After a pandemic-prompted delay of two years since the release of its teaser in 2020, the trailer of the Bengali movie Bhotbhoti (2022) came out recently. The trailer indicates a crystallisation of themes from the director Tathagata Mukherjee’s earlier films like How to Become a Rapist (2018) and Unicorn (2018) which extensively explore anthropocentrism and the socio-psychological nexus of reality and fantasy respectively.
Set in West Bengal, the film portrays the journey of the titular character Bhotbhoti (Rishav Basu), a young man living in a ‘bosti’ (or ghetto) near the Ganges who looks at aquariums with wonder-struck eyes, spends hours underwater looking for a mermaid, and apparently comes upon one whom he names Ariel (Bibriti Chatterjee). Yet, at the core of this romantic fantasy seems to lie a modern-day myth of socio-ecological resistance.
World-losers and Dreamers of Dreams
Like the speed-enhancing motor attached to boats and rickshaws to the sound of which the word ‘bhotbhoti’ onomatopoeically connotes, the crummy ghetto where Bhotbhoti lives is part and parcel of the modern world of TikTok and PUBG (mentioned in the song Jahajbosti Trending). Their locality Jahajbosti gets its name from the fact that all of its current inhabitants arrived on jahajs (or huge boats). While this suggests that it is a refugee colony, their festive worshipping of the pre-Brahminical goddess Ma Monosha further hints that they stand on the ‘lower’ rungs of the caste ladder. Naturally, here ‘achhe din’ never arrives.
Nevertheless, if they don’t belong to a class that can afford to glide past in silent cars, boarding and driving noisy bhotbhotis (as such motor vehicles are referred to in short), they at least get to hold out against being silenced through their resounding physical presence on the lanes of the city. The dominant class needs them. So they remain as trending as their aspirations remain strong. Fantasies, as the song Jolporir Gaan suggests, come easy to broken hearts, much like Ariel with her dark, dreamy eyebrows appears before Bhotbhoti. When Bhotbhoti’s individual identity expressed in his name itself seems to be a part of the shared experience of working class people wherein their professions double as their names in ‘upper’ class addresses (e.g. a meat seller becomes Meat), then it is hardly surprising that his individual romantic dream too soon yields to a collective call of resistance.
Counting the Measures of a Collective Call
The movie foregrounds a bifurcation between the mass-produced Anthropocene and the primal natural world, from the watery depths of which Ariel emerges (well captured in its poster). Thus, Bhotbhoti’s repeated query ‘Chai ta ki?’ (What do you want?), directed at her in a genie-like marketplace, only elicits a stony look from her, portraying both her ignorance about the consumerist human world and a shunning of its hollowness. Her association with nature is masterfully established in a scene where she lowers her head before a dam to the controlling forces of which the water flowing underneath must also have had to cower.
The tears of nature are shared by the Jahajbosti people who, like a half-human half-fish mermaid, live fragmented half-lives; whose language is as hybrid as the erratic waves of the river. Like nature, they too are subjected to societal disciplining. Thus, when two of the residents are hanged on a holy tree and their colony burnt down, what gets defiled is the common sanctity of life.
As the trailer develops into a painful sigh of such socio-ecological catastrophes, Bhotbhoti’s bildung merges with a united resistance put up by these marginalised ecological members.
His plunge from man-made boats and ghats into the river thus symbolises a refusal of the anthropocentric world that is as suspicious of the existence of mermaids as it is skeptical of the veracity of environmental degradation and structurally-embedded social inequalities.
This unification seems to occur in the movie through a unique scripting of nature, i.e. Ariel, into a man-made mythic visuality where the traditional darshanic iconicity of crowned goddesses merges with references to the commercialised modern-day Disney Princess (whose face is ubiquitously observable on printed merchandise) after whom she is named. This mythic dimension of the cinematic unconscious seems to drive the people, give them power. A mermaid calls, and she beckons the Jahajbosti residents to a collective revolution.
Will the water rise to quell the fire of the human heart? Will it douse ecological conflagrations? If we love nature, might we still survive? Delicately placing itself between romantic love and love for nature, the trailer leaves us with these questions. With some beautifully shot scenes, it remains to be seen how Mukherjee strings together the narrative.
Bhotbhoti will be released in the theatres on August 11, 2022.