Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Pagla Ghoda (adapted from Badal Sircar’s famous play with the same name) holds a mirror for us to reflect. The film which is available on Hotstar depicts four men in a crematorium reminiscing about their unyielding love interests when an unknown girl was burning in the pyre. In the two hours that unfold, the film portrays ‘Pagla Ghoda’ or ‘Mad Horse’ as a metaphor for the rush of blood in our veins, of lost chances and vague morals, of individual cowardice and collective will to upheld the dichotomies and sustain the injustices meted towards women. Bikas Mishra’s film remains truthful to the original and yet, raises a few questions that will haunt us even after the film is over. A Silhouette review.
Bengali literature is a rich one. There are novels which on any day be termed one of the finest in world literature. So are the short stories and quite a few poetry collections. All these genres of literature evolved over a period of time in the form of style, narrative progression and shift of content from being the stories of the urban rich to that of the middle-class commoner. After the partition of Bengal (and Punjab, and not necessarily of India) in 1947 and the great Bengal Famine half a decade earlier, the quintessential Bengali psyche was disturbed, the Bengali mind shattered and the pathos heightened. From the 1950s till the 1970s Bengali literature is replete with the story of the middle-class, the struggling city dweller and in many cases the lower caste and the lower class. In 1963 Bimal Kar, an established writer famous for his lucid, direct, no-frills style of writing, penned Aamra Tin Premik o Bhuban (translated to ‘We Three Lovers and Bhuban’). The story, narrated in simple, nonchalant style speaks of three men in a cremation ghat discussing their love-affair with Shibani, the woman who was on the pyre. Shibani was their friend and it was sad how they robbed her off her innocence, her virginity and her trust in subtle, nuanced ways which a middle-class is only capable of! And then there is Bhuban, their fourth friend and the husband of Shibani who is silent as if he has nothing to say, no allegation against the three friends or the society. Poignant, yet it is from the men’s point of view, there is no narrative vantage point for the woman – her thoughts, her sense of betrayal from her three lovers at different ages.
In 1967 enigmatic playwright Badal Sircar wrote Pagla Ghoda about four men in a cremation ghat unfolding their love stories while a woman is blazing in the pyre! This time the men are bound not by the single woman, but in a more profound sociological stance, they are actually in their depravation of the women in their lives – a microcosm of the patriarchal mores of the society. It is important to note Aamra Tin Premik o Bhuban as a sort of thematic predecessor of Sircar’s play though their valences are completely different. The relation is not coincidental only because during the same time a diminutive Kanu Sanyal took Bengal on warfront and the country by storm. The Naxalbari movement exploited myths and created legends for subsequent generations to ogle at. But indeed, it was one of the first of its kind in Independent India to restore faith in the courage of revolution. Even after five decades, the Naxalbari movement can be the major incident in India overall after which the social, political and the cultural fabric changed completely. The age of innocence replaced by the age of anger, corruption and the continuing sway between trust and ransom.
These references keep coming to mind at every adaptation of Sircar whose plays have been adapted umpteen times across different languages from Hindi to Manipuri and beyond. Sircar denounced proscenium and coined Third Theatre and later Free Theatre where he would want his performance to be amongst the mass, for them, free of charge. It is ironical for a man who chided ‘mainstream’ commercial culture to be accepted as one of the most influential playwrights of the country. Pagla Ghoda for one is interpreted and adapted multiple times right from the Bohurupee production in 1971 where Shaoli Mitra played all the four women characters resembling that it was ‘one’ character only, much like Kar’s swirling short story. Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s latest adaptation holds Sircar’s crux with a full monty. Following the play to the tee Mishra had to have a cast to support him to engage the audience for nearly two hours. I must admit he was successful – Vikram Kochhar and Ravi Khaanwilkar as Sashi and Kartik respectively play their part well but it was Gopal K Singh’s Satu who steals the show for me. His stoic face, the wry smile at the apparent ignominy of Sashi and Himadri, the frailties when Lachcho requested shelter, his incapability and the play of emotions on his face while depicting the death of Lachcho are simply stupendous. He becomes another actor to my list whom I will want to follow from now on. Anshuman Jha’s Himadri pales in comparison for not being consistent, especially in the end after his drinking bout was complete. Chitrangada Chakraborty as Mili, Malati, Lachcho and the girl put on pyre was wooden as well with a limited set of expressions. The fulcrum of the play revolves around the point that these four women of differing ages and varied social strata enmesh into one – Chakraborty’s characters looked same, unfortunately. The blame squarely lies on the director as well whose conceptualization of the other characters were spot on and indeed the women characters were more complex. More- because, like in Kar’s story, in Sircar’s play and Mishra’s film as well we never get the female voice, they come in the reflections of the four men, in their recapitulations, their dreams. Mishra tried to salvage with the dead girl interspersing the monologues of the men with questions, urging them to tell the truth whenever they falter and deviate. In the end, like in the play when Kartik (for whom ‘Life was more important than Death’) planned suicide by having poison the woman from the pyre as if comes up and insists him to take her out of the flame and to embrace life. It was a touching scene, a slice of our lives, of unspoken love, uncomfortable truths, of adjustments that could have saved us yet the egos play plaintiff.
Mishra’s Chauranga was critically accepted for being earnest and direct. Pagla Ghoda is no exception. He probably could have adapted it further instead of merely transcreating it in a different medium but that is a different question altogether. It is heartening to see Hotstar’s initiative to make CinePlay – cinema from renowned plays, to take the audience to the gamut of India’s rich drama heritage. It also bolsters my hope in the virtual Internet media to be the biggest economically viable exhibition channel in the future. So, within that constraint the film has a grip on the audience. The setting is well orchestrated though a bit too sanctified it seemed. Apart from the flashbacks there were no other visual variation which is why the director used several camera positions and angles. The one top shot of Himadri lying with his outstretched hands was significant and interesting – a Western mind may relate it with Christ the way we find The Fool in Fellini’s La Strada when his circle of life is complete. In the end when the ‘adda’ is dismissed the twist makes it enthralling in an otherwise captivating drama. Mishra’s mastery is in the fine balance – a natural gripping pace of unfolding the psychology of the different characters where he is minimal with no narrative excess alongside the reel-real location of the crematorium where he heightens the interplay of shades and shadows with multiple camera angles just to lend the added variation, the required spice.
Why is Pagla Ghoda relevant today as well? It is because it probably holds a mirror for us to reflect. We constantly play the role of any of the four male characters or the women in their lives. It is this unquenched thirst of unyielding love that is too heart-wrenching and universal in appeal. It transcends the time (of the play) and the societal-geographical topology (lower/middle-class Bengali) and remains a valid anguish for all with unrequited love. However within those broad rubrics there are subtexts that put the male disoriented, fearful and irresponsible. The women are sure, incisive and yet it is they who suffer and get ablaze – within the households or in the funeral pyre. ‘Pagla Ghoda’ or ‘Mad Horse’ is hence a metaphor for the rush of blood in our veins, of lost chances and vague morals, of individual cowardice and collective will to share the stories that upheld the dichotomies and sustain the injustices. Bikas Mishra’s film remains truthful to the original and yet, raises these questions which will haunt us within our cozy interiors as much as it breathed down the neck of those four men in the crematorium!
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