Raja Sen’s latest film Maya Mridanga which adapts from an original novel by noted writer Syed Mustafa Siraj, restores the history of an old folk performance art form that was very popular in some pockets of Bengal but is now almost fading into extinction. A Silhouette review.
Raja Sen is a veteran filmmaker in Bengali cinema. He has made several documentaries too but is known more for his feature films most often inspired from or adapted from different classics in Bengali literature. His feature films Damu (1997) and Atmiyo Swajan (1999) won National Awards. Among his literary classics on celluloid one might mention Krishnakanter Will (2008) based on Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel (1878) and Rabindranath Tagore’s Laboratory (2010).
The traditional language of criticism of filmic adaptations of novels is most often, judgemental about the filmmaker’s ‘disservice’ to literature. As critics, we fail to realize that cinema offers the rare experience that literature does not – the scope of acting on two senses at once, the eye and the ear. With Krishnokanter Will, Raja Sen explores the possibilities of placing a Bankim Chandra classic novelette on cinema. It was a reasonably good adaptation with some positive metamorphosis in Rohini’s character.
But Laboratory (2010), a controversial novel by Tagore, turned out to be a celluloid disaster mainly because Sen brought in Raveena Tandon to play the main role of Sohini who had neither read the Tagore story nor knew a word of Bengali yet refused to have her lines dubbed. Laboratory is one of the worst travesties of Tagore on celluloid. In trying to invest his own kind of ‘reality’ to the character of Sohini by keeping the heavily accented Bengali intact, Raja Sen strips Sohini of whatever little Bengali identity she might or should have imbibed over her long stay in Bengal. Sen’s insistent claim about Sohini’s Punjabi antecedents being the reason for her very bad Bengali does not hold water because she learnt it from her Bengali grandmother since she was little.
His last film Khancha (Cage) was an attempt to take a piggy-back ride on the woman question. But it that backfired badly because its script was loose and went out of control and the argument was weakened by the weak script bad storytelling and polarised characterisation.
His new film Maya Mridanga however, is off-beat even by Raja Sen’s standards because it adapts from an original novel by noted writer Syed Mustafa Siraj and at the same time, restores the history of an old folk performance art form that was very popular in some pockets of Bengal but is now almost fading into extinction. To resurrect and reconstruct an original folk performance form is not easy. But Siraj’s original novel, based on the writer’s first hand experience of having lived and worked with the Alkaap performers for several months made Raja Sen’s work easier.
The story of Jhanksu Ustad (Debshankar Haldar) forms a microcosm of the struggles of a lead founder and performer of an Alkaap group that wanders from place to place with its performances to eke out a bare livelihood made worse through competition from other folk forms and modern-day evolutions like television and cinema. Jhanksu has two wives living in two different places. But his ties with both wives are very slender and tenuous because his heart and soul lie solely in his music and his performance. The growing daughter does not like the rare visits of this occasional father who is completely immune to his responsibilities towards his family. His group members such as the dholakia Fazal (Gautam Haldar), his instrumentalists and other singers are totally committed to him and worship the road he walks on.
There is one more member in the group. This is the chhokra or the beautiful performer who adds to the sensuous femaleness of each performance and no Alkaap performance can draw crowds without the presence and performance of this chhokra. The word chhokra means ‘boy’ and that is what the chhokra in an Alkaap group stands for. In Jhanksu’s group, the feminine grace and attraction is provided by Shanti (Shantilal) who Jhanksu brought into the group when he was a normal boy of eight or ten and then groomed him carefully and patiently to act, behave, talk, sing, dance and dress up like a beautiful maiden. As this boy grows up, he begins to imbibe the female features that have been injected into him year after year so strongly that he behaves and talks and puts on the coy act like a beautiful actress even when he is not performing to an audience. He is genetically and biologically a male but forgets about his maleness because the Ustad takes great care to see that the femaleness is sustained right through his youth.
The Ustad takes him along even when he goes home to visit his two wives, thus, making the younger one of them extremely jealous of his relationship with Shanti. Shanti, caught when Ustad’s second wife Gangamani (Rituparna Sengupta) is trying to seduce him, leaves the group in sheer panic because he is not at fault but is scared of Ustad. Ustad finds a dwindling audience and a declining advance in payment in the absence of a chhokra. When the Ustad’s dholakia kidnaps Shanti from another group and brings him back to Jhanksu Ustad, Ustad not only refuses to believe in his story but beats him up and kicks him out. What happens to Shanti? No one knows including the director Raja Sen.
Ustad goes into a manic depression and almost has a nervous breakdown when his second wife commits suicide out of guilt. But Ustad’s grief is undercut by the fact that he does not even care to attend her funeral when she dies! What kind of “maya” is he talking about all the time? Reality demands responsibility and in this world, ‘maya’ becomes a convenient excuse of Jhanksu to retire from performing, leave the group and give up his profession. It is left for the young and new group headed by the young Sanatan Ustad, his chhokra Subarno (Subaranalata) who is madly in love with Sanatan to bring Jhanksu back to the fold and form a new, bigger and more talented group.
The character portrayed by Chapal Bhaduri who once earned fame and money with female roles in Bengali theatre portrays a retired chhokra in this film who is forced to stay on even when he is no longer a performer but sometimes stands in as a chorus dancer. Another chhokra also sits with the instrumentalists because he has crossed thirty and is no longer in the flush of youth.
Maya Mridanga is understandably a musical with rich songs scored for wonderful lyrics and dance numbers performed gracefully by the chhokras. The songs are well-placed and dances choreographed aptly for Alkaap performances. But the entire film is a tribute to the pains and struggles of Jhanksu Ustad built up to be an icon of the Alkaap folk tradition. Thankfully, Sen also paints him as a flesh-and-blood human being who is more in love with himself and his art and his ‘maya’ than his fellow-men and his family. The entire film is set on a high pitch with loud dialogue delivery and exaggerated emotions taking into consideration the subject and the period the film refers to. Alkaap in this film is placed against the backdrop of the Radh-Bagdi area that lies between the Padma and Ganga rivers.
The real women characters such as Jhanksu’s two wives, the tolerant and low-key and submissive first wife (Papiya Sen), angry daughter, second wife (Rituparna Sengupta) and Sanatan’s childhood friend (Paoli Dam) are given short shrift by the script and the story making it a classic example of patriarchy on celluloid. Gautam Haldar as Fazal is less theatrical than he normally is while Paoli is subtle and in control as Sanatan’s childhood friend now the victim of domestic violence who commits suicide when Sanatan forgets to rescue her as promised, lost in his rehearsals for a show.
The film is basically very theatrical because the subject perhaps demands some theatrics or so the director must have felt. But it is very long and needed to be edited at least by half an hour without spoiling the narrative in any way. The best performances come from the actors who performed the two young chhokras in the film though they are sidelined in the same way as they are in the story.
Shot largely in locations within Bengal, Maya Mridanga has a ‘feel’ of openness about it, with the river banks, the open skies, the rivers, the open spaces where the performers strike tent to perform, the simple faces of the village audience gathered to watch a performance, the slight arguments and banter between the man who gives the contract – Manoj Mitra in a wonderful cameo, brings small moments of life into this otherwise sad film. I walked out of the theatre with a saddened heart wondering why even in the 21st century, the Alkaap groups have not bothered to replace the chhokras with real girls and women! Not allowing boys to even realise that they are male and have sexual and social rights in a gross violation of human rights. How this has escaped the writer the late Syed Mustafa Siraj and the director Raja Sen is beyond me.
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