Pratim D. Gupta’s films have always been more than what you see. Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo, in the guise of a ‘detective’ story is more a meditation on the loneliness of the human condition. A Silhouette review by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.
Cast: Ritwick Chakraborty, Paoli Dam, Sanghasri Sinha Mitra, Ambarish Bhattacharya
Rating: 3 and ½ stars
This one’s a rare bird – a ‘detective’ story on the surface but one that consistently breaks the tropes associated with the genre. This is not surprising given that when the film-maker first wrote it – his script of the film, then titled Ink, was selected for the prestigious Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2013 – he did not think of it as a detective film. It is also not surprising that Pratim approaches the material in the manner he does. His films have always been more than what you see. The edginess of Shaheb Bibi Golaam and the quirkiness of Machher Jhol camouflaged their essence. Ahare Mon, for all practical purposes, is a love story, but dig a little deeper and you are aware that it’s more a meditation on the loneliness of the human condition. So also Shantilal – avoid the pitfalls of judging it by what you see on the surface and you realise that this is essentially a character study disguised as a detective film.
Shantilal (Ritwick) is a weather reporter at an English newspaper, The Sentinel. By all accounts, he is trapped in a dead-end job, reporting on mundanities like ‘The Heat Is On’ (even though the met department says that the average temperature has been lower this particular summer). In nine years on the weather beat, he has had no by-lines (except for the time when Cyclone Alia came calling – but as he says wistfully to his mother, ‘Storms don’t come every day, do they?’). One of the few pleasures of his life is his stack of porn DVDs and that’s what leads him to a life-changing experience. One particular film catches his attention for the tattoo of a butterfly engraved on the actress participating in it. When he accidentally espies the same tattoo on the current heart-throb of the Bengali film industry, Nandita (Paoli Dam), who is contemplating a career switch to politics, Shantilal knows he is on to something big. What follows is his journey into the dark world of the snuff film and body doubles. A journey that takes him from Kolkata to Chennai and to Singapore, in search of Padma Pictures (one-time purveyors of porn who have now become producers of respectable ‘family’ entertainers) and the elusive Roshni (Sanghasri Sinha Mitra) with whom lies the secret of Nandita’s past.
As befits a character study, the film is leisurely paced. Even as Shantilal goes through the motions of his life and then grows obsessed with the butterfly tattoo and the superstar, the film grows on you. The director draws you in, not with any hyper-kinetic action or blood or gore, but with the nuances that underlie the characters of Shantilal and Nandita and the way they evolve. In a film that has for all practical purposes just two characters, it helps that both Ritwick and Paoli are in top form. What a pleasure it is to see Ritwick in almost every frame of a film. Here’s an actor who can make the simple gesture of placing his palm on his chin and looking out at the city go by while travelling in an auto speak volumes. Whether he is eavesdropping on a conversation of his more happening and cool colleagues at a restaurant or slyly negotiating the breaking news he has with his editor, you simply can’t take your eyes off him lest you miss that understated gesture, that nod of the head.
This is what makes Paoli’s act that much more impactful. She owns the film’s climatic ten-minute act with a bravura performance that brings forth every aspect of her character, her vulnerability, her strength, her determination not to lose what she has worked hard to get, even her ruthlessness. This sequence, one of the film’s highlights, crackles with palpable tension as the two engage in a psychological thrust-and-parry leaving you wondering which way the narrative will turn. And it’s the denouement, given the darkness at the film’s core, that raises the film to another level.
Pratim leavens the film’s dark moments with his characteristic brand of humour. Just look at the sequence where a porn film dealer tries to influence a customer to buy Bunuel and Bergman (you don’t need to understand the language, he reasons, like you don’t for a porn film – at least you get to see classics!). Or when at last Shantilal reaches Roshni, who now runs an escort service in Singapore (Sanghasri, all wasted and sprawled on the couch, is telling in this brief sequence, particularly when she asks for a mirror to look at the tikli Shantilal has placed on her forehead as fees for the information he needed). As he is photographed by one of the attendants for their record and documentation, and you are aware of the very real danger Shantilal is in, the girl tells him, ‘You may smile if you want to!’ And you as a viewer can’t help but smile at the throwaway manner in which the moment plays out.
If there’s one thing I could carp about, it’s the ease with which Shantilal lands up in Singapore given his financial constraints. Yes, Pratim is careful to introduce the character of Rocket Ronjan (Ambarish Bhattacharya) who facilitates it, but it does feel like a contrivance, a creative licence, which sticks out in a film that is otherwise so good. That, however, is a minor crib in a film that has so much to offer.
— ρяαтιм ∂. gυρтα (@PratimDGupta) August 19, 2019
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