BAISHE SRABON: Dead Poets’ Societyby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri August 11 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 55 secs
In the series on landmark Bengali films post 2000, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at Srijit Mukherji’s genre-bending noir and thriller.
‘Dedicated to all poets unsung’ - for a noir dealing with the hunt for a serial killer on a gruesome killing spree, it’s a most unexpected dedication by all reckoning. But therein lies the pleasure of Srijit Mukherji’s 2011 film - the consistently bewildering strands of its narrative. Coming a year after his breakthrough debut Autograph, Baishe Srabon, probably the first serial-killer movie and first police procedural in Bengal, represents the kind of filmmaking that gave mainstream Bengali cinema a new direction in terms of the craft and the language (quite literally so) - popular cinema that does not compromise with or dumb-down its content for mass acceptance.
The basic tropes of Baishe Srabon will be familiar to those who love their serial-killer dramas. A hotshot young police officer - Abhijit Pakrashi (Parambrata Chattopadhyay, in one of his most celebrated roles) – dealing with some personal crisis and confronted by a professional challenge that threatens to upend his certainties.
A world-weary veteran, given to drinking, who does not believe in playing by the rules and is hence discarded by the very system he works for, Prabir Ray Chaudhuri (Prosenjit Chatterjee), describes himself as someone who longs not for the fragrance of wet earth or new books but the dusty piss-smelling walls of a police lockup, its plaster peeling off, and the musty smell of worm-eaten files in the interrogation room. And a devious killer, playing games with the law, killing at will.
What, however, sets the film apart from the run-of-the-mill films in the genre is invoking what can only be termed a ‘dead poets’ society’ of Bengali poets. The modus operandi of the killer here is as unique as any I have seen in any film of the genre. His victims are the marginalized of the city, a street walker, a Dom, a beggar, a thug, but he chooses the death anniversaries of leading Bengali poets, Jibanananda Das (22 October), Shakti Chattopadhyay (23 March), Binoy Majumdar (11 December), Sukumar Ray (11 September) and Sukanta Bhattacharjee (13 May), to strike, leaving behind fragments of their poetry as his calling card.
The last kill is, of course, reserved for the anniversary of the greatest of them all, Tagore, the ‘baishe srabon’ of the title. As Prabir and Abhijit piece together this link in the chain, we are introduced to Nibaron Chakraborty (Goutam Ghose in an inspired bit of casting) as a ‘failed’ poet whose work is time and again rejected and consigned to the margins and who raves and rants at ‘Rabindranath’ – another of the film’s many plot aces – and at the putrefying society around him.
This gives Srijit the opportunity to bring poetry into the ambit of a noir-thriller, more specifically a genre that was at one point reviled as obscene and the practitioners of which were ostracized and marginalized: the Hungry Generation Poets, that, in the words of a character in the film, practised ‘the poetry of chaos and death’. Through the character of Nibaron, played with remarkable empathy and aplomb by Gautam Ghose, Srijit introduces us to the world of the Hungryalists, little known outside Bengal and, I dare say, outside academic circles.
An avant-garde literary movement launched in 1961 by poets like the brothers Malay and Samir Roy Choudhury, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Binoy Majumdar, Saileshwar Ghosh and Debi Ray, it challenged the status quo in literature and the arts. Dark and bitter in literary expression, the adherents of the movement were everything that Tagore was not and were among the first generation of poets who broke away from Tagore’s legacy. Given their anti-establishment outlook, those who led the movement lost their jobs and even had to face jail terms apart from being shunned by society on grounds of peddling obscenity and sedition.
The triumph of Baishe Srabon lies in the way the director weaves this strand of ‘disruptive literature’ into the fabric of a noir. The history of the Hungryalists becomes means of turning the gaze on the chaos and disorder that pervades contemporary society and our own ghoulish fascination for the bizarre and the violent - our preference for live telecast of the Gulf War and for horror shows over Tom and Jerry, as the head of a TV channel observes, assigning journalist Amrita (Raima Sen) to do a series on serial killers to capitalize on the wave of murders. While working on the list of characters to cover - Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler - he wonders out aloud whether Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra or Tagore might have any writings on serial killers in their oeuvre! And he is not being facetious. It’s a telling comment on where we have arrived as a society.
Or consider, for example, the fascinating climactic conversation between Prabir and Nibaron when the police officers visit the poet. In a film that boasts a number of strong confrontations, this one takes the cake and is worth watching a few times over. Both Prabir and Nibaron are fighting the system. Both have been shunned by the system. Earlier in the film, another police officer has described Prabir as abusive, temperamental and given to outbursts of temper. As we meet Nibaron, he too comes across as someone who fits that description.
When Prabir is tried for misconduct, his lawyer pleads to temporary insanity to reduce the quantum of his punishment. Nibaron, with his rantings against ‘Rabindranath’ and his conviction for arson (setting the Kolkata book-fair on fire because a publisher has rejected his poems!), comes across as a nutcase. Yet, they end up questioning each other’s belief systems like two perfectly rational college-going students (of Presidency College?) would do at the Coffee House.
Prabir sees Nibaron as the product of a failed movement - what makes a revolutionary, and is revolution a pipedream? Are you sucking up to the system? How much of a nihilist are you and is there a place for nihilism in society? Nibaron is convinced that it’s the people, the society, including the intellectuals of the era, that failed, not the movement. There are references to Binayak Sen and democracy. And when Nibaron chillingly declares, ‘If you strangle my poetry, I will strangle you too’, you cannot but help reflect that it is exactly what Prabir has sworn to do - weed out crime and, if necessary, bend the system to do so. That’s his form of poetry and any casualty in the process is just collateral damage. All of this provides a strong intellectual mooring to the standard tropes of a thriller. In the process, the resolution of the mystery and the identity of the killer are rendered almost irrelevant as the filmmaker engages in ideas around poetry, politics and philosophy, language, even Victorian morality and Macaulay’s children - all within the ambit of a noir.
Baishe Srabon can also be credited with pioneering a liberal use of profanities and a no-holds-barred exploration of the city’s underbelly. In these aspects, it liberated Bengali cinema from the stranglehold of bhadrolok mentality. I don’t recall another Bengali film before this that uses cuss words so liberally in the services of a narrative. It lends the film a wonderful verisimilitude as the characters speak the language of the times and their milieu, uninhibited and authentic. In tune with this is the way Srijit uses the city spaces, particularly its slums and grimy alleyways. Time and again his camera tracks some of the filthiest locations one can imagine on-screen.
This is not the cliched bhadrolok Kolkata of the Howrah bridge, trams, Victoria Memorial, the Maidan, Durga Pujo, rosogolla. This is the Kolkata that the gentry would rather imagine does not exist - Nibaron’s hovel, for instance, a triumph of production design (at the other end is Prabir’s room, old-world Calcutta, with its clocks and masks on the wall). Or the sequence where Prabir and Abhijit meet the pickpocket (and Prabir’s informer), the camera capturing the layout of slums, shacks with doors painted in lurid pink and green, crisscrossed with electricity cables hanging haphazardly. Or then my favourite - Nibaran lamenting the absence of poetry with a stranger sitting across from him on the other side of a railway platform.
The writing is consistently engaging, and often brilliant, without ever being gimmicky. The repartee between the characters - Prabir and Abhijeet, Abhijeet and Amrita, Amrita and her colleague Surjo (Abir Chatterjee in a warm special appearance) - is top-notch and provides a short-hand to the characters. There’s an undefinable pleasure listening to Prabir bait Abhijeet - Whiskey? No? Bournvita? - or laying down what being late by twelve minutes means, impeccably delivered by Prosenjit: the sun’s rays travelling one-and-a-half times to and fro, eight rapes or a hummingbird flapping its wings 72,000 times! Or Abhijeet’s exasperation at the words ‘phaltu’ or ‘phataphati’ being pronounced ‘faltu’ and ‘fatafati’ since ‘there is no “fa” sound in Bengali’. Nuances that enliven the writing, while making a point about the language.
One final word about the music. With Autograph and Baishe Srabon, Srijit also introduced a new sound to the music of Bengali cinema, incorporating a fresh and innovative take to the aesthetic of song sequences and bringing to the limelight a new breed of composers, lyricists and singers like Anupam Roy, Srijato (a poet of no mean reckoning in Bangla) and Rupam Islam.
Anupam Roy, who became a star with Autograph’s ‘Amake amaar moton thakte dao’, delivers a winning soundtrack, which boasts perennial favourites setting new benchmarks for music in Bengali films: the haunting ‘Ekbar bol’ (stunningly shot to Parambrata at his vulnerable best), the pensive ‘Gobheere jao’ or ‘Ei srabon’, which so eloquently conveys the essence of a city drenched in the monsoons, that a generation ago would have had filmmakers reaching out for Tagore’s ‘Saghono gahono ratri’. Indraadip Dasgupta’s background score adds to the overall aesthetics of the film - consider, for example, the raga exposition that introduces Prabir and his residence.
Then there’s the class-act of the finale. With the final interrogation of Nibaron by the officers, the loose ends are tied up, but, as Abhijit observes, a little too conveniently, a little too pat, wherein comes the code - a most satisfying one that lives up to Prabir’s comment, quoting Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The screenplay has the acumen to keep the ending open to the viewer’s interpretation in ways that not many mainstream films would dare. Neither can many serial-killer noirs boast of making such perceptive use of poetry and philosophy - from Tagore’s Shesher Kobita to the Hungryalists to Shakespeare - and weaving so many different elements together. Ten years after it was made, Baishe Srabon stands among the best of not only Bengali films in recent times, but also one of the finest and most intelligent Indian films in its genre.
Note: For reasons unknown, the version streaming on Disney+Hotstar beeps out all the cuss words and the swearing, sanitizing the film in a way that almost belies its raison d’être; Nibaron Chakraborty wouldn’t have approved.
Directed by: Srijit Mukherji, Cinematography: Soumik Haldar, Editor: Bodhaditya Banerjee, Music and lyrics: Anupam Roy
Cast: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Raima Sen, Abir Chatterjee, Gautam Ghose, Rajesh Sharma, Sumit Samaddar