Abyakto Movie Review: Arjunn Dutta Makes The Most Promising Bengali Film Debut Of The Year, Film Companion

Director: Arjunn Dutta

Cast: Arpita Chatterjee, Anubhav Kanjilal, Adil Hussain, Anirban Ghosh

A young man visits his mother, from whom he has been long estranged. He comes across a small box in which he has stored some of  his childhood treasures. He picks up a paper plane and turns it over in his hand. Then a child’s play-set belan chakla (a rolling pin and board used to knead dough to make chapatis). It’s a poignant moment, eloquent with everything we have lost with our childhoods. The sequence cuts to a traumatic childhood experience, where the mother berates him cruelly for playing that quintessentially ‘girlie’ game of ‘khelna-baati’.

A young mother is singing Kadale tumi moray, in a family gathering when the housemaid butts in with an update on lunch: the pressure cooker has already whistled a few times and the mutton is in danger of getting overdone. As the woman stops singing midway, one cannot help laughing out at the incongruity of a Tagore song being interrupted by the mundane mutton.

In between these two diametrically opposite sequences lie the appeal of Arjunn Dutta’s debut feature – the ability to turn a moment into something entirely different. On the face of it, Abyakto is a simple narrative told simply – and that’s its biggest strength. A young man, Indra (Anubhav Kanjilal), travels to his native home to settle some property issues. This leads him to confront his widowed mother Sathi (Arpita Chatterjee in what is easily one of the finest acts of the year as far as Bengali cinema is concerned). For as long as Indra can remember his relationship with his mother has been strained. As he says in a silently explosive sequence, while grudgingly acknowledging her contribution to his success: ‘But you screwed up my childhood.’ From what we see in the cutaways to the childhood sequences that pepper the narrative, that is an understatement.

Indra is constantly haunted by a dream – of his mother abandoning him at a Holi congregation. His mother is haranguing him for his propensity to play girlie games, dressing up in a sari, preferring a dollhouse as a gift on his birthday (which she proceeds to smash to smithereens). The only memories that he treasures are those of his father and his father’s friend Rudra (Adil Hussain), both of whom stand between his mother and his total emotional disintegration. There’s also this almost virulent dislike that Sathi has for Rudra, whom she repeatedly insults, which the young Indra cannot comprehend, let alone accept.

But beneath this simple tale of a mother and son’s troubled relationship, his pent-up angst vis-à-vis his mother, which he can neither overcome nor address with her, and her inability to reach out to her son as that would entail betraying secrets that are too intimate, lies undercurrents that sweep you away. More so, because there’s no dramatization of what has the potential of getting melodramatic. As a debutant, Arjunn Dutta brings a remarkable restraint in narrating the story.

Anubhav Kanjilal, after a rather inauspicious debut earlier this year in Abar Basanta Bilap, shows what he is capable of if given the right role. His face is a picture of indecision and simmering anger – he understands the sacrifices his mother has made for him, yet can never forget her ‘cruelty’

For a film that has two characters in frame right through, Arjunn is fortunate to have at his disposal two really strong performances. Anubhav Kanjilal, after a rather inauspicious debut earlier this year in Abar Basanta Bilap, shows what he is capable of if given the right role. His face is a picture of indecision and simmering anger – he understands the sacrifices his mother has made for him, yet can never forget her ‘cruelty’; there’s a part in him that wants a reconciliation, yet the roots of his discontent are too deep. In a scene that stayed in my mind, the father is reclining in an armchair, listening to his favourite classical music, his son lying over him, holding him in a tight embrace, both lost to the world. As Indra narrates his feelings about that moment to his mother, you cannot help but sigh at the wistfulness Anubhav brings to the scene. ‘I can’t say I liked the music, but to be part of what he liked…,’ he says. And in the final reconciliation where he breaks down, he is nothing short of brilliant.

But the film belongs to Chatterjee. As the mother whose motivations you are never sure of – what accounts for her almost psychotic cruelty to her son, why is she so insulting of Rudra (is there a hint of a past romance gone awry?), what rationalizes, if it does at all, her derision of her son engaging in girlie games, Chatterjee blows your mind. And in the film’s two distinct halves she brings in just the right balance, young and fiery in her youth and now weathered and weary, yet every bit as strong as before. She is not apologetic of her past in any visible way even if she understands the effect it might have had on her son. It’s a performance that makes you want to reach out to the actor personally to just soak in her presence.

And then there’s Adil Hussain, whose presence on screen, even when he has nothing to say, adds a whole dimension to any film. Here too, as Indra’s favourite kaku (uncle), he ensures that despite Arpita’s author-backed role he holds your attention.

As I said, it’s a simple film, told simply. You can make out the rough edges of a debut, and most of the action is tethered indoors. But therein lies its strength. The director pulls you in not with any technical virtuosity (those will come as he makes his next films), but in the way he peels the layers off the characters. And as he leads you to a shattering climax, he keeps it admirably understated, never showing off. The reconciliation is a given, but it takes a brave film-maker, a debutant at that, to end a film with a long sequence playing out to just a voice-over of Tagore’s poem ‘Janmakatha.’

Rating:   star

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