Updated: August 1, 2020 3:40:54 pm
Ranjan Ghosh’s third serving Ahaa Re (Bengali, with English subtitles) is the story of Farhaz Chowdhury/ Raja (Arifin Shuvoo), a top chef from Dhaka, whose girlfriend leaves him to pursue a fashion-design career in Paris. He takes up an offer and moves to Kolkata. It is also the story of Basundhara Ganguly (Rituparna Sengupta), an older widow, a home-cook who is raising her brother-in-law and father-in-law. A salty exchange, their paths cross, but Basundhara has another cross to bear.
The film is screening, among an eclectic selection, at the ongoing New York Indian Film Festival till August 9 (on nyiff.moviesaints.com, buy tickets by August 2), after finding a place, alongside Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Juzo Itami’s satirical Tampopo (1985) and Lunchbox (2013), in the ‘25 Great Asian Films about Food’ on the international film website Asian Movie Pulse, and screening at Dhaka International Film Festival in January and FFSI (Federation of Film Societies of India) Keralam online festival last week, where Ahaa Re and Lenin Bharathi’s Tamil Merku Thodarchi Malai were the only non-Malayalam feature films shown.
The gentle, slow-paced Ahaa Re is visceral. It is umami. Its rawness makes you teary, its crisp dialogues elevate the dish, its charred caramelised sweetness turns one’s heart into mush. Its layers, when peeled, reveal singularities – food, love, humanity, hope, magic – but it surpasses in their summation.
The film teases with its food close-ups, history and anecdotes – from khichdi dating to Greek dynast Seleucus (305-281 BC), malai curry to Malaysia, to how Swami Vivekananda, in 1899, bargained 20 hilsas for Re 1 near Padma river and could only purchase pui shaak (Malabar spinach) from a villager on the condition that Vivekananda had to take him as his disciple. “Birth, onnoprashon (first meal), proposals and break-ups, marriage and death – there’s always food. Basundhara offers food to her dead husband, too,” says Ghosh, 36, a foodie who cannot cook to save his life, except for omelettes.
Ghosh, who grew up in Durgapur and traces his roots to Bangladesh’s Faridpur, wanted to make a crossover film. Can the trope of food bridge cultural divides? Epaar and opaar (West and East) Bengalis are known for their fights over chingri (prawn) and ilish (hilsa), as legendary as Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal. But the film isn’t trying to do that. Food is only symbolic, detached from spatio-temporal contextualities. The title plays on the word ahaar meaning food/eating, on the expression ahaa re to denote empathy/pity for the two lovers, as well as the ahaa (wow) sentiment after tasting something scrumptious.
The film also makes one ravenous for a kind of love not seen any more, on screen or off it. Their hands don’t touch. There’s grace and eloquence in silences and muted expression of love, which, like slow-cooking and acquired taste, is not an instinctive response to external stimuli. A slowness emanates from Basundhara’s world, as Raja embodies gravitas, reminding that acting is also about great restraint. The classic one-liner quips and magic realism brought in by Basundhara’s father-in-law (Paran Bandhopadhyay) cement the film, rescuing it from becoming sappy. The film shows not what is but what can be, it is about hope. It breaks stereotypes, too. The heroine can be older than the hero (in real life, too, the two are 10 years apart). The progressive father-in-law eggs Basundhara to remarry. Raja stays on in Basundhara’s house after marriage. A woman doesn’t necessarily need to always step out to be independent. And love/marriage doesn’t necessitate religious conversion.
From producers unwilling to back the story, Ghosh even had to hear that he’s promoting Love Jihad and that Bangladesh’s hero won’t sell in Kolkata. Calling their vision myopic, Ghosh adds, “the script needed a Bangladeshi man. Cross-cultural films make sense commercially too. Your market increases.” Sengupta, however, was so convinced with the script, that she decided to produce it. She introduced Ghosh to Shuvoo, her co-star from Alamgir’s (singer Runa Laila’s actor-director husband’s) Bangladeshi film Ekti Cinema’r Golpo (2018). “But Arifin’s films didn’t cut it for me, his YouTube interviews did. Arifin (like Raja) is married to a Hindu girl from Calcutta, too,” says Ghosh of the actor who has done two crossover joint-ventures in the past, this is his first local production in India.
Basundhara’s reticence harks back to Sengupta’s older prowess seen in films like Aparna Sen’s National Award-winning Paromitar Ek Din (2000). “We have all had a crush on her since college years. She is a director’s actor, a talent not fully utilised, she has been good even in bad films, and she’s hungry, desperate for good script-driven roles,” says Ghosh, who adds that it was on the sets of the National Award-winning Rahul Bose-Radhika Apte-starrer Antaheen (2009) – a film that had brought in a new sensitivity and hope for Bengali cinema – where Ghosh was assisting director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (who later directed Pink, 2016), that he first met Aparna Sen, who became a “lifelong mentor”.
Ghosh, then a screenwriting student at Subhash Ghai’s Mumbai institute Whistling Woods, pursued, shadowed, and assisted Sen in writing the script for Iti Mrinalini (2011). He walked up to her requesting to write/work for her. Sen said, “You cannot write for me, because I write my own script. But you can assist me.” And, thus started their ritual of reading out scripts to each other. She taught him “critical distancing and critical thinking towards my own work”.
Sen, however, hasn’t acted in any of his films. When in 2012, Ghosh decided to make his debut Hrid Majharey (2014) – his love tragedy hat-tip to Shakespeare, taking inspirations from Othello, Macbeth and Julius Caesar – “I knew I shouldn’t go to her, but instead try standing on my own feet. I had to prove my salt, not be dependent on her,” he says. “You’re a very precocious boy,” he recalls Sen telling him, “if the film isn’t good, I won’t say anything, I will keep mum.” Praise, she did, on his second film Rongberonger Korhi (2018) – a structurally compelling film, stitching four earthy short stories of four colours/values of money – and his third, Ahaa Re, which Sen felt is his “most mature script” in which “the directorial control is visible”. A film which veteran filmmakers Jahnu Barua and MS Sathyu liked, informs Ghosh, who is planning a sequel to Ahaa Re to “see what happens to Basundhara’s and Raja’s child”. If Ghosh were to make a love trilogy, the love/child that gets destroyed in Hrid Majharey, is restored and fortified in Ahaa Re. For the third part, one has to wait and see what he does with love.
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