by the director herself) is a single woman but is so full of positive attributes and self reliant financially and emotionally that the former’s mother in law expresses her admiration for her. She is crucial in making Parama begin with a meagre job as she doesn’t have many qualifications . To Parama, it is an opportunity to claim herself.

**

Among the womenfolk, there is Parama’s widowed mother unable to maintain the upkeep of her now crumbling home and expressing her distaste for seeking her son in law or daughter’s home’s financial support for it and also her aunt who, she reminisces, used to be locked up in a room above owing to her perpetual state of mental illness. So here is the classified division of women – the wife, the widow and the mad woman in the attic. Patriarchy governs each assigned role. In Parama, a profound sense of individual enlightenment breaks these stereotypes. It is a powerful film, nuanced, emphatic and worth watching for every discerning soul, timeless in its dissections of the world. That is, in a nutshell, the power of Bengali filmmaking. Aparna Sen honours that credo.

***

APARAJITO (1956)

No treasure trove can be complete without the corpus of Bengal’s original voice of change SATYAJIT RAY. As the founder of the Bengal New Wave at a time when the French too rose to the occasion with the likes of FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT and JEAN LUC GODDARD and INGMAR BERGMAN revived cinematic fortunes in his native Sweden, Ray made tales of his region (the state of Bengal) resonate within his people, the larger Indian populace and an internationally endowed sensibility that recognised his no nonsense visual universality.

APARAJITO (The Unvanquished, 1956) is the second in his fabled Apu trilogy that began with PATHER PANCHALI (1955) and concluded with APUR SANSAR (1959), focusing its pivot on the titular Apu as his coming of age reflects the stark emotional vistas of experiences among the downtrodden. On my part, I watched the last film first, the first one secondly and then turned to the mid point axis of APARAJITO. Ray’s fluency is so seamless that following a chronological movement isn’t one of necessity as taken as standalone works too, each title has an individual sway.

To me, APARAJITO is about the theme of movement. This entails the movement of the family from their nondescript village in Bengal to the holy city of Benaras here and the sense of wonder present in PATHER PANCHALI transitioning to a darker cumulative arc for Apu as he reaches the threshold of adolescence. The earnestness of that transformation reveals the rebellion and angst marked by his educational uplift and distance from mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) The movement is complete yet tenuous with his shift to Calcutta for higher studies and part time job in an establishment. Smaran Ghoshal and Pinaki Sengupta play Apu through these stages with the naturalism of Ray’s nifty touch intact.

APARAJITO is also marked by the pall of death as Apu’s father (Kanu Banerjee) passing away begins a journey to a village in home state Bengal where the living conditions are slightly better than in the previous one in which the untimely death of his beloved sister Durga (played by Uma Dasgupta in PATHER PANCHALI) cleaved his spirits at a young juncture.

By the end, his distance from his mother doesn’t prepare him for the tragic, lonely reference point he has to endure as one orphaned by fate. The last person standing scenario is realized with the melancholy strain and realistic gravitas of Ravi Shankar’s music, Subrata Mitra’s cinematography and editing by Dulal Dutta.

APARAJITO, like each entry in the trilogy, is about poverty rearing its ugly head, leaving nothing of redeemable note for the millions of Apus of our world even though they don’t lack the qualities to achieve a brighter spot. Ray’s natural progression, devoid of a high point or resolution for the sake of it, will find a place in the heart, mind and soul. There is, hence, an irony to the title. A poignancy to it all. Karuna Banerjee as the mother is the silent soul of APARAJITO.

**

THE TREASURE TROVE OF BENGALI CINEMA

Learning is a curve, a constant wave buoyed by the willingness to embrace reality and its appropriate approximates in other forms, far removed from our usual human dilly dallying of ideas in general day to day dealings with the world .

In the years that this writer transitioned towards a scholarly realm of literature and the cinema emerging from that pool’s vast treasure trove, cinematic masterpieces from the culturally mighty state of Bengal, always recognised as socially conscious, no nonsense and narratively excellent, came to define his sensibilities , abetted tremendously by the fact that he is well versed in the spoken language owing to a preponderance of its value both from his maternal and paternal sides. You see, Bengali is a state of mind too where the emphasis is always on simplicity of living, thus finding elegance in the real joys of existence, and a flowering of the intellect. There will be no fair artistic oeuvre without the sea of literature and cinema from the Eastern state amalgamating to form a cohesive body of Indian works. Or in the annals of publishing and editorial duties. The Bengali mind is a thing of beauty.

**

So in the articles I will write about new wave Indian cinema, the contributions of the Bengali industry will hold fort, earning its commitment and being celebrated for its imagery above all things. A few of the films will be discussed here regarding that moot point of images as forms of conveyance and in the usual style of this omnibus , there is emphasis on realism and none of the cookie cutter ostentations or larger than life impulses. These are humane tales culled from the craft of observing daily lives caught in the grind of survival. All of the acclaimed films discussed hence must be unearthed by willing cinephiles who haven’t seen them and rediscovered by others for further clarity and newer perspectives.

These are instances of upholding our utmost truths and lend themselves perfectly to the looking glass quality of filmmaking as a medium. Here is the treasure trove of Bengali cinema, in an initial part, as other exemplary cinematic milestones of a pan Indian and global sensibility will find their way here too, on this blog.

***

ASHA JAOAR MAJHE (2014)

Watching this film is as if somebody left a camera in the home of a young couple; that’s the conceit of this fly on the wall feat that lives up to its English language title as it is very much a ‘labour of love’ for discerning audiences.

ASHA JAOAR MAJHE( in between arrivals and departures) , a film with no dialogues at all, except the distant buzz of some speech heard in the background, is the tale of modern Kolkata, in the micro world of the two protagonists whose only option is the langour of waiting for a fleeting intersection of their time zones. We register the poignancy of this unintentional separation even though they return to the same roof. The wife(Basabdatta Chatterjee) leaves for work in the morning and by the time she returns in the evening hours, the husband(Ritwick Chakraborty) who works a night shift at a printing factory, has already been through the motions and left for his nocturnal duty. This is the engrossing, minutely engrossing tale of every bustling metropolis where the real capital is human effort and it is often emotionally crippling. To this writer, it implies a search for a centre to those who clearly don’t get their dues. The screenplay recognises that dilemma.

Never in a film before had I been privy to such microscopic detailing and the editing here is an intelligible extension of the way films are cut and each sequence is evaluated or extended for maximum impact. The ultimate goal is the economy of expression .

There are extended shots, prosaic, static punctuations in LABOUR OF LOVE that have stayed with me after all these months. The magical, unbroken shot of the sunset, the lady of the house reaching her official destination with a ‘nomoh, nomoh’ chant in the background, the intricacy of her cooking, these assume the status of almost mystic rituals . Then there are the brooding images of the two looking at the world around or lost in thoughts, observing the sanctity of work and a process of staying indoors at home, in the absence of a spouse. The naturalistic sound and imagery is truly heartwarming as it acknowledges the daily grind and simultaneously the little gestures, positing our commitment to espousing love for a significant other and to the idea of hope for better days ahead. The underlying theme here is the hope for making the twain meet somewhere.

This leads to the beauty of the open ended climax as a marital union unravels in distanced telepathy, it seems.

The topicality of working class lives bearing the brunt of economic distress and the night to day and beyond movement intrinsic to this cyclic uncovering of depths of the human condition is so rich with the power of visual significance here.

This is one of my all time favourites owing to the innocence and purity of the manner in which the camera becomes the all encompassing third eye, employing a neutral third person perspective rather than a voyeur. The haunting placement of the external viewpoint and mid shot displaying the intricacy of the moments and actions build up a humbling experience.

This is a proper introduction to the subtlety of silent cinema in recent years, an experiment held favourably and triumphantly by the multitasking director Aditya Vikram Sengupta in his first feature. The performers, as such, have been tasked with a tough solo act where their natural bearings make the cut and attest to the unrehearsed, improvised tone of filming scenes. They don’t act as much as contribute towards uncovering the little touches of diurnal lives.

**

APUR PANCHALI (2013)

Kaushik Ganguly’s APUR PANCHALI is not a documentary with recreated scenes on his subject as one may think though the non sentimental tenor and economy of shots are common to its narrative. It is an attempt by the celebrated veteran to identify the elusive life script of Subir Banerjee, the original Apu of Satyajit Ray’s trilogy that launched a global new wave in cinematic annals.

By using the conceit of a young filmmaker(Gaurav Chakrabarty) searching for Mr. Subir(Ardhendu Banerjee) , now a senior citizen, before he is bestowed an international award for his haloed status as a great screen presence, preserved in glory even after almost fifty years in abject anonymity, APUR PANCHALI(Apu’s song) finds the person behind the actor playing him on screen. The interactions among him and the filmmaker who slowly comes to look up to this tacit, extraordinarily decent man as a father figure, are juxtaposed with original film scenes from the Apu trilogy.

There is a beautiful scene here where the director lists a canon of legendary child performances including the likes of Home Alone’s Macauley Culkin and The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment and their obscure adult lives. The introverted Subir da too didn’t smell the roses owing to many circumstances and Parambrata Chatterjee plays a younger self of the man with a stoic, graceful disposition. The life of Subir Banerjee was very much tragic on the lines of Apu from the trilogy as subsequent parallels show in the screenplay, including the death of his wife(Parno Mittra) echoing Apu (Saumitra Chatterjee) losing his beloved (Sharmila Tagore) in APUR SANSAR ( Apu and the World)

Like all great child artists, he too abstained from the screen after iconic stints in Pather Panchali ( Song of the Road) and Aparajito( Unvanquished) .

The adaptability to a normal middle class continuum tells us of his Zen like mental space and the hardships of daily subsistence. Like the ethos of Apu’s world, Subir never received a grand standing in life. The sheer irony of that is so compelling as a commentary on the fickle nature of fame.

That forms the basis for the contingency of lives and the part it played for the young filmmaker to discover him living a frugal retired one . Reason and practicality are the cornerstones in this compassionate take on the reimagined, anonymous life of an all time great artist. It’s a must watch. Also the flute based theme music has stayed with me.

**

AKALER SANDHANEY (1981) and DEBSHISHU (1985)

Addressing the true to the spirit human implosion arising out of poverty and gnarled social codes has been one of the founding tenets of Bengali cinema, one that mainstream Bollywood has often glossed over or avoided . For these ills trickle down generations. It is a problem the state has grappled with for eons. Filmmakers, on their parts, have trained a stark eye towards these stories from the societal undertow. In the films AKALER SANDHANEY (IN SEARCH OF A FAMINE) and DEBSHISHU (GOD’S CHILD), the grit and grime is open to a no holds barred representation rather than shameful rejection at the annals of a pseudo intellectual, elitist altar. The cultural rot is addressed in both cases by acclaimed auteurs MRINAL SEN and UTPALENDU CHAKRABORTY respectively and benefits from the presence of the Renaissance artistic force that is Smita Patil in lead roles.

AKALER SANDHANEY is about the film crew that descends upon a remote hamlet in Bengal to film a story about the 1943 famine that claimed millions and has been deemed as a man made disaster down the years. The location itself had seen its share of the tragedy. The cinematic recreations of the hamlet under the horrific pall of starvation and larger moral quandaries in famine stricken countrysides opens up a Pandoras box on how temporal distances between the original events and the present don’t really change the many hues of humanity, good or bad.

The imagery and scenes are so memorably etched in my mind because they have zilch artifice. Among the most memorable are quite a few such as the casual bantering and intellectual batter around photographs of skeletal humans from the original epoch among the crew.

The duality of the facile commitment from the team and the emphatetic transmutation to the common folk, especially the working hand(Sreela Majumdar) who perhaps feels the smog rising out of her own soul, from the incisive screenplay and as performed by the consummate actor (Patil) ; interestingly, Smita plays herself here in a betokened instance of meta casting and reference in the film within the film scenario. Sreela and Smita had also shared the screen in Shyam Benegal’s seminal 1983 film MANDI (marketplace) As a bit of observational humour, a cackle of children are shown mouthing ‘cut, cut, cut’ after scenes are canned, imitating the director (legendary Dhritiman Chatterjee)

Another powerful scene arises out of the rejection from the man of the house upon hearing the narration of the part offered to his daughter. The past and the present hold an unsteady, interminable glue to this gram’s(village) collective destiny. Their local Man Friday ( Rajen Tarafdar) is a mouthpiece for the alchemy of the artistic / performative medium, reviving memories of his own stint in theatre and the discomfiture of the villagefolk who eventually demean the unit and accuse them of impinging upon their collective reputation.

The interpersonal bonhomie between the young actor(Smita) who has a heart of gold and the senior lady(Gita Sen) tending to her bed ridden husband within the once prosperous and now crumbling mansion where they are housed is another beautiful aspect of the connections forged here. The attention to details enlighten us about the human condition. Finally, it is the women who propel its soulful conclusion whether it is the emotional gravitas of the actress (Patil) canning shots as a villager being berated by her husband at the height of the famine for compromising with her morality to put food on the table or when she wistfully breaks down after losing her family members and being forced to leave her home along with countless others . The silent storm within those scenes, shot in the dead of night and quietude of the day respectively, will haunt us. Sreela Majumdar’s distant figure dissolving farther in the climax posits a wrenching soul capitulating at hands of an open ended fate.

AKALER SANDHANEY is topical and extremely necessary viewing, complemented by the background score by Salil Chaudhary, especially the dirge like theme for Sreela. It is beautifully resonant of these lives on the margin and their desperations.

***

DEBSHISHU (1985)

A peepal tree in the evening silhouette as a struggling couple(SMITA PATIL and SADHU MEHER) approaches closer , the opening strains of ‘ SAPNA HUA SACH( the dream came true) sung by a group of wandering minstrels accompanying a religious procession;. the rising flood water in another village preceding the events that will eventually unfold , the people trapped behind a barred door; the mix of Bengali and Hindi in this landscape bordering neighbouring states Bihar and Bengal; then the stark natural deprivation and the irony of nature’s serenity opposed to a hand to mouth subsistence of millions.

These and many other images from DEBSHISHU (God’s child, 1985 ) have been lodged in the mind’s eye. Director UTPALENDU CHAKRABORTY, whose documentary MUSIC OF SATYAJIT RAY was another fact based work that I have seen, is attuned to the spiritual debts of an innocently naive populace so enmeshed in poverty and lack of opportunities that accommodating superstitious fiats remains the last resort. The DEBSHISHU of the title is actually the physically misshapen son of man and wife who was taken under the care of a priest years earlier (OM PURI) for fear of the couple’s persecution. Today, he is peddled as a God, a miracle of being and exploited by a whole money minting consortium feeding on the cult of age old myths.

The fight for regaining their son, their inner unraveling as in a tense scene where the man almost gives in to his impulses and the woman’s banter with her haughty, well off sister in law ( the great Rohini Hattangadi) who ridicules her for her economic stature as much as her emaciated physical health all packs in realism and the concluding shot of the dream in which the mother (Patil) assumes the avatar of an avenging Goddess Kali, then her body against barbed wires at the break of dawn as she recovers from the subconscious vision is compelling, thought provoking and evocative of a million lives.

DEBSHISHU was made in Hindi and it is rarely found online so buy its DVD and stream it on AMAZON PRIME where I watched it a year ago. This is essential viewing, espousing the sheer commitment of the late great Patil and of an era where filmmaking stood for a larger purpose than mere entertainment.

***

NOTE : with this, I conclude this part. In the next part on Bengali cinema, PARAMA, ARANYER DIN RATRI and JALSAGHAR will be discussed. So read this one and share your thoughts.

THE BAY AWAITS

I had earlier written about the beautiful Lindsay Anderson directed movie THE WHALES OF AUGUST in an earlier post around December 2018 . The film, adapted from a play, was about two sisters passing their august years in the summer home that has become their sanctuary of a lifetime and starred such legends as Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, Ann Sothern and Harry Carey Jr.

Its setting was in Casco Bay, Maine, USA. I have been enchanted by the beautiful island ever since I saw it and it is my wish to someday go there and see the whales in August myself, as the two sisters so memorably do in the film. This poem is an articulation of my love for the movie, the place that is Cliff Island, Casco Bay and the beauty they all irradiate for me. The idea is that even though we are divided by locations, a global sensibility can always bring us closer. The tenet of discovery should never be constricted in our lives.

***

THE BAY AWAITS

Each day is a new breath,
each crowd a swarming of sensations inside your chest.
These desires are sea side trophies,
not of dotage, as you seek
but leviathan miniatures as big as replenished youth.

A young soul struck so favorably by Casco Bay
even King’s curdled words divine beauty of anticipation.

**

Call me home, Maine
Brook confidences,
as the river stationed on this scorching plain,
on the other rim of the world,
asks for seasoned clemency.
It asks me to show my little body under a half moon and bathe myself with its grainy sandshores.
The same as on Cliff Island.
**

A change of scene is much sought after
The goals of this thrifty ‘old soul’ travelling as they do,
in the vein of mental travellers,
picturing a whole thoroughfare of life in the mind’s eye ;
the mind a sacred temple newly bathed in joy and euphoria,
with self discovery its belltower.
**

How gloriously rich is this virgin isle,
for which Lindsay had his eye on the bay,
to fine tune nostalgia and summer retreats,
a life storied among the two sisters,
to savour the lapping waters of August.

**
Distant flight of twenty four breaths,
take me to those foreign, familiar shores,
to marvel at waters lapping idly by,
receptive to the wanderlust of a weary traveller’s mind.
For how far can a traveller go?
to catch a glimpse of the whales in August.
**
The wish has travelled beyond nautical miles,
distant shores have called forth in affirmative.
Now, wondrous telepathy, open your arms to me,
hand me the date and the passage
and book a berth for a long voyage of self discovery.

**

REFERENCES FROM THE POEM

‘KING’ here refers to the legendary writer Stephen King, creator of such works as CARRIE, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE SHINING, MISERY etc. He is a resident of the state of Maine too and is among its greatest citizens.

‘LINDSAY’ here refers to the director LINDSAY ANDERSON. He made THE WHALES OF AUGUST.

‘The two sisters’ refer to Lillian Gish and Bette Davis playing siblings in THE WHALES OF AUGUST.

***

This poem originally appeared on my Wattpad poetry collection WORDS ON THE HORIZON.

A MEMORY OF A LIFETIME : on THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (1993)

**

As of today, Indian producer Ismail Merchant and American director- screenwriter James Ivory have raised their cumulative artistry to eternal heights of cinematic collaboration, adorning a global filmography much before the term ‘global’ translated to an eminent reality of our times. With unique and distinctive tales set in a post Independence India, films like THE HOUSEHOLDER, SHAKESPEAREWALLAH, BOMBAY TALKIE, HEAT AND DUST and IN CUSTODY among several others, gave credence to the beginning of a globe traversing medium of storytelling that was incomplete without the expertise of writer Ruth Prabher Jhabwala. Her screenwriting credits became synonymous with the famed Merchant- Ivory trademark.

Together, they brought an elegant, pithy, observant timelessness to the cinematic idiom with such works as HOWARDS END, A ROOM WITH A VIEW and A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES to name a few. Their partnership is so impactful and definitive then that it can never become a relic of the past even as their storied narratives celebrating the power of memories and recreated yesteryears culled from novels and real time accounts justify their eye for details and human behaviour through the annals of time. I write about them because any of their feature films will be nullified of a presence per se without speaking of them as the collective soul of creative vision.

Mr. Ivory, on his part, has added further kudos to his long lasting legacy by recently bagging a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for the exquisite CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, is one of the great exemplars borne out of this trio’s passion for period tales and memorable character studies, whether it’s of a nation, class structures or inherently decent individuals stifled by pre-ordained social mores. The title attests to the past where a present continuum was binding on all individuals. Now that I have watched it, I feel it will hold a special place in my heart for the longest time. Temporal distinctiveness doesn’t define it. The narrative is beautifully constructed to instill a sense of of humanity in an often fraught world, sort of like an inside look at personalities from within the site of a transformative era.

**

Set in the Darlington estate, a storied mansion belonging to the aristocratic Lord Darlington (James Fox), it is about the sense of compassion, trust, respect and interdependence between the master and his coterie of faithful servers that includes the eternally faithful head butler Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) whose aged father (Peter Vaughan) himself has been in the line of domestic duties for a whole lifetime. Mr. Stevens impeccably manages the household and the generational ideal of serving the upper echelon’s every need is part of his psychological make up, an unbroken trail which he is glad to contribute to with firm discipline and gentility. The adaptation here keeps it as a close knit unit that runs this important site in the English countryside at a time of great social churning, that is in an epoch when signs of a second World War were being broadcast on the horizon and the personal became political as Lord Darlington used his estate to host meritorious individuals of great intellect to determine England’s role in the times to come. There is no vulgate or obvious display of power wrestling either by the soft spoken and utterly gentlemanly Lord Darlington or by those who manage the household. There is a meeting of the twain in terms of common civility even though distance and dispassionate tempers rule the roost and Lord Darlington’s own ideologies may be open to doubt. An unquestioning strain of loyalty runs through the people and their carefully regimented inheritances of behaviour.

Those on this side of the English channel will find a welcome note of identification as the Indian subcontinent has perpetually run on the contributions of those who serve us and it is not really a rarity available only to the rich or upper middle classes but to anyone with enough finances to spare, having domestic help is a way of life ingrained in the culture, a very important marker of class and national identity, of an Eastern sense of housekeeping responsibilities intrinsic to majority of the households.

Lord Darlington, by virtue of his class and exclusive right to such a privilege, can afford this large, efficient consortium of people who are, in essence, actual masters of the house. From a post colonial perspective, it is an interesting common point that those who ruled over the commonwealth have the same heirarchy. The world is the same, that’s what we realize in the end. The subtle projection of these ideas add complexity and realistic approximation to this scenario. The finesse of Ruth Prabher’s screenwriting shines through here.

**

Another great part of this story is essentially one of unrequited yet passionate feeling as the female head of the housekeeping duties Ms. Kenton( the always wonderful Emma Thompson) shares a communion of the soul with Stevens. She is opposed to his always calm demeanour without nary a hint of anger as she is opinionated, haughty and not merely a puppet but ultimately is a follower of the decorum that binds both together. This relationship is so delicate, it feels that one wrong touch can break it. However, this is the paradigm of transcendental love, beyond set definitions and shared by those rare creatures in flesh and blood who we come across once in a lifetime as they exercise the dignity and passion to convey multitudes through just one look, shorn of lust or any expectant tide of passion. The writing strokes paint them as two different individuals marked by their natures.

Cue the scene in the room where Ms. Kenton asks Stevens about the book he is reading. The intimacy of that scene is all in the looks, the beauty of the expressions in that tiny space where she wants him to break the spell of regulations while he holds himself in the stead of passive resignation. There is not even a suggestion of anything sexual developing between man and woman as conventional screenwriting would have us believe in this kind of exchange. Rather here, the sense of acknowledgement teeters on the edge of a breakthrough. In this moment, the shared love between both becomes clear to the discerning eye. But something magical and simultaneously heartbreaking transpires then. In the scene when Miss Kenton breaks down in her own room and Stevens comforts her, this becomes tortorous for both of them. After all even though they can’t be together, their mutual journey will last for years on end. Ivory has a similar splendid sense of the invisible ties that bind us together.

The performers convey a silent storm punctuated by variables of decorum, freedom and stature. With Stevens, the question of loyalty and total belief towards his master blurs lines and it is a grey zone for the viewer but to him it is a matter of faith to Lord Darlington. We may reckon it as a typically British way but I think it’s a matter of circumstance and personal natures. Sir Anthony Hopkins generates a spectral presence and cuts an emphatic figure with the help of those glinting light eyes as the true anchor of the house. His clockwork precision is enlightening in terms of detached social mobility and class consciousness extending to every interaction. Emma Thompson’s interiority is spectacular too, mining her desires in a study in restraint.

Miss Kenton marries another man who adores her (Tim Pigott Smith) and makes a life for herself while Mr. Stevens continues to serve the Darlington estate, later occupied by the charismatic American statesman ( the wonderful Christopher Reeves ) who had befriended Lord Darlington since their heydays, even as age descends on him in all its huffs and puffs. Note the formality of Mr. and Ms. binds them to a perpetual cycle of conformity. Hence their reunion after decades apart in the final minutes is poignant and will make one misty eyed.

The fact that a dutiful Stevens doesn’t open up to ways of love to maintain his linearity of being makes us wonder : is it his utter competence, his inherent decency that draws Ms. Kenton to him? In other interpretations, he may be asexual or so bound by rules of his trade that the very whisper of companionship is something he evades. The same applies to Lord Darlington. Even when he gives shelter and work to two Jewish girls, he doesn’t display so much as an inkling of predatory, prurient stereotype. The men being gentlemen elevates this script.

James Fox conveys the incredulity, kindness and civility of Lord Darlington and the nuanced way in which he balances his vulnerabilities with the possible odd outcome of his loyalty to a German gentry that may be ensnaring him is brilliant. This is from the man who had a greater moral weight to carry as Mr. Fielding in A PASSAGE TO INDIA. For me, he will always be headmaster Fielding. Here, his name is besmirched in the annals of time but it is difficult to not feel a twinge for him as he may have only acted in best interests or was naive enough to think of others as allies. Fox’s performance makes us see the emphatic and conflicted man who seeks Stevens’ opinions in matters of politics thereby establishing his equanimity. This is a subtle prowess.

Now iconic names as Hugh Grant and our very own Cersei Lannister ala Lena Headey ( both in early parts) are there too as is Ben Chaplin and they are competent.

**

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY focuses on people who are forever trapped in the backdrops of their lives and gives them the respect they deserve. Within beautiful locations and grandiose structures, the people occupy a place in the heart. The mute internalizations here find a personal representation in everyday images . Memory and history come together to create a striking mosaic of static lives alive with a million sensations of love and compassion.

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY is a once in a lifetime experience and must be watched for its intricacies and humanity.

***