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Kanchenjunga

KposterKanchenjunga (1962) was one of Satyajit Ray’s personal favorites, and his first film in color. It features a marvelous performance by Chhabi Biswas as a vain and dominating family patriarch in the early years after Independence. It is a 100+ minute film and captures 100 minutes of a troubled family’s last day while on a holiday in Darjeeling.

It is his last day in Darjeeling and Indranath Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is grumbling that he still hasn’t got a view of the mighty and wondrous Kanchenjunga mountain range. The affable Englishman passing by wishes him “better luck next time”.

Indranath nods approvingly at the saheb‘s demeanor. He has always liked sahebs. The English rulers had class, knew how to stay fit, played cricket fair and with flair, and honored him with the title of “Rai Bahadur”. Thank God many of them were still around in Darjeeling!KChhabiKaruna

Indranath is in Darjeeling with his family. His wife Labanya (Karuna Bannerjee), as always, seems unhappy and distraught. Why? He never quite understood. “You must learn to be an optimist like me”, he finally advises her.

KMonishaWithBannerjeeLabanya’s real concern is for their younger daughter Monisha (Alaknanda Roy). Monisha is to meet the eminently ‘eligible’ Mr Bannerjee (N Viswanathan) one last time in the evening and it is widely expected that he will propose to Monisha. Will Monisha say yes? She is known to have a mind of her own and a “no” from her would enrage Indranath. Nobody turns down the Rai Bahadur’s wish!

The elder daughter, Anima (Anubha Gupta), had earlier lacked the courage to say no, and agreed to marry Sankar (Subrata Sen) … even as she continued to exchange love letters with her former beau. In a loveless marriage, Sankar has slumped into gambling and drinking. The only bond that keeps the couple together is the love for their little daughter Tuklu (Sibani Singh).

KChhabiPahariIndranath’s son Anil (Anil Chatterjee) is wasting his life trying to persuade every other pretty girl (and her dog) to pose for his pictures. And Labanya’s widowed brother Jagadish (Pahari Sanyal) lives with his binoculars looking for his beloved birds. Jagadish is suitably detached from the real world, but he is still caring enough to give his sister a pat on her shoulder as she sings in despair, and human enough to give Indranath an incredulous  stare when he declares that he only likes birds when they are roasted.

KAshokeThis fragile family equilibrium is upset by the entry of Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee), a young tutor from Calcutta desperately seeking a job to put his life together and take care of his ailing mother. Ashoke’s breathless uncle (who still hasn’t learned that it is unwise to talk while climbing steep stairs) spots Indranath and shows the presence of mind to introduce the young man to the “business magnate owning five companies”.

Indranath is suitably sneering and contemptuous but still finds Ashoke useful enough to send him to fetch his muffler, and then make him listen to nostalgic stories of his cricketing exploits on the Ballygunge playgrounds. In this happy frame of mind, he even offers Ashoke a lucrative job. Ashoke turns it down saying that he’d rather get a job with his own effort.

Almost immediately, Ashoke rues his decision. “I would never have said no if this was Calcutta. But there’s something about Darjeeling’s beauty that deeply influences our choices”, he later tells Monisha. Monisha seems to be under the same spell. She makes it clear that she enjoys Ashoke’s cheerful company more than the pompous Mr Bannerjee, and she’s also impressed that Ashoke had the courage to say no to her father’s job offer.

It therefore all ends rather promisingly in salubrious Darjeeling: Sankar and Anima reach a patch-up (with Anima tearing away her love letters, and Sankar promising to get less debauch). Mr Bannerjee shows unbelievable charm and grace by withdrawing his marriage proposal (although he’s still slightly puzzled how Monisha could choose love over security), and Monisha graciously invites Ashoke to her Calcutta residence (assuring him that he won’t need an appointment and won’t have to beware of dogs).

Even as the mists in personal lives dissipate, the magnificent snow-peaked Kanchenjunga appears in a breathtaking view. Indranath would’ve chortled “jolly good!” in happier times, but he has suddenly turned lonely and disconsolate.

Chhabi Biswas, died in a car accident on 11 June 1962, just weeks after the release of Kanchenjunga.

N Viswanathan continued to act for 40 more years in Bengali, Tamil and English films and plays. I remember him as the suave English newsreader on Calcutta Doordarshan during my days there as a student. 

-I was pleasantly surprised to hear this Kishore-Asha song from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi between minutes 32-33 of Kanchenjunga.

 

Mahanagar

MahanagarPosterYou wonder about the lipstick that her good friend Edith gifts her. Surely Arati had the charm and the ability to sell those sewing machines without that extra red … or indeed those transparent blouses?

I’m talking of Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) in Mahanagar (1963). As always the story of this Ray film can be told in just a few lines: Subrata Mazumdar (Anil Chatterjee) is Arati’s weak, but caring and supporting, husband. He works in a private bank that’s heading for bankruptcy. All signs are visible, he senses them too. But he’d rather pretend that all is well, sleep soundly, and wake up to tackle life’s next difficult day.

MahanagarFatherThe going is tough. The money isn’t enough, and when Arati tells him she’s going to work, he’s timidly supportive. Breaking the news to his father Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee), a former much-respected teacher, isn’t easy. But Subrata doesn’t really try hard enough to convince; he probably knows his old boy pretty well and knows he’ll never agree … but you have to go through the motions out of respect.

MahanagarMilThe mother Sarojini (Sefalika Devi) is more hardworking, and more understanding. She doesn’t like the bahu going out to work, but realizes there’s no choice for the family and shows appreciation, affection and understanding. A small gift, bought by the bahu with her first salary, evokes the only wide smile from the lady. She has horrible teeth but an endearing smile.

MahanagarJayaBani (Jaya Bhaduri), Subrata’s school-going teenage sister, sees nothing wrong with Arati working. She’s excited, finds ways to stay happy (but not in that mad rampaging way we later saw in Guddi), and can be discreet. When she sees Subrata and Arati sharing a tender moment she backs off till the bout of intimacy passes; and then walks in with guarded nonchalance.

MahanagarFamily.jpgAnd what’s one to say of their little boy Pintu (Prosenjit Sarkar)? Will there ever be a greater magician in directing little boys than that towering master of cinema? The boy’s expressions, his amazing innocence, his hit-the-nail-on-the-head comments and observations … they leave you marveling at the heights that excellence can attain.

Arati’s boss Himangshu (Haradan Bannerjee) is a good man too, and someone who’s discovered the value and merit of private entrepreneurship. He isn’t evil, he’s not anti-poor, he’s just discovered much before the others that capitalism can work … even in Nehru’s 1950s. He has his biases – chiefly against Anglo-Indians – but he can be extremely generous with fellow Bengalis; especially if they come from Pabna (now in Bangladesh).

MahanagarEdithIn fact when the bank crashes, and Subrata is distraught and defeated, the boss even promises to find him a job. He’s not evil and lecherous either; even “Mrs Mazumdar”‘s charming presence and outstanding work ethic doesn’t distract him. But he has an ego … so when Arati insists that he should apologize for his lack of respect to her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith (Vicky Redwood), he turns pained, exasperated, flabbergasted and enraged. Finally, very politely, he tells her that she must quit.

MahanagarMakeUpAs Arati is leaving, she meets Subrata in the staircase. She’s weeping and inconsolable because she’s let down the family, but her husband applauds her courage (which he so badly lacked). The old love returns, the suspicion and the shame fades away … and the couple looks at the sky-scrapers of the big city (Mahanagar) of Calcutta.

“Surely, we’ll find at least one job”, Arati says. “We’ll find two jobs”, Subrata tells her as he finally accepts her decision to work.

Seeing the film there were many moments when I was overcome: The small house, the considerable poverty, the sense of helplessness, the frustrated father going out to meet his old (now successful) students and virtually begging for help in cash and kind. Some of us are old enough to have seen, and perhaps lived, through those times. Even today so much of India is still like that.

MahanagarMakeUp2In spite of so many wonderful performances, this is Madhabi’s film. You can’t stop being amazed at her wonderful transformation from a timid housewife to a supremely confident working woman. Her face displays such an amazing array of emotions that you are mesmerized. Madhabi is truly a remarkable and sensuous woman. I would choose Madhabi to be my favorite Bengali actress any day … unless Suchitra Sen comes along.

 

Aranyer Din Ratri

ADRPosterI don’t know how much longer we’ll see films on DVD (perhaps many of us have already stopped seeing DVDs), but I won’t regret the DVD’s demise. The bloody disks misbehave often, and most annoyingly.

That’s why I missed Aparna Sen’s fleeting appearance in Aranyer Din Ratri (1969), but I saw enough of Sharmila Tagore … and what I saw was pleasing and satisfying.

Ok, here’s the quick outline: Four young men from Kolkata, fighting the tensions of the big city, drive away to a forest in Bihar to shed their inhibitions and briefly leave behind their tribulations. And, out there in the woods, a great deal happens.

ADRSoumSharAsim (Soumitra Chatterjee) has a good job (also a good car) and seems to be confident and successful. But he is carrying his hurt with modern Kolkata girls even since his lady love ditched him. Thankfully he’ll probably get the lovely Aparna (Sharmila Tagore) in the end because she scribbled her 6-digit Kolkata phone number for him on a one-rupee note … and because she was almost surely overcome after seeing the tall and handsome Asim – first bathing by the well and then up to ridiculous drunken antics on the road in the heat of the night.

ADRWellSanjoy (Shubhendu Chatterjee) is a babu. He’s literary, sensitive, but a middle class darpok. The sort of guy likely to walk away confused and bewildered when a beautiful lady, adorned with full bridal finery, tries to seduce him. Sanjoy is also the sort of guy who will rush for cover if two young ladies inadvertently pass by while he’s bathing in public.

Hari (Samit Bhanja) is a modest cricketer who’s also lost Atasi, the girl he loves (a grievous loss, because Atasi is played by Aparna Sen). But he’s no Virat Kohli because his body urgently needs toning, and he looks very likely to doze off while fielding at first slip. His consolation prize is Duli, a Santhal tribal girl (Simi Garewal).

ADRDrunkFinally there’s Sekhar (Robi Ghosh). A charming and amiable young man incapable of earning a rupee on his own, but eminently capable of gambling with borrowed money (and losing). But he can hold his drink well, speak bad English with aplomb and flaunt an ugly paunch without shame – even though he is extremely careful to show up clean-shaven (with a borrowed blade of course) when invited for breakfast by the gracious family they meet next door.

Then there’s Sadashiv Tripathi (Pahari Sanyal) playing Aparna’s father (curiously the duo played father-daughter in the Hindi film Aradhana released around the same time). Sadashiv is well-to-do, owns a beautiful country house (once surrounded by wild animals), dotes on his grandson and sings kirtans (rather well) to hide the grief and trauma after his married son committed suicide. He is also influential, and successfully intervenes when the reckless foursome is about to be ejected from the guest house for bribing the housekeeper.

ADRGameAparna is from all accounts self-assured, clever, well-read … but doesn’t want to be the Kolkata socialite that Atasi was. She’s hiding her own grief too behind that veneer of poise and confidence. But she’s sensitive enough to lose that word game when she realizes that it must challenge Asim’s abhimaan.

ADRKaberiFinally there’s Jaya (Kaberi Bose) in a pivotal role as Sadashiv’s widowed daughter-in-law. She’s such a natural, oozes immense charm, laughs with vivacity … but, if you truly observe her, she’s acting all this out to camouflage her grief and her loneliness. I absolutely loved her, and was shocked to see the scene in which she tries to entice Sanjoy in the evening’s fading light over a hot cup of coffee.

DuliDaruAnd finally there’s Duli, the Santhal woman who seems intent on getting drinking non-stop. She eventually ends up sleeping with Hari in the woods – in exchange for just five rupees. This tryst leaves Hari with a bloody nose and fractured body, albeit for a different reason. That’s not likely to make him a better cricketer, but it might make him a better man. For him, like for his mates, this excursion was truly an eye-opener.

Kaberi Bose died, aged 38, on February 18, 1977, in a car accident while returning from Darjeeling.

 

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