In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other

The movie eschews the hackneyed gentle-artist-versus-indifferent-society trope
In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other

Dubbed “jhamela” (nuisance) by his neighbours, the old and jaded Bangla writer Balmiki (Prosenjit Chatterjee), who ends up in a dingy hospital ward within the first few minutes of Shesh Pata (The Last Page), is the archetypal wronged artist. When he ambles across a hushed green field, sorely tugs at blades of grass, and presses his palms against the bare moist soil, the viewers immediately sympathize with Balmiki’s world even as it seems absurd. Debojyoti Mishra’s immersive compositions convey the impenetrable depths of that world, especially in a pub scene, and one’s heart goes out to the lonely, outcast Balmiki.

However, filmmaker Atanu Ghosh’s movie decidedly eschews the hackneyed gentle-artist-versus-indifferent-society trope. Almost as a continuation of themes explored in his previous movies such as Rupkatha Noy (2013) and the recent Aaro Ek Prithibi (2023) both of which function through his characteristic exploitation of subplots, Shesh Pata forwards a oneness of humanity that is not only serendipitous but also imperative. In Atanu’s storyworld, art borrows from life as much as life thrives on art — each eternally indebted to the other. Thus, the writer Balmiki’s life soon becomes inextricably bound to that of a middle-aged woman named Medha (Gargee Roy Chowdhury) and a young recovery agent called Sounak (Vikram Chatterjee), wherein the three come together in making sense of an inherently meaningless world.

In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other
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When Brutality Affirms Compassion

The atrocious murder of Balmiki’s wife Roshni, an erstwhile renowned actress, forms the nucleus of the film. Roshni’s presence is felt in the miniature Taj Mahal showpiece, a symbol of conjugal love, placed at the centre of Balmiki’s drawing room table; it is felt in the mud-stained hands of Balmiki when he returns after performing the Sisyphean task of routinely marking the spot in the field where Roshni’s dead body was found — the viewers realise her absence haunts the film from its very first scene.

Roshni’s murder brings the three protagonists together. The publishing house that had solicited Balmiki to pen Roshni’s biography and credited him an advance to that end describes the incident as the “most sensational female death” of the nineties. Its intention of profiting off of the ‘scandal’ is thus hardly concealed. But when the publishers fail to procure any manuscript from Balmiki even after months, they hire Sounak to extract it on their behalf. However, realizing Balmiki had not written anything, Sounak employs Medha to transcribe Balmiki’s words and produce the manuscript afresh.

Interestingly, each one of them is separated from their respective partners in different degrees and somewhat isolated in life — Balmiki by death, Medha by divorce, and Sounak by economic constraints. But art brings these fragmented souls closer as the three get anchored to the life-writing of Roshni. Indeed, in an insightful quip, Balmiki reminds the naïve Sounak that narrating someone’s life requires as much creativity as writing fiction. (Don’t we all finally agree on this, especially after Annie Ernaux’s reception of the 2022 Nobel Prize?) The struggle of writing the biography till the last chapter, which must ultimately discuss the infamous death, parallels the characters’ daily exertion of wading their way through life till the day death arrives. It is Medha’s presence that brings warmth to Balmiki’s dejected life, making Roshni’s memories gradually resurface. Just as the book cannot be finished without a joint effort, life too can hardly be survived in stubborn independence. Thus, what makes the three share the same space at the end of the movie is a deeper human connection that goes beyond some practical one-hundred-and-fifty paged project.

In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other
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Unlike Balmiki’s publishers, Atanu abstains from touting the film through gory flashbacks or some thrilling unpacking of Roshni’s mysterious death, which remains a recurring yet vague reference — the proverbial Chekhovian murder scene just never arrives. But there isn’t any need either; Roshni’s death is introduced to foreground a single question: After brutality, can there be kindness? Shesh Pata takes its time to offer a dithering but resilient yes and suggests that inhuman deeds make one attune to the scattered specks of humanity with greater intent. This is illustrated through an association of clothes with ethics. At the very onset, the viewers are informed that Roshni’s murderers had left her dead body naked on the field. Again, closed doors in the film suggest questionable acts of undressing — be it in hotel rooms with Sounak and his girlfriend Deepa (Rayati Bhattacharya), or the more discomfiting entry of a young masseuse named Chandana (Brishti Roy) into Balmiki’s bedroom. Hence, throughout the movie unclothing becomes a placeholder for ‘amorality’. Thereafter, when the film blacks out with Chandana shutting the same door, secluding herself with Balmiki after his death to dress him as immaculately as he would have preferred, it becomes an unexpected, luminescent act of humanity. The scene derives its power from this implied juxtaposition.

Where Debts Only Connect

While the film offers a character like Deepa, who can confront and cope with life’s challenges relatively autonomously, others require external support — be it in the form of sizeable financial loans, or small events of touching quotidian nothingness. This means the joy of spending a few amusing minutes with an unknown child in an elevator can be boundless; the betrayal by a thoughtless debtor can translate into a loss beyond monetary measures.

In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other
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In Shesh Pata, the three protagonists are connected through both determinate and inestimable borrowings. The film’s ledger book reads like this: Sounak is indebted to a local moneylender; Medha is indebted to Sounak for previously extending her loan repayment period and later giving her a job, to Balmiki for relieving her from loneliness; Balmiki owes a manuscript to Sounak and is indebted to the newly-separated Medha for her stimulating presence. (Would it be stretching it a bit too far if one remembers Valmiki of the ‘Ur’-Ramanaya, whose writings will forever be indebted to the krauncha-killing he had witnessed, and who would later give the abandoned Sita refuge?)

The significance of the eponymous last chapter that Balmiki is expected to write, however, exceeds any stipulated repayment. For Medha, it would embody the first concrete step of coming out of depression, while for Sounak it would determine his ability to sustain his idealistic faith in humanity. In turn, Balmiki’s repayment can thus potentially make the two indebted to him. Thus, the scale of debts in the film is never steady. Its burden moves in circles and only ever connects. The movie thus uses neoliberal India’s widespread loan-taking habit to silently remind us that despite knowing that you will never be able to completely repay your debts, you must spend your life trying. Perhaps this ethics is best captured in the film’s opening epigraph from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Baptism of Fire which says: “We enter the world as a minute part of the life we are given, and from then on we are ever paying off debts.”

In Atanu Ghosh's Shesh Pata, Art And Life Thrive On Each Other
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Elsewhere, Shesh Pata has been discussed in the same breath as Satyajit Ray’s 1996 film Nayak (The Hero) regarding the theme of artists’ insecurities. However, the former’s real inheritance lies in one of the last scenes of the latter where a clump of shredded paper wedged in a glass of water announces that generosity is what we all need, what we all deserve, despite everything.

The performance by each actor is commensurate with the demands of the film’s original and exceptionally evocative story. The makeup by Somnath Kundu and Ram Chandra Rajjak deserves special mention for the believability they add, particularly to Balmiki’s character. Sujay Datta Ray’s editing is tight, with every shot lending a layer of meaning. The duration of the film is 126 minutes. You wish there was more, you know it was perfect.

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