Anindya Chatterjee’s third feature film Manojder Adbhut Bari is a delightful children’s comedy which does justice to the superb humour and wit inherent in Sirshendu Mukherjee’s original text with the same name. An ensemble cast where each character seems a little weird, the film brings a whiff of fresh air into our boring and mundane life.
How relevant can a children’s novel written four decades ago remain in the age of Avengers, Transformers and Super-heroes? As a literary text it is highly debatable indeed considering the fact that reading as a habit has steadily waned over the last decade or so. Bengal has a rich literary culture and particularly a legacy of popular children’s fiction in the vernacular language. The natural extension to this literary legacy could have been children’s films. Unfortunately that has not been the case till date and children’s films are hard to come by. Satyajit Ray’s Felu-da stories however is one genre which gets repeated with a fair precision, thanks to Ray’s son Sandip. The other writer whose fame among the young minds is sky high is Sirshendu Mukherjee. There have been a few attempts to translate his children’s stories into films – notable being Rituparno Ghosh’s first feature Hirer Angti apart from others’ ventures including Patal Ghar, Chhayamoy and Gosain Baganer Bhoot. Unlike most other writers, Sirshendu’s style involves an ensemble of characters mostly set in a ‘mofussil’ town or any quaint Bengali village. It is by the power of his pen, like many great literary giants of the language, that Sirshendu could make the urban, elite, and sophisticated young Kolkatan associate himself or herself with the simple, rustic characters of his stories.
In this context when the psychological shift over the last decade or so has been paramount it is of some interest and importance to understand if a story published in 1978 can be relevant in 2018 or it will just pass away as a whiff. Sirshendu’s ‘Manojder Adbhut Bari’, the exceedingly popular novel is a difficult text to filmise precisely because of its plethora of cameo characters who all add value to the buildup. Their minimalistic presence in the original text is justified within the contours of literature but in the context of cinema they may become placid if left to their meager little background and active actions. Director Anindya Chatterjee hence had to make some modifications, getting rid of a few minor characters, adding one of two of his own to the benefit of the narrative though he maintained the literary progression of events as well as the essence of it to the tee.
Among the different distributaries of his literary genre, Sirshendu’s apparent innocent storylines have a few repeating characters – a police chief, a religious sadhu may be a tantric guru, dacoits, petty thieves, domesticated ghosts, a scientist along with some of his innovative inventions and so forth. For this film the director hand-picked a few such trademark situations and characters in line with this milieu even if they weren’t there in the original text like the petty thief doubling up as an insurance agent. Even the convenient forgetfulness of Manoj’s father who always boasts about his memory and eventually jeopardises his dialogues during the rehearsals of a forthcoming theatre production is an intelligent addition to the main plot. However the crow incident in its entirety and the reference of Manoj’s youngest uncle who is a scientist isn’t fleshed out sufficiently well. The scientist himself isn’t well conceived and in the climax his inclusion with his invention – ‘Goriman’ is quite stale in comparison with the rest of the film. By changing the original ‘Goriman’ (a mix of Gorilla and Hanuman) to a more human incarnate the director created a feeling of awe and fear associated with Frankestein rather than the comic one associated with an ape. Similarly the 3 musicians who were captured by the dacoits didn’t mix well even as a subplot though the purpose of the sequence to introduce the missing prince as a converted dacoit is well understood.
One basic premise of Sirshendu’s stories in their humble settings that remains as an undercurrent is the importance of nonsense in our daily lives. By taking life less seriously than one may assume, his characters are more often than not happy-go-lucky simpletons. That is why one finds a police chief often reduced to a mere human with frailties and fear, a music teacher who is filled with self-pity for not achieving the musical excellence he thrives for, a teacher who is able to teach only when seated in a particular posture or an aged queen who has to sell cow-dung cakes to earn a living. Sirshendu’s stories in general and ‘Manojder Adbhut Bari’ in particular have no villains as such. Even the dacoits have a humane side, an ulterior benevolent aspect to their apparent misdemeanor. In this circus of life we find unexpected strength of character of unusual personalities. That is why the old aunt of Manoj’s father whom everyone refer to as ‘Thakurjhi’ has an iron shield to her veneer – she uses it not only to discipline the inmates of the family but also while dealing with outsiders, from a petty thief to the police chief.
In the same vein most of Sirshendu’s stories also have the sublime recurrent theme of timid people rising to glory by miniscule triggers and situations. This is why Bhoju Bajaru, the second uncle of Manoj overwhelms himself to lead a pack of dacoits forgetting the daily ignominies he suffers from his own people. Probably the film portrays Bhoju Bajaru as a not so reticent person as a result his sudden transformation while holding a pistol doesn’t have the same connotation as the one experienced while reading the original text. But these are minor aberrations in a thoroughly enjoyable film.
Acting in an ensemble cast of almost eccentric people entangled in a weird mesh of events is indeed challenging. Most of the actors do justice to their reputation. However Bratya Basu as Detective Barada Charan shines out with his supreme comic timing and delectable wit. He will make the informed audience remember some of the stalwart comic actors and roles of Bengali cinema.
The background score and the songs of the film (specially the hilarious courtesan dance sequence ‘O Go Luchi’) are mostly well presented. The build up to the sequence of the prince-turned-dacoit’s return to the palace is a bit hackneyed but in the final sequence the film does live up to its expectation and ends rather nicely. The credit must go to the director since most of the children’s films and also the ones based on Sirshendu’s stories start off well but end in a whimper. Anindya Chatterjee’s faithfulness to the literary text and his expertise in the craft of transcreation ensured that the film sailed steadily and ended well.
‘O Go Luchi’
What about the question raised in the first line of this essay? How does this film based on a story written in 1978 score amongst today’s teens and even younger ones? The literary text has a very distinct ‘Bengaliness’ in its exposition and profiling of the characters. In a homogeneous world these specificities are fast getting lost under the brutal ironing of generic trends and tendencies. So, the way the older generation, the middle-aged Bengali mostly on the wrong side of forty including this essayist and the film’s director, would relate and associate themselves with the film, the same correlation is unjust to expect of today’s teens. Most of them may enjoy the slapstick moments of the film but the inherent humor in the dialogues laden with the race’s collective sub-consciousness may be lost on them.
Yet, Anindya Chatterjee’s third feature film Manojder Adbhut Bari is a desired and desirable Bengali film, one of the best of the year without any doubt. Primarily because it rekindles nostalgia amongst the middle-aged Bengali middleclass by better means than the other prevalent ways of tugging to the nostalgic strands of the audience superficially. Director Anindya and his Manojder Adbhut Bari need to be highly applauded for instilling the belief that to reminisce one’s childhood we need films on popular texts more than scene references of yesteryear films – of Satyajit Ray or Uttam Kumar. Precisely so the Felu-da and Byomkesh references in this film seem less invigorating though Anindya and Bratya ensured that the comedy doesn’t go overboard.
The success of Manojder Adbhut Bari is required and important. Since only then children’s film will foster again in Bengali cinema. There is a treasure trove of high-class children’s literature in Bengali. A slow and slight trend has started in converting them to printed comics. The young Bengali audience will be better served if there are films on them as well. Manojder Adbhut Bari showed that the task is feasible. Let us hope the other directors take a cue from it.
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