Pratim D. Gupta’s latest film Maacher Jhol twists and turns the everyday Bengali culinary ‘maacher jhol’ into a magic concoction aimed at pure entertainment. ‘Maacher Jhol’ here becomes the character that binds, or unbinds the different layers of relationships – the ones that are fractured and decimated beyond repair, the ones distanced by geography, career choices and ego and the others bound by blood.
‘Maacher Jhol’ or fish curry is so casual yet integral part of the Bengali identity across the world, that every Bengali takes it for granted. Some say that a Bengali can be identified in any mixed group because he/she begins to talk of food within two minutes. But such discussions are centered on exotic dishes in Moghlai, Chinese, Thai and Continental food.
So, when film critic-turned-filmmaker Pratim D. Gupta decides to title his third film Maacher Jhol, it sounds confusing. How can the ordinary fish curry be the subject of a full-length feature film? This dish forms an inseparable part of the daily Bengali lunch for approximately 222 million Bengalis spread across West Bengal and Bangladesh. Vegetarians among Bengalis are those who have opted for Vaishnavism and those who are Gaudiya Brahmins.
The film twists and turns the everyday ‘maacher jhol’ into a magic concoction of a full-length feature film aimed solely at entertainment with a big “E”. ‘Maacher Jhol’ here becomes the character that binds, or unbinds different layers of a relationship film – relationships fractured and decimated beyond repair, relationships distanced by geography, career choices and ego, relationships bound by blood and a new bonding created when the old one is brought to closure.
Maacher Jhol is the journey of a man who evolves from qualified engineer Devdutt Sen, the sole heir of an aristocratic Bengali family in Kolkata to become Dev D. an internationally renowned Chef and restaurateur who owns several Michelin-starred restaurants in France and USA and lives in Paris with his French girlfriend.
He carries a heavy baggage of his past life he is not really aware of till a phone call from Kolkata informs him that his mother is critically ill. Which is “home” is a dilemma for Dev D. who has closed the Kolkata chapter of his life 13 years ago and has never spoken to his attitude-spilling-over father who refuses to accept his only child quitting a solid job as engineer to become a Chef. Never mind his tremendous success in his chosen career!
But Paris too, is not exactly “home” for him because he persistently shies away from marrying his French girlfriend who cannot cook to save her life and has chosen dance as her vocation. His only contact with his Kolkata past has been through occasional long-distance calls to his mother who satisfies herself by watching her son’s extremely popular culinary shows on international television channels.
When his overjoyed mother, strapped to her hospital bed, asks him to make the same fish curry he had cooked 25 years ago, this experimentation with the “fish curry” becomes the binding factor not only with his mother but more importantly, brings back some of the sad and bitter ghosts of the past to haunt Dev.
As the “Fish Curry Project” he sets up with a pretty young Chef to help in the five-star hotel he is staying in kicks off, the camera keeps cutting into the narrative with big close-ups of a gas burner on the stove, cut fish being dropped in smoking oil, fish rolled in mounds of turmeric, turned into a globalised, post-modern version in the way it is served, to focus on the significance of an ordinary dish within relationships in a deceptively simple family. His mother keeps asking for “exactly the same curry” of 25 years ago and once again, we are made witness to those repeat shots of the fish being cooked in different ways. These shots are too repetitive assuming that the viewers have a short memory or perhaps it is used as a repeated metaphor to underscore the importance of nostalgia through food that rekindles the bonding that sustains between a mother and her estranged son.
There is a small but interesting sub-plot of a young journalist waiting to interview Dev D for the paper he works in. Dev D brings his whimsical arrogance and attitude right across in his interactions with this journalist who not only takes it in his stride but also gives it to him back when he says that he will not hand over the interview to his editor. This reminds one of Aditi, the journalist in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak who tore up the sheets she had written her interview with matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee towards the end of the film.
The film practically glides through the streets of Paris in France where Dev D speaks French smattered with Bengali so that he does not lose touch, to Kolkata, to his home where his father remains as adamant and as insulting as ever, to the hospital room to be with his mother and be shocked to find his estranged wife Sreela having come to see his mother. It is as if Dev D has forgotten that he had a wife he had cruelly left behind when he chose to quit family, job and country not knowing that she was pregnant. Sreela lives an independent, lonely and frozen life made meaningful with her son. She strongly advises Dev D to go ahead with their divorce so that he does not keep his French girlfriend living in uncertainty forever.
What strikes about the film is that the script and the director have not tried at any point to turn Dev D into a larger-than-life hero. He rejects the suggestive advances the pretty young Chef enamoured by his fame and glamour makes and keeps her away. Dev D basically, turns out to be an ordinary young Bengali who loves his roots but is too egoistic to accept this. He is extremely selfish to have thoughtlessly deserted his wife to seek his dreams. He is selfish enough never to come down to Kolkata to see his mother once in all these 13 years. He has an attitude problem as we see with his interactions with the young journalist. And he has commitment problems about relationships with wife or girlfriend. His only gift in fact, is his talent with turning out some of the best cuisines in the world and making the best of it through different media. The ‘maacher jhol’ finally makes his mother happy, never mind that it is served in a globalised fashion we do not quite care for. But it does not smoothen out the relationship with his father, left in limbo, or with Sreela, fractioned forever.
The background score is subtle and controlled and so are the couple of songs used imaginatively on the soundtrack and positioned without intruding into the narrative. The editing switches and changes tracks seamlessly enough never to jerk you into jet setting from Paris to Kolkata and back. Or moving from the posh interiors of Dev D’s hotel suite into the narrow bylanes that lead to Sreela’s dilapidated home; or, flitting from the aristocratic mansion of the Sens’ with its antique furniture, the old retinue lorded over by the feudal lord, punctuated heavily with the process of the making of the different kinds of ‘maacher jhol’ till Dev D gets it exactly the way his mother wants it. Looked at a bit more deeply, this entire trial-and-error process holds a parallel with the imperfections inherent even in the most perfect of Chefs in the style and manner of Dev D.
Rittwick Chakraborty generously maps his journey from the young but unhappy Devdutt Sen to the very successful and affluent Dev D with just the right dose of evolutionary switches in facial expression, body language and spoken language, emphasising how his love for his mother tongue never waned over 13 years of living in France. He is a superb actor and is perhaps one of the best discoveries of contemporary Bengali cinema. Mamata Shankar as his mother forever strapped to the hospital bed yet never soaking the ambience with depression or defeat or the fear of death, is superb which she always is but has never got her due.
Paoli Dam as Sreela has a completely different brief where her naiveté as witnessed in that studio photograph of the pair takes a turn to become a cold version of her former self, detached, alienated, alone but firm in her convictions and her mistrust in relationships. Sumanta Mukhopadhyay as Dev D’s father, Mithu Chakraborty as his aunt and Arjun Chakraborty as the young journalist are very good indeed. The beautiful but restrained Souraseni Maitra as the young Chef who feels a pull towards Dev D is a pleasant surprise filled with a lot of hep and the bubbly enthusiasm of youth. Subhankar Bhar’s cinematography is ideal to say the least. The French actress is a disappointment not because she is not a good actor but because, not knowing the language or any familiarity with the Bengali culture, she really fails to express the right emotions at the right time. She needed a more in-depth brief and ought to have given more time to internalise the character to jell into the film.
My only problem is with the ‘globalised’ manner of serving the fish curry each time Dev serves it to his mother. The normal way we eat is to serve a small hillock of rice, with the bowl of fish curry kept beside. We part the rice to make a tiny pond in the middle and pour the fish curry into this pond. The fish is kept on one side of the plate to remove the bones with our fingers and then relish it, bite by small bite with our fingers. The rice and the curry are mixed to make a deliciously tasty mish-mash to be taken with one’s fingers performing a merry dance on the plate till the entire thing disappears into your digestive system. In Maacher Jhol, Dev D places the rice by upturning a bowl filled with rice in the centre of the plate. He then pours the fish curry, around this small, sculpted hemisphere of rice that looks like a small hillock standing right in the middle of a colourful lake. This is something Bengalis in India and Bangladesh will find difficult to learn and be happy about.
But Maacher Jhol, the film is not at all solely about ‘maacher jhol’. It is more about a man’s journey from being a family person who is unhappy to a person who is successful but lonely, who does not realise the value of relationships, nostalgia and memories until he discovers this through his ‘maacher jhol’ cooked and served only to his mother. What more can one ask for? Will he ever cook it for his French girlfriend?
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