How did we miss this? Sushmita Sen's comeback in a stunning film

The former Miss Universe brings her A-game to the challenging screenplay of the recent avant-garde Bengali film, 'Nirbaak'.

 |  5-minute read |   25-07-2015
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Almost two years ago, the webzine Helter Skelter put out a call for short fiction entries with a two word brief: "Strange Love". I was fortunate enough to be one of the writers whose work was selected eventually: I had written a story about an abusive relationship, between two people who liked to cut themselves. It's only now that I realise that this was a somewhat crude approach to the matter at hand.

In reality, every love is a strange love. Every love is also, at some level, filled with a deep and inexorable silence: the silence of people who now know the corrupting power of words, who are familiar with the crushing futility of language. Nirbaak, a recent avant-garde Bengali film directed by Srijit Mukherji, is an artful exploration of silence in love: the film is a string of four love stories, each one with a silent figure at the center of it. Nirbaak also marks the comeback of Sushmita Sen, who appears in a Bengali film for the first time in her career. Last seen in eminently forgettable films like No Problem, Do Knot Disturb and Dulha Mil Gaya, Sen makes a triumphant comeback here, playing a woman who's the link between the four individual stories. She brings her A-game to this challenging screenplay: she plays a woman who's melancholy but forward thinking, nostalgic yet thoroughly pragmatic.

Right at the beginning, we are told that this film is dedicated to Salvador Dali, the master of surrealist art. The director's penchant for surrealism is obvious, right from the wonderfully crafted opening credit sequence: a hand shadowgraphy performance by Amar Sen and Sabyasachi Sen, the only Asian exponents of this unique art form. (Amar Sen was profiled by The Dewarists and now runs an academy to teach hand shadowgraphy.) This performance also reveals the silent figures in each of the four individual love stories: a mirror (the first story is that of a modern-day Narcissus), a tree, a dog and a corpse.

cb4wu1uugaedv-b_072515025424.png 

The first story stars Anjan Dutt, the veteran Bengali musician and filmmaker, as Samson Gomes, a Narcissus-like loner who believes in the credo "Love yourself. And all else will fall in place". Gomes is the kind of guy who, upon waking up, just stares lovingly at the mirror for hours: now adjusting a stray hair, now checking the progress of his wrinkles, now seeing if he was, perhaps, getting a little chubby? His long-suffering maid, meanwhile, bitches away in the background, even saying, at one point: "One day he will kiss himself". Funnily enough, Gomes comes perilously close to it. Here's the thing: even that scene comes across as Buster Keaton-esque comedy rather than something bizarre or distasteful; such is the mastery of Dutt's performance and Mukherji's technical brilliance. There is almost no dialogue in this section, which is just one reason why this is such a difficult role to play; Dutt deserves the highest accolades indeed.

anjan-dutt-in-nirbaa_072515025438.jpg Anjan Dutt, the veteran Bengali musician and filmmaker, as Samson Gomes. 

The second and the third stories involve Sen's (unnamed) character directly. In the second story, we see the bond between her and the city of Kolkata: from a nearly silent story, the film seamlessly shifts gears: all of a sudden, the shots are extremely playful, the dialogues poetic and poignant. In one of my favourite shots from the film, we see Sen writing a letter to her beloved, describing why she is unwilling to leave her city for Mumbai; the very next moment, we see her, desk and all, in the middle of the very street she was waxing eloquent about. Out of all the things about Kolkata that she loves, her favourite tree at her favourite park is extra special.

sushmita-sen_640x480_072515025533.jpg The second and the third stories involve Sushmita Sen's (unnamed) character directly.

It just so happens that the feeling is mutual. Bizarre? Not in the world of Nirbaak.

Much like Love, Sex aur Dhokha, another anthology film, Nirbaak, too moves to a radically different visual grammar around the halfway mark. The third story is all about Bingi, Sen's boyfriend Rahul's (Jisshu Sengupta) pet bitch. Pet owners might find this story a little disturbing. Bingi becomes extremely jealous of Sen once she moves in with Rahul. In a remarkably shot intro sequence, we see Sen's arrival at Rahul's flat from Bingi's point of view: everything is, of course, black and white and the eye level is only a couple of feet from the ground.

nirbaak1_072515025140.jpg Bingi becomes extremely jealous of Sen's character once she moves in with Rahul.

Bingi snarls and barks at Sen, refuses to eat the food she gives and even insists that Rahul takes her on a walk alone. I don't know how the dog was shot staring balefully at a clock (it's 6 in the evening: time for Rahul and Bingi's walk) and then immediately back at Rahul, but it's impressive stuff. To what extent can a "woman scorned" (as Rahul terms Bingi later) go to remove a rival? Watch the film to find out.

The last story stars Ritwick Chakraborty as a morgue worker ironically called Mritunjoy. When a beautiful young woman's body is wheeled in, Mrityunjoy, who is used to smoking pot inside the air-conditioned morgue, finds himself attracted to her. As with Samson Gomes, it is partly the quality of the acting and partially the director's clever and surreal usage of cloying Bollywood romantic numbers that makes us see this relationship (that veers dangerously close to necrophilia) as something sweet and a little sad rather than something necessarily perverted. When a debauched group of goons want to have sex with the corpse, Mrityunjoy locks the door and throws away the key. His love now has the ultimate stamp that a Bollywood romance can get: chastity.

nirbaak8_072515025730.jpg The last story stars Ritwick Chakraborty as a morgue worker ironically called Mritunjoy. 

Nirbaak was released a couple of months ago, but apart from a stray review here and there, I did not really see a lot of attention being given to it. This is a shame because Mukherji has created something unique and courageous here, a film that teaches you how to process it, like the best works of fiction. To me, it's not only one of the best films of the year: it is arguably one of the best Indian films of the decade so far.

Writer

Aditya Mani Jha Aditya Mani Jha @aditya_mani_jha

Writer works at Penguin Random House India. The views expressed here are his own.

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