Nostalgia is not just a virtue. It also makes for fantastic commerce in Kolkata, where senior citizens outnumber the young. While the housing, healthcare and real estate sectors have been quick in seizing the opportunity to provide services to the aging population, filmmakers too have turned Bengal’s abiding love affair with its past into a winning box-office formula – a digitally retouched analogue world.
Kaushik Ganguly’s acclaimed Cinemawala pays a rich and poignant tribute to the vanishing single-screen theatres and celluloid projectors in the city. Mahanayak, the television series based on the life of Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, is in the works.
Elsewhere, filmmakers such as Arindam Sil and Anjan Dutta continue to mine the literary classics for such iconic characters as Byomkesh Bakshi or the creations of Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. Srijit Mukherji shot to fame with Autograph, a retelling of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, and more recently his period drama Rajkahini (being remade in Hindi with Vidya Balan in the lead) made significant noise all over the state.
A more recent and contentious example is the hit film Praktan, starring Prosenjit and Rituparna Sengupta. Praktan (meaning the ex) is directed by Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy, who helmed 2015’s monster hit Belaseshe, starring acting legends Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta. Both films talk about complex human relationships, and both celebrate all that is vintage – romance, the city, views and values, family structures, architecture and music.
The filmmakers have attributed the success of both their films, especially Praktan, to the inherent “Bengaliness of their content”.
Belaseshe is about a couple married for 49 years who live in a beautiful house in an old Kolkata neighbourhood – the kind of middle-class milieu with which scores of Kolkatans are familiar. The lyrical film explores the man’s decision to divorce his wife after a family reunion and before their wedding anniversary. While Belaseshe was charming in its treatment of changing gender roles, Praktan makes for difficult viewing.
Praktan is set mostly on a long-distance train that is travelling from Mumbai to Kolkata. Architect Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) is travelling in the same compartment as the gregarious Molly (Aparajita Adhya) and her daughter. The conversation soon makes it clear that Molly’s husband is Sudipa’s ex, tour guide Ujaan (Prosenjit).
Other characters on the train include a pair of honeymooners, a music band, and an elderly couple played by Soumitra Chatterjee and Sabitri Chatterjee. The movie includes a prolonged antakshari featuring all the passengers, during which Sabitri Chatterjee’s character breaks out into the hit song “Ami Miss Calcutta 1976” from the 1973 movie Basanta Bilap. The choice of the song says a lot about the target audience – the greying audiences of Kolkata and the diaspora.
Praktan pimps all the clichés associated with screen depictions of Kolkata: its colonial history and heritage neighbourhoods, boat rides down the Hooghly, a joint family, Rabindrasangeet, a talkative housewife who loves her television soaps, an elderly woman who cannot speak Hindi, a music band that peaked in the 2000s, and the super-successful pairing of rumoured former lovers Prosenjit and Rituparna Sengupta. Meta-casting seems to be the filmmakers’ weapon of choice. In Belaseshe, they brought together Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta for the first time since Ray’s Ghaire Baire.
But these clichés are harmless compared to the movie’s strongly regressive streak. Praktan valourises the mother-in-law who calls the shots in the house. Her ideal daughter-in-law is a god-fearing domesticated creature who does not question her husband when he disappears on tours for days. “It is natural,” Ujaan tells his anxious and lonely first wife, Sudipa. “I have never heard my mother complain, why should you?”
Sudipa is presented as an ambitious, modern, passionate, opinionated “Bombay” woman who refuses to be domesticated. As Sudipa wryly says during a post-miscarriage meltdown, “[Ujaan] spouts Dostoevsky in public but is steeped in superstition in private.”
The filmmakers, who have in the past created reality shows aimed at young and ageing housewives, make it clear which side of this age-old domestic argument they are on.
When Sudipa decides to go back to her family and the life she has known, she is manhandled by Ujaan, who thunders: “How dare you not take my permission before leaving?” The idea is reinforced over and over again during the course of the film. By the climax, it becomes evident that Ujaan has found happiness after divorcing his outgoing first wife and marrying a woman from an altogether older world order. “There is no alternative to letting your mother-in-law run the household, or letting her decide what your husband should be eating,” Ujaan’s wife Molly prattles to Sudipa, unaware of the man they both have in common. She adds how she is happy with that one day on the month when her husband manages to find time for her, making a strong case for ceding emotional, societal and physical territory to the husband and his family in order to win their love.
This stuff is straight out of the pages of the 1955 edition of the Good Housekeeping magazine that lists all the things a woman must do to keep the man of the house happy. This includes “Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgement.”
In Praktan, this vintage approach to marriage and happiness wins over Ujaan, who is transformed from a wild horse into a pet chihuahua during the course of the film. The man who had failed to accompany Sudipa on their first vacation and forgot to turn up at her birthday party surprises his pious second wife on her birthday by joining her midway on a long train journey. The poor “Bombay” woman, who reclaims her space and dignity after the humiliation she suffers in her abusive marriage, is evidently still unhappy because she has not compromised.
Bengali cinema has a special place for women, especially in the screen adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s novels and stories. Satyajit Ray remains one of the most enlightened filmmakers to have tackled the woman’s question. His Charulata, Mahanagar and Ghaire Baire, all featuring women who dare to look beyond conventional relationships, remain relevant.
Rituparno Ghosh owned the marital drama genre with such films as Dosar, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Prosenjit in a tender exploration of extra-marital relationships, and Shob Charitro Kalponik, featuring Bipasha Basu and Prosenjit in a crumbling marriage. Even at his weakest, Ghosh’s understanding of his female protagonists is in line with the cinematic and literary legacy from which he drew inspiration. Even when his women chose to briefly defy convention briefly and eventually surrender to it, the movies did not have regressive streaks that played to the gallery.
Given the frequent hat tips to Tagore in Praktan, we want to believe that those endorsing the film are perhaps just so drunk on the romance of the past that they are willing to ignore a woman’s abusive present.