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Cinema || Rajkahini (A Subaltern Tale of Royalty)

Having had no shortage of Bengali friends attempting to shove in the face their ‘superior culture’, especially films, I have known for a while now that Indian cinema has historically been moulded and transformed into what it is thanks to the sincere effort of the Bengali creative forces as much as their pan-Indian counterparts.

Whereas the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen command unanimous respect for their contributions to cinema in the past century, the closely dissected too has thrown up several new figures to idolise such as the late-great Rituparno Ghosh or the lyrical Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Then there are others, hailed by a majority of Bengali film buffs to be the next in the legacy of Ray and Ghosh, while a vocal ‘minority’ keep insisting that they have a long way to go before their names would deserve to be uttered in the same breath as that of the greats.

Among them, Srijit Mukherji is perhaps the most polarising filmmaker as far as my dear Bong friends are concerned. While some are ready to hail the national award winning director with accolades measuring up to his enviable box office collections, others are quick to write him off, claiming to see through the veneer of intelligence which are mere ‘gimmicks’ and identifying the ‘people pleasing’ tropes to get them into theatres while his PR machinery ride the wave and use the burgeoning resource and contacts to ‘book’ whatever awards might be up for grabs.

For someone who understands Bengali via English subtitles, it may be hard to evaluate or analyse a ‘foreign’ language film as it stands, yet the profound language of cinema and humanity must not be belittled to gift exclusivity to the particular tongue.

As sweet a language as it is, I watched and appreciated Mukherji’s ‘Jatiswar’, ‘Chatuskone’ and ‘Nirbaak’ without reaping the benefits associated with understanding the linguistic charms of the dialogues and a chunk of the wit (as his ‘fans’ would tell me). And yet, the overwhelming depth of vision and canvas of ‘Jatiswar’, the delightful ingenuity of a ‘Chatuskone’ & the sheer (artistic) gall of a ‘Nirbaak’ were enough to leave me speechless. It had been the allure to witness something similar that prompted me to visit the theatres as soon as Mukherji’s latest, on partition, released on the national platform across several Indian cities.

Admittedly influenced by a celebrated chronicler of the horrors of the nation’s partition, Saadat Hassan Manto’s ‘Khol Do’ (Just open it) forms a type of prologue for the film. Srijit Mukherji’s ‘Rajkahini’ (The Royal Tales) depicts life in a Bengal brothel run by a ferocious matriarch Begum Jaan (Rituparna Sengupta). Even as the most downtrodden among the sea of subjugated celebrate the ushering of a new era of independence from their British overlords, little do they know that the festivities are soon to be followed by a violent share of the ‘spoils’, as destined by the random lines marked on the map of the subcontinent by the Radcliffe commission, entrusted with the task of dividing the present Bangladesh from the East and Pakistan from the west of India.

Rajkahini brings an extreme subaltern perspective to the plight of the displaced. The coy Bengali bhadralok (gentlemen), to whichever social strata he might have belonged to, saw flight as the solitary resort. The same reaction cannot be expected of those who are already displaced from their respective homes and, in the eye of the society anyways, have fallen further by attaching with the unmentionable trade. The 11 women of the brothel , however, do not view the house in the light that mere outsiders do. It is indeed their ‘ashiana’ (Shelter) which in the fantasy world of the little Bunchki (Ditipriya Roy) and the eldest scion of the brothel (Lily Chakraborty, who reads out excerpts from the Abanindranath Tagore book ‘Rajkahini’ throughout the film) their very own ‘king’dom tucked inside the larger British empire. They will protect it like one protects a kingdom, even when the outgoing empire, egged on by fanatics, dictate that a line must divide the kingdom into two for lasting peace and security.

The diversity among the members of the brothel reflects the inherent diversity of the nation itself. The variety, whether in their tales of subjugation or the nature of the eleven women concerned, even the hues of their sexual orientations, is painted exquisitely by Mukherji. The impeccable acting by nearly every single member of the cast bearing testimony to the belief they must have had in their shepherd.

Supporting the brilliant Rituparna Sengupta, whose throw and body language would come as a pleasant surprise to those who have only known the actress via her handful of Bollywood appearances, are Sudipta Chakraborty, Priyanka Sarkar, Bangladeshi actress Jaya Ahsan and every other woman in the cast barring none. Although the film is a tribute to the feminine, having released on the eve of the Durga Pujas in Kolkata which celebrates the divine feminine picking up weapons to obliterate the evils of misplaced masculinity, the male set of actors are not far behind as far as matching up to the women are concerned. Whether it is Rudraneel Ghosh as the pimp and perhaps the only character in the film with capacity for true love or Kanchan Mullick, whom shame hits in a way only a God aiming for poetic justice can conceive, they leave a gash deep enough to bleed. Jisshu Sengupta is an  absolute revelation as the psychopathic Kabir. The ‘Jatiswar’ star and a  favourite of Rituparno Ghosh has rediscovered himself down to the tenth circle of hell and deserves every accolade that comes his way for ‘Rajkahini’. Representing the two religions are Saswata Chatterjee and Koushik Sen, playing childhood buddies whom the religious clamour of 1947 have set apart. Their deliberations and observations bordering on the academic and ultimate surrender to the whims of the vocal majority reflect the actions of the two opposing sides of the larger political game at foot.

The decision of Begum Jaan and co. to not heed to the various threats of ouster and bodily harm ultimately results in a battle that simply cannot be won. The women put up a fight to write about, but the story of their tainted kingdom is not an easy one to preserve for the future since in the eye of society, they are not as ‘worthy’ as the brave Rajput characters in Abanindranath’s ‘Rajkahini’. Their suicidal bid for freedom and embrace of death is equated to Rani Padmini’s ‘Jauharvrat’ that is often mistakenly described as sacrificing oneself in a pyre to retain ‘chastity’. It is the refusal to let go of the acquired independence and dignity that their little kingdom of a brothel provides that compels the women who sell their chastity every single day and have already witnessed the worst of humanity, to fight and embrace death for the same reason that the great Rani Padmini did in her time.

The sight of the crumbling brothel and the burning copy of ‘Rajkahini’ is followed by a song, the choice of which is yet another stroke of genius by Mukherji. The director decided to incorporate the generally unsung part of the song (by Rabindranath Tagore) whose first stanza is ‘popular’ as the nation’s adopted national anthem. It is a fitting conclusion to the unsung and unwritten tale of partition that Mukherji has told with such brilliance, making a ‘mainstream’ subaltern statement which is certainly one for the history books.

It is being heard that Mukherji has been offered to remake his epic in Hindi (to be titled ‘Lakir’, translated as ‘Line’) for the entire nation this time. Whether or not the producers will rope in the genius Avik Mukhopadhyay for cinematography again or allow the first timer Mukherji to call all the shots and shoot sequences like capturing only half the faces of actors (Saswata Chatterjee and Koushik Sen) to drive home a metaphorical point is something for us to find out; yet it must be said that it is high time Bengal unfurled its wings slightly and let their beloved director make his play in the national arena.

We are waiting, Mr. Mukherji. []

Film: Rajkahini
Writer/Director: Srijit Mukherji
National Release: November 6, 2015
Language: Bengali

 First published in Issue #2 of CultureCult Magazine (November 2015)