Cinema in India, has a long tradition of celebrating the idea of family, the basic unit of society. Even though the protagonists as well as the antagonists of most popular films stand out as individuals at the centre of almost each frame, their roots in the family are brought across directly or as an indirect reference, in the least. That being said, the commercial paradigm of Bengali cinema is traditionally known to highlight individuals distantly related, when it comes to portraying family dynamics on screen. Perhaps it is influence of the author Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay since the early days of the New Theatres’ era, has a bearing to this tell-tale mark. What Sarat Chandra did was to introduce the extended family members into the crux of his stories, which were soon adapted for screen and then re-adapted umpteen times in all these years. The usual habit of Bengalis to term the cinema as boi (book) probably stemmed either from the affinity with literature or from the fact that the audience is well aware of the narrative through reading, before the story/novel hit the screen.
Family, as depicted in Bengali mainstream films, is often a large one with a patriarch at the centre, or a woman who on behalf of the patriarch reigns supremely over other members. Rebels emerge from them when one/two member(s) of the family become economically stable and claim a larger share than they are assigned to. Their apprehension about the existing scheme of things and attempts to mitigate such conflicts form the drama, which the audience consume with moist eyes. However, since the 1990s, a new reality overwhelmed the conventional idea of Bengali families, like the rest of the country. The seed had been sown earlier, when ‘better education’ and ‘career’ became the watchwords among rural and semi-urban gentry. With liberalization, the process was almost complete – the accomplished family members preferred to wing by the centripetal force and settled as nuclear unit in apartments which now dominate our city architecture. While they enjoy the comparative freedom and material comforts, nostalgia creeps in unsuspectedly. Consumption of Bengali films became more retrospective in nature grappling with the idea of boi.
Since his copyrighting days in one of the leading advertising agencies, Rituparno had concentrated on understanding the psyche that makes Bengalis more brooding rather than exuberant. Being an avid watcher of films too, he became a good student of nuanced storytelling with which some of the milestones of Bengali films were made – those of Satyajit Ray, Rajen Tarafdar, Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Ajoy Kar, Asit Sen et al. With an extraordinary command over the Bengali language, he developed the skill of writing scenes and dialogues that touched chords of enlightened bhodro Bengali mind. Since his second film, ‘Unishe April’ (1994), loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Autumn Sonata (1978) hit the screen, the emergence of brand Rituparno became evident.
Unlike the histrionics in the name of drama, which was a trend then, he could engage his audience with subtle and nuanced performances in the framework of some well-knit narratives with a contemporary point of view. His audience started looking forward to how Rituparno would be breaking the stereotypes while delving into inter-personal relationships in his forthcoming films. Even though he failed at times, Rituparno took up the challenge again when he ventured for ‘Utsab’, his sixth film.
‘Utsab’, with the Durga Puja right at its centre, keeps the time and space of the film linear and specific. We see the onset of a five-day festival celebrated in austerity at one of those palatial houses away from the city standing as the remnant of its lost glory. Joy, one of the younger boys with a newly acquired video camera captures the déjà vu of Bumba, the youngest one who is intrigued by the stories the elderly idol-maker concocted from both myths and his own imaginations. Joy, who too must have encountered such bafflement as a child, can now distance himself from the confusions that the divinity imprints on innocence. He meanders through the house capturing the relics as well as moments in the tape, with an aim to cherish those moving images later as an escapade from his imminent career-driven path in another reality far away.
While Rituparno establishes this hankering at the outset, he is out to explore more. As Joy’s camera suddenly discovers Shampa in its frame, we as audience sense the desire palpable amid the young boy and girl. Unfettered, Rituparno goes ahead and composes dialogues which hint a pretext to touch each other. Joy dares to extend his hand, which Shampa rejects more with wistfulness rather than denial. The tension thus surpasses the nephew-niece bonding and treads into the incestuous zone. To Rituparno’s credit, this tension becomes a dominant subtheme of the film and thereby lends it a dimension, which filmmakers in the subcontinent hardly dare to step in. While incest remained not so uncommon thing among the large Hindu Bengali families under one roof since the past, stories and narratives often bypassed its mention as a bitter nothing. The concerned ones are often those like Joy’s mother Parul, who too carries this forbidden tinge since her young days and continues to suffer the pain and even the mere implication of it. She regrets it and resists its blossoming in her son, albeit in vein.
Love, for Rituparno, is not something to conceal, but to rejoice. In his penultimate film ‘Chitrangada’ (2012) his decisiveness about such feeling became evident when he subtitled it as ‘The Crowning Wish’. For him, ‘love’ in multifarious forms, can actually be a driving force to make a person mature enough to withstand its tumultuous churning. ‘Utsab’ (2000) can be considered as the first film where he stepped out to chart the progress of two incestuous loves in the same family. While the mother denies it vehemently to keep her marriage alive, the son discovers it within, confronts it and finally comes to term to live with its pain. In the later part of ‘Utsab’ we see Parul burst out. As her pent up misgivings about her mother, husband as well as brothers are spelt out, it is the son who consoles his mother to everybody’s amazement and encourages her to live with its mixed intensity, like he does.
During these post-lockdown days, when the Television keeps on blaring cacophony throughout the entire evenings, when entertainment and news compete with each other, the idea of homecoming loses much of its appeal. As the bubbles we call home seem to explode with daily aural and visual torture, revisiting Rituparno’s ‘Utsab’ is indeed a welcome change. At a time when flesh shows and expletives are common in the Bengali screen, we surely miss a writer of his calibre who can rise above the mundane and bring the warmth and intricacy in portraying complex emotions and silent struggles inherent in everyday lived reality.
Family in its traditional sense is still a favourite subject among the popular Bengali filmmakers. While the audience liked films like Anjan Dutta’s ‘Dutta vs Dutta’ (2012), Aparna Sen’s ‘Gaynar Baksho’ (2013), Nandita Roy & Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s ‘Bela Seshe’ (2015), these films hardly equal the charm Rituparno brought to screen in ‘Utsab’. 21 years ago, Rituparno unfolded the layers deftly which the Bengali families concealed in the name of ‘dignity’. Rituparno explored the uncharted terrains of human relationships keeping the family at the centre. Unfortunately, his brand of family-centricity has now become a mere template which Bengali screen-writers and filmmakers safely use to cover up their trite storytelling devoid of new and bold point of view of their own.
In the techno-age today, when an all-pervasive practice of carpeting the faults in the scripts and in the film directions under deafening surround sound is common, the subtlety and restrain in the usage of sound and music in ‘Utsab’ is noteworthy. Rituparno never lets his camera go outside the house in the film. And yet, the film expands its soundscape for the audience, who become aware of a world outside where a local club nearby celebrates the Durga Puja in parallel. Its existence is established by a rare sensibility with occasional announcements and songs coming through the loudspeakers. Towards the end of the film, when Arun and Keya reconcile and become intimate at their bed, the flare of fireworks seen through the window marks the bisorjon (immersion) procession outside. Such optimisation of resources to establish the house in a general ambience of grand festival is exemplary to say the least.
With ‘Abohoman’ (2009), Rituparno Ghosh, it can be argued, had reached his creative pinnacle. Yet, ‘Utsab’ can well be considered an important milestone among memorable Bengali films which is marked by his dare to subvert the sanitized mindset with such an evocative narrative of sexual desire and thus enriching the changing perspective of looking at the middle-class bhodro Bengali world.
Satyabrata Ghosh is a Kolkata based screenwriter who often writes articles on cinema in newspapers and magazines. He hopes to make his own film soon.