15 August, 2004 brought the curtains down on the life Dhananjoy Chatterjee after 14 years of trials and tribulations. The central character to a heinous crime that shook the ‘Bhadralok’ city of Kolkata, Dhananjoy’s name evokes emotionally-charged responses from people even to this day. Accused of raping and murdering an 18-year old Hetal Parekh, Dhananjoy (who served as the security guard of the building where Hetal lived) claimed innocence till the day of his hanging.
The trial of Dhananjoy Chatterjee left many questions unanswered (he was unprecedentedly awarded death sentence solely based on circumstantial evidence when many key witnesses had made contrary statements in the court). There was a groundswell of clamour for his hanging at the time in Kolkata, led by none-other-than the wife of the then Chief Minister of the State, political pressure from the Gujarati vote-bank and a huge media pressure which led to the final culmination of Dhananjoy’s fate. Was he guilty? Or was he just another scapegoat sacrificed at the altar of our inept judicial system? Arindam Sil’s film explores the unsolved pieces of the puzzle.
The film is a gripping courtroom drama that compels you to challenge the notions you have lived with till now. It makes you question the system and assume a ringside view of life as it unfolds. The film can be separated into two parts: the first half explores the Dhananjoy trials as it happened in a flashback while the second half is a work of fiction where the case is reopened and available evidences re-examined and questioned in a trial. Although the film is judgmental, the director lets you be the judge of what could have transpired on 5 March, 1990.
The first half of ‘Dhananjoy’ has shades of inspiration from ‘Talvar’. It also has a ‘Roshomon’ style narration of the fateful incident. However, Arindam Sil shines in his story-telling with the daft writing and striking background score. Although the film indulges in melodrama at times, it is balanced by performances that will keep you to the edge of your seats.
A courtroom drama is expected to be dialogue-heavy, which can often get tedious for the audience to digest. In ‘Dhananjoy’ the scenes are interspersed with witty one-liners that keep the film from slipping into monotony. Kanchan Mullick and Mir (Kaushik Sen and Deepanjan Ghosh post intermission) play their parts well as the lawyers in the case. In fact, the legalities in this film were more believable and ‘real’ than most films are. Kabya Sinha, played by Mimi, is emotional yet focused. Mimi does full justice to her part.
Anirban Bhattacharya and Sudipta Chakraborty steal the show with their nuanced yet emotive performances. The stoic villainy portrayed by Sudipta is enough to send a shiver down your spine. Anirban Bhattacharya’s eyes do the talking for him. His slow walk to the gallows with Manna Dey’s ‘Mahasindhur Opar Hote’ will haunt your memories for days to come. These are performances that will define the year 2017 for Bengali cinema.
However, Kabya’s motivation to work in this case, that too four years after a man has been hanged, is a bit too much to handle. A more convincing back story could have added to the film. Why require a full-fledged trial to re-examine the evidence? With the research she had, she could have written a book instead. Also, was the public prosecutor in the second half only there for providing comic relief through objections? He hardly made a case. Moreover, the opening disclaimer says the film is purely a work of fiction, while the name as well as the promos belie the claim.
All controversies aside, there is an inherent honesty in the making of the film which sets ‘Dhananjoy’ apart. One must watch it with an open mind and separate the facts from the fiction while walking out of the theatres.
My rating: 3/5 stars
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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
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