In both Jastishwar and Baishe Srabon Srjit Mukherjee reflects on ‘mad’ characters and how they are treated by the society at large – for its use and desertion.
Srijit Mukherji has been one of the most prominent contemporary film makers of Tollywood in recent years. Placing himself against the contradictory trends of Commercial and Art Cinema, he has tried to create a seamless fusion between them and has quite successfully been able to do so in films like Autograph, Baishe Shrabon, Jatiswar or Chotuskone. Srijit’s films happen to be a refreshing break from the banal platitudes of commercial films; however they seldom tend to go overboard with lofty, esoteric messages.
The themes and motifs that Srijit’s films explore, despite not being unfamiliar to Bengali Cinephiles, carve a niche substantially because of the manner they are dealt with. Despite the occasional forays into the world of death, gloom and depression they barely recreate a Sen or a Ghatak on screen. Be the use of cinematic mis-en-scene or the delicate use of songs or the use of camera, Srijit always keeps the populist veneer intact through a unique stylization of the cinematic narrative. His penchant for excessive stylization helps him in getting a wider audience, across different age groups, predominantly the youth, nevertheless at times it becomes grossly superfluous and grates on one’s nerves.
A critical appraisal of Mukherji’s films, however, unfolds some common thematic aspects. Madness is a motif, Mukherji, has frequently dwelt on in his films. After Foucault it is well known that the idea of madness is a discursive construct. Deviation from the socially disciplined discourses tags one with the charge of madness. Srijit’s films obviously delve deeper into its exploration of madness to reveal how the identities of the so called mad characters are structured by the politics of power.
If we look at Baishe Srabon Srijit’s most commercially successful film, Srijit ventures into a completely unexplored territory through his references to Hungryalist Poetry. Hungryalism was famous for its iconoclastic worldview, informed by its deep-rooted anguish and rebellion against the conventional system. ‘Hungry Generation’ is one of the lost and least acknowledged poetic traditions in the realm of Bengali poetry ushered by Malay Roy Chowdhury, Shakti Chattapadhyay , Sandipan Chatterjee, Binoy Majumdar and others.
Firstly Srijit’s success lies in rescuing it from the Bengali cultural amnesia. The cinematic narrative becomes intertexual with reference to Nibaran Chakrabarty from Tagore’s Shesher Kabita. Nibaran is projected as a deranged poet with the delusional worldview. Metaphorically, however, Nibaran’s narrative seems to explore the politics of mainstream Bengali Neo-Romantic poetry in suppressing the voices of dissent emerging from the margin. Hungry Realism’s obsession with crudity and vulgarity, moving away from the mushy sentimental narrative of Bengali Romantic poetry, was perhaps too scathing for the Bengali readers to endure.
Simultaneously, another narrative shows Prabir Roy Chowdhury, an ex police officer as one of the victims of the system. Prabir’s attempt to rise above the administrative loopholes makes him a victim of the system; he is suspended from the job being indicted with the charge of ‘madness’. Prabir’s resistance to be in complicity with the corrupt logic of the system tags levels him with the charge of madness to ostracize him from the system. But the twist comes when a series of murderers in Kolkata leaves the Police Force utterly confounded. They are forced to seek resort to the fertile brain of Prabir again to resolve these problems.
The narrative of a mad poet and a mad Police officer move together and coincide at a crucial juncture from where the film takes its climactic turn. The conversation between Prabir Roy Chowdhury and Nibaran Chakrabarty clearly explores the perversions of power and shows how they remain integrally embedded within the system. Their attitude to go against the grain whether it is through writing poetry against the popular stream or refusal to be in complicity with the corrupt bureaucratic system represents a form of transgression beyond the socially disciplined discourses. Baishey Srabon thereby very pertinently calls into the question the idea of madness and explores it to be ideologically governed.
The trope of madness is quite adroitly used in Srijit’s Jatishwar as well which is also one of his most critically acclaimed films. However its commercial success didn’t touch the height of Baishe Shrabon. Baishe Shrabon being a whodunit is made up of a series of interconnected cues, in which Bengali poetry plays a salient role. Though Srijit brilliantly arranges the plot with reference to the poetry of the ‘Hungry’ poets, the main narrative revolves around the search for the murderer as in a perfect whodunit. The way Prabir searches information about the poets on Google, it becomes pretty apparent that they are nothing more than forgotten faces in Bengali poetry. Though these references almost resuscitate an alternative poetic tradition through a popular medium, the reference to Bengali poetry remains tangential to the main narrative. It only provides the main plot its contours without coming in contact with it.
But Jatishwar goes deeper into its exploration of collective memory as a trope of re-defining the cultural history. Here again Srijit intertexualises his narrative with Anthony Phiringi, a well-known film of 1970’s. ‘Jatishwar’ (in Bengali meaning a man who has the memory of previous life) is a concept which is barely acceptable to a rationally governed mind. But Srijit’s film consolidates the idea of ‘jatishwar’ (re-incarnation) through its reference to the Jungian framework of ‘Collective Unconscious’ to unravel how the memories of different births remain embedded in our psychology over time, across spaces.
With the delineation of a character like Kushal Hazra in Jatishwar, Srijit again very curiously projects the inexplicable identity-crisis a ‘jatishwar’ suffers from. Kushal’s narrative is juxtaposed against the narrative of Rohit Mehta, the son of a Gujrati businessman, a character epitomized by robust optimism and faith in rationality. Rohit despite being a non-Bengai shares an uncanny obsession with Bengali folk music and that leads him to choose this as his research topic.
In search of Anthony Phiringi, one of the pioneers of Bengali Kabi Gaan in 17th century, Rohit visits Pharasdanga (Chandan Nagore) and meets Kushal at Chandannagar library. The story takes its turn when Kushal claims himself to be a ‘jatishwar’. His claim to be Anthony Phiringi in his previous birth appeared preposterous to Rohit. But without having any options left, Rohit believes Kushal and he shares with Rohit the unknown histories of the life of Anthony, which can’t be found in a documented historiography. This re-negotiation with history vis-à-vis memory is an important trope Srijit resorts to in this film. Despite using Kushal as a means of getting over the obstacles of research and reclaiming his love affair with Mahamaya, Rohit eventually leaves Kushal in his solitary room, mistaking his acting for madness. The crass insensitivity of the mainstream to the slightly different finds its manifestation in Rohit’s attitude to Kushal. So the narrative again very tellingly evokes madness as a major trope, implying how the idea of madness is constructed.
So in both the films the idea of madness actually becomes determined by ideological positioning. Srijit’s films, although, never intend to go deeper to offer a thesis on madness, nevertheless the issues remain silently embedded within the narrative. The mad characters in these films are often seen to be in contact with the system of the mainstream, they are exploited by it and finally the system discards it at its own will. The position of these characters remains liminal, being neither accepted nor rejected by the society. Their agonies remain unmitigated, their voices remain largely unheard.
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