“Your Honour, as my first witness, I would like call to the witness box, a dead body”
And thus began a court case, which ran for 16 years, and etched its place in history for the astonishing absurdity of its premise. The famed Bhawal Sanyasi court case, as documented in academician Partha Chatterjee’s book “A Princely Imposter?” is transformed into a saga of grandeur, love, betrayal and spirituality by Srijit Mukherjee, as Jisshu U Sengupta delivers his career-best performance as the ascetic king, who fought for his identity.
Any Bengali, worth his salt, would have heard about the infamous Bhawal case while growing up. Srijit Mukherjee in his adaptation, has named the estate ‘Bikrampur’ instead. Mahendra Kumar Choudhuri, the middle prince of the estate, was a man who lived two lives (in his own words) – one who lived a life of lascivious luxury on one hand and played the part of guardian angel for his subjects on the other. He was affected by syphilis and was taken to Darjeeling for treatment along with his wife, Chandrabati Devi, brother-in-law, Satya, and a family doctor, Ashwini. He apparently died in Darjeeling and was cremated there as well. After 12 years, a Sanyasi shows up at the estate, arousing people’s curiosity and leading to a rumour that he is the lost prince of the Bikrampur Estate. What follows is a 16 year long case, which is the foundation of this grand saga.
From the word go, the film charms its way into your hearts – with the breathtaking cinematography by Gairik Sarkar, the muted colour palate (black and white for the court scenes, a brilliant thought), astoundingly real make-up (the heart of the film – Jisshu has 4 different looks in the film) and soul-stirring music. “Esho Hey” remains the lingering theme throughout the film, and the mesmerising use of the classical instruments keeps the tune lingering in your ears for hours ever since.
Srijit Mukherjee deserves a huge praise for the intricate detailing that’s gone into designing each frame. The aura of erstwhile Bengali Zamindari household has been brought to life with elan. The accent (coached by Jaya Ahsan) did not seem forced, and gave the film a touch of incredulous realism. The production design is top-notch; a production of this scale was unprecedented in Bengali cinema. One must commend SVF for believing in this film.
What makes Srijit Da endearing to his fans is his intelligent writing – and he doesn’t disappoint in this magnum opus either. Agreed, the film does not have a lot of witty one-liners, or abstract references to other literature or films, like his other works. But, it connects directly your heart, with its captivating narration. Truth, they say is stranger than fiction. And in this case, there are many layers to it, which make this court case no less than a thrilling adventure in the Himalayas.
It goes without saying that such a majestic premise would require actors of repute for cementing the rock-solid foundation. As I mentioned earlier, Jisshu Sengupta as the prince, fills the screen with such an aura that you cannot take eyes away from him. Anirban Bhattacharya, as his scheming brother-in-law puts up a splendid performance, which makes him endearing to the core. Jaya Ahsan, as Mrinmayi Devi, the prince’s favourite sister, steals the show with her effortless, emphatic performance.
Among the notable others, are the lawyer duo, Anjan Dutt and Aparna Sen, who add life to the courtroom with their spirited debates; they have a backstory too. Going beyond the case of identity of the Mahendra Choudhuri, they fight their own battles in the courtroom – one of nationalistic pride against British rule, and another against the patriarchal foundation of the society. The two women in the prince’s life – his wronged and neglected wife Chandrabati (Rajnandini Paul) and the courtesan Kadambini (Sreenanda Shankar) essay their parts to perfection. Rudranil Ghosh, as the doctor, had a pivotal presence throughout.
Ek Je Chhilo Raja, is different from Srijit Mukherjee’s other films, but also bears his signature style of filmmaking throughout. Undoubtedly, among his best five works till date, the film provokes you into introspection. It works because, at heart, it bears allegiance to a prophetic dialogue from Srijit Da’s last film – “Golpo ta bole jete hobe. Ekjon dorshoker jonyo holeo bolte hobe. Golpo bolai amader kaaj.”
My Rating: 4/5 stars
DISCLAIMER: ALL IMAGES USED IN THIS POST HAVE THEIR RESPECTIVE COPYRIGHTS
It is no secret now that Uma is based on the real life story of Evan Leversage, a terminally ill Canadian boy whose wish to see another Christmas prompted his townspeople to bring the festivities forward by months. In the film, Uma is a terminally-ill Bengali girl, who lives with her father in Switzerland. Having heard tales of the grandeur of Durga Pujo in Kolkata, she has been yearning to visit the city of her roots to immerse herself in the autumnal festive fervour.
Having ignored this wish for years, Uma’s father finally gives in to her wish when he learns she only has two more months to survive. But Durga Pujo is a festival held in October. And Uma may not survive beyond May or June. So, her father moves mountains so that her dying wish can be fulfilled. Uma is the story of this journey, where a father, determined to gift his daughter all the happiness in the world, battles all odds to create ‘Durga Pujo’ in April.
Rituparno Ghosh had adapted a western novel into a Bengali setting so well in ‘Shubho Mahurat’ that I had decided it was the ultimate benchmark of internalisation of a concept into our culture. Srijit Mukherjee not only matches that standard, but outdoes his ‘Sir’ with élan. Imagining Christmas as Durga Pujo is just the tip of the iceberg. The beauty of his intricate detailing lies in the names of the characters. Uma’s parents are named Himadri and Menoka. The director who takes charge of creating the grand Pujo illusion is named Brahmananda. His art director is Bishwakarma, the person responsible for crowds is Lokeshwari and the light management is the forte of Arka Ray.
Then there is Himadri’s friend Barun, who creates artificial rain in one scene. His wife is aptly named Neera. There is a ‘guest’ actor who plays an errant officer of CESC, responsible for electricity. No prizes for guessing, his name is Indro. Then there is Gajanan, who’s penned an entire ‘Mahabharat’ for the script and Gobindo, who takes care of all arrangements. The icing on the cake – the anti-hero, Hindu fundamentalist who tries to foil the preparations is named Mahitosh Sur. Only a brilliant mind could fit in the entire Hindu mythology associated with Durga Pujo, into the 2018 setting.
Srijit Da’s detailing is even more enunciated in the introductory scene of Brahmananda. On the walls of his home hang posters of films he directed – Nirbashito (signifying the exile he is in), Meghe Dhaka Tara (the unrequited talent) and Autograph (which was a film about an eclipsed film star trying to make a mark). In fact, this film belongs as much to Brahmananda, as it does to Uma and her father. Anjan Dutt outdoes his performance in Nirbaak and Chitrangada to make us realise what a talent Bengali directors have wasted all these years.
Sara Sengupta mesmerises in her debut performance. She has the quirky persona of her mother and the gravitas of her father. A new star is born. Her chemistry with her (on and off-screen) father Jisshu, makes you yearn to go give your parents a big hug, and say ‘thank you’.
Uma has an ensemble cast that packs a powerful performance throughout. Rudrnail Ghosh, Ambarish Bhattacharya, Abhijit Guha, Neel Mukherjee are all clogs of the giant wheel – the ten hands of Maa Durga, who make anything happen, just for the smile on Uma’s face. And despite the personal dislike for Babul Supriyo, the politician, I have no qualms admitting that he shines as the Bihari goonda, who has a change of heart ultimately (specially so, because his only record of acting is in a terrible remake of Uttam Kumar’s last film).
Anirban Bhattacharya deserves credit for his stern, hate-filled, bigoted act that melts in a moment of emotional transformation into a loving father-figure. Just like Mahisasur had surrendered himself to Durga, just before the Goddess slayed the buffalo demon. Srabanti, who plays Mariam, an actor roped in to play mother to Uma, when she returns to Kolkata, is her usual best. Uma’s real mother, played by Sayantika, struck a chord in the few scenes she appeared.
Supporting the cast in equal measure were the songs composed by Anupam Roy and the background score by Neel Dutt. Shoumik Haldar’s photography needs no separate mention. There are scenes in Switzerland, where you automatically shout ‘wow’ or ‘jiyoh’ and want the scene to freeze so you can keep staring at the visuals.
After all that praise, a little note on what I felt I would have done differently. While retaining the character of Indro as the CESC officer, I would have changed his backstory (ektu playing to the gallery hoye gelo na?). Also, the happy ending at Babughat, where Brahmananda meets his estranged wife, was a bit far-fetched. Talking of the grand climax at Babughat, I would have also ended the film right where the camera panned out of the banks, giving us an aerial view of what the city is capable of achieving, if she wishes to. Himadri finding out that Uma knew about her mother, could have come in Nabami itself, making Bijoya sweeter.
Having said that, this was Srijit Da’s film and he envisioned it in a certain way. It is not my business to pass judgments about how he brings up his baby. This is a very personal film and the effort shows in every scene. As I had tweeted earlier, Srijit Da’s dad must be very proud.
What defines a good film? This is a question that has divided the society for long. For some, it is an escape from the motley of practical world. For some, it is a medium of mass movement. For some, it is just a means of making money.
Why do I watch films? Because they help me survive, one day at a time. And, Srijit Mukherjee’s films have always been that elixir that helped me gain a new perspective of the world. Uma, surely is one of the crowning jewels in Srijit Da’s box office offerings so far.
My Rating: Emotions cannot be rated
P.S. – The end credits with Evan’s photos choked me to tears.
DISCLAIMER: ALL IMAGES USED IN THIS POST HAVE THEIR RESPECTIVE COPYRIGHTS