While Bengali movies over the last decade have violently divided the public into an indiscriminating mass and a stubbornly high-brow clique, the stars were aligned last year to confound this gap. Goutam Ghose’s deeply-felt biopic on the mystic baul-fakir, Lalan Shah, found box-office success in spite of being free from any sort of formula that is usually guaranteed with a film starring Prosenjit. Prosenjit was also responsible for being the epicenter of another commercial and critical hit: Srijit Mukherjee’s Autograph (2010). Another director who is usually construed as a niche filmmaker, addressing the emotional lives of middle and upper-middle class Bengalis who grow up with the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the cinema of Satyajit Ray and the paintings of Bengali Modernists, is Rituparno Ghosh who wrote and directed Abohoman (2009) and starred as a gay filmmaker in Kaushik Ganguly’s Arekti Premer Golpo (2010).
Most of these films focused on the process of artistic creation and the sequestered and even marginalized spaces from which artists work and create. With Arekti Premer Galpo (Just Another Love Story) and Goutam Ghose’s Moner Manush (The Loved One, 2010), the separation of the artistic space and the public space is inevitably charged with political meaning, stemming from their art. Lalon Shah’s band of singers and outcastes find themselves brutally victimized by the strong communal and social forces of 19th century Bengal and establish their own village organized around the visionary humanitarianism that is implied in the very songs that they sing. This radical libertarian utopia (freedom from class and caste hierarchies, elimination of power structures and institutions, free love et al.) serves to pose a direct attack on the values that sustain social existence in the villages and cities. The film explores the early life of Lalon, shrouded in myths and legends, to seek what may have driven him to this ideal. Lalon’s early life plays out like a deliberately confusing experiment in social anthropology. Born in a low-caste Hindu family, Lalon falls sick and is left for dead on the open river; he is rescued and brought up for some years by a Muslim family. Embracing and rejecting both, Lalon seeks the company of wandering minstrels and finally finds his voice as one of them. Lalon’s interior life as an artist is nurtured and shaped by his years of wandering and the songs pour out from his solitary musings on love and divine grace. Shunning himself from his family and society, the charge of his freedom spills into the spirit of his art and Lalon is not unaware of this political import. When Lalon comes across a lonely mad man he decides to call himself mad too, because mad men cannot harm each other and must be friends.
Rituparno Ghosh’s Abohoman is centered on a filmmaker called Aniket (Dipankar De) and his blurry involvement with his creations and the actresses who effect the creation. The character of Aniket- a respectable Bengali filmmaker with a trace of scandal- is buried deep into the film. He comes across as a cloak of shadows, concerned more with the play of his fictions than his real, familial responsibilities. Dipankar De plays him as a subdued and soft-spoken man, inept at the shameful rituals of deception when he falls scandalously in love with a younger actress. Modeled partly on Guru Dutt's Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), the film captures the silence and alienation of the artist as a middle-aged romantic unable to set up an artificial line that separates his creations from his real life. The film itself borrows this blurred boundary and uses parallel storylines (film-within-film) to augment the central tension between reality and fiction, the position of the artist represented as a successful but lonely stage actress in 19th Century Bengal and a successful but lonely filmmaker in modern day Kolkata.
The themes from Abohoman spill over into Arekti Premer Golpo. Arekti Premer Golpo is again written by Rituparno Ghosh, although Kaushik Ganguly directs it. Ghosh plays the central character called Abhiroop Sen- a gay filmmaker from Delhi- who arrives in Kolkata with his bisexual lover and Director of Photography Basu (played by Indraneil Sengupta) to make a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri- a stage veteran known for playing the roles of girls in jatra plays many years ago. Bhaduri now lives an extremely secluded life in his north Kolkata home and is wary of any attempts to penetrate the sanctum of his retired life. He bonds with Abhiroop and their relationship finds artistic consummation by the biographical fictions that play out in Abhiroop’s film/mind where the filmmaker imagines himself in the role of Bhaduri struggling with cruel male lovers: aristocrats and rough workmen alike. The parallel narrative again, provides the tension that sustains the ‘real’ dramas that play out behind the sets. Aviroop finds himself targeted by a conservative community in the neighbourhood where the shoot is organized and is forced to move to the suburbs. His strength and confidence allows him to muse on the political implications of the third sex, but ultimately, when the film reaches a dramatic climax in the tantalizing possibility of a subversive ménage a trios, the fictions come to our rescue and display again the strong patriarchal organization of society that disallows any possibility of this separate space inside its body politic.
Art is ultimately the only consolation of the artists. The various fictions created by the singers, filmmakers and actors (like Arun Chatterjee in Autograph) in these movies provide solace, which is ultimately what carries them through even if there is nobody around them to share it with.