Inspired by the Sarat Chandra classic, Pradipta Bhattacharya’s Rajlokkhi O Srikanto looks back in retrospect at a character created in 1917, placed in a time-setting at around 1910 from a vantage point in 2019 through the present film. A Silhouette review by Shoma A Chatterji.
Sarat Chandra is one of the greatest littérateurs India has produced. His works have been translated into various languages. He poured into his novels and stories the varied experience he had gathered in different parts of India and Burma. The most remarkable qualities of Sarat Chandra’s art are directness and a sense of intimacy. His descriptions of rural life, of human joy and suffering are drawn from first-hand knowledge. He excelled in the depiction of the plight of the downtrodden and the intricate feelings and emotions of women. His literary style is lucid and direct. He was a critique of contemporary society when it did not agree with his own ideas.
The original novel Rajlakshmi O Srikanto is a story of journeys. In the Suchitra-Uttam version (1958), it is indicated with images of a running train with the sounds of its wheels in friction with the tracks, the engine forging ahead functioning like a metaphor for the journeys. Though Sarat Chandra’s four-part magnum opus is understood and read as a series of uncertain, unplanned and strange journeys of adventure by Srikanto, the protagonist, one discovers that it is perhaps, much more the charting of several journeys of Rajalakshmi whose identity changes into Pyaribai by force of circumstance but who sustains the integrity and honesty of her character, and her love for Srikanto she carries inside her.
The latest entrant into the Sarat Chandra stable in Bengali cinema is National Award-winning Pradipta Bhattacharya who, inspired by Rajlokkhi O Srikanto, which he read in the original when very young, has time-leaped the original. Bhattacharya has brought it forward to contemporary West Bengal turning the growing girl Rajlokkhi to a refugee and Indranath, Srikanto’s boyhood friend, to a much older person than he is in the original novel. The sexual liaison between the tortured Annada Didi and Indranath is the director’s interpretation of what could have happened if the story were to unfold today, again, detracting from the original.
The characters are fully fleshed out and some more in the case of Hukumchand, the feudal millionaire who plays host to Srikanto in his row of tents in the midst of forests in a remote area of West Bengal he is visiting for a hunting expedition not forgetting to bring along his keep, Pyaribai. Bhattacharya’s twists and turns in the characterizations work well up to a point. He remains faithful to Sarat Chandra’s creation of Srikanto as an escapist and a failure from a certain perspective who runs away every time he finds he has to face some responsibility. In fact, the male protagonists in Sarat Chandra’s more popular novels are often failures and escapists and the best example is Devdas.
But Rajlokkhi has been converted into a ‘keep’ of Hukumchand, a prostitute who happens to be a very good singer but is not exactly a courtesan which would have been irrational considering the time the film is placed in. Jyotika Jyoti who makes her debut in an Indian film as Rajlokkhi, throws up a convincing performance but is a bit too chubby and looks more like a cute roly-poly doll than a slim, svelte and sophisticated Rajlakshmi. Ritwick Chakraborty as Srikanto infuses his performance with the spontaneity that is now second nature to his acting talents but his performance is somewhat marginalized when compared with the cold-blooded brutality of Hukumchand portrayed by Rahul Banerjee. Sayan Ghosh as the younger Indranath is brilliant in adding just the right colours to the different moods of the character.
The cinematography, moving from the shores of a river to the dilapidated hut of Annada – Didi to the dusty roads of the village of Nischindipur, to the lavish luxury in Hukumchand’s tents, sometimes gazing at the sky, is very good. Annada Didi’s is a somewhat inconsistent performance by Aparajita Ghosh Das because when we meet her again towards the end, she is just too sweet and syrupy and her thrill of meeting Rajlokkhi “again” rings false as we never see the two women in the same frame earlier at any time in the film. The music is varied and good but fewer songs would have added to the drama in the narrative.
The constant but fluid movements back and forth into the past to the present are captured in faded tones, easily marking the growing up of Srikanto. But looking at the film as a whole, one can glimpse slices of mainstream cinema filtering in– melodrama, coincidence, sex, rape, prostitution, romance, childhood romance, music and song and last but never the least – generous doses of graphic and brutal violence manifest in many ways – domestic violence, adultery, trafficking of young girls, rape, prostitution, class-based violence including cold-blooded and brutal murders, the works. The characterizations of Srikanto and Hukumchand are extremely polarized – the good against the evil, the honest versus the corrupt, the kind against the cruel reflected aptly by the portrayals of the two gifted actors. Both Srikanto and Hukumchand are arrogant in their own distinct ways – Hukumchand drawing it from his power, his affluence, his control over his men and women while Srikanto is arrogant because he does not need any of these – power, affluence, control, and everything attached to these. But he has no feelings of guilt for enjoying the grandiose hospitality of his friend, Hukumchand.
The surrealistic closure is a rich and an imaginative interpretation by Bhattacharya that invests the film with a lyricism that defines a counterpoint to all the cruel truths of life that have gone before. Yet, it saddens one when this closure goes on and on and on as it digs out some more scenes of extreme violence and gore and bloodshed. Looked back in retrospect at a character created in 1917, placed in a time-setting at around 1910 from a vantage point in 2019 through the present film, one may safely label Srikanto, “the quintessential escapist” who uses his wanderlust as a political strategy to keep away from emotional and social commitments of any kind – love, marriage, children, friends and keeps away from getting attached to anyone or anything.
Movie stills courtesy: Internet
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