Atanu Sen’s recent film Abby Sen is about Time Travel to 1980s Kolkata. A film review.
Today, the publicity hype around a film begins from the time it is announced. By the time of the film’s release, everyone knows all about the film – the plot, the storyline, the cast, the shooting locations, the crew including anecdotes about who fell and broke his arm and so on. The result is that much of the suspense around the film is spoilt. Abby Sen does not strictly fall within this firstly because its maker, Atanu Ghosh, explores such novel ideas in every film that without knowing the story – which he fiercely guards against public knowledge – the suspense heightens instead of dissipating and secondly, because among the cacophony of Bengali films screaming out their stories with loud music, lavish mounting, big stars and song picturisations in foreign locations, his films bring in a whiff of fresh air through their understatement and gentle touch.
Abby Sen marks an exception. “Time Travel” is travelling not through space as we do but through time, journeying back and forth from the point you exist to a point in the past or into the future. Atanu uses his gentle, feather-light, directorial touches to give expression to a unique journey of his protagonist, Abby Sen caught between his obsession with films and his failure to hold down a job though he is qualified for them. Does he live in a world of dreams? Or is he grounded in the real world with flights of fancy into a dream world now and then? Let us take a closer look.
Circa 2013. Abby Sen (Abir Chatterjee) is a television producer addicted to cinema but a failure in his profession. He changes seven jobs and is not considered good at any of them. His loving wife Sromi (Arunima Ghosh) is oblivious to all this and appears to be on perennial, expensive shopping sprees. She loves her husband dearly which is neatly undercut by her violent temper which drives her to crash the very mirror she has just purchased. Through a close friend (Sujan Mukherjee) Abby meets an eccentric scientist (Chiranjeet) internationally renowned for his research in time travel. He offers him two pills that will take him through time 33 years into the past. There is a time-bound catch which if Abby cannot stick to for the second pill, he will be stuck in 1980 for one full year.
Flashback -1980. Abir wakes up from sleep in a football ground in Calcutta where a local club coach (Kanchan Mullick), amazed to see him surface since his disappearance from Pele’s kick in Calcutta takes him to his apology of a room in a slum close to a red light area and a night school filled with noisy brats.
Abby meets a pretty woman and is surprised to recognize Sreerupa Chatterjee, his mother-in-law (Priyanka Banerjee) as a young woman with a mind of her own. He also meets Parama (Raima Sen) a beautiful young woman who is a musician who lives with her cardiologist mother. She falls in love with Abby and Abby feels the pull too but as he co-exists in two time zones, his love for his wife Sromi pulls him back. He learns the difference between ‘success’ and ‘failure’ when he discovers that he is considered technically in command of his job at the television studios at that time. Of course, they are unaware that his skill and experience are traced into the future with hundreds of satellite channels streaming every kind of programme.
He reflects on his ‘failed’ status in 2013 and tries to weigh his ‘success’in 1980. But is life all about success and failure? Not really and Parama acts as a strong guiding force who tells him that life is bigger than everything else, including cancer. When Abby confesses to her that he finds similarities between segments of his life and some films, she says, “so long as cinema remains, you will continue to dream.”
The recreation of Calcutta in 1980 is perhaps the greatest miracle the film has made possible. One hears of the CPI-M-rule having come in three years back (1977) and the graffiti with Satyasadhan Chakraborty (CPI-M) asking for votes appear in the film several times. The second Hooghly Bridge is in the ‘discussion’ stage and the underground Metro under construction can be seen in the distance. The Black-and-White television sets trapped in old-fashioned wooden boxes, the studio interiors, the canteen including the cold drink being sold (Gold Spot) and theatres showing old films is spot on. The film poster outside the theatre is of Dui Prithibi – “two worlds” which aptly describes the predicament the hero is in. The political processions, the classical Bharat Natyam performance and finally, Abby fantasising his wife in a sizzling dance number brings his world into near-collapse.
So was Abby’s time travel one long dream that does not exist in reality? Not really because he meets people, makes contact and even lands jobs. There are moments that make him want to stay back and he asks for another capsule which he is refused. Madhu Shi’s camera wanders back into 1980 to release the freeze-frame of time locked in the past with the entry of a very confused, sad, surprised and troubled Abby who refuses to help Sreerupa in her elopement because this will destroy some relationships in the present 2013 which includes his wife. It turns out to be a good decision as the future shows. But it also spoils his relationship with Parama forever, also logical in the context of Abby’s return to base.
In the meantime, his wife has lodged a FIR against the scientist who, she believes, is responsible for her husband’s disappearance. When Abby appears as suddenly as he had vanished, she is thrilled but the next minute, she gets into her violent act and tears pillows to pieces, as the feathers float helter skelter. One feather floats away into the air to land at a garden where a slightly older, bespectacled Parama looks at the feather – the only bridge that blends the past and the present – and flashes a wistful smile.
No one could have fit into the character and looks of Abby the way Abir Chatterjee has, slipping into the soul of a lost man who does not know where, to who, when he belongs and how and for how long. The others, including tiny cameos like the one performed by the moori-mixing Paran Bandopadhyay to the alcoholic bluffmaster who pretends to work with Uttam Kumar and the glossily dressed sex worker who does not have a single dialogue are perfect. Raima looks beautiful and adds a romantic dimension to Parama while Priyanka as Sreerupa is confused trapped between feelings of guilt and the desire to break away is wonderful. Arunima is sparkling as Sromi but the frosting in the cake belongs to Chiranjeet as the mad scientist.
The wonderful musical score composed and orchestrated by Joy Sarkar is outstanding. There are strains of a Tagore number alongside three melodious songs, including a memorable duet sung by Rupankar and Anwesha. There is a mind-blowing fusion number that is both visually powerful musically versatile that suggests the time-leaps in the story though it happens in the past. Of the three theme compositions – Scientist, Time and Abby, the last is the best that is an ideal blend of music and rhythm.
Time travel, according to Atanu Ghosh’s film, is also about travelling through changing values, notions of ‘failure’ in the present turn amazingly into ‘success’ in the past. It is about meeting people you know you have never met before and will never meet again once you are back to home ground to the present. Some values do not change through time such as jealousy at the workplace, love born without a quid pro quo attached to it, parasites who bluff their way into begging, and a sex worker who comes forward to help Abby in high fever on the streets. They are still there in 2013 and there is no change in these values too.
If you are expecting some cinematic magic to happen that raises one’s expectations when the TV channels in 2013 are announcing the arrival of the world’s only human being who has travelled through time and is back, it does not happen and one is left to dwell on Abby internalizing his experience and keeping to himself. Perhaps it is too intimate for him to share with the voyeuristic world out there. It is for the audience to decide whether Abby will live happily ever after following his experience through time. But wasn’t all that a dream? Think about it………..
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