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Upperstall Review




Bengali, Drama, 2008, Color

Sachish (Subrat Dutta) is the youngest scion of a prosperous Bengali Hindu upper caste family. Harimohan (Biswajit Chakraborty), Sachish's father, is a religious bigot who spends a lot of money on superstitious ceremonies. Purander (Neel Mukherjee), his older brother, is a hypocrite and a cad. Sachish, on the other hand, is drawn to the rational positivism and the reformist zeal of his uncle Jagmohan (Dhritiman Chatterjee). One day Sachish discovers that his married brother Purander has impregnated and abandoned a young girl called Nanibala (Trina Nileena Banerjee). Sachish brings Nanibala to Jagmohan who gladly gives her shelter. Harimohan and Purander are shocked by this development. They constantly heckle Jagmohan to drive the 'fallen woman' out of the house. In an attempt to rescue her from constant humiliation, Sachish offers to marry her. But despite his belief that he is marrying for purely altruistic reasons, Sachish is disturbed by the first stirrings of sexual desire within him. Nanibala commits suicide on the eve of here wedding so that Sachish does not have to make this 'sacrifice'. Shortly after, Jagmohan too passes away of plague he contacted while helping victims of an epidemic. A distraught Sachish disappears from Calcutta. Sribilash (Joy Sengupta), a close friend of Sachish, finally finds him after quite some time in the company of a religious cult headed by Guru Lilananda Swami (Kabir Suman). He is shocked to see the him press the feet of the guru and obey all his orders. Sachish explains that he has realized that rationality cannot explain everything. Sribilash berates him for moving to the other extreme, but joins the cult to see the final outcome of Sachish's experiments with truth.At the guru’s ashram, the two friends meet the enigmatic widow Damini (Rituparna Sengupta). Her deceased husband was a disciple of Lilananda Swami. Before his death, he had willed away the ancestral property along with Damini to the custody of the religious guru. Damini is not interested in Lilananda Swami's spiritual teachings. But there are unstated passions brewing between Sachish and herself. Sachish is torn between his spiritual ideals and the call of the flesh. The tempestuous Damini is ready to break all social conventions and stage a rebellion against a social order that has denied her everything. The more Sachish tries to distance himself, the more she disturbs his single mindedness by flirting with Sribilash. A disillusioned Sachish finally leaves the company of Lilananda Swami after a tragic death in the group. Damini and Sribilash accompany him. Under an elemental and stormy sky, in a stark landscape beyond human laws, there is a final playing out of the conflict between ideas and desires.

Tagore’s works offer a challenge to any filmmaker to make the film at least as powerful, credible and appealing on film as it is in the written word. A film based on, adapted from, interpreted from Tagore’s novel or short story or poem offers infinite scope for argument, discussion, analysis, debate and questions among audience, critics and scholars across the world. An illustration of this is the massive volume of scholarly treatises that have and are still coming out on Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, based on Tagore’s novelette, Nastaneer. This has led to the creation of a completely new genre of writing on cinema – writing created from and by cinema centred exclusively on films based on Tagore’s works.

Noted theatre person Suman Mukhopadyay’s debut in films with Herbert a couple of years ago winnng a National Award. He now chooses Tagore’s Chaturanga for his second film. Considering the intensely philosophical essence of the narrative that is broken into four chapters named after the four main characters, placing the novel on celluloid was indeed a formidable challenge. Surprisingly, unlike most Bengali filmmakers, he has remained fiercely loyal to the original literary text. Whatever cinematic licences he has taken, has enriched rather than weakened the final work. Firstly, he has done away with Sribilash as the first-person narrator of the story by bringing him in the forefront as an important character. Secondly, he has changed the narrative structure through a series of flashbacks framed within the larger flashback where Sachish is sitting in front of a beach, his back to the camera, the waves lapping the shores in front of him, while a group of Sufi singers wander across the landscape, singing a beautiful Sufi number. The third incorporation into the source is the insertion of a beautifully conceived shot of Sachish masturbating, with his back to the camera, swathed in sweat, heaving with his heavy breath, after having seen Nanibala’s bare back through a gap in the bookshelves. There are two more scenes that are not there in the novel. One is inside a cave at night, where Damini stealthily enters to touch Sachish while he is asleep. The minute he wakes up, she runs away soundlessly. The other is on a rocky terrain where Leelananda, Sachish, Sribilash and Damini have repaired to, and a weary Leelananda Swami softly breaks into a beautiful Tagore song, surprising the other three, and perhaps even himself, as he comes to terms with the man who hides behind the Swami. This is perhaps the most beautifully conceived and photographed scene in the film.

Between this framing device, the film moves smoothly yet briskly from one chapter/character to the next, following the transformation of Sachish from rational positivism to becoming a passionate follower of Leelananda Swami’s religious cult propagating Vaishnava philosophy. If Sachish is in search of answers and a credible anchor to lean on, where all philosophies for him are reducible to the polarities of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, Sribilash is firmly rooted to his belief in reason and the reality of the varied shades between the ‘yes’ and the ‘no.’. They complement one another and also throw up counterpoints. Damini, the beautiful young widow whose mansion they repair to, is the only feminine touch for the two men in the ashrama. She is an enigma within herself, and is fearless in her critique in all that she believes is unjust and unfair to her. Sachish and Damini’s electrically charged sexual pull towards each other is brought out with the right touch of sensuality but is never permitted to become voyeuristic. Sachish repels her advances, and an angry and embittered Damini finally marries Sribilash and moves to Sachish’s ancestral home in Kolkata.

Subrat Dutta is in full control as the many-hued Sachish, investing the mutations in the character with the right amount of shifts in vocal inflections, body language and facial expression. He is outstanding. Offering him solid histrionic support is Joy Sengupta as Sribilash, a model lesson in humility, satire and reason, constantly downplaying his scholarship and his secret adoration for the beautiful Damini. Rituparna Sengupta’s Damini is not the star Rituparna at all, but Tagore’s Damini in flesh and blood. Suman has successfully stripped her of her star charisma while she has given everything to ‘become’ the critical, forthright, sensuous, beautiful and bold Damini. Kabir Suman is a surprise as Leelananda Swami. Dhritimaan Chatterjee’s Jyathamoshai is somewhat stiff and affected and could have been better.

Debajyoti Misra’s music is one of the brightest sparks in this sad film. Music is not just an ornamental afterthought. It is both a metaphor and a character. From the loud chantings of bells and mantras in Harimohan’s home, one soaks in the Beethoven symphony Jagamohan listens to on his old gramophone. At Leelananda Swami’s ashrama, the music is filled with the eroticism of Vaishnava philosophy, while across the landscape, the Bauls belt out their strange songs of love. Damini’s presence is signatured with a soulful Tagore number praaner majhe sudha aachey chao ki (there is nectar within me, do you want it?) that floats across time and space. And there are the Sufi singers, an audiovisual metaphor in Sachish’s imagination, investing the film with a flow of continuity. Kabir Suman’s Tagore number is unforgettable. Indraneel Mukherjee’s cinematography takes every shot with the seriousness that lends depth to the visual quality of the film. Whether it is that dark night scene inside the cave where Damini’s hands move up to touch Sachish, or, whether it is that brainwashed scene in that haunted house the three repair to one night, or, the sea with the waves lapping against the shores as the white-robed Sufi singers wander away in a trance, or, Damini’s burning pyre with Sribilash standing on one side, his camera weaves magic into the aesthetics of the film. Hiron Mitra’s production design is another powerful quality that enriches the film’s texture, especially in the ramshackle students’ mess in Kolkata and the unending corridors of Damini’s spacious mansion. Arghyakamal Mitra’s editing fluidly takes all the time leaps and space leaps without a single jerk or start. All this prevents this very verbose film spilling over with heavyweight sermons and philosophizing from dragging at any point. It is dynamic and mobile in every sense – movement through geographical space, spiritual beliefs, relationship mutations and shifting existential questions on life and death and all that lies between these two worldly truths.

The negative points are (a) the visual imposition of the Sufi saints when audio would have been better, and (b) the somewhat confusing repetition of shots in flashback that appear like the recaps in television serials. Just the Sufi music on the soundtrack would have given the film the feel of universality because the visuals give the film an identification it could have done without. Has Suman been able to fulfill his dream of placing a philosophical Tagore creation on film? Yes, yes and yes.

Upperstall review by: Shoma A Chatterji

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