When a horse ceases to trot properly it’s put to sleep. But what is to be done with a filmmaker who loses the plot so completely that you wonder if an imposter has directed a film credited to director who once was illustrious.
Some such thoughts passed through my troubled head as I watched Aparna Sen– once the queen of all she surveyed now reduced to a mocking shadow of her original self–make a fool of herself in her latest Bangla work Arshinagar.
Arshinagar is not just another clumsy and cringe-worthy Bangla film that sets goals for itself that it fails meet even half-way. It marks the last rungs in the creative decline of an artiste who once created the exquisite ode to old age and loneliness 36 Chowringhee Lane , and that film about a staid housewife torrid liaison with a bohemian photojournalist in Paroma.
Soon after, the prolonged season of decline set into Aparna Sen’s career with films that didn’t seem to live up to the initial promise at all. A scaling-down in creative vision that has now halted with a thud that Ms Sen would find hard to live down.
Arshinagar is a Broadway-styled musical version of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet done in colours that would be considered a criminal offence in some countries if worn on dresses. The whole idea is to make a big broad musical that old Shakespeare would get all gung-ho about. What we get in Arshinagar is a travesty of Shakespearean proportions with performances that range from the bewilderingly broad to the banefully bland.
Early on we see a puppeteer(Swagata Mukherjee) who later transforms into Juliet’s nurse and comfidnte. Such mergers of illusory connecting lines in the plot are achieved with all the delicacy of a halwai who weaves jalebis into his simmering kadhai .
In her eagerness to subvert Shakespeare Aparna Sen has blanked out the play’s basic core-strength…of two innocent people falling in love while their families are at a war to the finish. While Newcomer Rittika Sen who plays Juliet is tolerable in her blankness, Dev who plays Ms Sen’s Romeo is a disaster . He looks so awkwardly wannabe as the rock-star version of the lover-boy(singing songs that even a 5-year old boy would not compose seriously) that you pray for him to stop embarrassing himself in scene after scene written to destroy his self-esteem.
But no. For a good 2 hours of the 2 hour 30 minute playing time Dev mouths couplets that no self-respecting actor would be caught dead chanting unless he wants to snuff out his career in one stroke.
It’s not just a case of competent actors playing ridiculous role badly. They get no support from the technicians either. The music and their lyrics are meant to convey the film’s cross-cultural romantic scramble of Hindu boy in love with a Muslin girl to a grand finale. What we get is a frightfully flat finish.The mixture of Bangla and Urdu is so deplorably disengaged that the songs sing like limericks meant to excite peacocks during the mating season.
The film has its share of capable actors. Roopa Ganguly, for example whose role as Tybal’s mother shows sparks of rare comprehension of what Aparna Sen wants(even Sen herself doesn’t know the anwer that). But Ganguly’s attempts to create a coherent mythology for her character in a world hellbent on self-destruction are lost in translation. Jisshu Sen Gupta’s Tybalt is menacing and even sexually depraved (he is shown inappropriately touching at least two female characters) , Jisshu’s act too reveals an actor at the crest of his power being constantly weighed down by a script that thinks bringing rhyming couplets and musical pieces into the frame would qualify her as Bengal’s Baz Luhrmann.
In one song and dance that breaks out with the suddenness of unseasonal arins during a harvest feast.Tragically , Arshinagar is no Moulin Rouge. And the attempt to render Romeo & Juliet into a Brodway musical is so broad and tacky you wonder what got into the director to even attempt such a ludicrous liaison of lyricism and theatrics!
One can perhaps forgive the awful acting and the incoherent music score. But the sheer wastage of the legendary Waheeda Rehman’s talent is unforgivable. Watching her struggle with her role of Daadijaan , the Muslim matriarch mouthing lines written in cheap metrical panegyric, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that this timeless actress could have played Juliet most effectively 60 years ago, provided Guru Dutt had directed and Dilip Kumar had played Romeo.
And Waheeda Rehman would have not had to mouth lines about ‘patli potty’ that Aparna Sen gives her poor Juliet to do.
Seriously , with Aparna’s daughter Konkona Sen Sharma all set to make her directorial debut it may be time for the mother to hang her boots.