Director: Srijit Mukherji
Cast: Jisshu Sengupta, Sara Sengupta, Anjan Dutt, Rudranil Ghosh, Babul Supriyo
Getting down to watch a Srijit Mukherji film has of late filled one with a certain amount of trepidation. Here's someone who blazed a new trail for Bengali cinema with films like Autograph, Baishe Srabon, Jaatishwar and Chotushkone, which not only broke out in terms of content, but were also both critical and commercial successes. Also, he seemed equally at easy exploring an array of themes – the thriller (Baishe Srabon), a dark comedy (Hemlock Society), the rollicking adventure of Mishawr Rawhoshyo, a musical/historical (Jaatishwar). Not after Satyajit Ray and Rituparno Ghosh has a Bengali film-maker excited the imagination as much as he has, winning accolades at the national level. But then, even as an ardent admirer, there's no way one can get over the disappointment of his recent offerings, in particular Nirbaak, Rajkahini (made in Hindi as Begum Jaan), Zulfiqar and Yeti Obhijaan. Was he becoming over-prolific? Was his greatest strength in his earlier films – his screenplays – suffering because he seemed to be on an assembly-line mode? After all, in the ten years since his first film in 2010, he has already made twelve films – that's more than a film a year, prolific by any yardstick, especially in Bengali cinema.
So, when Uma comes within a year or two of some of his most disappointing outings, one is naturally circumspect. More so, when so much has been spoken of its real-life origins: the story of Evan Leversage, a terminally ill boy from St George, Ontario, whose dying desire to see another Christmas inspired his townspeople to organize a fake Christmas, months before the actual one. It's the sort of heartwarming, dream-come-true, 'miracle' material that can easily go the schmaltzy route and degenerate into maudlin sentimentality.
More than its heart-tugging surface, what makes the film work are the issues it addresses at a subterranean level: the importance of story-telling in our lives, the process of film-making, the film-maker playing God, a film's ability to alter lives
Does Srijit manage to steer it clear of the familiar pitfalls a film like this is prone to? I do not know what it takes to create an out-of-season Christmas in a community of 3000-odd people (as per a 2016 census of St. George). But creating a 'fake' Durga Puja in the city of Kolkata in April … well, it's well-nigh impossible. (It's a delicious irony, however, that the traditional time for Durga Puja coincides with what is celebrated as Ram Navami in north India in spring – it's only because, as the myth goes, Lord Rama needed to invoke the Goddess Durga to overcome Ravana that he organized an 'untimely' Durga Puja and subsequently that is how the festival came to be celebrated in autumn.) Only someone who has experienced one in Kolkata will realize what the five-day festivities entail: the crowds, the pandals, the lights and decorations, the traffic, the chaos, the euphoria. So, in transporting Christmas in St George to Durga Puja in Kolkata, the director might well be setting himself up for failure, and worse, ridicule.
But here's where Srijit actually makes the film work as a whole – the creating of a fairy tale, the willing suspension of disbelief he orchestrates (the teenage protagonist being told that she wouldn't be able to access the net or her mobile for the next few days, the 'fake' newspapers carrying news of the puja festivities, the local cable operator running footage from the previous year's puja on TV), moulding a feel-good story of wish-fulfilment and hope into a thriller of sorts replete with impossible deadlines, unforeseen roadblocks and unimaginable logistics – but with its emotional core intact, which is necessary for a film of this genre.
In a film like this, subtlety is often the first casualty – and Uma is far from subtle
When Himadri Sen (Jisshu Sengupta), who resides in Switzerland, learns that his daughter Uma (Sara, Jisshu's real-life daughter) has only a few months to live, he undertakes the audacious task of recreating Durga Puja in the month of April, so that she can participate in the festivities for the first, and probably only, time in her life. The stage is thus set for the unfolding of a miracle. Through close friends in the city, Himadri meets Gobindo (Rudranil Ghosh), a production manager. Gobindo, in turn, puts him in touch with a washed-out film-maker Brahmananda (Anjan Dutt), who puts together a team to execute what he feels could be his final masterpiece. But it's never easy-going as at every step Himadri has to encounter not only the disbelief of his partners-in-illusion but the many logistical issues he has to resolve – including conjuring a 'mother' for his daughter, a mother who had eloped with her lover when Uma was barely two years old.
More than its heart-tugging surface, what makes the film work are the issues it addresses at a subterranean level: the importance of story-telling in our lives, the process of film-making, the film-maker playing God, a film's ability to alter lives, even as Himadri tells Brahmananda that not a single frame of any film has the power to change anything. In what is for me the film's biggest takeaway, Brahmananda, struggling with demons of his own, personal and professional, visits a dying film-maker he once assisted, to receive what is probably the most important lesson of his life: that the foremost duty of a film-maker is telling a story, irrespective of the size of his audience, despite the hurdles and heartbreaks, regardless of the seemingly insurmountable odds the process entails. A film-maker owes it to himself to tell a story, often only with passion at his disposal, even if, like in this case, the story is not being recorded on film and will never be available for posterity.
In a film like this, subtlety is often the first casualty – and Uma is far from subtle. Srijit does not seem averse to underlining this with the names of his characters. Of course, Uma is another name for Durga. Her father is Himadri, her mother Menoka. The director who puts the whole illusion together is Brahmananda. The art director is called Bishwakarma, the person who manages light is Arka Ray, the 'villain' of the piece is Mahitosh Sur (Mahishasur?), the friend who creates the artificial rain is Barun, the manager in the CESC who has the power to approve the supply of electricity is Indra! And so on and so forth…
While such predictable plot points maybe par for the course given the nature of the film, what irks are certain scenes which simply don't hold together
Also, in a film of this genre, there are plot points you can see coming from miles away. And Srijit doesn't disappoint! So, the moment you encounter the saffron-wearing, tilak-sporting, right-wing fundamentalist Mahitosh, who opposes the celebrations right from the outset, you know that he will come around in a tear-jerking scene when faced with the truth about Uma. Similarly, the Bihari goonda Mahesh (yes, the name again!), singer Babul Supriyo in a cameo, who is hired by Mahitosh to destroy the puja sets, needs only to come face-to-face with Uma to have a change of heart and in fact organize the crowd needed for the immersion of the goddess in the climax.
While such predictable plot points maybe par for the course given the nature of the film, what irks are certain scenes which simply don't hold together. Brahmananda's physical confrontation with Himadri never conveys the tension the scene requires. And why does every character need to have a backstory? Like Himadri, Brahmananda too has an estranged wife (in the ultimate scheme of things, the flashbacks involving his wife and son are perfunctory – isn't his anguish as a failed film-maker enough motivation to undertake what he does?). When Mahesh holds a gun to Himadri's head and Uma pleads with him to let go of her father, does one really need to have that short flashback where a gun is being held to Mahesh's head and his son is pleading with his would-be killer? Then there are scenes that come out of nowhere and only add to the runtime – Uma writing mails to her father while he is in Kolkata putting together the puja, the almost ridiculous confrontation between Himadri and Indra, the man who eloped with his wife.
You know that the film is as much a story of hope and the power of make-believe, as it is a paean to the spirit of a city
But these are minor quibbles in a film that works for most of the way and from a director whose last few outings have been veritable creative disasters. The performances are strong, particularly the supporting cast, with Anirban Bhattacharya as Mahitosh Sur making quite an impression. Rudranil Ghosh is a hoot as the production manager who has some of the film's funniest lines. Srijit also has a few really funny yet insightful takes on Facebook, Twitter and social media, including its propensity to make every two-bit hack a film critic (ouch!), and a laugh-out-loud sequence where three directors discuss what Durga Puja signifies. Anjan Dutt tends to go overboard in a couple of scenes but manages to imbue his character with the requisite angst of a creative artist who has this one last shot at redeeming himself. A special mention must be made of the music – Anupam Roy comes up with another soulful soundtrack filled with some delectable lyrics he has penned himself.
Ultimately, as the director zooms out to a panoramic shot of the crowd gathered at Babu Ghat for the immersion, you know that the film is as much a story of hope and the power of make-believe, as it is a paean to the spirit of a city – a point that Srijit goes on to underline through an email that Uma's 'fake' mother writes in the film's rather unnecessary coda to the film.