Director: Anirban Bhattacharya
Writer: Pratik Dutta, Anirban Bhattacharya
Cast: Debashish Mondal, Sohini Sarkar, Debesh Roy Chowdhury, Sankar Debnath, Loknath Dey, Sajal Mandal, Sumana Mukhopadhyay, Doyel Roynandy, Korak Samanta, Sudip Dhara
Cinematography: Soumik Haldar
Editor: Sanglap Bhowmik
Production Design: Subrata Barik
Costume: Sanchita Bhattacharjee
Sound Designers: Adeep Singh Manki and Anindit Roy
Makeup: Somenath Kundu
Streaming on: Hoichoi
Mandaar begins with a truck of fish dispatched from the fictional sea-side village of Geilpur leaving for the marketplace. The next shot tells us that it has one fish less, as we see a close up of one quivering on the beach; a black cat comes sniffing, a strange looking boy (Sudip Dhara) dances and an old lady (Sajal Mandal), holding a spear ready to be struck, utters mad pronouncements – these are the three witches of this Macbeth adaptation. Like birds in the high seas that detect a turbulence in weather, they have sensed a disturbance in Geilpur. Its status quo, built on exploitation, is soon going to be upset. Like the lone fish that didn't go to the marketplace, a worker has turned renegade, a labour union leader in the making urging others to go on a strike until their demands are met. The lady – as if the matriarch of an ancient warrior tribe with Tantrik powers – stabs the fish with the spear; the same fate will befall the leader. Chaos will ensue. And Mandaar will be king.
Anirban Bhattacharya's retelling of Macbeth is set in a world of such elemental forces that the central drama plays in a much larger context. The owner of the fish trading business Dablu Bhai (Debesh Roy Chowdhury) – who isn't the benevolent King Duncan of Shakespeare's play and runs the show like a mob boss – is wary of promoting Mandaar (Debashish Mondal) despite his capabilities and unwavering loyalty; along with the wily local politician Madan Halder (Loknath Dey), he devises plans to stay in power and rule Geilpur, which he describes as a "fish-eats-fish world".
Here's where Bhattacharya and Pratik Dutta's script adds another layer – that of sexual power. Mandaar's servile attitude is compounded by the fact that he can't seem to get an erection, and therefore unable to satisfy his wife Laili (Sohini Sarkar), our Lady Macbeth in the story. She longs for a child and lusts for power and in a twisted arrangement approved by her husband, sleeps with Dablu Bhai, who is married and has a son. (In a telling scene of marital discontentment, a gold chain sent by him dramatically alters her mood). The sexual shame emasculates Mandaar, but the sight of this big macho tough guy being so docile to his wife is oddly humanising.
The interplay of power, lust, greed and exploitation between Dablu bhai, Mandaar and Laili is, of course, a part of an intricate mesh created by other characters and their interrelationships: there is Bonka, Mandaar's friend and partner in crime, who, following the tradition of adaptations finding phonetic equivalents, is Banquo; his son Fontus, whose appointment as the new head of Jorabheri – an important fishing terminal for Dablu bhai's business – and not Mandaar, further complicates things; Lakumoni, Halder's sister and the girl Fontus is seeing; and Dablu bhai's wife and son – whose positions on top of the pyramid of privilege doesn't make them immune to being mistreated. Bhattacharya's sleazy and gluttonous cop, Mukaddar Mukherjee, only adds to the mix – a personification of the sinful excesses of the world and something of a comic relief.
Shakespeare is so populist, dark and instantly gratifying that it lends itself perfectly to the Indian web series – it has place for all its formulaic ingredients: violence, sex, revenge, explicit language and it all makes sense here. Bhattacharya's adaptation shows both his understanding of the source material and his awareness of the commercial considerations of the film business, even as he imbues it with a political consciousness. He has been one of the most exciting actors in recent Bengali cinema and Mandaar posits him as an exciting directorial talent, too. The show seems to have emerged out of a whole new strain that has no precedence in contemporary Bengali film. Mandaar is a dramatically tense, visceral epic that intrigues and entertains in equal measure, with an ensemble performance for the ages by a largely less known cast chosen from theatre (with the exception of Sarkar and Bhattacharya) and a technical crew at the top of their game (cinematographer Soumik Haldar; Production Designer Subrata Barik among others).
The shots have a precision about what the visual and aural information they want to convey: a Che Guevara T-shirt worn by Dablu Bhai's son in a scene where he beats up a worker has a sly irony; the disturbing imagery of cockroaches crowding on a plate of chakna show the passage of time; and when Laili's ringtone of a child's giggle plays at the wrong time, it sounds like destiny's cruel laughter. The visual design of scenes is sparse yet expressive, like the expertly staged static shots that draw from Bhattacharya's experience of directing plays, as the camerawork is fluid, as in when it falls into the sea along with a character. There's something liberating about a director who has worked in theatre trying his hands in film for the first time, and the setting (shot in the beach resort town of Mandarmani) – with its desolate, storm-ravaged landscape with the Bay of Bengal stretching to the horizon – seems as contrasting to the stage as possible.
Then there is the writing. Full of echoes, motifs and variations, the screenplay structure starts folding itself back after the pivotal mid-point (if going a bit off the rails in the fifth and final episode). And the East Medinipur dialect that the characters speak have a hard poetry, with inventive wordplays and hybrids (for instance, 'podkopali', which means ass-fated but just doesn't have the same ring) – a kind of vulgar vernacular slang that we have seen in Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap's films set in the heartland. The way the actors deliver their lines sound just correct, a result of meticulous workshopping under the watchful eyes of a director who has a sure grip of language and diction – often the most glaring problem in a contemporary Bengali film, it's a major marker that Mandaar is different from everything else made here. The series – the first of a new property launched by Hoichoi called World cinema classics – has to be seen for not just what it is but what it could mean in the context of an industry that has forgotten how to make something that speaks to us, and of a production house that had not done much to change it – until now, that is.