“There is another world inside this one – no words can describe it.” – Rumi
Uma, one of Srijit Mukherji’s recent works, ends with an ode to Kolkata. What that 2 minute sequence elaborated in words, ‘Shah Jahan Regency’ does in frames, poetically shot, in the first and last scenes. From Parambrata (Rudra)’s monologue to ‘Jokhon Porbe Na More Payer Chinho” in Rupankar’s voice – one falls in love with the City of Joy all over again.
Change is the only constant in life – and what better can reflect on this constantly evolving mad rush of existence than a hotel? Guests arrive, guests go, but life goes on forever (sorry, Tennyson). Manishankar Mukhopadhyay tried to capture the essence of an ever-changing city through the highs and lows of a hotel in his novel ‘Chowringhee’. Seven decades later, Srijit Mukherji took on the mantle to write his love letter to the city in his film ‘Shah Jahan Regency’.
When I was walking in to the theatre, there was a lot of chatter among the crowd – who is playing Sata Bose, whether the film will live up to Utam Kumar’s magnum opus of the same name, and likewise. Although the director had made it amply clear that this is an adaptation of the novel in the 2019 context, comparisons with the 1960’s film were bound to arise.
That Srijit’s Shah Jahan is different, comes as a disclaimer right at the beginning when the protagonist Rudra declares his ‘Shah Jahan’ is Chowringhee’s reincarnation (jaatishwar; the reference to Srijit’s previous film, where he adapted another famous Uttram Kumar character, is unmissable). Thus the characters also sport different names here – Sata Bose is Sam (Sameeran). Karabi Guha becomes Kamalini. Marco Polo is Makaranda Pal. Mr and Mrs Pakrashi have become Mr and Mrs Sarkar here. Nityahari has become Nitty Gritty in the modern take, and we have a new character – Gayatri.
Like his other works, the dialogues bear the touch of intelligence, the signature-Srijit we are familiar with. Even the sub-titles are written with such care that anyone unfamiliar with quintessentially Bengali colloquialism won’t miss out on subtle references. So, when Rudra asks “Amar ekta prosno ache”, pat comes the reply “Ora kaanta benchhe khay” from Sam. Or that one character is jokingly referred to as ‘Shah Jahan’s Jahanara’. Brilliant is the word.
The sublime writing is complemented by the transcendent background score. In a contrast to the high-note orchestra, which we are accustomed to hearing in Srijit’s films, the score here is minimalistic. It is almost like a muted tassar saree that stands out in a crowd of Louis Vuitton and Gucci.
Shah Jahan Regency unfolds like the first spell of rain after a long hiatus. As chapters unfold, we are introduced to the characters. They have been sketched with the same tender care that a kumor would take while carving the goddess out of clay. The director humanises the hotel through the characters and the guests.
Essentially a chamber-drama inside a hotel, Shah Jahan Regency encapsulates the soul of the city and eases its way in the inner recesses of your heart. The performances never fail to tug at your heartstrings, sometimes leaving a rock-shaped hole in the crevices of the heart with their stellar act. In an ensemble, balancing storylines is often a tightrope walk, but in this film each character has a marked identity.
Parambrata impresses as Rudra, the out of work young man, who evolves into a skilled hospitality manager, thanks to the training he’s received from the efficient duty manager Sam (played equally emphatically by Abir Chatterjee). His entry into the hotel, and his chance encounter with Gayatri (Rituparna Sengupta), who plays classical instruments at the lobby, is a scene worth preserving in memory.
Even in the two-odd minutes of screentime, Sujoy Prasad expresses the angst of marginalised people in his monologue. The emotions behind the cold words are so palpable and relatable. Rittika Sen also does a sincere job in her role as the air hostess. Anjan Dutt and Mamata Shankar, too break their moulds to portray characters, which we have rarely seen them play. Anirban Bhattacharya, as the love-struck, romantic son of industrialist, reaches for your heart with his rendition of ‘Kichhu Chaini Ami’.
But the soul of the film belongs to Swastika Mukherjee. The hostess of a rich Marwari businessman, she is a permanent resident of Shah Jahan Regency, and often entertains guests in her suite. Whether it is the moral dilemma of extending favours as an escort, or the innate craving for love, in the mad where every customer desires her body, or the conviction of saying no to a prospective customer because her mind is not at peace – Swastika lives the character of Kamalini effusively.
The fate she chooses for herself can be debated – but the inherent poetry in her pain, and the heart-shattering beauty in her tragic last moments, will make you squirm with unease in your seats. I would have loved to see the film end with her track (and Samiran’s chapter before her). And then there is a the contrast – the soul of Shah Jahan – Gayatri, who resigns to her fate and moves on (signifying how heritage gives way to modernity, and one can only accept the new world order and continue to exist).
Overall, Shah Jahan Regency retains the essence of Shankar’s Chowringhee and the soul of Kolkata – the ever-changing, always-evolving, flowing bursts of change, and how things remain the same. As Rabindranath had once said, “অন্তরে অতৃপ্তি রবে, সাঙ্গ করি মনে হবে- শেষ হইয়াও হইলো না শেষ…” (it ends on a discerning note, you feel there is more to come. But alas, the curtain falls), you leave the theatre with a heavy heart, expecting more from life.
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Film Have Their Respective Copyrights
I had rated Rajkahini on my blog 4/5 stars – the film had moved me, left me in tears as the end credits rolled. So, when I walked into the theatre today to watch Begum Jaan, there was trepidation in my heart. It was almost like I’d be tested as an audience to what extent I can separate the Rajkahini experience from Begum Jaan. Might I say, Srijit Mukherjee made it very easy because the first sequence itself was starkly different from the theatrical adaptation of Manto’s work that Rajkahini began with. I was at ease and for the next 130 odd minutes became a part of the kotha on Indo-Pak border that fought independence for freedom.
While Rajkahini was set in Bengal, Begum Jaan is based in Punjab. Abanindranath Thakur’s Rajkahini played a significant role in the film, specially in the end; here Ila Arun’s character tells stories of feisty daughters of India (which were cleverly depicted by Vidya in the film). While the basic premise of the film remained the same as Rajkahini, there were many changes to the script – some good, some bad. The Connaught Place sequence was a fitting addition to the film. The additional scene between Gulabo-Rubina was emotive. Several characters have been given a closure in the end, another creative input.
Vidya Balan – my favourite actress for the last decade and a half – was originally approached for Rajkahini. I always wondered how different the film would’ve been with her (Rituparna Sengupta gave her career best performance as Begum Jaan, so no comparisons). She steals the show with her bold, gritted, fiery portrayal of the brothel owner who would go to any extent to save her vatan, her kotha.
Rubina (wonderfully portrayed by Joya Ehsan) was my favourite character from Rajkahini who had the most beautiful scene ever written in Bengali cinema in recent times. Gauhar Khan has done justice to the part. Also, the great Naseeruddin Shah gave gravity to a role which was oft not remembered from Rajkahini.
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the supporting cast. The sense of loss and vengeance was missing from Ilias and Srivastava. Even some scenes where half their faces were shown did not aesthetically look as good as they did with Saswata-Kaushik. Their chemistry was somehow lacking. Gulabo was expressionless when confronted with the ultimate betrayal. Chunkey Pandey as Kabir was menacing enough but did not evoke the same horror and hate as Jishu Sengupta did in Rajkahini.
I felt the narrative moved a bit fast, so we could not connect to these characters in totality. The Holi song was completely out of place and the background score did not do justice to several great scenes – like the manhunt in the butchers’ market. However, the climax choked me as usual. ‘Woh subah hum hee se ayegi’ was a great substitute for ‘Bharat Bhagyo Bidhata’ and the visuals would simply stupefy you into a state of forbearance.
And above all, the last visual you take home with you as you walk out after Begum Jaan – that look on Vidya’s face when she closes the door of the kotha, that look of victory but the sense of loss, juxtaposed with the fluttering of the tricolour, will even make a heart of stone let the tears flow.
I had always wondered how would a sequel of Rajkahini be with Buchki (Laadli) in the lead. Begum Jaan has given us a glimpse of it. Begum Jaan and Rajkahini are two different films, for two different audiences. Comparisons would not be fair. Both shine in their own right.
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights