Srijit Mukherji’s X=Prem Breathes, Takes Detours, and Changes Tracks at the Right Time

This is the most fun the filmmaker’s had in a while, taking the film to playful directions
Srijit Mukherji’s X=Prem Breathes, Takes Detours, and Changes Tracks at the Right Time

Director: Srijit Mukherji

Writer: Srijit Mukherji

Cast: Anindya Sengupta, Shruti Das, Arjun Chakraborty, Madhurima Basak

Music: Saptak Sanai Das

Streaming on: Hoichoi

X=Prem. What the hell does it mean? The title of Srijit Mukherji's film (taken from a famous Shilajit song) starts making sense when in the pre-interval sequence, the scientist Dr Kaufman (Richard Bhakti Klein) proposes a solution to end the woes of the film's central couple, Khilat (Anindya Sengupta) and Joyee (Shruti Das). This will need some 'ex'plaining. Khilat and Joyee met in college, fell in love, and their breezy, adventurous romance — from trying out weed on her terrace under overcast skies, to going skinny-dipping on a whim in a river in Karnataka — makes up most of the pre-interval portions and the 'prem' in the title. All of which is put to test when they have an accident and he loses all his memories, including those of her.

Dr Kaufman is named after the creator of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Charlie Kaufman. In that film, the central couple, in a different way, sought the help of a doctor in order to delete each other's memories after their breakup. Inspired by, but not imitating, Eternal Sunshine, X=Prem is set in a similarly hyper-real world, where we have memory harvesting instead of erasure. On the dark web, we are told, you find donors — an engineer with a terminal illness who may want to pass on his expertise; a doctor who wants to be an actor and doesn't want his skills to go to waste. In the parlance of the film's imagined reality, they are called 'professional memories', easily available on the internet's black market. But what of a specific, personal memory, like being in love with Joyee?

Mukherji has spoken about his film taking off from the Kaufman-Michel Gondry classic.  What he hasn't said is how it also owes something to mainstream Hindi romantic melodramas; in short, how filmi it is. X=Prem might be a black and white film with some fine Bengali prose, but it is coloured by Hindi cinema. Khilat and Joyee, who are probably Nineties' kids, can't stop referencing films by the Khans, including the trashy Aamir Khan starrer Love, Love, Love. While on a safari, the couple get married in a temple in a jungle — as couples tend to in such films — and it's on their way back that the car accident happens. Rishi Kapoor and Poonam Dhillon met a similar fate on their way to get married in a temple in Yeh Vaada Raha (1982) — a film that also, in its own way, deals with brain damage and loss of memory in a lover.

The only way Khilat can get back his memories of Joyee, Dr Kaufman theorises, is if they can find someone with memories of having loved her as deeply as Khilat did. Would that be an 'ex' of hers, then? Here's where Mukherji, who has also written the film, betters an already interesting plot development: Joyee has not dated anyone before Khilat, but she did once receive a love letter and a blank call. Meet the X of the title.

There's a sense of world-building in these segments that reimagines the college campus as the birthplace of romances and a human network of information.

Arnab (Arjun Chakraborty) was a senior of Joyee's in college and his love for Joyee was such a well-kept secret that nobody on campus had any clue of its existence. The secretive nature of this one-sided love infuses X=Prem with unexpected drama. By revealing him to the audience, but not to the characters of the film, Mukherji turns the love story into a thriller of sorts. Consider the absurdity of the situation — a young couple desperately hopes that the girl had a secret admirer (is he a stalker, a creep?). As Joyee and Khilat turn to their friends and old contacts from their university days, Mukherji takes the film to playful directions. For example, they get in touch with the gossip columnist of a now-defunct underground college zine. When that doesn't work out, they turn to the good old canteen owner, who has a god's eye view of college romances. There are false candidates: someone who was thought to have feelings for Joyee, it turns out, was faking it to make another woman, now his wife, feel jealous.

There's a sense of world-building in these segments that reimagines the college campus as the birthplace of romances and a human network of information. The film also reflects a good spirited acceptance, even desire, of being romantically liked by someone who is not your partner. It sets the stage for the mature relationship drama that X=Prem transforms into in the second half, when Arnab and Aditi (Madhurima Basak) — an unhappily married couple, as incomplete as Khilat and Joyee — enter the equation. Aditi knows that her husband is still in love with Joyee, but loves him anyway. When they have sex, he thinks of Joyee; after they are done, she insists that he talk about it. This co-existence of two individuals who fetishise one-sided love paints a picture of a marriage desperately in need of saving.

As the film approaches its climax, it becomes clearer that X=Prem is a mathematical problem waiting to be solved. The film has a neat structure and as a storyteller, Mukherji is able to hold our interest for the most part. This is the most fun the filmmaker has had in a while (and the most fun I've had watching one directed by him). X=Prem breathes, takes detours, and when the time is right, changes tracks. It helps that it doesn't take itself too seriously. But the reason why it works, to a large extent, is because it has soul: you care for the characters. Newcomers Anindya Sengupta and Shruti Das make Khilat and Joyee believable, and Arjun Chakraborty, cast against type, brings a physicality and mystery to Arnab. There is an overall 'freshness' in the film, to which Saptak Sanai Das's exquisite songs and Shubhankar Bhar's black and white cinematography contribute.

There's a surprising addressal of some of the problematic elements built into the premise. For instance, does Arnab's 'pure' love for Joey constitute stalking? Or a more plot-related logical flaw, that Arnab's love for Joyee — idealised and one-sided — isn't quite the same as Khilat's, who'll have to deal with a more real version of her. (In the scene in which the two couples finally meet and talk, Arnab, also a poet, describes his memory as "laathkhorer smriti", an oddly beautiful phrase). A memory transfer of that sort could lead to serious complications, and this is where X=Prem fumbles in its convenient, underwhelming final scene. It's a missed opportunity. Where Mukherji goes for a mathematical resolution, a little ambiguity might have helped.

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