How does one exactly go about writing a review of a film that runs for about 165 minutes and almost each and every frame is a manifestation of every possible form of cinematic flaws, technical, aesthetic and discursive? I believe that most of the visitors will exit right after reading the first sentence. The precious few who’d invest their time in reading the entire piece should know that the write up is merely the tip of the iceberg which I believe would suffice in making the essential points clear. The rest is just redundancy, which I am afraid is becoming a synonym for contemporary Bengali cinema.
Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini is tale of an elite brothel, which had seen better days to be evicted out in the wake of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. The residents of the brothel include an assortment of girls from various backgrounds with their own harrowing experiences during communal riots, an elderly woman who stays with them, a pimp, a bodyguard and a queen bee like figure called Begum Jaan who runs the household and the business tyrannically and effectively. She is apparently the mistress of the local Nawab, which is the source of her strength and confidence. Under such circumstances, there arrives the pair of Government officials from the two countries with an eviction notice citing the fact that the proposed border will pass through the land where the brothel is located. The government order and officials are both met with hostility. There follows a string of conspiracies with both the camps trying to outwit each other with either strategy or violence. Everything finally results in an open battle between the prostitutes wielding guns and the government forces comprising of hired goons packing heavier firepower.
Now keeping aside the factors of plausibility and factual errors, the film’s first and foremost flaw is its script. In an attempt to build up complexities and ambiguity, the film falls within a loop of redundant confusion. Throughout almost the first couple of hours of the film, scenes follow one after another without any sense of movement. The images keep shifting from refugee camps to government offices to the brothel without creating any sense of space. They merely remain what they are; tents, some furniture and stationeries and a courtyard surrounded by a verandah. It is disappointing to see Avik Mukherjee, one of the most important DoPs of present time, doing such a half-hearted job with his lights and lens. The refugee camps do not tell the tale of suffering, the government offices fail to impart the aura of tyranny and oppression and the brothel simply doesn’t generate any affect or any sense of belonging which is worth fighting, killing and dying for. And the annoying verbosity of the film where every piece of information is communicated in dialogue, reduce the entire exercise to a badly crafted radio-play.
Next enters the set of characters. Ernest Hemingway once said, “…a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” In that sense, the script or the film has given us a wide assortment of outlines of caricatures. Boasting the biggest star cast in a Bengali film, it is breathtaking to see how the writer failed to develop even a single character properly and is heartbreaking to see actors like Saswata Chatterjee and Sudipta Chakraborty doing an uninspired job in wasted and pointless roles. Only, Jisshu Sengupta succeeded in making a mark with his evil portrayal of a village tout who incites riots for a living. He seemed real, sincere and quite revolting with his gaze, movements and smile. But the rest of the actors appear in this mess of a screenplay and say a lot of things and do a lot of things, but nothing points towards creating the character or building the arc; their background, their motivation, their hopes, dreams, anxieties and aspirations. Like a dishonest trader, the writer-director attempts to pass on these half-baked caricatures as complex characters but things fall apart at every stage. Why did Master (Abir Chaterjee) turn to shifty? Why did Begum Jaan turn so benevolent? Why did Prafulla (Saswata Chaterjee) and Ilyas (Kaushik Sen) decide to keep their friendship/hostility a secret and what made one a better or worse person than the other? Why was Parno Mitra’s character singled out for the violent predicament? Where did Biswajit Chaterjee vanish? Why the Nawab’s character was introduced so elaborately and bid farewell so unceremoniously? What was Shashi’s (Kanchan Mullick) plan with the runaway prostitutes and what made him change it? There are about a million more like them…but never mind!
The most offensive aspect of the film, that truly betrays director’s lack of depth and understanding of history, literature, politics and gender issues, is the climax. A tale of prostitutes and a brothel never touched upon the economics but suddenly turned into a patriotic mode. A bunch of women took up arms to defend their home/land. The characters gave rousing speeches about their sense of belonging and living with dignity turning the building into a space of woman empowerment. Consequently it makes one cringe when it becomes clear that the entire scheme of things is controlled by the Nawab who has rights over every girl, especially the new ones, before anyone else. And finally, after defying a lot of laws of physics, the women realize that death and destruction of their property is inevitable. And in an apparently spit-in-the-face-of-males move, they turn back into the flaming house where the elderly woman reads out the myth of Padmini who along with other Rajput women jumped into the flame to escape the predicament in the hands of Muslim invaders. As the film ends, the screen lights up with the brothel on fire with the prostitutes awaiting their fate inside and the voice of the elderly woman played by Lily Chakraborty can be heard, “Jai Mahasati-r jai!” (a rousing call in the celebration of Sati system).
Thus, Srijit Mukherjee brings together a band of women suffering the worst of oppressions from the feudal-patriarchal system and tries to project them as poster girls of liberation and empowerment. And their moment of death is equated with the worst of ancient systems of Patriarchal/Brahminical domination where a widow’s death is celebrated by the society. And the director projects it as their final moment of victory.
And then the audience stood up and clapped.
Arup Ratan Samajdar