When you are critiquing a new film, you’re not just critiquing a film. You are critiquing a filmmaking culture, the tendencies and the aesthetics that culture imposes on every film that’s made as a part of the machinery. I find this especially true for contemporary Bengali cinema—maybe because I cover it— where the fault lines are pretty obvious. I have lost count on the number of times I’ve reasoned that X film didn’t work because, even though it had some interesting ideas, the execution failed them. Or, for instance, there seems to be something artificial about the way the actors say their lines. Or the over reliance on background score to sail the audience through a scene. Most of these are true for Anindya Chattopadhyay’s Prem Tame—the last two to be exact. You are tempted to say that the film must’ve sounded good on paper, it’s the execution….but that’s not true.
The more you think about it, the more it seems like a failure on, what we call, the writing level. Yes, the fresh-faced leads aren’t terribly impressive—Susmita Chatterjee’s Raaji is a spunky free spirit ™ with a put on Bangla accent and a streetwise twang, and there has to be better explanation as to why Soumya Mukherjee’s Pablo is such a college stud, besides hanging posters of Dylan, Nabarun and Lennon in his room; and you are thankful when Sweta’s Arshi, a strangely annoying creature, is sent off to her uncle’s place in another city, following a scandal, after Pablo and she are caught kissing in the class.
But it’s the characterisation, you realise, that’s to blame, more than the actors; it’s the dialogue, that lacks the kind of sparkling wit that make rom-coms work, and that includes this line: ’Ami shei joker je kaandleo loke hashe’ (I’m that clown who, even when he is crying, makes people laugh); or the actions that advance the plot, which are baffling, absurd, and seem unbelievable for those characters to have acted out that way: like Raaji arriving at Soumya’s place, to live-in with him, along with a dog, without his mother’s foreknowledge; or when, later, his mother teams up with Arshi, who she sends to check on her son, after she leaves for her brother’s place. (She would’ve still tolerated the girl, but she can’t stand dogs).
The dog—a pariah, named Khokon—is the fourth entrant in the equation in this love triangle (college romance/coming of age/whatever you want to call it). And he nearly saves the film in the final twenty minutes. Thanks to some effective manipulation and an inspired idea, you feel a twinge. Prem Tame becomes a different movie, moving toward an unconventional ending—a lesson on unconditional love. The film’s Serampore-Chandernagore setting, with its multicultural history, comes alive: a Sufi ascetic sings in a ruinous temple as a man looks for his dog on a moonlit night. It’s a nice-looking film, with Shubhankar Bhar’s camerawork doing much of the heavy lifting, but these final stretches work much better also because they are nearly wordless (which again points at shortcomings coming from the writing).
Having said that, the ending is not nearly enough to cover up for all the drivel it puts you through. I didn’t mention all the lofty ideas the film tries to peddle, like kiss as a form of protest, weaving in a headlines of an incident in West Bengal where a young couple was harassed by a mob after a public display of affection—its beyond the film’s means to be able to do justice in driving home such a powerful idea. This is another problem in contemporary Bengali cinema—Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti, that released around the same time last year, calls to mind: they seem to advocate progressive values, and the clash with traditional, conservative attitudes; but when it comes to telling an arresting story, they are a total bore.