Director: Kaushik Ganguly

Cast: Abir Chatterjee, Jaya Ahsan, Kaushik Ganguly, Lama Halder

It’s a rare sequel that measures up to an acclaimed predecessor and it takes an intrepid filmmaker to attempt one to a film that scaled the heights that Bishorjan did. But then Kaushik Ganguly has never shied away from pushing the envelope when it comes to content and narrative, consistently traversing the path less taken in documenting through his cinema the marginalized and the off-beat.

For the uninitiated, Bishorjan told the story of an Indian, Naser Ali (Abir Chatterjee), a small-time dealer in smuggled goods, who washes up on the Bangladesh side of the Ichhamati River and is rescued by a Hindu widow, Padma (Jaya Ahsan). As Padma nurses him back to health and they fall in love, we are introduced to life in a small Hindu community in a Bangladeshi village, to the dynamics of India-Bangladesh politics and Hindu-Muslim relationships, and more importantly to the crafty Ganesh Mandal (Kaushik Ganguly), the local money-bag who has his eyes on the beautiful Padma.

Bijoya picks up the narrative a few years from where Bishorjan left off. Padma has married Ganesh in a barter deal that would enable Naser Ali to return to India safely, and they now have a six-year-old son. Ganesh is ailing, and as the local hakim says, unless he is treated for his failing heart condition, his days are numbered. Ganesh, Padma and Ganesh’s Man Friday Lau (Lama Halder, what a delightful actor he is!) travel to Kolkata’s AMRI for treatment. Needless to say, here Padma runs into Naser Ali (who has turned over a new leaf, and is now employed in the medicine outlet at AMRI), thus setting the stage for relationships to be put to the test and unravel. If in Bishorjan, it’s an Indian Muslim who is looked after by Bangladeshi Hindus, in Bijoya, the tables are turned; if in the former, Naser is an ‘illegal’ Muslim in an Islamic country, in the latter, it’s three Hindus who enter India without proper papers – and it is these little ironies that make the two films so engaging.

In Ganesh Mandal, Kaushik Ganguly has created one of the most memorable characters of Bengali cinema. Every nuance is so spot-on that one can only marvel at the histrionics

The facets that made Bishorjan such a riveting watch – an array of brilliant performances, the dialogues that sparkle with wit and are in Bijoya leavened by an undercurrent of pathos, and a superlative musical score that makes impeccable use of the finest Bangla folk songs (courtesy the late Kalika Prasad, the legendary exponent and connoisseur of the form) – are all on display in Bijoya too.

In Ganesh Mandal, Kaushik Ganguly has created one of the most memorable characters of Bengali cinema. Every nuance, every twitch of his tortured face, even as he engages in self-deprecatory banter or rebukes Lau or wallows in self-pity, is so spot-on that one can only marvel at the histrionics. Even if the delicious craftiness of his character in Bishorjan gives way to an emphasis on anguish here, thus robbing it of its edge that wee bit, Kaushik hits the ball right out of the park with élan.

Jaya Ahsan was outstanding in Bishorjan and suffers a trifle in comparison – given that there’s little by way of character growth here – but shines throughout in what should count as her career-defining character yet. Her diction in the Bangal dialect is flawless, and the tranquillity of her body language in the face of the tribulations her character faces is one of the film’s major achievements. In a memorable sequence that conveys the essence of what womanhood entails for the majority, Padma tells Naser how in the course of one life she has had to live down three identities as Padma Das, her maiden name; Padma Haldar, her first marriage; and now Padma Mandal. At the same time, despite being unlettered, Padma is feisty and as she underlines in a climactic confrontation with Naser, no one but she has the right to decide on her behalf, claiming an agency that has been denied to her.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Bijoya could have well gone down the melodramatic route but Kaushik largely eschews false notes

In the light of these two inspired performances, it is easy to miss Abir, but that’s where he scores – he understands the need for understatement, thus running the risk of being overlooked, but it is in this very underplaying that he makes a strong impression, investing his character and its portrayal with dignity, making you want to reach out to Naser.

It is in its understated nature – be it the narrative, the performances – that Bijoya makes it count big-time. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this could have well gone down the melodramatic route but Kaushik largely eschews false notes. Just consider the scene where Ganesh keeps haranguing Naser about why he has never married to which Naser’s response ‘Have you ever been able to love anyone else but Padma?’ hits home primarily because of the matter-of-fact way in which such a profound confession is made. Or for that matter the emotionally wrenching scene, one of the film’s finest, in which Padma admits to Ganesh that she loves Naser – a masterclass in both an actor’s craft and a director’s control of the medium.

The only quibble I have – and that too because what has gone before is so good – is the last stretch where Ganesh Mandal goes missing, leaving behind a suicide note. For a film that respects the viewer’s intelligence in not spelling out things, it becomes too verbose, even maudlin, as Naser implores Padma to stay back and the two go round in circles trying to come to terms with the development. More so because the scene preceding it (as a disconsolate Ganesh breaks down and begs Naser to take care of Padma after he is gone), memorably framed by the tenement’s window, is so telling that what follows immediately after sort of loses steam.

If Bijoya is any portent of things to come – this being the first Bengali release of the year – lovers of Bengali cinema have a lot to look forward to

But in a film that is otherwise this good, that’s a minor flaw and the director makes up for it with a delectable twist in the tale, in the light of which the expository nature of the segment preceding it can possibly be justified.

If Bijoya is any portent of things to come – this being the first Bengali release of the year – lovers of Bengali cinema have a lot to look forward to.

Rating:   star
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