Director: Anindya Chatterjee
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Sandhya Roy, Abir Chatterjee, Bratya Basu, Rajatabha Dutta, Shilajit Majumdar
Since critics have called it a children’s fairy tale, let us begin with: Once upon a time there lived a young prince in a huge palace. One day, the prince goes missing and the palace slowly falls into disrepair. A legend grows around a treasure buried in its precincts even as the king and queen pine away for their lost son. Well, Manojder Adbhut Bari is about all this but it is not only about this. It is not even about Manoj who comes across a sepia-tinted photograph of a young boy in prince’s attire in his house and becomes obsessed with finding out about him. The missing prince and Manoj’s quest are simply pegs on which director Anindya Chatterjee (singer and lyricist of well-known Bengali band Chandrabindoo) hangs a mindboggling gallery of eccentrics; there’s not one character in the film who does not come across as just that wee bit touched in the head.
Very few Indian languages have such a rich tradition of stories for children and young adults as Bengali. Much before the term ‘YA’ or young adult became a much sought-after genre in English-language publishing in India, Bengali writers had cracked the space. Though ostensibly aimed at children and young adults, most of these works – from Thakurmar Jhuli, for which Rabindranath Tagore wrote an introduction, and Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol to Satyajit Ray’s Feluda and Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Tenida – have been crossovers in the true sense, with adults enjoying them as much as their ostensible target readership.
So it is with Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Manojder Adbhut Bari, first serialized in the Bengali magazine Anandamela before being published as a novel in 1978 and becoming an instant hit with readers. Though the novel has all the tropes of a fairy tale – a lost prince, an abandoned palace, a gang of bloodthirsty dacoits, hidden treasure – I disagree with the few reviews that have called the film so. The author himself says as much in his introduction to the film, reiterating the point in the end. Bookended by these two short authorial monologues lies a madcap adventure that’s almost impossible to describe.
What makes the film such a delight are the characters and their quirks… There’s Bhojohori kaku (Rajatava Dutta) who is such an expert at haggling that his very arrival at the daily bazaar leads shopkeepers to drop prices (watch him con a vegetable vendor to give him tomatoes free through a maze of logical reasoning). There’s the music-crazy uncle Ganesh (Ambarish) who contemplates hanging himself following a lapse in rendering Raga Hamsadwani.
There’s not much by way of plot here. What makes the film such a delight are the characters and their quirks. There’s Manoj’s father (Rohit Banerjee) who lectures his children on the importance of memory and in the same breath cannot remember which class they study in. There’s Bhojohori kaku (Rajatava Dutta) who is such an expert at haggling that his very arrival at the daily bazaar leads shopkeepers to drop prices (watch him con a vegetable vendor to give him tomatoes free through a maze of logical reasoning). There’s the music-crazy uncle Ganesh (Ambarish) who contemplates hanging himself following a lapse in rendering Raga Hamsadwani. There’s the teacher obsessed with sitting in the right posture (‘The posture is what distinguished a Gavaskar from a Pataudi,’ as he says). There’s the detective Boroda Choron (Bratya Basu) who calls Feluda long-distance, asking him to pass on some ‘real’ cases to him, not the petty ones he has to deal with in the village (he has asked Byomkesh too, he clarifies, but the latter seems to have lost interest in detective work after his marriage). There’s the elderly aunt who sprays the homestead with cow dung water all day to keep it ‘pure’. There’s even a Dakat Sardar’s gang made up of Kali bhakts, who put up an act of indulging in human sacrifice, largely for effect.
The repartee flows thick and fast – possibly the only ‘flaw’ in the film: the gags keep coming at such a pace and there are so many characters engaged in these that even before you begin to savour one the next is on its way. But that’s petty quibbling because all of it is so good and so consistently funny. Consider, for example, the teacher tying himself up in knots explaining the link between a caterpillar and a butterfly, the importance of one’s mother tongue, and the proverb about failure and success (traversing in one hilarious sequence the entire gamut from ‘failure is the mother tongue of success’ to ‘failure is the caterpillar of success’). Or an agent trying to sell a life insurance policy to Bhojohori, even as he is about to be guillotined by the gang of dacoits. Or the detective calling Feluda only to be told that he is on his way to some Sonar Kella in Rajasthan, and eventually planning to venture into films now that Feluda and Byomkesh are all making a career in cinema. And as the film climaxes, the dacoits attack the palace in search of the hidden treasure only to realize that the coins are no longer legal currency as the government seems to have come up with something called – ‘dem’ or ‘dim (egg)’ or ‘demon’ or ‘Dimapur’ prompt people in the crowd that has gathered – demonetization!
One of the best Bengali films of the year, Monojder Adbhut Bari is theatre of the absurd at its best. A must watch, irrespective of what age group you belong to.
Watch the trailer here: