Director: Kaushik Ganguly

Cast: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Ritwick Chakraborty, Sudiptaa Chakraborty, Gargee Roychowdhury, Daminee Benny Basu

Very few film-makers have addressed film-making, the performative arts, the creative process, in films so regularly, with as much understanding and finesse as Rituparno Ghosh has. From Unishe April to BariwaliShubho Muhurat to The Last Lear, it has been a recurrent leitmotif. It is in the fitness of things then that a similarly themed story the director was working on before his untimely demise makes it to the screen as a Kaushik Ganguly film. For, the latter too has dealt with this aspect brilliantly in a number of his films: ShabdoApur PanchaliArekti Premer GolpoCinemawala, to name a few. It is interesting to speculate what Ghosh would have made of his story ‘Onyo Nayak’ that is different from how Ganguly has envisioned it. There’s been much debate about the origins of the film, with allegations and counter-allegations, and the surreality of the film-maker announcing that the idea struck him while watching Rituparno Ghosh closely after his father’s death, and the lead star Prosenjit Chatterjee going on record that Ghosh was inspired by his life, and the way he went about performing the final rites of his mother.

After all that dust has settled, how does one look back at the film? It’s not an easy question to answer, and that’s a good quality for a film to have, for it means the film has made you think. Jyeshthoputro left me conflicted at many levels. It is without doubt a good film, in fact a very good one, at times even skirting greatness, with three terrific performances, a nuanced, largely understated script which adds to the overall impact, and two sequences of such brilliance that I could travel miles to watch those sequences alone; in fact I could watch this film again and again for only those scenes. It is, at the same time, frustratingly uneven, particularly in the second half, and eventually leaves one with a feeling of having been deprived of something greater, fuller.

Till about the halfway mark, the film is a series of finely nuanced sequences, none more so than the ones featuring Ila, brilliantly portrayed by Sudiptaa

Superstar Indrajit (Prosenjit Chatterjee) arrives – rather descends in a helicopter – in his ancestral home after the death of his father. The sleepy little village comes to life with the cavalcade of cars blaring VIP sirens that follows in his wake. Much as he would like to be left alone – or does he really; it’s this ambivalence that is the film’s strong suit, and that unfortunately is never fully explored – and grieve in peace, he has to perforce deal with a throng of admirers, who think nothing of taking selfies at even as solemn an occasion as the lighting of the funeral pyre. That makes one strand of the story, basically dealing with the public façade a star has to maintain no matter what.

The second deals with his fraught relationship with his siblings: a mentally unbalanced sister Ila (Sudiptaa Chakraborty), who has to be kept in chains, and a younger brother, Partha (Ritwick Chakraborty) who has taken care of the family, the crumbling ancestral mansion, now infested with snakes and frogs as he says, in the absence of his brother who has left it all behind in search of greener pastures and greater glory. That Partha is a distinguished actor in his own right – maybe even a better one, as Indrajit himself acknowledges – though limited to local plays, gives the relationship an edge that makes for fascinating viewing.

However, these two strands never quite come together – though they chug along quite nicely in their own separate ways – and that, I think, is the film’s central failing. Till about the halfway mark, the film is a series of finely nuanced sequences, none more so than the ones featuring Ila, brilliantly portrayed by Sudiptaa. It’s a performance of such staggering eloquence that when it falters just that wee bit with the ‘homage-at-the-school’ sequence, it sticks out like a sore thumb. And for some unfathomable reason, we see little of her after this as the film turns its attention to the two brothers sparring with each other.

Ritwick – hitting a purple patch with Vinci Da and Tarikh in the last month – is a treat in every frame, walking away with the acting honours

Though this results in the film’s two most delectable sequences – what a pleasure it is to watch two seasoned performers feeding off each other – the second half suffers from a ‘one-climax-too-many’ syndrome as the film ends up being a squabble between two brothers over careers and fortune rather than delve into anything deeper. By the time the superstar, having had one drink too many, comes to meet the beloved he has abandoned (Gargi Roychowdhury in another of the film’s strong, silent performances), in a sequence that echoes the celebrated face-off between Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, I almost groaned, ‘No, not another one.’

It is hard to not like a film that has so much going for it – the background music for one is a standout – and that boasts such terrific performances. Prosenjit is just right as the star who is conscious of his image even in the midst of the most personal of tragedies – and he manages to deconstruct his star persona admirably well. Sudiptaa is the film’s ‘wow’ act and it’s a mystery why we don’t see more of this actor, while Ritwick – hitting a purple patch with Vinci Da and Tarikh in the last month – is a treat in every frame, walking away with the acting honours.

However, and this one’s the film’s big ‘however’: the word ‘jyeshthoputro’ means ‘elder son’ and though used interchangeably with ‘bawdo chhele’, there’s a subtle difference between the two terms. ‘Bawdo chhele’ is more denotative while ‘jyeshthoputro’ is connotative, laden with responsibilities and more profound philosophically. Jyeshthoputro, the film, ends up being more ‘bawdo chhele’.

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