Abhijaan Review: Soumitra Chatterjee Anchors This Affecting, If Surface-Level, Biographical Film

Parambrata Chatterjee’s film finds the late, great actor at his most vulnerable.

Director: Parambrata Chatterjee
Cast: Soumitra Chatterjee, Parambrata Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Paoli Dam, Q, Rudranil Ghosh

Soumitra Chatterjee plays Soumitra Chatterjee in Parambrata Chatterjee’s Abhijaan. In what is perhaps his last role, it also finds the acting legend – poet, playwright, activist – at his most vulnerable. In 2017, Chatterjee’s grandson, a promising young actor and heir to his legacy, met with a bike accident that sent him in a comatose state. A brief moment of banter between the two (another actor plays his grandson) on the fateful night appears in the film. Chatterjee’s willingness to put himself through reenacted moments like these gives Abhijaan an illusion of truth that’s hard not to buy into. It anchors the film in an authenticity that complements the self-conscious artifice of the tinted, black and white period reconstructions of his younger days, in which Jisshu Sengupta plays him. “I’m taking remuneration to be honest with you,” he tells the filmmaker, played by Parambrata, at one point.

Honestly, the film’s cynicism for its subject isn’t any better than that of the journalist in Sanju played by Anushka Sharma. It’s self-serving and exists only to exalt him. None of the critical questioning – his “affairs” with his leading ladies; the “hypocrisy” of being a single-malt sipping intellectual and a worker strike sympathizer – is really damning. But where Sanju came off as an elaborate whitewashing PR project, Abhijaan pivots on someone who can articulate the eternal contradiction that lies at the heart of an artist selling his art. Soumitra Chatterjee wouldn’t have liked his authorized biopic to be a hagiography, and it isn’t.

Parambrata shoots the Soumitra portions in a documentary language – talking heads, real locations, realistic background noise. But there’s no reason to think of this as a journalistic deep dive into his psyche. Instead, he taps into a Bengali sentiment. And it works. We have heard of Soumitra and Uttam as drinking buddies? Here we get a scene where Prosenjit Chatterjee, as Uttam Kumar, talks about a Marcello Mastroianni performance to Jisshu Sengupta’s Soumitra Chatterjee. Paoli Dam’s Suchitra Sen flirts with him at a party. Q appears as Ray, summoning the young, callow actor to the sets of Jalsaghar. I was half expecting Srijit Mukherji to show up, as himself.

The period segments may play out like a greatest hits package, but Parambrata makes thoughtful choices. He begins the flashback on the day of Tagore’s death, an event that had left an indelible mark on Soumitra as a boy, because he saw his mother crying inconsolably. Later in the film, we get a scene where news of Ray’s death reaches him while he is in the middle of a play. By the time a title card at the end notes the passing of the actor, in 2020, you’ve got a sense of Soumitra’s role as the last link to that past. A simple shot of him looking at a greenroom mirror, with little changes in hair and makeup, becomes a device to fast-forward through his career. Abhijaan loses depth at the cost of showing a bit of everything – it remains a surface-level portrait – but thankfully doesn’t lack soul. Ultimately, the film is held together by feeling.

I wish it was stylistically bolder. Sure the telling is neat and efficient, but a little lyricism would’ve done no harm. While making a stop on their way to Bolpur, when the actor and his wife, Deepa (Basabdatta Chatterjee), look at the river bed and talk, I wanted to look at it. I would’ve liked the camera to linger on. I think Soumitra Chatterjee would’ve liked that.

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"Sankhayan Ghosh: Sankhayan was working for newspapers like The Indian Express, The Hindu, and Mint Lounge before he joined Film Companion. He likes movies and hates writing bios.."
  
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