As Meghnad Badh Rahasya draws to an end, one of the primary characters called Kunal Sen who is a filmmaker by profession vows to adapt the plot of a semi-autobiographical story written by the protagonist. But he self-righteously declares that unlike the protagonist who had displaced his own crises and the context to the era of armed struggle against the British rule, Kunal would set his film in the 70s. Thus, after running for over two and a half hours and revolving around a crisis which germinated during the Naxalbari movement, the Anik Dutta film ends with a promise of another film, this time more authentic, dealing with the same issue. Thus, the director seems to have traveled the proverbial ‘full circle’ ending precisely at his point of beginning, with zero displacements.
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The whole thing also reminds of what is known as ‘object petit a’ in Lacanian psychoanalysis. The term basically stands for the unattainable object of desire. To put it simply, the concept suggests that desire will exist only in registers of fantasy, memory, and impossibility and hence unattainable. It seems that some kind of a ‘perfect’ film on Naxalbari movement functions as the object of desire for the urban Bengali bourgeois class. And since it is unattainable by its psychoanalytic definition, they can only resort to this ever-continuous celebration of ‘Naxal-gia’, a depoliticized and romanticized sentiment regarding a politically charged and violent era. Incidentally, Kunal Sen, who is the filmmaker character in the film, is the name of Mrinal Sen’s son. Whether done deliberately or unwittingly, this decision can have some less than flattering implications.
To put forth the film’s summary would be next to impossible. To say that it deals with a mysterious disappearance and the following investigations would be far from the truth because the said disappearance and the ensuing investigations do not take place until one and half hour into the film, if not more. It’d suffice to say that at the center of the plot, there is a renowned sci-fi writer who is surrounded by a set of characters; friends, family, colleagues, servants, etc. all of whom are either harboring secrets or involved in some scheme or the other.
While the whodunnit structure has been proven ineffective in cinema, it cannot be considered to be a cardinal sin. However, the screenplay gets trapped under the overtly verbose weight of endless characters, redundant scenes, ceaseless intrigues. In order to have an interesting suspect list in the typical Agatha Christie fashion, a wide assortment of stereotypical characters such as young second wife, unsuccessful filmmaker, artiste friend, distant poor relation, son recovering from substance abuse, etc are assembled and each one is given a fair share of personal secret which can lead to a plausible motive. But to pull the rabbit out of hat in the denouement, all these factors not only prove to be a misdirection but absolutely irrelevant to the core crisis. As a result, the film completely discards all these sub-plots which had developed for the greater part of the duration. Even the idea of investigation is extremely superficial with an unnecessary time devoted to the first round of routine questions by the police. There is absolutely no plot development in these scenes and the entire take home value just boils down to a couple of jokes. Even the unofficial investigation taken up by the wife and the filmmaker friend is equally unsatisfying since there is no pattern or method. It finally becomes a matter of directorial and editorial decision to place a series of scenes with the suspects revealing their secrets and thus clearing them off with respect to the crisis at hand.
Having said that, the film actually has an interesting premise and quite a powerful plot at the core. The protagonist had been involved in the Naxabari movement and during its final days, he betrayed his comrade who died in police encounter. The protagonist went abroad and had enjoyed a successful life in terms of wealth, fame and prestige. But his demons are stirred up when the dead comrade’s daughter seeks him out and demands a public confession. While this had all the possibilities of an impactful revenge drama which might have dealt with the very nature of revenge a la Park Chan Wook, the film not only chooses to be a whodunnit but also builds an elaborate plot around Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s ‘Meghnad Badh Kabya’. This entire idea of ‘adaptation’ remains superficial since its only restricted to the names of the characters. If only the dead comrade had a name other than Indrajit, the screenplay would have had nothing to do with Dutt’s poetry. The whole Ramayana connect thus looks very imposed including prolonged scenes of Gautam Halder performing it on stage. Furthermore, in an attempt to exorcise his guilt, the protagonist writes a confessional work of fiction setting it during the freedom struggle, as mentioned in the beginning which run parallel to the main narrative. Amid all these elements, the idea of mystery never really takes off and the incessant jokes, puns, anecdotes, word plays and name dropping further damage the cause. One example would suffice. It is not enough to name the protagonist Asimav Bose but it also must be explained in dialogue that it is a take on Isaac Asimov’s name and throw in the names of a handful of sci-fi writers from Arthur C Clarke to Philip K Dick. Similar explanations are given for Alu Posto, Biriyani, Blowing up photographs or digital filmmaking. (Seriously, this is not an exaggeration!)
Writing about contemporary Bengali cinema had itself become a redundant exercise since the same things recur again and again, mainly offensive content and the lack of craftsmanship. Meghnad Badh Rahasya is hardly an exception. The homosexual is the comic relief, the Santhal tribe is always singing and dancing (whether is dream sequence or in the pro-filmic reality). But things become problematic with the portrayal of the Naxals as well the police officers from the 1970s. The film’s utter detachment with political realities become evident as it is incapable of dealing with the violence of the era or even imagine the character of a present-day Maoist guerrilla. They appear like pack animals out of the forest, fully dressed and faces covered and without a word, they blow up a bridge. So, the idea of a Naxal guerrilla in the film is a faceless, nameless, destructive entity with no political identity. On the other hand, the film takes convenient liberties portraying the mastermind of Baranagar massacre Runu Guha Neogi, rechristening him Sunu Guha Thakutra as he comes across as an affable-old-washed out-alcoholic reminiscing the turbulent times and almost giving himself a clean chit. The problem is that the film completely avoids engaging with his stance, neither being an acquiescent but nor being a critique too.
When the film has already bitten off way more than it can chew, the cinematic craft is bound to take a back seat. In this case it was almost like witnessing Television taking over cinema. The camera all throughout records information (with the sole exception of one tracking shot on the protagonist’s face), never quite intervening or engaging. Similarly, except for two instances of match cuts between switches and cigarettes, the entire editing process looks like mere placement of shots side by side and long fade outs when there is no other escape route available. But the analogy of Television is more relevant because of the overall approach experienced in the film. There is an abundance or overload of information but there is no critical device of looking at that information and processing it into something else…CINEMA.
Arup Ratan Samajdar