Directors: Shiboprosad Mukherjee, Nandita Roy
Cast: Paoli Dam, Shiboprosad Mukherjee, Jaya Ahsan, Chitra Sen
There’s a small but crucial scene early in Konttho where the protagonist Arjun (Shiboprasad Mukherjee) has just had laryngectomy and is visiting a group of laryngectomees. An elderly gentleman is demonstrating the use of a neck-type artificial larynx, which enables a patient who has had his voice box removed to speak. The voice that the device generates is mechanical, and reminded me of what Satyajit Ray had for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’s Bhooter Raja. Making a mental note of it, I made a bet with myself: somewhere down the line, the film will have a sequence involving this now-classic scene from the iconic film. I won the bet. That epitomizes the biggest issue I have with the film: the utter predictability of the narrative, where right through I, as a viewer, was a step ahead of what was to come.
We first meet Arjun, a celebrated RJ, hosting his popular late-night radio show. In the first few minutes he has advised a listener on the need to move on from a broken relationship, and saved a teenager from committing suicide, playing Anupam Roy’s ‘Badiye dao tomar haath’, while connecting her to her ‘busy’ mother – an important plot device as we learn later. In that duration we have also heard him cough a couple of times, foreshadowing what’s to come.
That epitomizes the biggest issue I have with the film: the utter predictability of the narrative, where right through I, as a viewer, was a step ahead of what was to come.
Soon after, Arjun is diagnosed with cancer of the throat and the only way out is laryngectomy, which means he will never speak again, at least not in the way he does, or how his profession demands of him. He undergoes the surgery and then begins the struggle, scribbling on a slate with a marker pen to make himself understood, the loss of his job, the psychological issues arising from loss of self-esteem, even as his news-reader wife Pritha (Paoli Dam) and seven-year-old son helplessly watch his descent to a world of silence. Till he encounters speech-language pathologist/therapist Romilla Chowdhury (Jaya Ahsan) who makes it her mission to rehabilitate Arjun.
Konttho is a brave film. I am not aware of another that deals with laryngectomy with the kind of attention to detail – all 143 minutes of it – this one does. It raises the fascinating question, as Arjun puts it when he first hears of what laryngectomy entails, ‘What would life mean for Zakir Hussain if he were suddenly told that his hands needed to be amputated?’ It takes you through the extraordinary process of a man literally learning to speak all over again, impossible to put across on screen ‘attractively’ or ‘heroically’ enough (the esophageal voice, for example, sounds like a belch, and a few people in the theatre burst out in laughter). At the same time, those ‘143 minutes’ constitute the film’s biggest problem – because everything is articulated, spoken out and laid bare, leaving little to the imagination.
What worked for me are scenes like the one involving Paran Bandyopadhyay telling Arjun about a four-letter abuse he hurled at his doctor, but, given his ‘voice’, being able to utter only half of it – ‘boka’. Or the sequence in a café where Romilla first teaches Arjun to use the esophageal voice, belching loudly enough to have everyone in the vicinity turn around and stare, which reminded me of the delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally. It’s this lightness of touch that could have elevated the film. That, however, is sadly missing as maudlin sentimentality takes precedence. The film becomes a two-hanky tearjerker that left me strangely unmoved.
Shiboprasad’s is a brave performance – he has the daunting task of walking the fine line that separates a character from a caricature and he does that well enough, at least on the surface. It’s heartening to see the directors eschewing the star route for Arjun (the bane of so-called classics like Anand and Black, where, despite the bravura performances, you never get away from the feeling that you are watching a Rajesh Khanna and an Amitabh Bachchan). Shiboprasad looks real, everyday, and that makes Arjun relatable. However, despite the praiseworthy externalities, there never is an internalizing of the character, because everyone around him is ‘speaking’ on his behalf or about his condition. Comparisons are odious, but my mind kept going back to characters like Ken (Whose Life Is It Anyway, 1981), Christy Brown (My Left Foot, 1989) and Leonard Lowe (Awakenings, 1990). Interestingly enough, like the last two films, Konttho too is inspired by a true-life story – that of the late Bibhuti Chakraborty, a laryngeal cancer survivor.
Shiboprasad’s is a brave performance – he has the daunting task of walking the fine line that separates a character from a caricature and he does that well enough, at least on the surface.
Of the actors, it is Jaya Ahsan who makes an impact as the never-say-die spirited guide and mentor dealing with her own personal demons while offering the protagonist a new shot at life. A quiet little gem of a sequence she has with Pritha towards the end (if only the directors had explored this angle, the results could have been more unpredictable) is one of the few that moved me without trying too hard, apart from the film’s musical score which is just about the best that has emerged from Bangla cinema in recent times. Paoli Dam has precious little to do, while, surprisingly for the directors who gave us the delightful child actors in Posto and Haami, the one here is laboured, stilted.
With most underdog-overcoming-the-odds film, you often know how it will end. It takes a brave director like, say, John Badham in Whose Life Is It Anyway, to deny the audience the satisfaction of a David trumping a Goliath. The problem with Konttho lies not in the triumph of the human spirit against the hand that fate deals, but that a film that has ‘Sound of Silence’ as its tagline needs so many words to make its point.