Premangshu Roy could well be one of the aspiring directors wanting to break new ground. While such aspirations are often not reinforced by the required sensibilities, this is not what one would say about the maker of Chilekotha.
He has arrived with great promise. The film would seem to be slow to begin with but, as the narration dips into chunks of Bengal’s social history, there is an inescapable sense of nostalgia not just about the chain of events with which everyone is familiar but about the socio-economic transformation as a whole.
It is this touching awareness of one’s roots that comes across as perceptively as the conscious experiment with the cinematic idiom.
While experiments have been seen as amateurishly obtrusive in many cases, Chilekotha works because it follows a logical pattern to tell one man’s story that grows into an absorbing social canvas.
The basic material is based on experiences that become the subject of animated recollections. Life has moved to an era when an old man burdened with crushing loneliness in an apartment building in Kolkata can make use of modern technology to be face to face with his grandson in America.
But the few moments of tenderness cannot compensate for the overall emptiness.
It is in this context that the director makes use of poetic licence to travel back in time. It brings a refreshing cocktail of past and present, reality and fantasy.
It is a journey that turns into a charming escape. To that extent, the script follows a reasonable pattern. The old man complains there is not much to read in the morning papers when he hears the door bell ring to find a young man he is closely acquainted with.
The audience will take a little time to discover the artistic device that enables the old man to slip into his past. But once the truth dawns, it becomes a story that embraces the little drops of delight and despair that add up to a world that can never be forgotten.
The nostalgia may well have lapsed into a string of clichés but the treatment makes the difference. There are two protagonists who become three characters penetrating the heart of Bengal’s middle class experience.
The old man is confronted by his younger self who, while indulging in wholesome reverie, is in search of answers on how destiny has treated him. The screenplay makes no value judgments on the social changes.
The facts are presented with an endearing sense of emotional understanding that revives a host of memories.
It is when the third character arrives as a tragic victim of Partition that the complexities arise and the film offers dramatic flashes that were an integral part of life in the post-Independence years.
The joint family offers microscopic images of everything from the little wars played out on the football ground between supporters of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — with related contests between lovers of prawn and hilsa — to bigger battles on the political front.
Bengal has seen everything from youngsters and adults joining hands to waste their energy on hours and hours of kite flying to educated young revolutionaries committed to changing the system — only to move on to comfort zones abroad. It is, in any case, an open-ended statement that is emotionally linked to its conservative roots.
The old man, once the aspiring Naxalite, has returned from a long life in America leaving his son and his family behind. The long hours that he spends with himself provide the space for some soul-searching. There are harsh recollections but there are equally inspiring memories of the fifties when Ritwik Ghatak cried his heart out over the dismemberment of a shared ethos, Satyajit Ray took the world by storm with Pather Panchaliand Uttam Kumar stirred the romantic consciousness of young people even in a conservative milieu.
All this and the early signs of political turmoil are handled with remarkable restraint. The director speaks in a language that is pleasingly cinematic.
There is a passing tribute to Ray in a death scene when a flag flies off from a pole — reminding one of the unforgettable moment in Aparajito. But the borrowed device does not take away from the charming environment of the joint family where each member is noticeable and becomes part of social history. One could complain that the refugee uncle who makes the vital contribution to the young man’s life — from his passion for football to the destructive politics from which he is rescued by his uncle who sends him abroad —is given disproportionate space in the narrative.
But that doesn’t seem to cause much harm to the film as a whole.
Clearly, the artistic devices as well as the historical journey depend on the performances of the three characters — the old NRI played with precise reactions by Dhritiman Chatterjee, his younger self whose contradictions Ritwik Chakraborty manages to reflect with superb expressions and the uncle whom Bratya Basu brings to life as perhaps his most effective performance with all its interesting nuances.
It would indeed be a pity if Chilekotha, with these outstanding performances and images, gets lost in the flood. Within its modest means, it offers a lot to take away