Phoring is more a film for adults than for pre-adolescent children. In an unique directorial debut, Indranil Roy Choudhury sets forth to explain the world seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy trying to grope with his awakening sexuality on the one hand and his disturbed life on the other. The film opens with a dream scene showing Doel wearing a shocking pink short dress, big glares and high heels perched on the table of a classroom that breaks with Phoring waking up suddenly to find he has had a nightfall.
Vignettes of life in a small town called Shimulganj are captured movingly through a road-side tea stall where three old men comment on each other’s farts, Chanchal’s desperate attempts to eke out an existence through homeopathy he knows nothing about, and male prostitution. The staff room at the school Phoring studies in, the classroom filled with boys exchanging sexual innuendo is dotted with people and the boys cycling across the beautiful winding pathway running along its snaky route set amidst the lush green mantle of enchantment in this picturesque little town.
When Doel invites Phoring to her rented apartment, the relationship moves on to a dangerous plane, but Doel cannot read this at all and pushes it to the edge by celebrating an elaborate birthday for Phoring and gifting him with a cell-phone. Her boyfriend Samaresh (Ritwick Chakraborty) is wary of the relationship but she is not. All hell breaks loose when Phoring’s naughty friend Lattu 'steals' pictures of Doel from Phoring’s cell-phone and distributes it among the other boys. Doel receives a strong rebuke from the principal but before action can be taken, she disappears.
Tiny nuggets of dramatic detailing and the fluid dialogue are other hallmarks of this very different film. When Phoring sees pictures of Doel and Samaresh in a newspaper being read by his Muslim boss at the restaurant, he rushes out to buy a Bengali newspaper to read the news himself. He goes to the satellite station that had first telecast the news about their capture. He glibly lies about being an orphan to garner sympathy. He is scathing about Lattoo stealing panties of a fat local woman but later picks up Doel’s panties from her washing tub. He retains till the end, that small tissue Doel gave him to wipe his hands dirtied by the bicycle chain as a token of remembrance, experience and growing up. He asks a kindly police officer whether a lawyer can be hired for Rs 250 adding that he needs to keep ten bucks aside for the bus fare back to the restaurant.
While the main story is focussed on the coming-of-age story of an adolescent boy, it explores other subterranean areas of life and relationships beautifully. Among these are - the impact of a lockout that can lead to the death of a growing boy for want of money for treatment; Phoring’s mother struggling to hold the family together by selling home-made pickles; the ire Doel’s sophisticated demeanour raises in the staff room among her colleagues both male and female; the persistent threat of the closed factory becoming unwitting host to criminals and terrorist activities that becomes a reality; a van with a loudspeaker booming commercial messages on indigenous medicine to correct bowel movements and so on.
Every character, never mind the footage it spans, is beautifully fleshed out and rounded off that includes the polarities of the restaurant owner where Phoring works as a boy and the suave villainy of Samaresh with other characters like the three old men in the tea stall, the tea-stall owner, Phoring’s distraught parents, the kindly police officer who helps Phoring meet Doel, Phoring’s close friend Lattu, his class teacher and everyone else. Indranil has chosen the 'look' of the characters with great care and the actors have justified his choice by becoming the characters instead of enacting them. Akash and Sohini signal the entry of two extremely talented actors into the Bengali realm.
Prabuddha Banerjee's haunting background score is low-key and moving, and does not intrude into the plot or theme at any point. The sound design is unique – the loudspeaker blaring forth the merits of indigenous medicine that would cure everyone from Malaika to Obama, the 'voices' that speak to Phoring in Bangladeshi dialect when he is all alone, the sounds of a rushing train somewhere in the distance, the sound of vessels being washed, overlapping voice-overs of off-screen comments form part of the design.
Koushik Das and Subrata Barik's production design is highly effective. This comes across in the classroom with its old blackboard, the crowded classroom with sex-segregated seating, Phorings's home, the roadside tea stall, the rejected factory complex with its rusted machinery and Phoring and Lattu’s treasure trunk, Doel’s tastefully decorated flat with its grilled gate are set off in relief against cloud-filled blue of the skies offset by the greenery of the farming fields and the winding pathway running beside the railway tracks. The editing keeps strict control over the different time and place frames to keep confusion out.
So, what gives? The imaginative faculties of Phoring are just touched upon and remain unexplored. Doel’s failure to read into Phoring’s tremendous crush for her is not backed by the fleshing out of her character as a person with razor-sharp intelligence. The 'dance' bit appears contrived as this was never established as part of her character. Ritwick as Samaresh seems a bit indifferent towards his role. The post-interval segment after Phoring runs away to Kolkata managing money by selling of his bicycle tends to drag towards the end.
But with all these minor warts, Phoring is a wonderful, watch-worthy film that could sail across to other lands with its universal statement. It openly deals with masturbation, nightfall and other male fantasies. It merges the psychological with the sexual with magic realism with adventure and suspense without sacrificing the main text or separating it from the context.
It is not easy to translate sexual stirrings of an adolescent boy on film. Indranil takes on this challenge and comes across triumphant.
The word Phoring means 'frog.' In this film, Phoring is the nickname of the protagonist whose real name is Anando. The title carries a double entendre. It reaches beyond a simple nickname of an ordinary boy because it is also a metaphor for the restiveness, the constant feeling of moving on, of going away and/or coming back, to find one’s footing in an ever-changing world drawing parallels with a frog jumping from one field to the next, and evading capture just by jumping away. Well done, Indranil!