Indranil Roychowdhury's Mayar Jonjal (the international title is Debris of Desire) opens with the sight of a powerful man called Joga da (Joydeep Mukherjee). So powerful is this man that he has a manservant standing beside, holding up an umbrella, as he looks at his smartphone and laughs at a video while having lunch. So powerful is Joga da that when a few people approach him from behind, they do so as if approaching a tiger: fearfully, hesitantly, carefully. Finally, a scrawny young man steps forward. He's just been sprung from prison, and he wants a job. Joga da slaps him. "You work for my syndicate and steal bikes on the side?" Syndicate. That makes this powerful man sound even more powerful — and we think the story that's about to unfold will revolve around Joga da. But he's rarely seen again, and we realise we are in a story about the scrawny man who got slapped: Satya (Sohel Mondol).
Mayar Jonjal is set in the "weaker" sections of Kolkata: it's about people without economic power, political power (many of the people we see here are migrants), or even the power to change their destinies. It's about Satya. It's about his on-off lover, Beuti (Chandrayee Ghosh), a sex worker originally from Bangladesh. It's about Chandu (Ritwick Chakraborty), who likes to drink and keep changing jobs, which vary from working in a plastic factory to guarding an ATM. It's about Soma (Aupee Karim), Chandu's long-suffering wife. The actors take us into the innards of these characters with breathtakingly minimalist performances, and the film — equally minimalistic — is based on two short stories by Manik Bandopadhyay. The director and co-writer Sugata Sinha choose to have these stories (one with Chandu/Soma, the other with Satya/Beuti) play out in parallel. There are places where either the characters or the "milieus" from each story cross paths, but this is done so delicately that (though intentional) it feels as "accidental" as two cars passing each other on a busy street.
But we see other intersections, other commonalities. The women aren't afraid of hard work, and they aren't looking for shortcuts. The soft-spoken Soma has had enough of Chandu's aimlessness. She accepts a job as full-time domestic help in a flat in a high-end high-rise. The women don't complain, either — nor do they drown in self-pity. (They probably don't have the time.) Beuti's backstory is heart-rending, but she has made her peace with life. The men, on the other hand, are losers. Satya keeps asking Beuti for money. Chandu's ego is pricked when he realises Soma will earn more than he does. "You didn't feel like taking my permission?" he asks. Of course, it doesn't occur to him that this situation may never have come up had he spent more time looking for gainful employment than watching football matches on the television set in the local Commie office, scattered with red flags.
Money is another connection between the various characters. A Bihari colleague tells Chandu that his wife massages his feet when he gets home, only because he makes lots of money. Chandu decides to see how he can earn more than Soma. Satya entertains a shady get-rich-quick scheme, proposed by his housemate. But sadly, even this newfound sense of "purpose" only further underlines what losers these men are. The most exquisite links between the two narrative threads are the most "invisible" ones: a priest who sanctifies a jail and then goes on to sanctify a whorehouse, or the ragpicker who reminded me of the old people who unified the installments of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy. And the most emotional links between the two narrative threads hinge on where Soma and Beuti find themselves at the end. Can women really get ahead if men hold them back?
In a Western context, you might say yes. Divorce is an option. As is separation. But look at Soma when asked if her dreams for her son (an English-medium school, participating in a television reality show) are the boy's dreams or hers. Or later, when she is asked about Chandu's newfound job, and why this should mean she has to consider giving up her work. But the way Soma sees it, there is no "my son's dreams" and "my dreams". There is no "Chandu's job" and "my job". And that's her tragedy. Like many people in "weaker" India, she regards the family unit as a collective. Individuality is for the upper classes, for those with power — and I recalled the first scene, with Joga da (an individual) being approached by that group of men (a collective). It all comes full circle.