In 2010, the Sanjay Mondal group, a street band formed by underprivileged kids from the slums under the leadership of an ex-gangster, went to the final round of India’s Got Talent, a reality show. Making music out of cans, plastic bottles, pipes and other discarded junk, the band made a lot of noise but was voted out eventually. Supriyo Sen’s documentary, Waste Band, made 9 years after the event, is about their life after the reality show, and Mondal’s efforts to keep the collective alive, preventing his boys from falling prey to getting sucked into the local crime syndicate.
Sen has now made a commercial film with known faces out of the same material. The problem isn’t that—Gully Boy is a good example of quality entertainment born out of a similar real life story of the rise of gully rap stars in the slums of Mumbai. The problem is Sen shows no flair for that kind of storytelling. His documentary touches—accentuated by the presence of fellow documentarian Ranjan Palit, who has shot it—are at first interesting, but soon you sense the ever increasing gulf between the sensibility of the filmmaker and the film he is trying to make. Sen and Palit, both veterans in their own game, lend a poetic eye and authenticity to the film that’s a rarity in contemporary Bengali cinema. The making is first rate—in the way the shots are lit and put together, or in the way the editing flows in some of the scenes—but the film lacks soul. It feels like an uneasy alliance between two schools of filmmaking.
The biggest flaws are in the writing. The appeal of the story Sen had explored in his documentary is in the aftermath of the reality show—how there’s a life beyond it. In Tangra Blues they are made to take part—and this time win—a hip-hop competition. Your solution to losing one reality show can’t be winning another reality show. That’s just bad messaging on the part of filmmakers who seem otherwise socially conscious (the primary characters are non-Brahmin—the character is rechristened Sanjeeb Mondal, albeit played by, Parambrata Chatterjee, a Brahmin; and Samiul Alam is Charles Murmu), or filling up the supporting cast with non-professional faces. The point being that from time to time Tangra Blues comes off as an experiment gone wrong where SVF favourites have mistakenly walked into a documentary shoot.
Even the rap songs seems to lack the kind of fire that you expect from a film like this—an informally filmed YouTube video of Sanjay Mondal group has more energy than the ones choreographed here. And that has, I suspect, much to do with the director’s handling of actors and the lack of characters you care about. The performances, as a result, are either one-note (Chatterjee, as a gruff-coach-like band leader with a criminal past, with a hard-to-buy accent), or just one Modern Woman ™cliche short of irritating (Madhumita Sarkar, as the smoking-drinking female lead with a sympathetic outlook). Even Alam and Oishani Dey, who play the group’s child prodigy rapper and his possessive female friend respectively, seem to be trying to fit in.