Director: Pradipta Bhattacharyya
Cast: Sayan Ghosh, Satakshi Nandy, Srabonti Bhattacharya, Amit Saha, Soham Maitra
Streaming on: YouTube
Pradipta Bhattacharyya has mastered the art of making new things out of the same set of tools. The set of tools in question is Tehatta, his native village in Nadia district of West Bengal. With a touch of fiction, he transformed it into a ‘premer gram’ in Bakita Byaktigato, a village where every visitor magically falls in love. He made a documentary on the village in Shikor, deep diving into its unique geographic, cultural and mystical qualities.
He has returned to it yet again in Birohi, his new work and his first web series; here it’s a place with a bad rep — according to neighbouring villages a hotbed of criminal activities and a cottage industry for locally made bombs and pot growing farms. Our protagonist, Krishno, has got a job there as a teacher in a primary school. At first he is kicked about bagging a government job — the first among his idler friends in the fictional small town of Phulkumari to do so — but his enthusiasm goes for a toss when he finds out how remote it is.
One of his everyday hurdles include wading through a creek, which results in one of the arresting images in the series: a semi naked Krishno, with his lean and ordinary body, walking through its algae-covered, waist-length water holding a bicycle over his head — the antithesis of a muscular Bahubali carrying a shiv linga in torrential waterfall, if you may. It’s just as possible that this is how some people in the villages go to work. Bhattacharyya has said in interviews that Birohi is based on the experiences of one of his friends.
The filmmaker’s talent is in seeing strange phenomena within the everyday village life in rural Bengal and give them his own crazy tweaking. The fun is in not knowing where reality ends and fiction begins. Parts of Birohi could be a documentary about a village where hand-made bombs are as domestic as grazing cattle, or where backyards are used for marijuana farming (the villages in close proximity to Tehatta have been known for their good stuff). Except everything is in a slightly heightened and disguised form: the locals call the bombs ‘baba’; and the stuff they get high on is not exactly marijuana, but something like it — they call it ‘haba’. One of the characters is named Jomidar (Bengali for ‘zamindar’), a weird name for a woman who does housekeeping for the primary school Krishno gets a job in. Anything goes in Birohi, which is the name of the village.
With its mystery of the remote Bengali village, the route to which is inevitably long and convoluted, Birohi is like a reincarnation of Mohini, the village from Bakita Byaktigato. The narrative arc is similar — reluctant protagonist is drawn into an adventure of sorts, where he meets an adversary, falls in love, and the experience transforms him. It’s the classic ‘hero’s journey’, but there is little room for heroism. Birohi’s Krishno is refreshingly lacking in machismo (Sayan Ghosh is turning out to be a fine, unconventional leading man, funny without trying to be, natural).
Ghosh is paired opposite a ballsier leading lady who challenges the notion of what a leading lady should be like. Satakshy Nandy’s Radha, who rides a cycle to the NGO she works in, could serve as a role model for a new heroine type in these body positive times. It’s in her body language, heedless and full of abandon — best demonstrated in the proposal scene when she tells him that she is a divorcee. But Birohi’s most intriguing character is Jomidar, played by Srabonti Bhattacharya, a single mother who develops sisterly affection for Krishno — or so it seems. She is an ambiguous figure who remains key to Birohi’s mysteries, which are best discovered without spoilers (some of which remain unanswered for a possible season two).
Birohi is not perfect — a track about an oversexed villager goes on a bit too long. And it’s hard to overlook how what is essentially a feature length film, all of 2 hours 20 minutes, has been released as six twenty-minute episodes every week in a forced web series format. Some segments also seems to have dubbing issues, including scenes where the actor’s face don’t match the dialogue (a disappointing problem to have in a film by Bhattacharyya, who is generally skilful with his use of sound).
These minor grudges aside, Birohi is a a pure Pradipta Bhattacharyya creation — the cinematic equivalent of a locally brewed cocktail, uncompromising in its creativity and full of ideas. If you’re familiar with Bhattacharyya’s larger body of work — that includes his telefilms and shorts — you’re aware of his filmmaking obsessions. You’re aware that it’s hard to classify them as mainstream or art film because on paper they could have everything expected of a commercial film: songs, romance, villains, comedy, sex — even as there is social commentary. You’re aware of his penchant to mess with your head, and that he likes to shake things up in the climax. Birohi ticks all those boxes.