It was 55 years ago that Tanuja began a journey in Bengali films that lasted through a string of huge hits. Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee were the biggest stars in Tollygunge then and Tanuja was the rare example of an “outsider” entering into partnerships with the two heroes that gave Bengal some of its favourite productions.
Critical approval was less important than the professional competence and credibility that made Deya Neya and Antony Firingee with Uttam Kumar and Pratham Kadam Phool and Teen Bhubaner Parey with Soumitra Chatterjee the musical sensations that have echoed down the years. It was much later that Tapan Sinha cast her in Aadalat O Ekti Meye that dealt quite controversially with the evil of gang-rape resulting in a bitter confrontation in court.
That was perhaps the first time that Tanuja was involved in serious social investigation and the first time that she had demonstrated the skills of a complex performance. She was very much in the business of acting nevertheless — shedding the colourful fantasies of Hathi Mere Sathi and Jewel Thief to attempt something that was closer to the soil.
It was a different proposition to virtually haul her out of retirement and confront her with the challenge of playing a septuagenarian she may well relate to. It is a pleasant surprise that reveals the actress with abundant reserves of natural power in the central character.
However, Sonar Pahar may have lapsed into the cliché-driven tragedy of a wronged mother. It is on account of this that director Parambrata Chatterjee stands out as someone capable of thinking differently. It is an engaging journey into the soul of a lonely parent whose physical weaknesses are splendidly interwoven with unrelenting strength of mind and an independent spirit that could, ironically, have been the cause of her distress.
It may have been difficult to sustain the ambivalence in artistic terms and make the character’s disconnect with the son credible. That is what she has managed to do with a conviction that has rarely been seen among performers of her age. Much of the credit should go to the director who also appears in the significant role of the son’s friend who holds the balance in a family discord that has strong emotional roots cruelly torn by force of circumstances.
Parambrata handles the complexity with a delicate touch that embraces the lost yearning for creative fulfilment as a writer and the steady erosion of the emotional dimension of her existence. The crux of the conflict lies in the attachment to her son being torn apart by the girl he marries against her wishes. The potential mundaneness of the conflict is lifted to another level by the shades added to the script after the arrival of a boy from an orphanage that brings a new meaning to the life of the old woman.
The child exudes an infectious charm that skirts the conventional notions of precociousness. The bulk of the screenplay concentrates on the woman left alone by her son (who himself experiences suppressed bouts of agony) and the child who brings his innocent world of colourful dreams into the woman’s life. She sustains a firm exterior especially in the presence of her son but cannot conceal the emptiness that haunts her.
The treatment brings varying shades and subtle touches that reveal new powers of an actor who has directed films in the past but never with the sensitivity, which makes Sonar Pahar an absorbing experience. The child’s world of fantasy fed by the woman’s indulgence causes the emotional drama to shift to an enchanting location in the hills.
The naturalness of the developments reveals Parambrata to be a competent story teller without the temptation to lapse into decorative touches. He is an excellent actor as well along with Jisshu Sengupta — both are superbly restrained in their expressions.
Jisshu in particular does justice to the character trapped in urban compulsions and finding a sad reflection of his despair in the bond between the child and his mother. Eventually, however, the film belongs to Tanuja who expresses the nuances of her role with remarkable restraint and the child, Srijato, who offers some of the best moments in the film.
The only point of debate could be the need to bring in Soumitra Chatterjee as an old friend with plenty of mental and spiritual strength to offer to the woman in her moments of depression and despair. The splendid backdrop of the mountains is captured in a logical flow that seems to be an integral part of her spiritual and creative revival.
Soumitra’s presence is reinforced by a popular song lifted from a film in which he had appeared with Tanuja half a century ago. It is an indulgence that an otherwise emotionally and artistically satisfying film may have done without.
The silver lining is that Soumitra as usual sustains a quiet appeal — to the point of restoring a measure of happiness in the woman’s life — without disturbing the tone and temper of the film as a whole.
What finally matters is the extraordinary warmth that the actor-director brings to a simple human experience to make Sonar Pahar, unquestionably, his best directorial work.