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Movie Review: Zulfiqar by Srijit Mukherjee

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Adaptation (noun) is a film, television drama, or stage play that has been adapted from a written work. Since art is subjective and personal, written words get a new meaning in the new medium. While the central theme remains intact, the setting and interpretation infuse new life to the text. Thus, Romeo and Juliet become warlords in a remote village of Gujarat or Hamlet turns up as a misguided freedom fighter in Kashmir.

In Srijit Mukherjee’s Zulfiqar, we get a slice of Rome in the dock area of Kolkata; Senate turns into Syndicate and Caesar falls not because Brutus loved Rome more but because Bashir Khan prided himself for being a ‘desh bhakt’.

Recreating a play that was staged in Europe in the sixteenth century in the context of socio-economic politics of a miniscule region of a metropolis is no mean feat and Srijit Mukherjee passes with flying colours – Zulfiqar (Caesar) is the Robin Hood-esque leader of the dock area; his growing popularity is a cause of concern for the syndicate. Kashinath (Cassius), a don turned promoter, hatches a plan to cut Zulfiqar to size. But without Brutus (Bashir)’s support the plan cannot materialise. Hence the Conspirators appeal to Bashir’s patriotism (with forged documentation and hacked emails), forcing the ‘honourable man’ to betray his friend.

Zulfiqar’s death is avenged by his trusted lieutenants Marcus and Tony (an intelligent digression from the original text; while Marcus is a fighter who is romantic at heart, Tony is the man who manages the finances of the Syndicate. Clearly, Srijit Mukherjee chose to distinguish between Mark Antony, the scheming worrior whose loyalty we witness in Julius Caesar, from the Antony who falls in love with Cleopatra). The Triumvirate of Akhtar (Octavius), Laltu Das (Lepidus, a corrupt policeman in the film) and Marcus-Tony take down the conspirators. However, the greed for power, naked ambition and distrust bring down the Triumvirate too as Akhtar establishes his control over the syndicate business.

Little nuances throughout the film embolden the reason why Srijit Mukherjee is considered one of the few intelligent filmmakers in Bengal. Queen Cleopatra (Rani Tolapatra)’s Egypt becomes ‘Blue Nile’ bar in the film. To give credence to Calpurnia (Karishma)’s premonitions, she is established as a drug addict with agrophobia. While Shakespeare used long monologues to establish Brutus’s love for Rome, Srijit Da introduced a sub-plot of terrorists seeking safe haven in the area ruled by syndicate.

The scene where Caesar’s ghost appears before Brutus is one of the masterpieces in cinema – the tranquil waters of Rangit (resembling deceased Zulfiqar’s state of mind) stand a stark contrast to the turbulent waters of Teesta (portraying the conflict within Bashir’s mind). The beautiful locale of Triveni (one of my favourite spots in north Bengal) only add to the visual opulence.

Obviously, the film has its flaws. The flawless Bengali diction of predominantly Hindi speaking characters come across as strange in some scenes. Also, why would a mob in a Hindi/Urdu speaking area get incensed by a speech made in predominantly English (interspersed with broken Hindi)? Julius Caesar stands out for Mark Antony’s speech in Act III; the one in the film, though impassioned, lacked punch.

The reason why Zulfiqar will be a cult film in Bengali film history is because a genre of cinema is born in this part of the world. Underworld and gang wars had hitherto been unexplored in Bengali cinema and we finally have a mainstream movie that has taken gangsters beyond the mindless pot-bellied villains with horrific hair who are beaten black and blue by the angelic heroes. In fact, Srijit Da has written the scenes as if he were staging the play on silver screen; this really is a fresh approach to telling a story.

Srijit Mukherjee has in the past redefined actors in his films. From Prosenjit (Autograph) to Rituparna Sengupta (Rajkahini) we have seen how mainstream actors broke free from their moulds to essay characters that will forever be etched in the minds of viewers. Zulfiqar gives us Dev and Ankush. Dev has silenced all his critics and trolls with his portrayal of Marcus. The feeling of angst, betrayal, failed love and jealousy in his eyes in his last scene was so intense, only a seasoned actor could have pulled it off. Ankush effortlessly transforms from the soft lover-boy who loves his music to the ambitious heir who not only seeks revenge for the death of his uncle but finishes off all his competitors without even batting an eyelid.

Jishu Sengupta as Kashinath kept reminding me of Maganalal Meghraj from Joy Baba Felunath. Only an actor of calibre can deliver a performance so monstrous! Kaushik Sen surprises in his avatar of tragic hero Bashir. Paoli Dam remains unexplored as Karishma (but I guess the scope of her character was limited). Nusrat adds the oomph as Rani Tolapatra (while succinctly displaying her inner conflict as she remains undecided till the end whether to choose love or social security; her suicide was also cleverly conceived).

Music has always been an important pillar of Srijit Mukherjee’s films and he does not disappoint in Zulfiqar either. The background score by Indraadip Dasgupta fitted the bill. Anupam Roy’s compositions were soothing as usual. Only one romantic track in the second half felt out of place in the narrative. Nachiketa’s haunting voice will keep you seated in the theatre till the last letter of the end credits fade from screen.

To sum up, when you are adapting a story that has been told many times, it is the freshness of storytelling that matters. That is why Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara clicks while Aparna Sen’s Arshinagar fizzes out. Srijit Mukherjee made Shakespeare’s play his own, and there he stands out in the crowd.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

DISCLAIMER: The Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights

 

Rebuttal to Rajkahini review on Bangla Live

The problem with a class of Bengalis is the blatant intellectual snobbery, the condescending attitude that they know more than the rest, that they are superior. Clearly they have not heard how knowledge brings with it a sense of humility. These select few are so accustomed to living in their bubble of ‘know-it-all’ that they sacrifice their creative side at the alter of ego. This exactly is the case with the writer of a review of the film ‘Rajkahini’ on a website called ‘Bangla Live’.

Criticism is always healthy but to tom-tom a ‘holier-than-thou’ air and scathingly pour out “emotions” for having watched the film sitting on the stairs of the theatre is taking things a bit too far. A not-very-fine line separates the personal from professional, the Bangla Live review was much of the former; it was evident.

In the very beginning the writer makes the assumption that most viewers of the film may not be very “knowledgeable” and only few “learned” people (like him, of course) would be privy to the fact that the opening sequence of the film was “ripped off” from a Manto story. Clearly, he does not have the patience to read the opening credits where the director clearly outlined the sequence was an adaptation of “Khol Do”. In fact, Manto’s name figured in the list of acknowledgements too.

He also has a problem with the portrayal of the prostitutes. Too elitist and classy, he thinks. Of course, why not. Brothels have to be like Sonagachhi – delinquent, dark, dingy, dirty. How dare a lady who was raised in Bengal and became a kothewali in Lucknow speak Urdu interspersed with Bangla (with north Indian accent)? How can a prostitute trained in Lucknow have class? How dare prostitutes have fair skin?!

The third problem the knowledgeable reviewer had with the film was the overt depiction of sexuality. Clearly, Srijit Mukherjee is at fault here. How dare Mr Director think that he can depict the sexual desires of women? Women can NOT have any desire. They must only serve. That too prostitutes? How dare they. They must only sell their bodies in lieu of money. Women do NOT masturbate; it is the fiefdom of men. To even suggest they do is sacrilege.

Might I add here the bone of contention – lesbian relationship. Even another friend of mine said it was useless sub-plot that was left in the cold. While I agree the relationship had enormous scope, it was not justified on screen. But useless? No. This film is all about people in minority. Fringe. ‘Prantik manush’ as I understand it. The lesbian love is symbolic. People of all castes, creed, sexuality were affected by partition and everyone’s story needed to be told.

Then there was reference to a scene (which was one of my favourites in the film) between Zoya Ahsan and Rudranil Ghosh. He thought it was useless sexualisation of women. I thought it was oft-told tragedy of women with a touch of empathy. There lies difference of opinion. Despite having limited knowledge of film craft, I loved the sequence for its camera angles, use of colours, the setting and above all the heart-wrenching performances.

The reviewer also wondered why Rudranil’s cremation was shot on a huge rock in the middle of the river, so away from the kotha… Agree. But then, what if Rubina wanted Sujan’s last rites to be held at the spot where they spent many afternoons in each other’s company?

Having said that, the knowledgeable reviewer did point out some minor inconsistencies. Like the setting. Haldibari is not arid and neither does it have hillocks as shown in the film. But to discredit an entire narrative for this flaw? I would not do so. There was no continuity in the scenes between Mountbatten and Radcliffe. But then again, these are minor aberrations – highlighting these would be missing the larger picture.

The chase sequence at the butcher market also raised eyebrows. Why were carcasses and goat meat hanging in the middle of night in a closed market? I had the same question. The most logical explanation to me was they were metaphorical to make the tragedy that was about to unfold even more gruesome! In a way those carcasses depict how mercilessly butchers slice innocent animals, just like Kabir was about to do with Sujan.

Finally the burning question – how a bunch of prostitutes who were the champions of feminism throughout the film decided to perform Jauhar in the end. I was perplexed. The look on Begum Jaan’s face as she shut the door of the kotha was that of pride and victory. Feminism had won. Where is the paradox? Begum Jaan or her girls did not surrender to the enemy. They breathed their last in the very house they fought for. Again, Aban Thakur’s Rajkahini was a metaphor here. What perturbed me was that Thamma was alive and well to read passages from a book as fire raged on. But then, cinema is all about taking liberties.

In the end, my humble submission to everyone who reads this piece would be to learn more about film craft, definitely. Yours truly himself loves reading. But never let your knowledge get the better of you. Debate, discuss, deliberate. Never condescend. Comprehend, instead. Filmmaking after all is a director’s personal art. You may have different ideas but that does not necessitate spewing canards.

Thus, when the reviewer on Bangla Live contends Rajkahini is Srijit Mukherjee’s “nikrishto tomo” film, I object. In terms of scope, subject, writing and overall performances, the growth of Srijit Da as a director was evident. A film of this scale needed to be made in Bengal. This story needed to be told.

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