Movie Madness Part II: Bangla and Bengali Films (Nayak, Chiriyakhana, Barnali)

A lovely bit of a Tagore poem. Source.
Up till recent days, the only Bengali film under my belt was the deservedly famed (and subsequently ubiquitous) Charulata. However, one or two readers might remember the goal in my New Year's resolution post to stop flirting around with different Indian languages & scripts and just settle down with a second SA language to study seriously. (That wasn't meant to be a tongue twister--but now that it's out there, why not try to say it out loud 3 x fast changing all the "s" sounds to Bangla "sh's". I dare you.)

[Note: I'm sure there are a lot of people out there in the world who like/love language in its purest state. Who learn languages for travel and work and friendship purposes. Who can live on syntax and random conversational opportunities alone. I am not one of them. I have firsthand knowledge of their existence in several of my friends AND my mother (who may be a literature teacher, but could survive on nothing but grammar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if necessary). Not me. Anyway, last year, I realized that the reason I had never gotten into another language seriously was because I am primarily motivated by language in the context of story. Without stories dangling like the proverbial carrot in front of my nose, I'm not going to get very far. Conversely, my ongoing obsession with Hindi films--their lyrics, poetry, and high-strung verbal dramatics--have shown me where proper motivation can take me. But now that I'm on the long post-grad trek of studying Hindi/Urdu media and literature (even if I wasn't pursuing it formally, it's how I spend 75% of my free time), I know that I want to plumb the depths of more than one Indian storytelling sphere . . . and thus, another language is a must.]

Well, you guessed it. After heady, promiscuous nights spent in the company of Tamil and Gujarati and Bengali and Panjabi and Malayalam, I settled with Bangla. When I found myself being drawn back to the script and dipping my toes into the grammar more readily (and happily running into comfortable sanskritic root words like old friends) . . . I realized there was only one deciding question left: "Can I get into Bengali films?"

While it still felt like the wrong order of events--considering that I got into Hindi films first, Hindi after--I decided to play Bengali roulette, going to one arbitrarily chosen film for the answer.

Nayak (1966)

Metacommentaries on the pitfalls of stardom are fairly common in Hollywood. If they are a little less so in Indian cinema, I still feel I've seen a fair few. But you know, this is a Ray film, and you can expect his personal spin and his keen social awareness to bring a different structure to the stereotype.

The Plot:
A film star gets on a train. Film star has an existential crisis on train. Film star gets off said train.

The first thing that struck me about this film was the overwhelming sense that the protagonist (the "hero" of the title, played by Uttam Kumar) is NEVER alone. Ever. Not in a privacy sense, at least.

No matter where he goes, he is exposed to everyone's adoration, judgment, anxiety, confusion . . . and most uncomfortably, everyone's desires. Rather than a human being, he is an object to almost everyone (placed either on a pedestal or grasped for as a commodity). Worse, almost everyone has already labeled him with an opinion and stuck him in a filing box for storage long before meeting him face to face.

Even the most enlightened specimen of humanity of the cast of characters--Sharmila's bespectacled highbrow-journal editor--begins by both judging him and trying to get something from him. Eventually she grows in her own perceptions and understandings of him (would you expect less of the woman pictured below?) but she still holds back. She doesn't engage completely.

Gosh, as if I needed another reason to love Sharmila.

Perhaps that is the "hero's"greatest curse--the isolation from his fellow humans. And although I know that this isn't a new concept applied to celebrity-dom, it still feels fresh in this film. Not that I think we are meant to like Uttam's film star. Far from it. He's self-obsessed, whiny, pompous, and irritatingly apathetic. However, one does find oneself caring about him, in almost a maternal fashion . . .despite all best intentions. And honestly, who hasn't had an existential crisis on a train at some point? (Gosh, I can count several, alone or among friends).

Waking up all kinds of sick in the middle of the night on a train . . . I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

I think I could make a good argument FROM SCIENCE that a long train journey logically and inevitably causes dangerous levels of self-reflection (spurred by extra time, discomfort, fatigue, and the disconnected sense of passage through space), and obviously, despair is easily triggered by excessive self-reflection.

So, without going into detail about the entire plot (it's better to just watch and feel one's way through it initially, I think), I will say that my favorite part of this movie might actually be the extra-textual "What Happened Next" in Amrita's review on Bongalong. Do yourself a favor and read it! I enjoyed the film more in tandem with that post than by itself (sorry Ray-ji!). But more importantly--did this film serve my own selfish purposes?

Did it sell me on Bengali films all on its own merit?

Well, kind of. I got the bug, anyway, which was enough (and all I could really ask of one film). Like in Hindi films, I'm sure it will take a while to build an understanding of what the symbols on the screen actually mean . . . but I was certainly intrigued.

Chiriyakhana (1967) 

The next slice I bit into was THIS noirish Ray experiment . . . and I say experiment because I don't think it quite works. Considering that the main reason I watched it (without any foreknowledge of other people's generally poor opinions on it) was that it was a Bengali gumshoe film, I wasn't really satisfied with the outcome. It's logically messy by any standards . . . which is a little bit hard to swallow in a detective story. I mean, if the writer of Encyclopedia Brown could swing a believable progression of clues. . . you should be able to. On the other hand, even Raymond Chandler messed up some times (by his own admission). Specifically, his story The Big Sleep (which is perhaps better known via the film version with Bogart and Bacall), which really is driven more by style than sense . . . and has some gaping plot holes.

Other people have far better background knowledge in Chiriyakhana than I do (obvs.) and therefore I direct you here for a plot summary and review.

I will say that I liked the (Ray-originating) elements of eccentricity in Byomkesh's character . . . the skulls, the sign fetish, the snake . . . I LOVED the snake. I did not enjoy the the weird Japanese "disguise" gag . . . but (I realized in hindsight) that it did kind of fit well with Byomkesh the detective's general disregard for human feeling or social courtesies. It also wasn't that far-fetched that he would like a reptile more than his own brother. (And in that, he's really no worse than the original Sherlock Holmes, and certainly not as out of control as some modern interpretations like Gregory House). Overall, I felt like it was worth watching, but not necessarily re-watching. Unless you happen to be a rabid Uttam Kumar fan, and then, more power to you.

Barnali (1963) 

Ok, so this film deserves its own post. It really does. However, because of how much I loved it-- and how much it towers over the previous two films mentioned (a nice bonus for anyone still reading this post)--I am a little at a loss to describe its merits. There are just so many! And I know that if I don't mention it now, it will be quickly hidden away in that place I keep my most favorite stories and will never see the light of day.

Think of what a 1960's Bengali version of Blackmail (1973) might look like. Now, dial the plot timespan back to events of just several successive days. Now cast Vinod Khanna (the only Hindi film star I would find comparable to Soumitra Chatterjee) across from Rakhee instead of Dharmendra.

"Gasp! Treason! The Redcoats are coming!"
"Calm down, it's just an exercise in filmi comparison."

Now, I dare to commit blasphemy in comparing this film to Blackmail because:

(A) The romance here is JUST as overwhelmingly good in its own way.

(B) Both sets of characters are kept from embracing their feelings for one another, and just embracing in general, because of their reluctance to say what they are really feeling and fearing . . . and the problems that come with unfortunate romantic history, ethical lies (misleading someone for their own "good"), and plain ol' shyness.

(C) Like in Blackmail, these characters have problems BECAUSE they are good people, trying to do right by their families and for their own futures. They are introverted, earnest, and thoughtful. This duo also has a similar (if more carefully sketched) penchant for extended emotional processing.

Which is why these two characters are completely perfect for one another. Not a little perfect. Totally perfect. (And isn't that necessary for the best romance films?)

They both actually take the time to listen and work through their feelings. Protracted silences be-damned. Because when they listen, they try to hear one another. And when they say things, they really SAY them. With that relationship work ethic, it's inevitable that they eventually get past their most carefully guarded secrets. This relational style reminds me of nothing so much as the raw, questioning and listening-oriented relationship between Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando's characters in On The Waterfront (like in this scene), and given some other similarities, I can't help but wonder if the director was an Elia Kazan fan.

Soumitra is like a tall glass of refreshing personhood in this film. He'd be refreshing even if he wasn't playing the hero, but as the hero . . . well, I have no words.  Sharmila is a smart, self-possessed, philosophy student. She actually sticks up for what she wants. She is many-layered in personality, situational reactions, and projected desires. By the end of the film, they will both break your heart AND put it back together better than it was before.

You don't really need to know much about the plot. Just be prepared for a slow first 5-10 minutes . . . which happens to be just the amount of time you'll need to prepare yourself for a literal storm of feelings. And, guess what? It's available on YouTube with Eng. Subs legally, so you can let it tear apart your world and stitch it back together sooner rather than later. (Also, it's often name-dropped as a favorite by Beth of BLB, so you should seek her out with any deeper questions about the film.)

Let's just say, if the other films didn't sell me, this one sure did. I may have peaked too early (will any Bengali film hit me harder than this?) but that's a decent problem to have. Bring on the Bangla everything!


  1. Do you always watch films in triads? :)

    I loved Nayak, didn't much care for Chiriakhana and haven't watched Barnali - your pitch makes me want to watch it. I love Sharmila, so that is an added attraction. I honestly think she had much better roles in Bengali than she did in Hindi.

    And you watched Malayalam films?! Do you understand the language, or do you need sub-titles?

    1. I'm so not (usually) organized enough to watch films in triads, lol! It just so happened that I watched so many wildly different kinds of films in the last month . . . and for my own sanity I felt I needed to organized them after the fact. As far as Bengali films go, I was unusually intentional, and I did watch several in a row to try to jump start a new film hobby :)

      Actually, when I say that I spent time with those languages, it was more trying to learn their scripts, some basic vocabulary skimming, digging through songs from those film traditions. I keep meaning to get into Malayalam films (and that's my first choice for a South Indian film industry/language to get into), as I've read a fair amount of reviews and watched enough clips to know I would enjoy that tradition once I figure out somewhere to start. Plus, I think we discussed my *cough* Prithviraj interest at one point. Feel free to point me in a direction you think is a good place to start for a newbie (to Mollywood), as for some reason, South Indian films in general intimidate me (even tho I've seen a handful of Tamil and Telagu movies).

      I think Barnali is the first Sharmila film I've seen that could upstage my favorite performance of hers in Raja Rani. I can't really say enough good things about it :)
      Devi also happens to be the next Bengali film on my list, and my guess is that I'm going to be quite impressed by her in that role as well.

    2. Miranda, I'm impressed. Really.

      As for Malayalam films, if you go to my blog and look at the sidebar, you will find 'Movies: Malayalam'; I haven't reviewed as many as I should have, and would like to, but they are all new-ish films and are easily available on DVD, and even the sub-titles are not as bad as they usually are. Try them (there are enough Prithvi films to keep you satisfied). :) I can send you a whole list of Malayalam films you ought to see, but that can wait. :)

    3. Will do! (And started already, lol).

  2. BARNALI truly climaxes at the boat ride scene with Ruma Guhathakurta's incredible singing of JAKHAN BHANGLO, BHANGLO MILANMELA BHANGLO - all the pretences drop away as Soumitra puts his arms around a tearful Aloka and unconsciously slips from apni to tumi... Aloka withstands the shock of Shailesh's treachery without weeping because she has already given her heart to Soumitra, see the delicate smile that plays on her lips as she sits at her desk at night and thinks.... It takes Soumitra a nightlong mental struggle before his love for Aloka can overcome the practical barriers of inequality of wealth and social position between them and he can commit himself to Aloka. Look at the skilled way in which two people express their love without ever uttering the hackneyed phrase I love you...


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