Director: Parambrata Chattopadhyay
Cast: Tanuja Mukerji, Soumitra Chatterjee, Shrijato Bandopadhyay, Jisshu U Sengupta, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Gargi Roy Chowdhury, Arunima Ghosh
A fatherless boy sketches his desires on paper – a mini-piano, a kite – only to find them on his desk the next morning, his drawings having magically ‘vanished’. It’s the stuff of all childhood fantasies. His mother weaves stories around these, creating an enchanted world for the two of them, one that provides a getaway from the loneliness of their lives. One story, involving a search for a treasure hidden in the ‘Golden Mountain’ (the Sonar Pahar that gives the film its name), however remains incomplete – and that illustration remains on the paper. A chimera that will haunt them forever.
The boy grows up, the mother grows old – and somewhere along the way, they grow apart, losing their ability to conjure magic out of the everyday. As a dialogue in the film goes: ‘Bado hawar maney bodhoy hariye jawa’ (Growing up probably entails losing your way). That thought lies at the core of Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Shonar Pahar, an emotionally wrought exploration of the generation gap, the abuse and neglect of the elderly, unlikely friendships cutting across ages, the lost innocence of good old-fashioned ‘adventure’ stories in an era of hyper-active online gaming.
The film opens with Upama (Tanuja in a finely nuanced performance), a fiercely independent old woman who lives alone. Abandoned by her son Soumya (Jisshu) and daughter-in-law, she is bitter and crusty. A chance encounter with Rajdeep (Parambrata), who runs an NGO for orphaned children, leads her to befriend a spirited imp of a boy, Bitlu (a delightful Srijato Bandopadhyay). Despite getting off to a less-than-auspicious start, their ‘relationship’ develops, and Upama finds herself opening up emotionally, going back to the stories she had created with her son. Eventually, you know, they will embark on a journey to the ‘Golden Mountain’, now with Bitlu as the protagonist. And in so doing, the unresolved issues haunting the mother and son might find closure.
That thought lies at the core of Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Shonar Pahar, an emotionally wrought exploration of the generation gap, the abuse and neglect of the elderly, unlikely friendships cutting across ages, the lost innocence of good old-fashioned ‘adventure’ stories in an era of hyper-active online gaming.
There’s something charmingly quaint about Parambrata’s film – for example, consider the new story that Upama starts writing in the mountains, taking off from the long-lost one she and her son hadn’t completed. You cannot help wondering whether this generation of youngsters – weaned on PlayStation and myriad online games – will find this ‘adventure’, with its echoes of Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal poem ‘Birpurush’, thrilling enough. In fact, at one point in the narrative, Bitlu asks Soumya’s wife if she has ‘that train game’ on her mobile, referring to the popular ‘Subway Surfer’! But you cannot help rooting for it, for a return to a world of ‘innocent’ imagination.
That this is clearly a labour of love for the director – the story emerged from his mother’s stories that looked at the world from a child’s point of view – is evident in the way he crafts it, with deliberate pacing and lingering stretches of silence. He also packs in a strong ‘message’ about this generation’s ‘callousness’ towards its parents, the lack of communication between them, the ‘selfishness’ of children vis-à-vis their parents.
But to his credit, he does not lay the blame at their door alone – and he leavens the gravity of the issue with a wry sense of humour. As Rajdeep tells Soumya, articulating the problems that arise when the 1970s and the millennials interact: it’s like having Geoffrey Boycott open the batting with Virat Kohli!
What does not work, however, are a couple of plot points – in particular Soumya’s visit to the home where old women, abandoned by their families, are put up by Kolkata Police till they can be sent to old-age homes. It’s a gratuitous sequence and, in a film that largely keeps away from melodrama, the old woman mistaking Soumya for her son strikes a cliched note. This is not to say that these things don’t happen – we all know they do – but in this particular case, it somehow comes across as a convenient device for the wayward son to see the error of his ways.
In the end, it is Srijato Bandopadhyay who anchors the film – and here’s a child star in the making. His Bitlu is in keeping with Bengali cinema’s long tradition of believable and utterly lovable child actors who, unlike their Hindi film counterparts, are actually childlike.
Consequently, the ‘reformation’ of the son and his wife (particularly her suggestion to get Upama’s writing published!) does not quite ring true – and given that the estrangement has occupied so much time and has been so vitriolic, the reconciliation seems somewhat forced: for example, in a key sequence, Rajdeep refers to The Kite Runner, to drive home the point that like the protagonist of the novel, who bides his time waiting, placing himself strategically to collect the kites falling to the ground, instead of running after them like the others, Soumya should also wait for the right time.
It is this ‘sense of time’ that one feels is lacking in the resolution of the conflict. Moreover, Jisshu is much more convincing, and interesting, as the son who has turned his back on his mother, and is pure dynamite in one sequence where he berates her brutally.
In the end, it is Srijato Bandopadhyay who anchors the film – and here’s a child star in the making. His Bitlu is in keeping with Bengali cinema’s long tradition of believable and utterly lovable child actors who, unlike their Hindi film counterparts, are actually childlike. We are all aware of Satyajit Ray’s child actors, from Apu to Kajol (a scene in Apur Sansar involving him is one of Parambrata’s favourite film sequences) to Mukul and Pikoo. And it’s no exaggeration to say that Bitlu, with his sassy attitude and roguish repartee, holds his own in this august company.
Just witness the scene where he asks Upama’s sister-in-law who appears to be commiserating with her but is actually taunting her, ‘Do you watch Kiranmala on TV?’ When she says yes and asks why he wants to know, he retorts, ‘No wonder you sound like Katkati!’ (For the uninitiated, Katkati is the wicked demon queen in the Bengali TV serial Kiranmala.) There are a dozen similar gems and Bitlu delivers with the consummate ease of a veteran. This performance is Parambrata’s biggest achievement in Shonar Pahar.
It is good to have Tanuja back in a Bengali film after ages. There’s no doubt that Bengali cinema has given this vastly underrated actor some of her most well-known roles – connoisseurs will fondly recall her in films like Anthony Firingee, Deya Neya and of course Teen Bhuvaner Paare, which also starred Soumitra Chatterjee in what is one of the many highlights of a brilliant career, memorably shaking a leg to ‘Jibon-e ki pabona bhulechhi shey bhabona’. It is no surprise then that Parambrata ushers Soumitra’s cameo in Sonar Paharwith the legend singing that enduring classic. As Upama, Tanuja strikes the right balance – grumpy and embittered, while conveying an understated vulnerability behind that steely exterior.
I haven’t seen Parambrata’s earlier forays into direction, so I cannot judge Shonar Pahar against those. But it is to his credit that in this day and age he has made a film with a seventy-year-old female protagonist and a seven-year-old boy – and has eschewed populist elements in doing so. It is not without its flaws – the pace slackens considerably towards the climax, while oddly enough the reconciliation seems rushed – but it is for the large part a good story told well. And one cannot but admire the conviction that underpins its telling.