Hemanta: Familiarity Breeding Contempt

Posted by Kaahon Desk On August 21, 2016

Engaging with Anjan Dutt’s Hemanta might raise the question about whether a film adapted from an existing text should be read as a distinct individual text or solely as an adaptation. In case of Hemanta, one might recall the widely talked about interview of Anjan Dutt where he negatively responded to Vishal Bharadwaj’s take on the play (Haider, 2014) and revealed his own plans about interpreting the Shakespeare tragedy on screen. And so if one considers the Anjan Dutt film to be an adaptation, it suffers from a lack of directorial intervention as well as departures and defamiliarization from the original text. In the absence of a fresh approach or a new entry point, the film ends up being a mere retelling of the plot in a straightforward fashion which turns Hemanta into a lacklustre if not flawed cinematic exercise.

The plot of the film revolves around Agradoot, a giant film conglomerate based in Tollygunge. When the owner of the company dies mysteriously, his younger brother Kalyan (Saswata Chatterjee as Claudius) takes over the company and marries his widowed sister-in-law Gayatri (Gargi Roy Chowdhury as Gertrude), a veteran film star. Gayatri’s son Hemanta (Parambrata Chatterjee as Hamlet) has been abroad all the while, studying in the New York Film School but decides to return home after his friend Hirak (Jisshu Sengupta as Horatio) informs him of cryptic messages being sent from an untraceable phone number which hint towards a set of sinister undercurrents about the father’s death as well as the state of affairs with the company. As Hemanta comes back home, the rest of the drama plays out against the backdrop of Kolkata, particularly the film industry.

This shift of backdrop from Denmark to the Tollygunge film industry and allowing the actions described in the text to unfold betrays a poverty of imagination which haunts not just Bengali cinema but overall mainstream Bengali culture. It is suggestive of an inability or unwillingness to step into unchartered territories and taking those risks and leaps as an artiste. Instead, the director inevitably decides to play it safe calling a truce with the middle class psyche of the audience, keeping them comfortable within their familiar zones. As a result the film, albeit narrating a well-conceived storyline, never transcends into becoming something more symptomatic. As for Hamlet’s crisis, the film attempts to build a creative/aesthetic struggle where the protagonist yearns for film language novelty against the industry produced remakes. However, Hemanta as a film doesn’t even strive to push the limits of the mainstream film form of contemporary Bengali cinema and thus the core argument becomes counterproductive and falls flat. Further attempts at creating subplots about shady dealings and a ghost company and funding terrorism, aimed at creating the corrupt and rotten state of affairs, only generate an irksome sense of xenophobia.

Having said that, the film is certainly one of the better efforts to come out of Bengali Film industry and certainly the best by Anjan Dutt, at least in the recent past. It fulfils one of the basic conditions of mainstream films which Bengali cinema fails to do miserably and regularly; the film succeeds in narration despite the highs and lows. The cinematography deserves a special mention in this regard with intelligent decisions in framing and use of lights and shadows. While the screenplay is unnecessarily long and redundant at times and fails to do any justice to the female characters, it certainly presents a rather redeemed version of Claudius who is somewhat a coarse and half-baked figure in the play. Together with the scenes and Saswata Chatterjee’s performance in them, the character of Kalyan is granted its due position within the narrative. Jisshu Sengupta also leaves his mark as the moral centre reminding once again about his steady improvement and maturity as an actor. As for Parambrata Chatterjee in the titular role, despite being inconsistent and the ridiculously phoney accent, this just might be his best performance ever. However, the most delightful turn certainly comes from Sagnik playing Rajesh (Rosencrantz), one of Kalyan’s henchmen.

On hindsight, one can point out a few directorial decisions which kept the film from becoming one of the better ones even within its average aspirations. A major drawback was the film’s attempt to directly engage with the Shakespearean text which resulted in the poems sent from an unknown number which had a rather trivializing impact on the narrative. Even more damaging, was the use of quotations in the screenplay both direct and translated, the results ranging from ill-timed (“To be or not to be” over a glass of whiskey) to outright ridiculous (“Frailty, thy name is woman” becoming “Nari tumi Norbore”). While it seemed interesting to hear Amyt Datta’s clean tone guitar work as background score, it soon turned out to be overused. And then there was a Bengali translation of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows, penned and performed by Anjan Dutt which appeared during the climax, becoming a jarring distraction. However, the most baffling decision has to be the one where the climactic scene of Claudius and Hamlet’s death is being directly lifted from Contempt (Jean Luc Godard, 1963) as Kalyan and Hemanta are killed in a car accident which takes place off screen. I mean, why JLG? Seriously!

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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