|A lovely bit of a Tagore poem. Source.|
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
(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.
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!