In Rajlokhi o Srikanto, filmmaker Pradipta Bhattacharya transports a much-loved Bengali novel set in the early 20th century to the present day. The September 20 release is based on the first part of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s semi-autobiographical four-part novel Srikanto, published between 1917 and 1933.
The novel follows the coming of age of the titular character, a vagabond whose personality and politics evolve through his interactions with multiple women at various stages of his life. One of these women is Rajlokhi, Srikanto’s childhood friend, who becomes the courtesan Pyaari Baiji as an adult. An adult Srikanto reconnects with Rajlokhi when his friend, a prince, invites him on an hunting expedition.
Soham Maitra and Ritwick Chakraborty play the young and adult Srikanto respectively in Bhattacharya’s film. Gargi Maji plays the young Rajlokhi while the adult version is portrayed by Bangladeshi actress Jyotika Jyoti. Rahul plays Srikanto’s princely friend, Hukumchand.
Rajlokhi o Srikanto is the second feature film by Bhattacharya. His 2013 debut Bakita Byaktigoto (The Rest is Personal) won the National Film Award for the Best Bengali Film.
“Srikanto was one of my favourite novels as a teenager,” Bhattacharya told Scroll.in. “When I began making films in the mid-2000s, I had a diary in which I listed all the short films and feature films I wanted to make, including in what format I wanted to make them, like, celluloid or digital. Rajlokhi o Srikanto was one of them from the beginning.”
In the novel’s first part, which forms the basis of Rajlokhi o Srikanto, the two characters who play a central role in the protagonist’s life are his daredevil friend Indranath and the snake charmer’s wife Annada, whom Srikanto idolises for her loyalty to her abusive husband. Indranath is played by Kolkata radio jockey Sayan Ghosh, and Aparajita Ghosh Das plays Annada.
“Initially, I wanted to adapt the story as a period film, but to manage that within our limited budget, we would need to shoot indoors, which I didn’t want,” Bhattacharya said. “So I rewrote the story in the form of a contemporary take. What if people like Srikanto or Rajlokhi lived today and engaged with contemporary life in 2019? Drifters like Srikanto are still alive.”
Bhattacharya filmed Rajlokhi o Srikanto between late 2017 and early 2018, frequently stopping because of a lack of funds. The movie’s budget is approximately Rs 65 lakh. The locations are spread across West Bengal, including the Mousuni island, Purulia, and areas around Rajarhat in Kolkata.
The trailer was criticised by the novel’s fans, who appear to be angry about the contemporary setting. Srikanto has been adapted five times in Bengali in India (1958, 1959, 1965, 1969, 2004), with such actors as Uttam Kumar and Adil Hussain in the lead roles, and once in Bangladesh, in 1987. None of the films deviated from the period setting.
“I don’t see why I should copy a novel as it is in the form of a film, when the novel is fine the way it is, and it’s best consumed by reading where one approaches the text with their own imagination,” Bhattacharya reasoned. “My film is how I have imagined Srikanto. I am frankly alarmed by the outrage. Perhaps, there’s a fear that I have disrupted tradition, that I have done something horrible to their beloved characters. I think I will be dead when the film is actually out.”
Bhattacharya’s Bakita Byaktigoto starred Ritwick Chakraborty as a man who heads out in search of romance and lands up in a village where every visitor is bound to meet their love. Bhattacharya’s short films and television films, most of which star Chakraborty, are grounded in documentary realism even as they deploy absurdist plots and surreal humour.
In contrast, Rajlokhi o Srikanto is based on a “pensive” screenplay since “that’s just where the story was going, and I did not want to forcefully inject humour just because my earlier films had somewhat funny elements”, the director said.
Bhattacharya says he has tried a new narrative approach with Rajlokhi o Srikanto. The songs and background score were rehearsed and recorded live in single takes.
“I have deconstructed the characters as I see them,” Bhattacharya said. “I have tried to keep many parts of the film timeless, as these could be occurring in any century.” He attempted something similar in his 2017 short film Dheu, which follows a couple living by the river and is set in an unspecified period.
Bhattacharya’s offbeat approach and determination to “make films with absolute zero interference from any third party” means that he hasn’t had a film release since 2013. In between, he organised a short film festival in Kolkata for aspiring filmmakers, travelled across Bengal for community screenings, made Dheu, and directed the television film Goen Da, in which a small-town tea seller and detective sets out to solve a mystery involving his girlfriend.
Besides their idiosyncrasies, Bhattacharya’s films are recognisable for being set in villages and small towns outside Kolkata and bearing an outsider’s gaze when looking at the city.
“I love West Bengal, and I love travelling within this state,” said Bhattacharya, who was born in Berhampore and moved to Kolkata to study filmmaking in 2002. “I always travel by public transport, which helps me in picking up the everyday man’s peculiarities and ways of thinking, which then find their way into my stories.”
Apart from working on the science-fiction short film Stuck, Bhattacharya is filming Shikhor (Roots), a documentary based on his travels. The attraction towards Srikanto too appears to have come from his life in his early twenties: “I was a vagabond for four-five years, travelling across Bengal, without a career or a plan. Without travelling, my films wouldn’t have been the way they are.”