One of the luxuries that I have indulged in in the last one year is re-viewing classic films, re-reading my favorite books and catching up on my to-read and to-watch lists. It is a tragedy of our times that one rarely comes across new films which you finish watching and immediately go - “I need to watch this film again.”
Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani makes you feel that way. And I am not the only one who thinks so. More than professional film critics, it is the lay viewers and film buffs who are raving about this film and its maker. Every blogger worth his salt has been putting out a post on Kahaani, and I didn’t want to be left out. However, this post is not a review of the film, there are already way too many excellent commentaries on it out there, like Harsha’s review or Jayalaxmi’s look at Sujoy. Neither is it relevant whether you have or have not seen the film. If you have not seen it, you will want to see it after you read this, and if you have seen it, you will want to see it again after reading this post. This post is about the Rubik’s cube.
Just kidding, this is really about Kolkata. And Kolkata can put the Rubik’s cube to shame on any weekday afternoon. This post is about the Rubik’s cube that is Kolkata. The Kolkata that Sujoy turns into a cinematic feast through the eyes and ears of Setu on the camera, Namrata Rao on the rock & roll machine, and Allwyn Rego with the samples, sliders and occasional loops. The Kolkata that I grew up in, loved to a point where she became someone I could not bear to be around. The Kolkata that sways with new promises every time I return, promises that are tempting but not strong enough to hold me back. The Kolkata that makes your heart ache every time you cross the river to catch a train back or step out of the humid Dum Dum air into the aseptic airport lobby. The Kolkata that makes you want to watch Kahaani over and over again, not for its story or the acting, but for the colors, the light, and the sounds of perfect love.
Sujoy’s Kolkata is the Kolkata of Beltala Girls High School and Nonapukur tram depot, buildings with ancient boarded up lifts and womenfolk chopping vegetables in balconies, places that are ingrained in the cellular memory of every young person growing up in the city of joy. It is the Kolkata of late night tram rides home, the monotones of residential lanes, the U2esque greyness of faces and places, the grimy chai-pau toughness that the city wrests out of you as you learn to love it as much as it loves you back. The only spots of brightness are to be found in the garish yellow of the taxicabs or the circus blue of the “private” buses, the pulse of Kolkata’s public transport with tin plated exteriors and wooden seats. The other big moment of color in this amazing city and the film are the climax of the sarbojanin pujo, the bittersweet play of vermilion by married women to bid farewell to the invincible and perhaps eternally mythical mother, the goddess Durga.
Kahani is the story of “Bidda” Bagchi’s search for her missing husband. Into this search, Sujoy blends the motifs of the city as a lover, the lover as the divine, the divine as the mother, and the motherly nature of the city. The city of Ajoydas and Bijoydas has a way of embracing the hardest boiled skeptics, and in the film too, the shock of Kolkata is present in its absence. The serial windows of Monalisa Guest House reveal the dust-coated lime yellow and olive green magic of Lansdowne Road - the Lansdowne Road that stopped being Lansdowne Road to developers and mallrats decades back, yet remains Lansdowne Road to those who sleep on its pavements at night. The contrasts run right through the film, just as in the city. The simultaneous human failings and the cold considerations of law enforcement, the contemporary trying to convince itself of its modernity, and the incongruity of faces and bodies and the roles they play. LIke the world’s best crab devil and beef steak, Sujoy manages to create an emotional representation of the conflict and contrast ridden city that stays with you long after you have left the theater.
The film builds around the pujas, the one time of the year that all good bongs are genetically programmed to go bonkers. During my childhood, I was able to make out bong cows from non-bengali cows from their behavior during the pujas. For those not familiar with this allusion to non-bengalis (not cows), in the Bengali worldview, there are only two kinds of people, Bengalis and non-Bengalis. Ask any good bong if you don’t believe this smudge on the bhalo naam of all things Bengali. One of the reasons that I based my poor self image as a bong is the fact that the pujas strike no chords in my heart other than a desperate desire to run away from the madness, no, not even a subconscious twitch to press the shift key when typing the word. Sujoy’s Kolkata is the Kolkata that even bad bongs cannot help falling fatally in love with.
Sujoy’s Kolkata is an excuse for him to tip a hat to the masters, Ray, Hitchcock, the writing of Tagore, and perhaps others that only he knows about (I thought I caught hints of Tarantino, but then, that is about how far my knowledge of cinema extends). However, there are a couple of things that stick out for a film that is otherwise a masterpiece of its own. Prior to that, a special mention must be made of the editing, a work of art in itself, frequently defying convention, quick cuts during languid sequences at times, holding on to tension with a typically Kolkatan stubbornness at others. The screenplay and story are extremely competent, but just about. The devices used are not very original, and the presence of Advaita Kala as a co-writer has only reinforced my Advaita-who? The twist at the end is not just predictable but actually dilutes the magic of the entire film behind it. The value-driven explanation for the twist comes across like one of my blog posts about ethical living. However, what I thought was the weakest aspect of the film was something that Sujoy considers one of its strengths - the music.
After the promos and the film’s allegorical posters, one does not walk into the theater looking for great music, but somewhere at the back of the mind, one remembers the novelty of Jhankar Beats I guess. As the film unfolded, I could not help noticing that the soundtrack was more of an acknowledgement of the rootlessness that we are all victims of, with multilingual cross cultural symbols put forth with little direction or meaning. The full fledged beauty of Amitabh Bacchan’s voice singing Tagore’s Ekla Chalo Re is relegated to the closing titles, with the complete meaning of the Bengali lyrics being lost to all non-Bengalis, which many might feel is not a great loss. The storyline, the locations, and the beautiful use of light from the different times of the day seemed to me to be crying out for a more powerful background score, but like Arnab Bagchi, it was missing. The score that was present was hip-hoppy and pointless, with both Hindi and Bengali sung like they were coming from a roman lettered script read out by a North Indian call center executive. After all that the director has to say about his adoration of Kishore Kumar and RDB, this is a bit of a let down. Both RDB and Kishore dictated what would become popular instead of following what was already popular. I guess expecting Sujoy to get everything right just four films down the line is asking for too much. However, that is just a small blip on the screen for Sujoy’s Kolkata.
Sujoy’s Kolkata is the worship of intellect and the submission to the mystic, the used-to-be police informer who hides amidst durga idols in various stages of development, the red-bordered sari that serves to unify married women across class and caste, and the acceptance of opposing ideologies. Durga is simultaneously born out of the exasperation of the benign forces and her own compassion for the helplessness of the benign. Durga is the mother that is present in every lover, the one whom you discover only to realize its power and fury, the one that reveals herself to you only to step back, the one that taunts you with her unattainability, perfection, and strength, and the one for whom nothing is impossible. Kahani ends with the dissolution of the idol, disappearing slowly into the water of the Ganges, dragging her accessories, ornaments and garlands down with her. For every believer, this is symbolic of renewal and return, with the refrain of “aasche bochor aabar hobe” rending the air, yet in many ways, it is also symbolic of disillusionment, not in the sense of betrayal but in the sense of being left with one illusion less, waking up to the fact that the goddess is not out there, but in here, within each one of us.
I did not know that when I lay on the park bench on the banks of the river three decades back, my terry-cotton school shirt stuffed away in my grey-brown satchel bag, my eyes reddened more from the Kerala Gold than the smoke from the buses at the 41 terminus, and my fingers aching from twisting the cube around. Watching Kahaani was like retracing my steps back through my adolescent years, kicking pebbles down AJC Bose Road till our shoe fronts were frayed, walking and sharing dreams. It was like a tram reversing with the assuredness and single-mindedness of love and devotion. like solving a Rubik’s cube backwards, going from a perfect six-sided six-colored congruence to uncovering the melange that is reality.
Do let me know what you thought of the movie, and this post, in the comments section below.