Cast: Jeet, Nusrat Jahan, Abir Chatterjee
The sculptures of Ramkinkar Baij don’t belong to the galleries. In the Kala Bhavan campus in Shantiniketan, Baij’s dynamic creations have become a part of the public space, as if an extension of the architecture itself, in harmony with the landscape. Kigan Mandi (Jeet), the hero of the Bengali film, Asur, is somewhat inspired by the great sculptor: a sort of Bengali bohemian with a Jesus Christ beard and hair in modern-day Kolkata, who is commissioned to build the idol for a mega-budget Durga Puja.
There is some promise in the idea to use a big-ticket puja pandal as the ultimate platform to showcase art, which it indeed is for many artists in Bengal. An annual cultural phenomenon where thousands of people, from different parts of the state, queue up to see the blockbuster pujas of the city, it’s also in keeping with the populist spirit of Baij’s art.
But what sounds good on paper looks awful on screen. As you can guess, the Durga puja becomes the main event of the story, and where things come to a climax. It’s supposed to be Kigan’s masterpiece. We are shown the public craze surrounding the idol, publicised on bill boards and in local news channels. The least you expect is for it to look impressive. But the film tries to avoid showing it, and whatever little it does it looks like cheap imitation.
Asur doesn’t have the budget to show what it wants us to believe and the director, Pavel, doesn’t have the inventiveness to work around that limitation. This problem arises because it is billed as ‘the biggest Durga in the world’—a ‘based on a real life incident’ gimmick that refers to a South Kolkata puja in 2015 where the hype around the size of Durga attracted people in huge numbers and resulted in a stampede. Pavel wants to pay tribute to Baij, but more than that he wants to make a commercial Bengali film with stars. The emotional core of the film is not Kigan’s creative impulse but a love triangle, Aditi (Nusrat Jahan) and Bodhi (Abir Chatterji), his friends who are now married. There’s nothing wrong in that. But Pavel has too much on his plate and it never comes together.
You wonder if there was a decent movie in Asur if the director had pared down the plot. Jeet, a commercial film star who has produced this film, brings a physicality to the character. There are moments in the film that show promise, such as when Kigan, unable to create in the whitewashed environment of the art college, finds inspiration in a filthy toilet in a train: lewd messages on its walls metamorphose into art taking form in his mind, and in a burst of creative energy he fills it with dazzling graffiti. Or a scene where he is in a cycle-rickshaw and impulsively decides to cast the driver as the model for one of his sculptures. In a poetic way, he finds beauty in the toiled, lean body of the driver. But instead of highlighting on this aspect, the scene plays out for laughs. Kigan’s words come out all double entendre, giving the chap the impression that he wants to, um, sleep with him. It says something about the film’s priorities.