My Sunday Guardian column: 29th May, 2011.
Ghosh brings 1920s Bengal visually alive
Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Starring: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta, Raima Sen, Riya Sen
Set in the 1920s, Noukadubi opens in the sort of upper-class Bengali home where the son is about to go off to England to study law and the daughter plays the piano – but sings Rabindrasangeet. Watching Hemnalini (Raima Sen) embroidering and singing to herself in the opening scenes, it's clear that Rituparno Ghosh is deliberately evoking the similar (but three decades older) milieu of Charulata, which, too, opens with the heroine at home, embroidering. And if Charu was obsessed with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, the most famous writer of her day – often chanting his name ("Bankim, Bankim") to herself, Hem is a Tagore-worshipper. Her admirer Ramesh laughingly suggests that she create a bookshelf-shrine to him, and when her father asks whether no-one has caught her fancy yet, she responds archly: "Yes, his name is Rabindranath Tagore".
These are moments – inserting Tagore as a quasi-character into his own text, or later, having his characters argue about the notorious Bhawal sanyasi case – that reveal how much Ghosh has enjoyed making this film, his third period piece after Chokher Bali (2003) and Antarmahal (2005). There is also the visual pleasure of immersing oneself in a 1920s world, its furniture and clothes as much as its empty Banaras ghats.
But Noukadubi is old-fashioned in other ways, too. It is a tale of thwarted love built around coincidences, a narrative whose opening premise is a boat-wreck (the noukadubi of the title), a natural calamity of the sort that we associate with Shakespeare, or with our films from 50 years ago: think of Waqt. The film's real power, then, lies in its ability to transcend its time-capsule and move us despite ourselves. Whether it's Ramesh, the educated man caught in a classic bind between romantic love and filial obligation (the wonderful Jisshu Sengupta); Kamala, the village girl married off to that educated man, half-entranced, half-bewildered by his ways (Riya Sen in an exceptional performance); the self-possessed doctor (Prosenjit) who gets through to the broken-hearted Hem; or his perceptive mother – it is the complexity of the characters and the acutely-perceived relationships between them that make this a film to savour.
(Note: This review is of the Bengali film, not the dubbed - and slightly shorter - Hindi version released under the unfortunately cheesy name Kashmakash. I haven't watched Kashmakash, but I can tell you that it has absolutely wonderful Gulzar versions of the original Bangla songs. Probably worth watching just for those.)
Lots of potential, but doesn’t hit right note
KUCCH LUV JAISAA
Director: Barnali Ray Shukla
Starring: Shefali Shah, Rahul Bose, Sumit Raghavan
Kuchh Luv Jaisaa has a great premise: a bored, neglected housewife takes the day off and has an encounter that will change her life. It's a premise whose pure theatrical potential made possible, for example, Ettore Scola's superb 1977 film Una Giornata Particolare (A Special Day), with Sophia Loren as a Mussolini-adoring mother of six who is transformed by her meeting with a fastidious gay man (Marcello Mastroianni) who's losing his job – and much else – to the fascist regime. Unfortunately, it's a premise which writer-director Barnali Ray Shukla seems quite unable to translate into a watchable film.
It's promising to begin with: Madhu Saxena, housewife and mother of two, is having a normal harried morning (albeit in the very comfortable surroundings of Mumbai's Pali Hill, where the absence of a bai seems a trifle odd). Except it's her birthday – and being February 29, it only comes once in four years.
The kids leave for school, and she waits expectantly for her husband to remember, but to no avail. Her parents call, but it's not their attention she wants. Suddenly she decides she's not going to sit at home and mope. Next thing we know, she's exchanged her frumpy salwar kameez for a figure-hugging pink dress, bought a zippy new red car and become self-appointed assistant for the day to a taciturn but fetching 'detective'.
From here on, though, things go downhill. Shefali Shah (for my money, the star of Monsoon Wedding) provides glimpses of what she can do: injecting a false brightness into her voice while speaking to her father (Om Puri, wasted), or haranguing a smart-alecky waiter who slots her as "non-smoking". But all her eyerolling and little leaps of joy can't salvage this script from its banality and lack of dramatic tension.
Rahul Bose, playing the wanted "Raghav Passport" with a tapori accent as fake as his swagger, doesn't help. Nor do the many false notes: the absolute wrongness of the guy Bose tells Shah he's tailing, or Shah's sudden and super-fake heart-to-heart with her daughter. Watching this film makes you sad – and not in the way it intended.