Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Jisshu Sengupta, Jaya Ahsan, Aparna Sen, Anjan Dutt, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rudranil Ghosh
It is probably all in the stars. Some actors are born to play a certain role; some characters come destined for the actor who will play them. Nargis was tailor-made for Mother India, or was it the other way round? For all his super-hits, Uttam Kumar will be remembered foremost for Nayak. Soumitra Chatterjee has his Apur Sansar. Al Pacino his Godfather. Kamal Haasan has his Nayakan and Thevar Magan. In Ek Je Chhilo Raja, Jisshu Sengupta has found the role that will probably define him. Here is an actor who has had a successful, popular run for years; yet somehow, even in the films that gave him top billing, he has come across as self-effacing, almost diffident about the limelight. Not anymore. As Bhawal Sanyasi, he owns the role in a way that leaves no doubt that if there is one character he was born to play, it is this.
While it is Jisshu’s performance that holds the film together, Ek Je Chhilo Raja is as much a triumph for Srijit Mukherji. After a few underwhelming films that have left his admirers dismayed, he is back with one that ranks alongside his best early forays as a film-maker. What makes it even more commendable is that he achieves this with a historically well-documented saga spanning close to forty years, one involving actual people caught up in a legal maze like no other, and addressing contentious issues like identity, nationalism and gender.
The facts of the Bhawal Sanyasi case are too well-known to be recounted here. It is arguably one of the most sensational of legal cases anywhere in the world – the truth behind which is still a matter of debate, over seventy years after the final judgment was delivered. Equally fascinating is the mounting of it that Srijit manages, the meticulous attention to period detail, the look each character inhabits, the grandeur of the palace of the Bhawal zamindars and the vim and vigour he brings to the legal aspect.
While it is Jisshu’s performance that holds the film together, Ek Je Chhilo Raja is as much a triumph for Srijit Mukherji. After a few underwhelming films that have left his admirers dismayed, he is back with one that ranks alongside his best early forays as a film-maker.
Unlike many of his films which zigzag their way through multiple strands, Srijit keeps things simple here – alternating between the two aspects: the ‘life, death and resurrection’ of the second kumar of Bhawal (shot in colour) and the legal battle to establish his credentials, spanning sixteen years (shot in monochrome). Which is just as well, because the facts here are enough of a maze to satisfy the most demanding of viewers looking for a thriller, a period piece and a courtroom drama, all rolled into one.
While the film scores on almost all fronts, it is in the performances that it delivers big time, with Jisshu leading the charge. He is equally at home as the debauched zamindar who admits to his wife – he is so drunk he has even forgotten he has one (‘I hear I have been married,’ he tells her) – a weakness for ‘modh, mohila aar mangsho’ (wine, woman and meat) as he is as a naga sadhu wandering in a stupor. It is a robustly physical performance, yet Jisshu never loses sight of its psychological core.
The swagger of the zamindar contrasts the pitiful syphilis-ridden patient, convinced that he is being poisoned, pleading with his doctor to give him an honourable death, which in turn stands out from the lost, almost dazed man who returns from the dead to claim his zamindari and yet cannot be bothered less if he won or lost. Equally laudable is the precision he brings to the two differing dialects he has in the two halves of the film: his native one and the one he picks up during his wanderings as a sadhu.
In a nation where films rarely do justice to courtroom proceedings, here is one that makes a riveting difference. The verbal duels between the two lawyers (played with visible relish by veterans Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt) as also the exchanges between them and their clients and witnesses are vintage Srijit. Consider, for example, the scene where Anupama (Aparna Sen) tells the raja, ‘You claim to be Raja Mahendra Choudhury…’ only to be calmly interrupted by him. ‘No, I don’t claim to be Raja Mahendra Choudhury.’ As she is stumped for an answer, comes the punch-line: ‘I know I am Raja Mahendra Choudhury, it’s you who claim I am not.’ Or the way Bhaskar (Anjan Dutt) cajoles the bewildered raja to sing a couple of lines in the witness box to refute an argument set out by Anupama.
He is equally at home as the debauched zamindar who admits to his wife – he is so drunk he has even forgotten he has one as he is as a naga sadhu wandering in a stupor
Yes, one can quibble that Anupama is a figment of the director’s imagination (a fact that he acknowledges in the film’s disclaimer), and that the undercurrent of a past romance between the two is taking creative licence a bit too far. In fact, as they take leave of each other after the verdict is delivered in the lower court, Anupama addresses Bhaskar as ‘bondhubar’, ‘learned counsel’ or ‘respected friend’, as one would one’s opposing lawyer, but adds a final sting, condemning him as one who could neither be ‘bondhu’ (friend) nor ‘bor’ (husband). However, apart from this wilful digression, the proceedings in the courtroom, despite being dramatic, are never outlandish, with Jisshu’s understated presence giving it all a dignified grace, even when the most obscene arguments are being put forward.
In fact, it is in this understatement that the film scores over some of Srijit’s recent outings. Gone are the excesses, the needless straying into melodrama and stretching of reel-time. Just a couple of scenes towards the end suffice to mark this welcome departure: the raja’s sister walking in to announce the verdict delivered by the Privy Council in London and breaking down that at last it was time to return home.
A special shout-out to the film’s music (composer Indraadip Dasgupta and lyricist Srijato) which is in step with the narrative, and to Jaya Ahsan for a performance that is likely to be overshadowed by Jisshu’s brilliance; as the raja’s sister who steadfastly pursues the case to its end, she is no less brilliant, offering a silent contrast to the flamboyance of her brother.