There is something about the mysterious power of cinema, which refuses to keep anything hidden beneath layers of gloss, spectacle, cheap tricks or sheer guile. For anybody willing to look, it will inevitably lay bare the truth. When the lights go out inside the theatre, it is the hour of final judgment and every single instance of shortcoming is magnified manifold for everyone to see.
— kaahon (@kaahonwall) December 1, 2017
Saibal Mitra’s Chitrokar begins with a disclaimer that it is not a biopic of either Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay or Mark Rothko, but inspired by the lives and works of both the artistes. The plot deals around an ageing blind painter, a legend of his times, called Bijan Bose (Dhritiman Chatterjee) and a young aspiring painter, struggling hard to make her mark, called Tithi (Arpita Chatterjee). When Bose is offered a huge sum of money to make a mural for a restaurant, Tithi starts working with him as an assistant. After months of hard work and deliberations, punctuated by prolonged debates about the notion of art, the work reaches completion. But following a visit to the restaurant, Bose is deeply upset with the placement and way the work is displayed there. He returns the money and takes his mural back.
Considering that the film is not a biopic, the next obvious question is, what is it then? Although it begins with Tithi’s crisis, the film is not about the struggles of a young painter. And neither it is about the final glory of a recluse artiste. It is certainly not about the eternal debate between the old and the new, be it in terms of art or life in general. However, the film attempts to be all of these and fails spectacularly in following up any of the trajectories and thereby resulting in a narrative, which is stunningly devoid of anything meaningful. For what it’s worth, it is as far removed as possible, from both Benodebehari Mukhopadhyay as well as Mark Rothko, barring a set of biographical information.
It is a commonplace practice anywhere in the world, even in the most mainstream of films, to use the paintings as a point of reference when it comes to the visual design of a film about a painter. Despite its pretentious self-righteousness, the images in Chitrokar bear no mark of the modernist interventions of Benodebehari, other than occasional animated shots of the paintings which finally amount to mere instances of gimmick, in an otherwise uninspired visual narration. Similarly, the fact that a large part of the film is about observing an artiste at work, it is spoiled by an interventionist editing which is always eager to cut to the close ups of characters talking. Even the sound design is marked by its wasted opportunities. There could have been exciting possibilities of a rich sonic world since the protagonist is blind and yet a highly sensitive and perceptive artiste. But other than just one scene where he uses a newspaper to understand the intensity of rain, where again the sound is merely serving the information on image, the aural design is filled with music and functional sounds.
The failure in writing is probably the most glaring of all. Every line with every information is at least repeated thrice and there are no dramatic motivations or explanations in character or narrative development. They just turn from hostile and rude to friendly and gracious, as one-scene shifts to the next. Overall, it’s a burning testimony of the director’s utter lack of understanding or serious engagement with the subject, betraying the overtly exploitative tendencies.
With a film like Chitrokar, the very project is destined to be a failure right from the word go. By weaving a fictional narrative about the lives and works of two painters, in a contemporary setting, it decontextualizes their art. Furthermore, there is also a risk of failure to arrive at a film form or a film language, which can justify the discursive position of their works or facilitate a dialogue between the two artistes. This particular film simply reduces everything to banal biographical information, being utterly ignorant about style, form or film language. The film is either oblivious about Benodebehari’s secular and modernist aesthetics, away from the spiritual and nationalist overtones of the Bengal School of Art, or is a conscious project of regression towards a Hindu imagination where survival of a high art is conditioned by a certain sanitized way of life, preached by youth who have names like Ram and move about wearing saffron attire while talking about building ‘temple’ of artworks. Throughout the prolonged and verbose debates on art, the film betrays its orthodox and dated ideas of aesthetics and reveals the ingrained cultural misogyny as the young woman is portrayed as irreverent, disrespectful, selfish and lacking direction who is redeemed by the ‘words of wisdom’ and the ‘final sacrifice’ of the male artiste.