There is a scene in Aparna Sen’s Arshinagar where Julie, dressed in pristine white is resting on an indoor swing and humming a tune, lost in thought. There is an abundance of white within in the frame in form of furniture and props directly indicating a sense of purity, innocence and naiveté. Minutes before that, in the film, she had her first encounter with the reckless playboy Rawno, who had gate crashed a party at the girl’s home. Now Julie and Rawno belong to the rival crime families of Khan and Mitra. And when Julie’s cousin Tayyab realized Rawno’s presence, he organized an elaborate manhunt on the grounds but failed to locate Rawno. Thus when we see dreamy eyed Julie in a brightly lit room after all the nocturnal ‘action’, the natural conclusion is that the narration has moved on to the next morning. But lo and behold! Bang comes with a recreation of the iconic balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and its still night!! Apparently they got it wrong in the writing, shooting and editing department and either nobody noticed or worse nobody cared. This is of course keeping aside the fact that the entire balcony scene does nothing to the narrative other than spending some needless time with the lead pair.
This more or less sums up or at least hints towards what is wrong with Arshinagar. The director has either lost interest or lost control of the cinematic apparatus or maybe both. And consequently the result looks extremely half hearted in every aspect and uncertain of everything. Struggling with theatricality, realism and melodrama, the film is a glaring instance of a failed adaptation, if there was ever one. The film claims to be an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and in the very first few minutes of the film, the name of the bard is even mentioned which cements the fact once and for all. The director’s lack of vision and control becomes evident as she fails to do anything with the original text other than loosely referring earlier and more exciting adaptations such as the celebrated Hollywood musical West Side Story or the 2012 Bollywood film Ishaqzaade. The familiarity with the classic tale results in a dreary predictability, failing to generate any emotion or affect even in the most poignant of scenes including the final predicament of the lovers.
One must also mention in this context, the tendency in contemporary Bengali films to go for catchy titles, which are often nothing more than commercial gimmick with next to no relation with the main narrative. And then there are attempts within the film to justify the title, which are downright ridiculous. The term Arshinagar (City of Mirrors) comes from a popular folk song by the legendary Lalon Fakir where it acts as a metaphor of the soul. The film borrows the title, creates a fictitious town with the name, uses mirrors in different shapes and size in various shots and retains the song being performed on screen by Parvathy Baul. And not a single element among these contributes any layer to the screenplay or narrative or even improves the cinematic experience in any way. In fact for a film claiming to be musical, it is hard to find an instance where the songs have been so ill-used. The songs do not carry the narrative forward but rather function as spectacles in terms of flashy lights or elaborate crane shots, etc. Debojyoti Mishra’s music fails to establish a musical style in an attempt to cover multiple genres from Classical to Sufi to Folk to Pop-Rock. The only rather criminal offence he manages to achieve is to plagiarize Franz Schubert’s Serenade, part of the composer’s Swan Song repertoire, and use it as the main musical motif throughout the film. While the film proudly credits Lalon Fakir as co-lyricist along with Srijato, not mentioning the Austrian composer is a clear indication of a rather dishonest intent and a disrespectful attitude towards the audience.
Before ending the article, some words must be kept aside for the actors and acting for two main reasons. The film boasts a brilliant cast and thus it made one wince to see the wastage of acting skills and talents of Anindya Banerjee, Shantilal Mukherjee, Rupa Ganguly and especially the legendary Waheeda Rehman. Just like everything else in the film, probably assembling this company of actors was also a publicity stunt and nothing else. However, one has to appreciate the efforts of Jisshu Sengupta playing the rash and headstrong Tayyab. He not only looked the part but also held his ground even in the weakest moments of the screenplay. He moved with a cat like furtiveness and delivered his lines with an evil relish.
On hindsight, the film is a failed musical and a failed adaptation. It lacks in honesty and conviction. At its best, Arshinagar is an uninspired imitation of other adaptations. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Not in cinematic terms.
Arup Ratan Samajdar