Pratim D. Gupta is a full-time film critic with The Telegraph and a part-time screenwriter. Well, part-time till his film gets made. Based in Kolkata, he closely tracks Bengali film industry’s every intelluctual, pseudo-intelluctual and aantel (ask your bong friend. There is no english word for this one) move. So where does Aparna Sen’s latest film Iti Mrinalini fits in? Scroll down and read on…
Disclaimer: I don’t know why I am writing this piece. In an industry where scratching backs is the only way forward and where every film is a classic and every performance award-winning, one online rant really matters very little. Unlike Bollywood where good films and bad films, moneymaking films and praiseworthy films all have their own space, Bengali cinema is going through this incredible phase where you have to laud at everything and anything up there on screen. If you do not comply, you are against the growth and prosperity of Bengali cinema. “How dare you? Just because your script hasn’t got funding, you are badmouthing other films!” Honestly, I can’t help myself. I refuse to be party to this mogojdholai (brainwashing). So you can have your own conspiracy theories but I have my own views and I will stick by them. And no I didn’t like Iti Mrinalini. You too have a choice — close the window at this stage or read on.
What goes wrong with Aparna Sen? She makes a brilliant film and follows it up with something so ordinary, you start wondering how could she have possibly made that earlier great movie? One of the frequently asked questions in Bengali movie circles that has refused to die: Did Ray ghost direct 36 Chowringhee Lane? You watch Mr & Mrs Iyer, Paromita’r Ek Din and The Japanese Wife and you know the answer. You watch Yuganto, Sati and 15 Park Avenue and you are not so sure about your answer.
The problem is not just with inconsistency. There are many great directors whose great films are punctuated with not-so-great films. It is the sheer ordinariness of some of Aparna Sen’s films that really complicates the situation. You look at every nook and corner of the frame hoping to spot that Rina-di touch and your disappointment mounts by the minute till the time you want to throw up your hands and leave the theatre.
Sen, along with Rituparno Ghosh, has been the so-called custodian of the modern Bengali woman on celluloid. Her fantastic domestic femmefatales are independent, self-sufficient beings who manage to emerge on top of every challenge that men (and society) have thrown at them. From Paroma to Paromita. Sen herself in the 1970s was this ultimate epitome of everything that was new and clutterbreaking about the Bengali woman ultimately leading to her print revolution, as editor of Sananda.
Mrinalini is a wimp! A namby-pamby, a maudlin… such a waste of human life, that I do not want to watch her wet — strictly tears — life on screen for two hours. I do not care which bits of that life are fictional and which bits are from Sen’s own life, the life is dull, boring and flaccid. She fell in love with a boy in college who was a Naxal and got shot down, she then fell for her director who had a wife and two kids and was never really interested to set up a home with his kept and their daughter, and then she developed feelings for a man who has a very sick wife at home and yet is always there by her side. As is evident, it’s always the men who call the shots in Mrinalini’s life, who is just a ping-pong ball in search of the net.
And this insipid biopic is narrated in the most archaic way possible — an unfinished letter, a bottle full of sleeping pills and lots and lots of glycerine! You get the drift?
The only mildly interesting bit of the film is Mrinalini’s daughter with her director lover Sid who she gives away to her Canada-based brother and sister-in-law but ensures that the girl spends the summer vacation with Pishi and Kaku. It is a unique relationship that these five people share where terms of endearment and lines of blood get beautifully blurred. But then the most important scene of the film, when the young girl Sohini reveals to Mrinalini that she already knows that Pishi is her real mother and Kaku her real father, is so lazily written and treated so matter-of-factly that the emotional fulcrum is not tampered. How can Mrinalini’s reaction line be: “When did this happen?” As if the date and time of the revelation is more important to her — clearly written with the audience in mind — than the fact that her daughter knows she is her daughter. Compare this scene with the heart-wrenching revelation scene between Irrfan and Kal Penn in the car in The Namesake and you know where the difference lies.
The script has no structure or build-up of any sort and have scenes that shouldn’t have ever made it to the screen. Towards the climax we have a scene between Mrinalini and her young director love Imtiaz which goes something like this… “Have the tea Imtiaz.” “I didn’t ask for tea.” “Now that the tea is here, have the tea.” “No.” “Will you have coffee then?” “I can have coffee. But black coffee.” After she has ordered the black coffee for him, she asks: “Have you studied in America?” “Why because I asked for black coffee?” “Something like that.”
And then the whole film is explained in one scene. “There are different types of love Minu,” says one of the men in her life. Ok alright, we get it! But Rina-di, have you seen Frida? That film conquered what you set out to achieve. Yes, it’s a biopic of a real person and obviously a far more fascinating person that Mrinalini but it has the same plot points comprising Frida Kahlo and the men in her life. And this feels really silly on my part to tell this to someone like you but just by giving voice to WHAT THE WOMAN WANTS, Frida becomes so bloody awesome. When her husband Diego Rivera learns that Frida has been unfaithful to him, he says: “You’ve broken my heart, Frida.” She gives it back to him: “It hurts doesn’t it? But why? It was just a fuck, like a handshake.” Mrinalini sadly has no venom or vermin.
The Rituparno effect on Aparna is quite telling in this film. The whole analogy to Karna-Kunti Sambad and Raktakarabi bears a strong whiff of Ghosh and company in the way literature is blended into the lives of the characters. Throughout Iti Mrinalini there is an attempt to attach importance to a subject which is obviously not that important. It’s not true to its genre, it tries to be An Aparna Sen film. The political events streaming in the background (Vishal Bhardwaj tried the same in 7 Khoon Maaf) and the baffling ending are the biggest examples. It wishes to leave you dumbfounded, just like the ending of 15 Park Avenue. It’s that last shot in the arm to elevate the film to something substantial but when it backfires – like it does here – it really does more harm to the film.
The only masterstroke of Iti Mrinalini is how Konkona Sen Sharma is asked to perform like Aparna Sen and not the other way round. They both play Mrinalini and Konkona has the lengthier role but yet she tries to ape Aparna. Because the director understands that the better actor should be given the difficult task. And while Konkona cannot possibly start looking like a young Aparna, her body language and especially her speech is ditto her real-life mother. Close your eyes in the theatres and you will know what an outstanding job Konkona has done in Iti Mrinalini.
All the other actors barring Aparna herself — these filmmakers who act really need someone else directing them, as was evident in Ranjana Aami Ar Ashbo Naa recently — are good. The deadly combo of Rajat Kapoor on screen and Anjan Dutt in the dubbing studio makes Sid such a believable character. Koushik Sen is so effective in the few scenes he has. Saheb impresses in his little cameo. Priyanshu has great presence but is saddled with such a strange character, he can only do that much. The late Somak Mukherjee shot Iti Mrinalini with a lot of pizzazz, especially that shot on the beach where the two women are chatting and the camera curls on the young girl sleeping on top of Rajat. Wish there was at least a hint of period detailing, though.
Iti Mrinalini is really a very weak and disappointing effort from Aparna Sen. But sometimes there comes a performance that becomes so much bigger than the movie it comes in that the ordinariness of the films takes a back seat. Konkona has always reserved her best acts for her mother’s films. And while her mother’s films have ranged from brilliant to bad, she has shone in all of them. Personally, I found this performance to be her best till date. Here neither did she have the superficial condiments embellishing a Mrs Iyer nor the free mind of a schizophrenic patient like Meethi. It’s just one of the best actresses of our countries at the top of her game.
But Rina-di, don’t you think Koko deserves better? And maybe we too?