35mm Reflections: UMA (Bengali – 2018)

Someone had once said, “Great art has the ability to heal.” Where time and circumstance fail to heal past wounds inflicted by life, art often acts as the panacea we crave for. The actual effect of the same is not known–but the illusion of having found a sense of closure for painful memories is what keeps us all going.

Srijit Mukherji’s latest film UMA is all about illusions. In fact, it is, in one sense, a heist film. Heists operate not only on the basis of daredevilry and brains, but also on the basis of the perfect illusions. And what are these illusions here? A young father tries to keep his usual cheery demeanour intact in front of his daughter, who is dying before his eyes. A director, who has fallen on hard times personally and professionally, tries to operate under the assumption that he can still make it work. And then later, both men team up with other committed individuals in order to stage the biggest mirage of all: an entire city engaged in the one festival that defines it globally.

At one level, then, UMA is essentially a father-daughter story. But at another level, it is also a tribute to a city, and a community. It reminds us that at the end of the day, even the most cynical and supposedly-tainted hearts are capable of possessing a modicum of goodness.

The fake Durga Puja recreated in the film seems believable, because every Bengali living in Kolkata knows the ideal Puja checklist. Mohd Ali Park? Check. Mudiali? Check. Dhunuchi-naach? Check. Pandals? Pratima? Check and check. Mukherji takes advantage of this, choosing to focus on the ensemble cast as they grapple with the logistics of creating a fake world for a little girl. You keep cheering on the washed-up director Brahmanand as he marshals the Avengers his production team to come up with the best illusion possible, even as they grapple with their biggest enemy: Thanos Time.

Anupam Roy’s soundtrack is terrific. My favourite remains Jaago Uma, that plays near the climax of the film. Soumik Halder ‘s camerawork is top-notch, but the editing is a bit patchy, especially in the Switzerland leg of the film.

Sara Sengupta and Jisshu Sengupta shine the brightest in the film. But I enjoyed the performances by the ensemble cast more. Abhijit Guha, Sujan Mukherjee, Rudranil Ghosh, Apratim Chatterjee, Amborish are too good. I loved Srabanti in that little role as Mariam Dastidar a.k.a. Fake Menoka. That one scene in the dead of night with Jisshu and her had more chemistry than what Ravi Kinagi could conjure up with them in laat year’s Jio Pagla. And if anyone still doubts Anirban Bhattacharya’s finesse as an actor, they should watch the scene where he breaks down in front of Sara’s Uma when she offers him prasad.

But if the film’s hero is Mukherji, the hero of the film-within-the-film is undoubtedly Anjan Dutt. As Brahmanand, the washed-up cynical who seeks redemption in crafting a “masterpiece” for someone he does not know, Dutt is heartbreakingly real. With Pratim D Gupta’s Shaheb Bibi Golaam, a terrific soundtrack in Aami Ashbo Phirey, and more roles coming up in Ahare Mon, Ek Je Chhilo Raja and Byomkesh Gotro, I think it is safe to surmise we’re all in the middle of the Anjanaissance.

I loved the cameos too. In a post-Zulfiqar world, you expect Prosenjit, Dev and Nusrat to turn up in your film. But my favourite bit was the part where different directors are requested to direct the fake Puja. It reminded me of a similar sequence in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance, where different actors keep giving hilarious refusals to Rishi Kapoor’s cantankerous producer.

There are so many scenes within Uma that are memorable, and most of them will probably be dissected thoroughly in the days to come. But I loved the film. Arguably Mukherji’s finest illusion since Autograph, Uma is a reminder that, in spite of the Pujas and the yearly date with Salman Khan at the cinemas, perhaps the greatest illusion a person lives and dies for is one that remains off-camera: hope.

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35mm Reflections: MISHAWR RAWHOSHYO (Bengali – 2013)

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It is a truth widely acknowledged in West Bengal that nobody in Tollywood can quite make those slick, urbane Bangla movies the way Srijit Mukherji does. With a hat-trick of critically-acclaimed hits (Autograph, Baishe Srabon, Hemlock Society) behind him, Srijit, along with other contemporaries such as Mainak Bhaumik and Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, has ensured the return of the urban Bengali middle-class to the cinema hall/multiplex. However, some people (including me) felt that Srijit’s writing had suffered in his bid to rake in more moolah, and thus the original and refreshing voice of Autograph was somehow lost in the din of too much rhetoric in Baishe Srabon and Hemlock Society.

With Mishawr Rawhoshyo, however, Srijit cuts out the pretensions, and squarely brings back the focus on the story. Based on the much-loved 1984 Kakababu novel by the late Sunil Gangopadhyay,  Srijit weaves a crisp, taut screenplay that really takes off from the civil uprising in Egypt and comes alive on 35mm. It’s clunky at a few places in the narrative, but Srijit manages to transport the urgency and the unfettered spirit of the original story from page to screen. MR is essentially the story of how Kakababu (Prosenjit Chaterjee) and Santu (Devdaan) manage to travel from Kolkata to Egypt (with a brief stopover at JNU) in search of the key to a mysterious set of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which has probable links with a decades-old legend. While Satyajit Ray’s Feluda franchise had innocence and wonder in abundance, things are much more urbane and realistic in the Kakababu-Santu universe.

Of course Srijit’s trademark witty repartees and his dry humour are present throughout the film. It’ll take me a lifetime to forget how Kakababu sits in that room in JNU composing a tweet, “Just reached Delhi”, gets shot at by an assassin, and then, on his way to the nursing home, adds something more to the tweet—“Having a blast.” However, what stops this rollicking Bangla potboiler from becoming a classic are a few inconsistencies in direction, as well as some other aspects. Indradip Dasgupta’s score for MR has two diverse shades to it—while the songs work well as situational fillers, the background score, though apt, is unusually loud and sometimes drowns out dialogues. Also, the editing is uneven, especially the second half of the movie, where scenes (with the background score intact) get chopped midway for no rhyme or reason. That said, Sonu Nigam’s rendition of Hani Alkadir Gaan, and Srijit’s picturization of the song, is sure to give you goosebumps. And if you love the gorgeous frames of MR, the full credit should go to Soumik Halder, who seamlessly integrates the expansive grandeur of a Red One camera, with the intimate jerkiness of a DSLR.

Acting-wise, it’s a mixed bag, really. Prosenjit (as Kakababu) and Devdaan (as Santu) are expectedly good, and complement each other really well. Neel Mukherjee, Swastika Mukherjee, Tridha and Rajesh Sharma are effortless in their respective roles. But it’s a real pity seeing the veteran actor Rajit Kapur hamming it up as Al-Mammoon. And shooting and prancing around makes Joyraj’s assassin act look more like a cross between Gandu’s Rickshaw and Twelfth Night’s Feste.

But where this film truly scores is in the political stand it takes. It is refreshing to see a film that dumps the political correctness out of the window and takes a strong anti-Mubarak stance with regard to the Egypt uprising, While the link may seem tenuous, it works largely because of Indraneil Sengupta’s knockout act as the mysterious rebel leader Hani Alkadi. Emoting largely with his eyes, Indraneil brings gravitas and intensity to Hani Alkadi, tinged with a slight note of self-deprecating humour. Watch him in that scene where he debates with Kakababu about right and wrong, even as he attempts to kill a traitor. It’s a role that comes across rarely in Bangla cinema, and Indraneil sinks his teeth into it with relish. Indraneil’s Hani Alkadi can truly be called the director’s voice with regard to the Egypt uprising.

Mishawr Rawhoshyo thus throws in a compelling narrative with a fresh bit of pizzazz. It’s rough at the edges and slightly disjointed, but it’s not a bad watch at all. The way it has been directed and mounted on such a large scale, I really hope this movie does well and recovers its budget. The success of MR can only spur Bangla cinema to become bigger and better.

P.S.: Don’t miss out the small cameo by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, whose mere presence is enough to remind us that another Bangla biggie is coming up—Chander Pahar.