Director: Soumik Sen

Cast: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Subhomoy Chatterjee, Subhasish Mukherjee, Jisshu U Sengupta, Saptarshi Ray, Kanchan Mullick

A pensive Uttam Kumar sits all by himself in his drawing room. It is meant to be his finest hour, and as far as his acolytes are concerned he has done it again. However, sensitive artiste that he is, Uttam does not quite buy into the adulation coming his way. He realizes something is amiss. The phone rings. It’s his friend, a famous playback singer and composer, calling to congratulate him on another feather in his cap. Then comes the one dialogue that defines Mahalaya, the film. Giving a glimpse into the great human being he is, Uttam Kumar asks his friend, ‘Kintu pujo elo ki? (But has Durga Pujo arrived?) When Birendra Bhadra-babu recites the Mahisasur Mardini, one knows that pujo is here. It doesn’t quite feel that way today – all I hear around me is people talking about Uttam.’

For Bengalis of a certain vintage, it was a yearly ritual like nothing else … a nip in the early-morning air, the heady fragrance of shiuli, and at 4 a.m. people huddled around their transistor radios listening to the soaring voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra invoking the Goddess to the strains of ‘Ya devi sarvabhuteshu Shakti rupena sansthita / Namastashyai, namastashyai, namastashyai namoh namah’. Composed by Pankaj Mullick and rendered by Bhadra on Mahalaya, Mahisasur Mardini had heralded the arrival of Durga Puja (which begins a week after Mahalaya) for over forty years, till 1976, when a government directive replaced Bhadra with matinee star Uttam Kumar and Pankaj Mullick with another renowned singer and composer, to outrage so great that All India Radio (AIR) was forced to go back to Bhadra and Mullick the very next year.

Saumik Sen’s film tells the story of that one tempestuous year. It opens with a montage of newspaper clippings announcing the imposition of the Emergency and a bureaucrat Shashi Sinha (a deliciously wicked cameo by the film’s producer Prosenjit Chatterjee) taking it upon himself to change the cultural landscape of the nation. Undaunted by being ticked off on the phone by Kishore Kumar (who refused to perform for the government and was subsequently blacklisted by AIR), Sinha turns his attention to revamping the decades-old Mahisasur Mardini by getting a star (‘Oi bhadra lok der somoy gechhe, get a star … Satyajit-babu toh declare korechhen Bengal mein ek hi star hai,’ he says) and a whole new team of composer and singers.

What adds to the viewing experience is the vicarious thrill of seeing icons like Uttam Kumar, Pankaj Mullick and of course Birendra Bhadra being brought to life on screen with such precision

This riveting telling of the entire saga scores on almost all counts – the performances, the drama, the way the era is captured. What adds to the viewing experience is the vicarious thrill of seeing icons like Uttam Kumar, Pankaj Mullick, a legendary singer-composer who is not named but addressed as Bor-da right through, and of course Birendra Bhadra being brought to life on screen with such precision.

We first see Bhadra making his way through the slush in a fish market, nondescript, dhuti-clad; and Subhashish Mukherjee does not put a foot wrong in his portrayal, whether taking snuff, or stoically accepting the fact that his time might be up. Shubhomoy Chatterjee is brilliant as the often cantankerous Pankaj Mullick, who will take no nonsense when it comes to his music and who, as we learn, ‘even Rabindranath Tagore could not point a finger at’. As his protégé who is chafing at the bit to emerge from his shadow (‘I am not Pankaj Mullick and neither is Pankaj Mullick me’), Saptarshi Ray (Bor-da) is as good. Then there’s Jisshu Sengupta in what is probably the toughest act of the film – given that the image and memory of Uttam Kumar linger larger than life still (incidentally, Jisshu’s mother-in-law is the well-known yesteryear actor Anjana Bhowmick, who was paired opposite Uttam Kumar in a clutch of films of the era). Jisshu is pitch-perfect: his gait, the way he clasps his palms up in greetings to his adoring fans, the way he holds a cigarette, his voice modulation, his body language which conveys his hesitation, his apprehension about replacing someone of the stature of Bhadra.

Shubhomoy Chatterjee is brilliant as the often cantankerous Pankaj Mullick, who will take no nonsense when it comes to his music and who, as we learn, ‘even Rabindranath Tagore could not point a finger at’

This is a film that unfolds one brilliantly executed scene after another, all the more effective because of the understated manner in which the drama plays out: Pankaj Mullick telling off a Hindu bigot who objects to Bhadra chanting the mantras in Mahisasur Mardini because he is not a Brahmin. Uttam Kumar paying a visit to Bhadra’s home – in one of the film’s most moving and nuanced moments. Or the finale where a chastened and repentant Bor-da returns to Pankaj Mullick, recuperating from a stroke, and the film fades out to his majestic rendition of Tagore’s ‘Diner seshe ghoomer deshe’, which was in the first place made famous by Mullick.

At the same time it’s not all sombre – there are scintillating moments of levity, be it in Sinha’s exasperation at Bengalis being a people of ‘naa, maane, kintu’ (ifs and buts), or Uttam revelling in the fact that the maid at Bhadra’s home has failed to recognize him (‘It’s not bad, you know, to be asked who you are,’ he tells Bhadra), or the film’s one laugh-out-loud moment where in the aftermath of the fiasco, a manager at AIR (Kanchan Mullick) tells Sinha that the latter’s misadventure reminds him of the famous Uttam Kumar song from Sanyasi Raja, which released only the year before: ‘Kaharba noy dadra bajao, ulto palta marchho chaati / Shashikanto tumi dekhchhi, ashor ta ke korbe maati’ (in essence, you have spoiled the party).

Mahalaya is one of those films where everything just comes together beautifully, leaving you longing for more. It not only chronicles an iconic historical and cultural marker of a people but also provides an insight into the great respect two legendary artistes – Birendra Bhadra and Uttam Kumar – had for each other, despite the circumstances they were forced into. Four years after the debacle, when the Mahanayak passed away, the mantras at his last rites were chanted by Bhadra. Over forty years later, AIR still broadcasts Bhadra’s rendition of Mahisasur Mardini on Mahalaya, ushering the Pujas for a whole new generation who may not have even heard of him.

Rating:   star
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