Of her many visits to filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s house in Kolkata, one is forever etched in Nandita Ray’s mind. Sen’s wife, Gita, was in an emotional state and told Ray she wished that her husband would die before her. “She said that she could live without him, but he could not live without her,” says Nandita. The words were full of irony — when the death wish of a dear one is born out of great love — and could only have been spoken by someone old, someone who had reached the autumn of life. When she decided to make a film on the jaded love of an elderly couple, these words found their way into it. The Bengali film, Bela Seshe (End of the Day), co-directed by Ray, 60, and Shiboprosad Mukherjee, 41, is commanding a 98 per cent occupancy in its sixth week in Kolkata and other parts of Bengal, and released across India on June 26.
The critical moment of the film comes when 75-year-old Biswanath Majumdar, played by Soumitra Chatterjee, gathers his family together during Durga Puja — on their 50th year of marriage — and says he was divorcing his 68-year-old wife Aarti, essayed by Swatilekha Sengupta. The couple’s three daughters, a son, their spouses and their children are stunned. Is he having an affair? Was it always an unhappy marriage stretched till it tore apart? Biswanath makes it clear that he was not going to provide answers or explanations. As the family members spy and speculate, the layers of a 50-year-old relationship begin to unravel.
Mukherjee says that one of the reasons they liked the idea of a divorce between an elderly couple is that it is a metaphor for everyone. “It could be as relevant to a couple that is six months into dating as much as to a newly married one. One of the reasons the film has become so successful in Kolkata is that even 18 year olds are watching it, and recommending it to their parents,” he says. The film has become the biggest grosser of the year of the Bengal film industry so far and critics are calling it a “game-changer”. According to a news report, a Gujarati organisation booked an 800-seat theatre in Kolkata to show the film to its members. Bela Seshe also marks the entry of Eros International Studio into distributing Bengali films nationally.
The film sees the return of Chatterjee, who was a staple of Satyajit Ray films such as the Feluda series, in a major role after many years. For Sengupta, it is the third film after Ray’s Ghare Baire (1985). Though the two have put in consummate performances, the film has made a mark primarily due to its unusual story. While films on divorce are not uncommon, Bela Seshe touches upon an unusual side of it — irretrievable breakdown of marriage in which neither person is at fault but one partner or both want to end the marriage, and its uncomfortable position in Indian law and society. “Women are still not entirely independent, while many men, who are ready to divorce their wives and marry other women, will take advantage of the law. But the flipside of it is that a lot of men are stuck in unhappy marriages and suffer,” says Mukherjee, who has acted in films such as Dohon and Bariwali by Rituparno Ghosh and Anup Singh’s In the Name of a River.
“He came up with the story idea after watching a play. I developed it and wrote the screenplay. He wrote the dialogues and we did the casting together. Generally, he conducts the acting workshops and while shooting, I am on the monitor and he calls the shots. I do the post production and he does the promotion and marketing. A woman’s sensitivity is different from a man’s, while I provide that angle, he brings in the dynamism in the script,” says Ray.