Is obsession a psychological disorder? Or, is it a temporary infatuation with a given person or thing which fades either with time or with a new subject to be obsessed with. Shoma A Chatterji finds out in her review of the Bengali film Teen Kahon.
Is obsession a psychological disorder? Not necessarily. At times, it can be a temporary infatuation with a given person or thing which fades either with time or with a new subject to be obsessed with. But if allowed to continue without restraint or control, it can create catastrophe and even lead to death of the one or the other.
The dictionary synonyms of obsession are many – fixation, ruling passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish and so on. Like all human emotions, it is invisible and intangible but takes concrete expression in action which can endanger, threaten and even destroy the life of the one who is obsessed and the one he/she is obsessed with.
Bauddhayan Mukherjee’s maiden feature Teen Kahon which is running to packed theatres in Kolkata comprises three different facets of obsession beyond the framework of marriage. Yet, one cannot reduce it to ‘adultery’ just like that. Let us take a closer look at this very unique articulation of obsession everyone might find identification with at one point or another.
Mukherjee as a tribute to 100 years of cinema has picked three different Bengali stories drawn from three different periods of time authored by three different writers. This is one way of encapsulating the journey of Indian cinema through four dimensions – literature which forms the narrative, cinema – which gives the narrative its special structure as designed by the director and his team, technology that gives concrete shape to the film which has journeyed from Black-and-White through Technicolour into a digital world and language as expressed through speech that has evolved from the first story to the last one.
Nabalok shot in B & W in keeping with the time setting (1920 – 1954) is about the growing obsession of an eight-year-old boy Shoilo (Barshan Sil) for the newly married bride Nayantara (Aranya), 16, who has just come to the village. It is based on a story by Bibhutibhsuhan Mukhopadhyay (not Bandopadhyay). The story is narrated entirely in flashback in a first-person account by a now 40+ Shoilo (Suman Mukhopadhyay) who uses a night of tremendous rain and thunder to unfold the story of his first love. This reminds one of the age-old practice of ghost stories being told to one another in a club ambience when rains and thunder and lightning unleash themselves on the night.
Nabalok is about one-sided obsession where the little Shoilo, entrusted with the duty of carrying their correspondence to the post office destroys them and in one event, even urinates on one! The construction of the backdrop takes one straight to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and yet, you do not feel the pinch of ‘copy and paste’ because the style and treatment are distinctly individualistic.
This first story is filled with delightful touches of village humour such as Nayantara’s portly husband (Biswanath Bose) falling in the slush with his earthen pot of rosogollas (Samapti, anyone?) or, students in the pathshala-cum-grocery repeating by rote, the tables and on reflex, also encoring the master when he makes a sarcastic comment on Shoilo’s habitual latecoming. Vignettes of a Bengal village around the time setting of the story are captured eloquently without sound or drama – the women gathered around for gossip to which Shoilo is the sole ‘male’ witness, the young husband-wife’s sweet camaraderie envied by Shoilo so much that he ‘invents’ a ghost and speaks in a nasal voice from the branch of a tree to scare the husband away back to the city. Once, he even writes a letter in is childish scrawl and adds the chandrabindoo (cannot be translated) on top of the words to resonate the nasal tone in writing! When the rain stops and the clock strikes nine, the grown Shoilo, after snacking on brinjal fritters, puffed rice and tea makes ready to leave. The story ends with a Dahl-like twist and there are at least two possible closures one could write to this haunting story.
The rain and thunder with streets flooded across the city of Kolkata continue in the second film Post Mortem, is based on a story by Syed Mustafa Siraj. The time is morning and the story is set against the backdrop of the devastating floods of 1978, depicted for the first time on screen. It is shot in Technicolour and is structured like a drawing room drama where the husband and the lover of a woman who committed suicide the night before share their distinct perspectives about this woman and about her tragic death. The woman is never shown and comes across in a collage of verbal flashbacks between the husband and the lover.
The time is morning as the wrist watches of the two men point out. The husband comes knocking on the door of the lover. The two have never met before. They are aware of their respective roles in the life of the woman who died. It is a strange exchange that is pitched on the word ‘responsibility’ that assumes different meanings in the lives of the two men. The neighbour of the lover who lives downstairs breaks the rather dark ambience of the unfolding by butting in from time to time to ask the man to save his musical instruments from the anger of the rains. The husband leaves suddenly and the film ends once again, on an open note and a twist in the tale. This film is shot in Technicolour.
Telephone is the deceptive title of the last story shot in digital. The hero of the third story, penned by Mukherjee himself, is the cell-phone which functions as both agency and subject in this film set in contemporary Kolkata foregrounded by a 12-year-marriage-gone-sour between a modern young woman (Rituparna Sengupta) who is desperate to get a child through IVF technology and a top police officer husband (Ashish Vidyarthy) who she thinks, cannot see beyond her boobs!
Telephone is a full-blooded action thriller filled with chases and hunts and crime-solving by the officer who finds himself suddenly attracted by a danseuse during one of these hunts. The IVF-crazy wife is too busy visiting clinics and labs to get pregnant to notice what is happening and why and how. A son is born through IVF but when the son is about five years old, his mother dies of an accidental gunshot fired by the little boy while he was playing “police, police” in imitation of his father who forgot his loaded gun behind! The said danseuse is seen only twice, once at an angle and once in close-up towards the end where the camera gives her a bitchy look! Was it an accident? Was it murder? Or, was it suicide? Like all Roald Dahl stories for adults, you will continue to wonder…… The entire adulterous affair is caught through the constant and disturbing ring of the cell-phone and close-up shots of SMSes on the touch screen of the cell phones that are at play pointing out the invasion of information technology into the most intimate private lives of public officials like a top police brass.
The actors have fulfilled the faith Mukherjee had placed on them which is not extraordinary because all of them are established performers. But the frosting on the cake and the cake itself go to the two kids Barshan Sil and Aranya who played the lead in Nabalok. The editing pace is completely in rhythm with the distinctly different speed of narration in the three stories that gather pace from the first story to the next. The second has a slightly greater pace than the first one but the third moves at galloping speed without losing out on finer nuances and details such as the doctor’s concern about the husband’s lack of interest in his wife’s IVF pregnancy and its complications.
Avik Mukherjee’s cinematography moves smoothly and magically from B & W to Technicolour to digital with CGI used for the Durga idol wrapped in plastic being carted somewhere in the second film meshed completely into the rest of the ambience. Only CGI had not stepped into film technique during the timing of Post Mortem. The gravitations are so naturally achieved that there are no jerks while the entire film moves from one story to the next. The same excellence applies to art direction and of course, the musical score where the music director confronts the challenge of the time leaps in the stories.
Does this mean that there are no hitches at all? Not really. Post Mortem is a bit morbid as it consists only of a dialogue that is based on the affairs of a woman who killed herself and the philosophical deliberations on life and responsibility are perhaps stretched too much in terms of footage.
But the actors Sabyasachi Chakraborty and Joy Sengupta take that boredom out of the narration with their flesh-and-blood performance. Ashish Vidyarthi as the police officer is stripped of his over-acting and theatrics and melodrama and comes out with a fine performance. Rituparna Sengupta, shorn of the overdressing and frills one sees her in most of her films, with loads of make-up comes up with a class performance after a long time. Dhritiman Chatterjee as the doctor is splendid in a brief cameo.
The evolution of spoken Bengali from the 1930s to the present day has been well-researched to underscore the finer cadences in the change from the Bengali spoken in West Bengal villages to the Bengali dotted with Longfellow quotes to the 1970s Bengali in the city of Kolkata to the heavily-loaded-with-English Bengali spoken by the high flying Bengali of today.
All three films have open endings and Teen Kahon has been panned by some critics for the open ends. But if life is open-ended in every sense – we do not have any clue into when and how we are born, who we fall in and out of love with, who we marry or divorce, where we work or do not work, why can’t films have open-ended stories? Obsession, in this case translates to Teen Kahon, a haunting film you take with you out of the theatre.
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