Srijit Mukherji has been one of the more popular writer-directors to have emerged in Bengali Cinema in the recent past. People tracking the industry would be well aware that traditionally Bengali Cinema has been largely divided into 2 extremes-the relatively offbeat films typically aimed at the festivals and the commercial potboilers which appeal to the masses. But in the last 10 odd years there has been a resurgence of the middle ground, filmmakers brave enough to attempt all kinds of subjects and aiming to reach out to the more educated urbane audience. In the process a lot of these films end up being critically acclaimed and some of them turn out to be commercially successful as well. The late Rituparno Ghosh was probably the most well-known among this category of Bengali filmmakers. Filmmakers like Srijit Mukherji and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhary seem to be following the same route, though they still have a long way to go before we slot them in any proper way.
Economist turned filmmaker Srijit Mukherji made heads turn with his very first film, Autograph a tribute to Satyajit Ray’s popular film Nayak featuring Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore. Autograph saw Srijit bring out a wonderful performance from superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee. The film also paved the way for a good association between the filmmaker and veteran actor. The timing couldn’t have been better as Prosenjit had already started the transition of moving slowly from commercial potboilers to more artistic films with author backed roles. Post Autograph, Srijit went on to make 3 more films, Baishe Srabon, Hemlock Society and Mishawr Rawhoshyo and Prosenjit has featured in 2 of those (he didn’t feature in Hemlock Society).
And just 3 months after the release of Mishawr Rawhoshyo the dynamic duo of Srijit and Prosenjit have unleashed upon us their latest film, Jaatishwar. Srijit’s films have always had their share of detractors and appreciators alike. Like in case of Mishawr Rawhoshyo there were people protesting over how the film failed to be as gripping as Sunil Gangopadhyay’s literary work on which it is based upon. But despite all this what’s also clear is that you may like or dislike Srijit’s work but you just cannot ignore it. He has tried to attempt films of various kinds and to follow up a detective thriller film (Mishawr Rawhoshyo) with a film steeped in Bengali cultural history (Jaatishwar), shows his range. Considering that Prosenjit has been doing some really good work of late and with his combination with Srijit having been successful I was quite curious about Jaatishwar, especially after getting to know what the film is all about.
So the first look poster and the trailer led me to understand that the film would be partly based on the life and times of Hensman Anthony, a poet of Portuguese origin who lived in Bengal in early 19th century and who went on to compose many original Bengali folk and devotional songs. For someone who sounds so interesting it’s a real surprise that there is hardly any information available about Hensman Anthony in turns of documentation (this is something that’s mentioned in Jaatishwar as well). Whatever people remember of him is mostly due to the 1967 film Antony Firingee, directed by Sunil Bannerjee which fetched Uttam Kumar the National Film Award for Best Actor (also for Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana). But this was a film which focused on the nearly mythical figure that Hensman Anthony was, and his love story. And probably in a way it is good that Srijit Mukherji decided to make a film that would be different from the earlier film and end up with a lot more attention to details, thanks to the research that went in.
Jaatishwar (reincarnate) is the story of Hensman Anthony (played with sincerity by Prosenjit)who became popular as Anthony Firingee (Firingee referring to him being a foreigner) in 19th Century Bengal. He went on to settle down in Farashdanga, part of the old Portuguese town of Chandernagore (now known as Chandannagar), situated close to Kolkata. Being a musician with a flair for languages, Anthony went on to not just learn Bengali but also to compose songs in the native language. Anthony also went on to marry a Hindi widow named Soudamini and continued to get influenced by Bengali culture and Hindi religion. The influence reflected in his work and he soon became popular in the ‘kavigan’ circuit, a tradition of poetic duels popular in that era. Jaatishwar is a film which comfortably criss-crosses between 2 time zones, the 19th century as we see Hensman Anthony’s life and times and the present times that we live in. The film keeps moving across the two time zones in a deliberate non-linear fashion which works in favour of the film.
In parallel to the story of Hensman Anthony we see a present day setup where Rohit Mehta (Jishu Sengupta), a research scholar in Portuguese studies has been having a one sided attraction towards Mahamaya Bandhopadhyay (Swastika Mukherjee) who’s also a University student like him. Mahamaya is a fiercely independent woman who’s quite confident of herself and is into Bengali music and in fact anything that’s Bengali in nature. One day she even ends up challenging Rohit to compose an original song in Bengali and sing it himself for her in order to win her attention. Sometime later Mahamaya goes on to become a popular RJ on Radio Mirchi and Rohit is pursuing his further studies as an exchange student in Portugal.
With a dissertation pending from his side and with no topic coming into his mind, Rohit stumbles upon the character called Hensman Anthony in a brief description in some book in the library. Determined to do his dissertation on Hensman Anthony and considering there’s hardly any material to study about him, Rohit moves back to Kolkata. His search for details on the ancient Portuguese poet leads him to Chandannagar where he meets Kushal Hazra, assistant librarian at the local library. Kushal is willing to help Rohit with his research, but there’s a catch here- Kushal believes that he is Hensman Anthony’s reincarnation. What happens to Rohit’s research and to Kushal Hazra? Do Rohit and Mahamaya’s lives interconnect once again? All these and more are what the rest of the film is all about.
The film does move along at a leisurely pace and might take some time to hook you in. Nevertheless once you are in it’s an interesting journey all the way through from thereon. Srijit Mukherji’s command over the narrative is seen once again here and though the film keeps criss-crossing across 2 different time zones and the despite the two tracks being as different as chalk and cheese, he manages to balance them delicately. In addition to the characters of Hensman Anthony, Kushal Hazra, Rohit and Mahamaya, the film also boasts of quite a few well written characters. Mamta Shankar as Swastika’s mother is a delight to watch. And the way the mother actually tells her daughter that its safer for a girl to date another girl these days than a guy is a sparkling moment in the film. Abir Chatterjee as Rohit’s friend Bodhi, Rahul Banerjee as Amitava and Riya Sen as Sudheshna, both friends of Mahamaya get noticed as well. Kharaj Mukherjee as Bhola Moyra, the main rival of Hensman Anthony in the kavigan series is a wonderful choice. The film also boasts of the presence of several musicians in the cast like Kabir Suman (also the composer of the film), Rupam Islam, Anupam Roy etc.
The film gets the period look wonderfully right and the credit for that certainly needs to go both to the DOP Soumik Haldar and Kaushik Barik, the art director. Kabir Suman has done a fabulous job with the music, be it the period songs, especially the Kavigan ones or the contemporary ones, all of them work with the flow of the film. Jishu Sengupta as Rohit Mehta is a good casting choice and he brings alive the character of a man living with the hope of winning across the girl he loves. Swastika Mukherjee is not just pretty but quite natural as the strong willed girl and comes across as more than someone for whom a guy like Rohit would fall for hook, line and sinker. At the end of the movie you would be more or less compelled to feel that Srijit has more than done justice to the tale of Hensman Anthony and given it his own charm with the contemporary touch added.
But its Prosenjit who’s the main reason for the film turning out the way it has. I for one simply cannot envision anyone else doing justice to the roles of Hensman Anthony and Kushal Hazra, he is that convincing in both the portrayals. In the kavigan portions he seems to be at peace with the World and as Kushal Hazra he brings out the pain effectively of a man, who lives under the constant fear of losing his identity forever. This is a performance that should certainly be in contention for all the major awards next year. The film isn’t spot-free; you might at times find the film to be a little slow for comfort. Also there’s not much that you get to know about the origin of Hensman Anthony and about his life apart from his world of music. Even his romance with Soudamini is not depicted in detail, but that’s done deliberately I guess.
Jaatishwar eventually is a film which works on most counts and is a major triumph for the Srijit Mukherji-Prosenjit Chatterjee combination. Go watch this one; I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Note- Jaatishwar is playing in select screens outside West Bengal including cities like Mumbai, Pune, Delhi/NCR, Bangalore etc. The film is playing with English sub-titles as well and hence there’s all the more incentive to watch it.