Srijit Mukherji’s ‘Rajkahini’, a Bengali film that can be best described as a partition period drama, opened to rousing critical acclaim last Friday. After Rituparno Ghosh passed away a few years ago, middle-of-the-road cinema in Bengal needed a new poster boy, and Mukherji was the best possible fit. He has delivered five hits in five years, is articulate, well-informed and has knack of choosing unusual subjects. Which means that ‘Rajkahini’, a film that he himself calls his magnum opus in many interviews, will have middle-class Bengalis, who seem to revel in mediocrity these days, queuing up in front of multiplexes in all their puja finery this year.
It has an ensemble cast of Bengali cinema’s most prominent female actors playing inmates of a brothel of a provincial town, which means this host of actors will get to do what has won countless Indian actors accolades before them-not wear make up and deliver expletives. But does ‘Rajkahini’ really lives up to its promise? Unfortunately for Bengali cinema, it doesn’t. Here is why.
1) Mandi meets Mirch Masala
Evidently, Srijit Mukherji is doffing his hat at two of Indian cinema’s most celebrated women-centric films in Rajkahini. Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), had a similar premise with Shabana Azmi as a madam reigning over gaggle of sex workers, Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987) had the same dramatic impetus. It documented the plight of a group of women spice grounders, led by Smita Patil, who stand up against the atrocities of a lecherous subedar, played by Naseeruddin Shah. ‘Rajkahini’, which does manage to establish a sense of camaraderie between the women in the brothel (a la Mandi), fails to create the dramatic tension that was needed to justify the crescendo of a finale. Probably because it doesn’t do a very good job of armouring its lead players with strong motives. Why would a group of practical sex workers, led by a madam who keeps harping on the need to attract business, refuse to desert a contentious property knowing fully well that business might dry up once the exodus starts?
2) It just doesn’t live up to the scale that the subject demands
If you are talking about an event which led 40,00000 citizens homeless, you need to show more people in frames to drive in that point. There are riot and rally scenes in the film which don’t have more than twenty people in the frame. The brothel in question sits unyieldingly right in the middle of the Radcliffe line that divides the two countries. In one particular scene, which is meant to leave the unrelenting sex-workers of the brothel awestruck, we see a dribble of men, women and children walk past the structure. It almost seems comical, the way they gape at a few men and women walking past them.
3) May we offer you some cough syrup, Rituparna?
Rituparna Sengupta, who is probably one of the very few female actors in Bengal who has roles written for her, plays the madam of a large, crumbling brothel in the middle of nowhere. It’s a role of a lifetime, screams features pages of Bengal over and over again. Yes, she does everything the Bollywood stereotype of a madam does, wear her perfectly crinkled hair open, orders about a Muslim muscleman and smokes hookah with a considerable amount of conviction. She also growls about a bit and gets to manhandle a few cast members. But her hamartia is the gruff, sandpapery baritone that comes across as so strained at times that you want to hand her a bottle of Corex.
4) Stagey dialogue delivery
There are moments in ‘Rajkahini’, where two important characters played by veterans of Bengali cinema (Saswata Chatterjee and Kaushik Sen playing Hindu and Muslim political leaders) actually pause for effect in between an intense exchange of dialogues. It’s almost as if they are waiting for the audience applause to die down before they continue. To add to it, both of them are shot in halves, through table lamps and statues, probably to convey that they are two sides of the same coin.
5) Firangs in ill-fitting coats
You know, Mr Mukherji, Tom Alter is still alive. Why then did you have to fall back on a Bengali bhadralok to play the fresh-off-the-ship Cyril Radcliffe (who decided on the boundaries of India and Pakistan in 1947)? An extra coat of foundation really doesn’t help, trust us, even Manmohan Desi gave up on that by 1985. The other white man in the film, thankfully there is just one, is a stiff non-actor who is saddled with a coat and a dialogue sheet one size too big for him.