Koushik Ganguly is by now a well-known name among Bengali cinegoers, but for the first time his film has created a flutter in the international fraternity of film lovers. His film Just Another Love Story (Arekti Premer Galpo) has won the best film award at I View Film Festival in New York and has been screened to the capacity audience at the International Film Festival in Berlin. It is due to be screened at the international Film Festival in London in October this year.
In his short career as an auteur, Ganguly has already distinguished himself as a filmmaker with a penchant for unusual subjects and for uncharted terrains of human relationships.
Just Another Love Story is about a filmmaker Abhiroop Sen (played by Rituparno Ghosh) who makes a documentary about Chapal Bhaduri, the legendary jatra (Bengali folk theatre) actor who spent his entire career playing female roles on stage, primarily as Goddess Shitala.
Thus begins a journey where director and subject learn from one another – on the one hand is Bhaduri, who was a closeted gay for fear of social ostracism but was openly accepted as a cross-dressing actor, and on the other is the modern urban filmmaker who is open about his sexuality but is still negotiating his gender identity.
Abhiroop’s unconventional ways of dress, make-up and behaviour point out the difference between the openness of alternative sexual preferences today and the tragic isolation and social humiliation Chapal Bhaduri has suffered throughout his life.
Now, let me talk about the take-off point of the film. Abhiroop, a Delhi-based director has come to Kolkata, to make a documentary film on Chapal Bhaduri, the androgynous jatra legend of the 1950s and 60s, when, as the voice-over tells us, Uttam Kumar was ruling the roost in Bengali silver screen, and Satyajit Ray gave Bengali films an unprecedented international exposure.
Bhaduri, once famed as Chapal Rani to the jatra audience, is now 71, and lives in obscurity in a dilapidated house in north Kolkata. In the film Bhaduri plays his real life self, and Rituparno Ghosh too, known for his tonsured head and cross-dressing in real life, plays his self to a large extent.
Well, this is an interesting way of blurring the distinction, and indicating a dialogue, between life and art.
As Chapal begins to narrate the story of his love life and the tragic consequences thereof into the camera, Abhiroop somehow, begins to identify with Chapal’s sense of alienation, loneliness and social rejection.
Suddenly, shooting the film in Kolkata is shelved because of the wrong kind of media attention the film’s subject – Chapal Bhaduri and the filmmaker Abhiroop draw.
A wild-life photographer, Uday, comes to their rescue when he offers his ancestral mansion in a village in Birbhum district as alternative venue for the shoot.
As the story moves to Birbhum, we see Uday develops a crush on Abhiroop. In parallel the relationship between Abhiroop and his cinematographer Basu (Indraneil Sengupta) is filled with an electric tension so strong that one feels it can snap at any moment, traced back to Abhiroop’s emotional insecurity that makes him call up his mother and weep like a little boy whenever he feels helpless and also because his love for Basu has a rival hovering in the background – his wife Rani who is expecting a baby.
The film has customarily been introduced as a quadrangular love relationship between a gay filmmaker and his bisexual cinematographer. However convenient, such geometric formulation of love relationships is something I detest. I would prefer to call it a film in which love appears in all its intensity and self-defeating paradoxes crushing the individuals caught in its web.
Another intriguing casting device which has reminded me of Brechtian estrangement effect (Verfremdungseffekt in German) is the use of doubles. Another plausible reason for this is the drawing of parallels between the two lives-that of jatra actor Bhaduri and of filmmaker Abhiroop (Rituparno).
While old Chapal narrates his tale into the camera, the film moves into flashback to a young and beautiful Chapal, always dressed in bridal finery, with his lover. We see Rituparno Ghosh as the young Chapal while Indraneil Sengupta doubles up as Chapal’s young lover Kumar, who he shared a close relationship with for 20 years.
One of the many USPs of the film has been Rituparno Ghosh, a director of international repute (and also the creative director of the film, though I have little idea about what that term actually means), debuting as an actor.
And voila, what a debut it has been! Sensational is the word, if you are too keen for a one-word expression.
He marvels in both the personas – the director and the younger Chapal offering two completely distanced facets of the actor in him – the effeminate, arrogant and self-indulgent face of an openly gay man who is proud of his male identity, and as the younger Chapal, the woman trapped in a man’s body always dressed in beautiful Benarasi saris with her secret lover.
Rituparno lends to his characters and the story such a complexity that you can’t help but empathize with his struggle for his true identity.
And Indraneil. In the handful of films in which he has figured in the last couple of years, he has established his signature style as an intelligent, restrained actor. In this film though, as the screenplay would have it, he plays the second fiddle to Rituparno.
But it is Chapal Bhaduri who steals the show. He appears as his natural self, neither overawed by the media attention suddenly hyped on him, nor scared of the overbearing director who is soft towards him, nor bought over by the extra cheque the foreign producer gives him as ‘bribe’ to ‘reveal more dirty secrets into the camera’ as he tells Abhiroop, leaving the cheque behind. The pain of a life spent in enforced isolation is brought out beautifully as he narrates his life into the camera without being dramatic about it at any point.
Same-sex relationships have been portrayed in the recent past on screen in the Indian context. Mira Nair’s Fire and Onir’s My Brother… Nikhil immediately come to mind. But Ganguly’s take on the subject is different, not only because it is not just about gay love or because it seeks to put androgyny in a mytho-historic perspective, but because it is about some intrinsic intricacies of human relationships.
The film seems to make the statement that the instinct of love, which Freud calls Eros, operates in defiance of pre-ordained norms, and in such a frantic whirl of motion which is simultaneously intoxicating and bewildering.
The film has its intense moments of passion and of angst. But for all that, it seems tiring at times. The reason for that, to my mind, is a near-total absence of outdoor shots. There is too much of chamber drama, too many dialogues within too little narrative space which generates a claustrophobic effect. As a viewer, I’ve failed to get a feel of the north Kolkata ambience, or, for that matter, that of Birbhum.
Doesn’t Ganguly think that locales have something to do with the characters’ psychic process?
Another thing that has baffled my understanding is the dour immovability of his camera. Even when two characters are chatting, sitting to close to each other, as Rituparno and Jishu have done in one scene, the camera stays facing them so impassively. A movie is all about moving pictures, and as such, when characters aren’t moving, the camera must.
The use of camera angles too has been pretty average. I strongly believe a more imaginative use of camera angles would have made some of the scenes more meaningful. Camera angles are the very syntaxes of a filmic narrative, and a daring subject like this one certainly needed a more innovative syntactical design.
The-film-within-the-film format too, I think, calls for a word or two. It doubtless gives the film-maker certain artistic advantages, establishing parallels between two narratives is one of them. But, I think, in Bengali films in the recent past it has been deployed too frequently so much so that it is now in danger being over-used and becoming too predictable. Its use in this film is okay, but up-and-coming filmmakers including Ganguly should be careful.
Watch the trailer of the Bengali film: Just Another Love Story
I had little clue as to why in a Bengali film 95 percent dialogues should be in English. Even if educated Delhi-based Bengalis speak English among themselves, a Bengali film should be worth its name. Otherwise, make an Indian film in English, nobody will object.
Interestingly, the film, critically acclaimed worldwide, has hit a wall on its home turf with the authorities of the state-run film complex Nandan, the much-vaunted seat of culture in West Bengal, asking for a preview before its screening.
The official reason given is that the film’s aesthetic value is yet to pass muster with the cultural filter comprising a one-man committee there. “The Censor board may issue a certificate to a work, but in a film complex like Nandan- a preview is necessary,” the CEO of Nandan had said to the filmmaker.
Expressing surprise over the ‘demand’, the lead actor Rituparno Ghosh quipped, “How can they decide? Why should there be a preview since there had been no such instances in the past?”
Moreover, the film was the Indian official entry in the recently held Goa International Film Festival of India. It bagged the second prize- the Silver Peacock and hailed as a “fearless portrayal of a sensitive subject in a country where homosexuality is still kept inside closed doors”.
This is what is called cultural policing in so-called progressive leftist Bengal.