Director: Srijit Mukherjee
Cast: Abir Chatterjee, Rittika Sen, Parambrata Chatterjee
In a scene towards the end of Shah Jahan Regency, Sameeran (Abir Chatterjee) and Supreeta (Rittika Sen) are talking about their life ahead, in the course of which the conversation veers towards Rabindrasangeet. Supreeta makes a face, "No, no, Rabindrasangeet is soooo boring…" She likes a couple, of course, though she can't remember the lines, 'butt, butt'. The shock on Sameeran's face, at the prospect of the great poet having written anything to do with 'butts', is palpable.
In the film's evocative finale, as the camera zooms away from a forlorn Sameeran standing at a balcony for a panoramic view of the city unfolding to the plangent strains of Tagore's 'Jokhon porbe na ei payer chinhho ei baate', and you get the 'butt' Supreeta was alluding to, you can't help laugh out even as your heart reaches out to a lost city and its lost people – "ghosts" as another character refers to them. For the large part, Srijit's take on Sankar's Chowringhee exists in a similar delightful middle ground.
Chowringhee is a novel that for all its dramatic qualities does not lend itself to a film – primarily because of its wide canvas of characters. For one, it simply isn't possible to do justice to its many strands in the course of 150 minutes. The 1968 version sailed through riding on Uttam Kumar, but barely scratched the surface of the novel's equally important other characters. Also, most of the action takes place indoors, which can be a limitation in a visual medium like cinema, more so when the work is an 'ode to a city'.
While the second limitation is dictated by the original, Srijit's retelling of the novel largely succeeds in overcoming the first. His breakdown of the novel into six chapters is a creative take that allows him to give more play to the many characters that inhabit the novel. So, the narrative moves away from Sata Bose (Sameeran or Sam in the film) and Sankar (Rudra here) to include vignettes of the lives of the beautiful and intellectual 'escort' Kamalini (Swastika Mukherjee); the hotel's owner Makaranda Pal (Anjan Dutt); Mrs Sarkar (Mamata Shankar); the 'dignified' high-society woman who runs an NGO for the underprivileged but who has a thing for toy-boys; Arnab (Anirban Bhattacharya), Mrs Sarkar's son who falls in love with Kamalini with tragic consequences, and many others.
But in this also lies the film's one weakness – there isn't a strong core that binds it all together. The narrative is episodic and fragmented, at times leaving you wishing that a certain strand had been explored further. More so, because Srijit makes some interesting changes to the novel, including situating it in circa 2017. Take, for example, Gayatri Chakravarti (Rituparna Sengupta) who plays the surbahar (coming in for the novel's Western classical musician Gomez). Though she is referred to as the hotel's 'conscience' and though there's just that hint of a bond between Rudra and her, Gayatri remains largely superficial to the narrative, and there's little by way of giving the viewer an insight into what makes her the 'conscience'.
But in this also lies the film's one weakness – there isn't a strong core that binds it all together. The narrative is episodic and fragmented, at times leaving you wishing that a certain strand had been explored further
Given that Srijit by and large does away with the sentimentality of the novel and the original film, this and a couple of unnecessary digressions and sentimental expositions – the private eye Barun Raha's (Rudranil Ghosh) comeuppance, for example, or Nitai Banerjee's (Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee, who is outstanding as the gay housekeeping head) preachy dialogue on behalf of the marginalized – rankle that much more.
Srijit is well served by a stellar cast. At the same time in an ensemble piece, it's hard to zone in on one actor, but here Swastika is a standout. Her confrontation sequence with Mamata Shankar is the film's high point and it left me wishing for a few more dramatic highs. Sujoy Chaterjee is another brilliantly etched character and the sequence where he rebukes Rudra for his 'middle-class' discomfort in the presence of an openly homosexual person is probably the film's most telling scene.
It is the novel's two principal protagonists who probably get the short shrift here. Parambrata Chatterjee and Abir Chatterjee are rock solid but given the narrative's diffused nature, their histrionic abilities are never challenged enough, though Abir's broken gait in the film's closing sequence add immeasurably to the pathos inherent in the story – where everyone has lost something or the other.
The writing is vintage Srijit, whether drawing parallels between a lonely Makaranda sipping whiskey standing at the window of the hotel's bar, Mumtaz, to Shahjahan mourning for his dead wife of the same name, or bringing in telling references to Amrapali and Ajatshatru. Take the exchange between Rudra and Gayatri where the beena is referred to as an instrument played by both the Goddess Saraswati and the Emperor Aurangzeb, or Mrs Sarkar asking Kamalini (whom Arnab calls Wiki, given her almost encyclopaedic knowledge) if payments in their profession include GST. And probably only Srijit could come up with Nitty-gritty (given his job description) as a nickname for Nitai or Makaranda's sarcastic riposte to Barun's plans of getting him a divorce with a discount on the alimony: 'Eita ki kono Chaitra masher sale?' Along with its superlative music, the film's dialogues make for its two big pluses.
"Time … you know, Rudra … nothing lasts," Sameeran tells Rudra towards the end of the film. And that is the feeling Shah Jahan Regency leaves you with, without getting too maudlin about it. Though unfolding in 2017, the characters remain an anachronism for the times. At the core – despite the four-letter words Kamalini peppers her dialogues with, despite the machinations behind the Bengal Premier League, despite Rudra losing his job due to everything going 'online' – these characters remain a throwback to a more genteel era. Nothing lasts, yes, but nothing changes either. Much like the city the film is dedicated to.