Waiting, a fiercely intimate act, evokes a sense of doom. You ask someone to wait, someone waits for you. But when someone is waiting, then the responsibility of the act and carrying it forth is placed on them and no longer on the person who had asked them to. Herein lies the misery of the act, and also the embedded sense of hopefulness.
Sarthak Dasgupta’s film The Music Teacher, streaming on Netflix, meditates on the dual aspect of this act. Set in Shimla, everyone in the film seems to be suspended in this hopeless, hopeful act. A wife abandoned by her husband is waiting for a companion to fill in the void, a father is waiting for his son to return, a music teacher is waiting for his estranged student to remember him and the town is waiting eagerly for a singer to come to the hills. Waiting gives them a sense of purpose. This shared apprehension laced with anticipation makes the private act public. Everyone is waiting, and each is aware that the other is suffering from a similar fate.
The film mainly focuses on the refusal of the music teacher Beni Madhab (played by Manav Kaul) to forget his student Jyotsna Ray (Amrita Bagchi) and his wait for her to remember him. After his father’s death, Madhav is forced to go back to the hills. Nursing dreams of becoming a singer in Hindi films and going to Bombay, he treats his homecoming as a brief detour from his plans. But when we meet him for the first time, bespectacled and weary, he is still there, the name of Jyotsna Ray stinging him with every utterance and remembrance.
In Bengali poet Joy Goswami’s poem Malatibala Balika Bidyalay, a girl recounts her love for Beni Madhab, a man she remembers vividly, he perhaps not so much. She had met him when she was in class nine, in a chance encounter that she could not forget. The poem begins with her impassioned appeal, a petulant demand almost to take her to his place. Self-awareness creeps in immediately as she asks aloud if he remembers her at all. Considered one of Goswami’s most famous poems, the speaker is never named, but her lover is. Beni Madhab becomes the person, an ephemeral concept around which her life revolves.
In Dasgupta’s immensely watchable film, the roles are reversed. Beni Madhab is no longer provided with the luxury of being waited for, rather he occupies the painful existence of the one who is waiting. He had fallen in love with his student, much like she had with him, but he coaxed her to go to Bombay, hoping to vicariously live his dreams through her. She leaves reluctantly and returns after eight years, living his dream but not sharing it with him.
The Music Teacher is an affectionate tale that works, for the most part, for remaining true to what it is striving for. Abstaining from making a spectacle or the need to give in to sentimentality, it achieves what it sets out to. To brood on the act of waiting and illustrate how it is both a casualty and a prerequisite of love. In the running time of a little less than two hours, it resists from meandering. To use a hackneyed phrase, the film has its heart in the right place.
This honesty in storytelling helps one to overlook the many shortcomings of the film – the cliched characters, familiar backdrop, scenes that stand out as jarring and a criminally underutilised Neena Gupta. The film, in its totality, works for not overreaching or trying too hard and ultimately for not giving in to the temptation of an ostentatious climax.
The film benefits much from the earnest performances of its lead actors, Kaul and Bagchi. Kaul, as the music teacher, who intended to leave but is left behind instead, gives a heartwarming performance. Despite the passage of time, he is none the wiser. His inability to recognise what he wants makes him come across as a man-child, constantly needing the supervision of somebody else. Kaul presents this befuddlement well by moving about with a perpetual sense of wonderment in his eyes. Tales of abandonment surprise him, even though he had done so himself, and so does a woman voicing her desires, for him or even otherwise. There is glaring disbelief at other’s action and sometimes his own. Bagchi, as Jyotsna, is impressive as the girl with a broken heart who values her bruised ego more. She is particularly good when she meets her teacher again, eight years later. She is amused that he wears spectacles now, comforted when he calls her by her nickname and looks at him with reproach in her eyes when he confesses he had been wrong to send her away. He might have been the teacher but she had more insight.
Dasgupta’s film does a commendable job in showing how waiting, an integral aspect of love, when indulged for too long, becomes a habit difficult to let go of. And when it finally ends, the one who was waiting might have just fallen in love with the process more. It is less of a heartbreaking tale and more of a reminder of a heartbreak that still hurts, in unobtrusive, stray moments. Like a song. Like a seemingly happy song that hurts in its quiet, private way.