I stagger out of the darkened theatre as soon as the credits begin to roll, and head for the coffee bar. Only when the steaming coffee drops from my numb fingers onto my clothes do I wake up from my near-catatonia and realize that the worst is behind me. I have survived two and a half hours of Dev outrunning lions, elephants, common sense and some weird-looking boss villain called the Bunyip. I am free.
CHANDER PAHAR may very well be the best film Dev has ever acted in, by quite a margin. The fact that it is still a rather boring, uninspiring mess is a testament to the generally poor quality of his previous work. Burdened here with the knowledge that he’s the sole lead and USP of the costliest film ever made in the Tollywood film industry (at a princely sum of Rs 15 crore, which must be roughly Aamir Khan’s signing fee for Dhoom 3) and has no heroines to dance in waterfalls with or rescue from aerodynamically optimized villains, Dev pulls out all the stops and makes a sincere effort to do a Bullock or Franco and carry a movie off on his own personal charisma. Unfortunately, he forgets that he doesn’t have any.
Director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, fresh off the stunning triumph of his fever-dream Ritwik Ghatak biopic MEGHE DHAKA TARA, bites off more than he can chew here. The fault is not his alone. CHANDER PAHAR was to set a new high-water mark for Bengali cinema, a swashbuckling, gorgeously shot, lavish adventure movie in the tradition of Romancing the Stone or Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, in the setting of a new precedent, the film falters because of the lack of chemistry between its two leads Shankar (Dev) and Portuguese explorer/treasure-hunter Diego Alvarez (Gerard Rudolf), and because the film never tries to incite our emotional involvement in the story. You can throw in as many aerial shots of the African steppes as you want to, but until the audience cares about the journey of your protagonists, the film will not work. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay could assume that in 1937 (when his book CHANDER PAHAR was released), the very premise of a Bengali boy fighting lions and volcanoes in Africa would be enough to entice people into reading his book, but by making the same assumption about his movie now in the post-Peter Jackson era, where Bear Grylls eats scorpions and makes mockery of the most inhospitable regions on Earth every week for our viewing pleasure, Kamaleshwar goes very, very wrong. The novelty is long gone.
All this just increases the pressure on Dev to deliver, but despite his best efforts, he is unable to do so. He displays enormous nerve in executing his own stunts with the lions and the black mamba, but it is in the mellower moments where his connection with Diego is explored that he fails to grab our attention or sympathy. Rather than playing a swashbuckling maverick adventurer, he plays Shankar as an irritatingly earnest, good-boy bookworm with barely a smidge of humor. Kamaleshwar realizes early enough that this boat was at risk of capsizing, so all throughout the first half, he throws in the edits fast and heavy and concentrates more on the setting than on his characters, and in the second half, tells the makeup department to cover Dev’s face with a bushy beard and yellowed rotting teeth and asks his star to scream and lumber around. Unfortunately, this ends up looking comical rather than horrifying, which was the original intention. It also does not help that Dev’s co-stars can speak neither English nor Bengali intelligibly and the profusion of indecipherable South American and pidgin accents make the job of following the finer points of the story even more difficult.
Technically, the film cannot be faulted much. Soumik Haldar’s camera captures the wilderness of South Africa in all its pristine glory, the hawks, the lions, the mountains are rendered in beautiful detail. But where things really get going is the production design. Every detail of early 1900s Bengal and Uganda is captured wonderfully, from Shankar’s ancestral home to his station-master’s office in Africa. Indraadip Das Gupta’s rousing, primal soundtrack is also perfectly in tune with the movie’s tone and feel.
Watch this movie only if you love Dev and the Discovery Channel. Otherwise, I’m sure there’s a more entertaining rerun of The Mummy on TV.
Rating: – 4/10