YET ANOTHER STORY BESIDES PATHAANby Satyabrata Ghosh February 10 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 43 secs
Satyabrata Ghosh explores why audiences at large today prefer to watch a franchise of a spy universe over a modern fairty-tale.
No, at the outset, let me tell you that I haven’t watched Siddharth Anand’s Pathaan (2023), and have no plans either, to watch it in the near future. Despite the fact that I am a great fan of Shah Rukh Khan, my decision is solely based on the high-handed nature of Pritam Jalan, the film distributor, and Yash Raj Films, the production house, with regard to the exhibiting of the film on the single screen theatres in West Bengal. According to their diktats, none of the theatres in Kolkata, and around, were permitted to show any other film. And, therefore, some Bangla films, like Koushik Ganguly’s Kaberi Ontordhan (2023), have suffered greatly because they could not have the audience they deserve as exhibitors had to stall their shows barely a week after they were released.
As the ‘Brand Ambassador’ of West Bengal, Shah Rukh Khan has probably allowed ‘bad’ precedence to be set, which disrupts the regional market of Bengali movies, and more so, at a time when it has seen positive chances of revival in the post-pandemic era.
So, in the near future, when Salman Khan will release his ‘Kabhi Bhai Kabhi Jaan’ during next Eid, hardly any producer of Bengali films will perhaps dare to release a film in his or her own home state. But then, it’s not only the stars, but also the eminent personalities who brief the Chief Minister about the affairs of the Bengali film enterprise, that are to be blamed as much.
While they have been shouting hoarse to ‘stand beside Bengali films’ during the pre-Pathaan days, they have conveniently remained silent when the distributor and exhibitors jointly executed this unfair monopolization. Their ambiguity in taking a definite stand has also proved how disunited they are, irrespective of the political colours they identify with when it comes to ensuring that Bengali films reach the audiences.
I can go on, but let’s leave it there for two reasons. First, my tirade will not make any difference to the insulation of such so-called ‘luminaries’ of the contemporary Bengali film world, as they are sure about their privilege to remain silent at a time when they should be united with other 'less-privileged'. Secondly, I need to speak about Atanu Ghosh’s ‘Aaro Ek Prithibi’ (2023), or, ‘Yet Another World’, which was running on a screen just beside the one where ‘Pathaan' was, at a multiplex, in South Kolkata. And, obviously, the audience numbers were way below the footfall that ‘Pathaan’ got, as was expected.
Atanu, I can claim, is a friend of mine, and I have not enjoyed his oeuvre of films before this one. There are various points to differ about his narrative style and craft. But, as a sensitive individual, who has been experimenting with narrative forms ever since he made Abby Sen (2015), an intimate take on time-travel, Mayurakshi (2017), a star-studded venture exploring a complex father-son relationship, and Binisutoy (2020), a poetic take on the loneliness of two individuals, Atanu has been closely observing the world around him. He writes his own scripts and keeps unfolding the layers, rather than bending to dramatic representations of a few hand-picked characters.
In Aaro Ek Prithivi he comes out in an inimitable style, with his main character Pratiksha (Tasnia Farin), by carrying her into a different realm. It is set in two different parts of the world, West Bengal and London, although thousands of kilometres apart but perceived as one, with two time frames, the former depicting the present post-pandemic world and the latter, before it. In a way, Atanu has deftly unveiled a world, which suffered the physical and societal onslaughts that COVID and lockdowns raged. Saeed Mirza has written in his book, I Know the Psychology of Rats, reminiscing his long-standing friendship with the Late Kundan Shah, “We are afraid of meeting each other, talking to each other, hugging and debating, protesting or just being with each other”. Similar is the world created by Atanu, which his protagonist enters when searching for her newly married and lost husband, Aritro Chatterjee (Saheb Bhattacharya), in the UK.
But strangely, Atanu brings in warmth amid this cold distancing, as his protagonist is persuaded by Ayesha (Anindita Bose) to stay with her after the white landlady of her husband shuts the door on her face. It is Ayesha, with her liberated mindset, who influences Pratiksha to believe that like many other women, she too had been ditched by her husband. It is at this point when the doubts that storm Pratiksha’s mind are conveyed to the audience through a non-linear device of filmmaking.
Long back when Doordarshan was the only window to the world outside, an interesting series was launched, Baaten Filmon Ki. In one of the weekly episodes of the series, the noted filmmaker Gulzar was the guest of the presenter Benjamin Gilani. They talked about the use of flashbacks and Gulzar, in his element, had said, “I cannot give you examples of another filmmaker’s work, but I can elucidate how I have used the flashback.” Then he went on to talk about his film ‘Achanak’ (1973), where the vengeful husband used his military skill to kill his wife’s lover.
Gulzar explained, “I didn’t want to show violence in my film. So what I did is to make the husband come close to his target and I made him look at the camera. Then I cut to his past when he was learning armed combat in the military training academy.” Even after decades, this lesson of Gulzar’s remains fresh when watching “Aaro Ek Prithibi’.
Atanu, with Appu Prabhakar, his DOP, and Sujay Dutta Roy, his editor, have reminded me of Gulzar’s wisdom when they bring out, effectively, what Pratiksha is going through. Their collective efforts are reinforced by Debojyoti Mishra’s music and tunes set for songs sung mellifluously by Porshia Sen.
There are some important flashbacks in the first half of the film where Pratiksha remembers the loneliness she had felt when her ‘anti-social’ father was abandoned by her mother, who remarried a person she didn’t like. She goes back to those precious intimate moments with Aritro, her newly-wed husband. We often talk about cherishing moments. But the moments remain etched into our minds when we look at them in an alternate context. A young girl Pratiksha, who had witnessed her father getting arrested, attempts to come to terms with loneliness after getting married to an NRI software engineer – because her mother has cajoled her into it after finding him on a matrimonial site.
Pratiksha may have given up her search and returned to accept desertion as ‘fate’ had she not met Shrikanto Munshi (played by Kaushik Ganguly). And herein lies the beauty of Atanu’s cinema, in which he creates coincidences so that Pratiksha does not lose. While Atanu has weaved a modern fairy-tale, he also brings out the social reality of a post-pandemic world where meetings between two individuals become magical. Does Shrikanto remind Pratiksha of her father, incarcerated in jail for crimes in India? Atanu’s masterstroke of casting Kaushik Ganguly in the film, answers the question. He stands in the film as a symbol of the homeless, that a large section of humanity across the globe is suffering because corporations are plundering the world.
This takes me to Saeed Mirza’s book again, where he writes about Kundan Shah, his friend, who once asked him how people protested in ancient times when the forced labour and slaves upon whose backs the pyramids, the Great Wall, and several monuments were built in Persia, Greece and India. As Saeed Mirza wondered, Kundan had replied, “The apartment building in front of ours is being painted… there was some kind of scaffolding… and I used to watch workers paint… no safety nets, no nothing… and yesterday morning one of them slipped and fell from the seventh floor. He landed head first on the concrete floor. Yes, head first… slave labour of our civilization… wonder where he was from… his family...”
Aaro Ek Prithibi parallelly narrates the story of a student counsellor, Ayesha, who lost her job during the lockdowns and hit rock bottom just about able to survive the ruthless post-pandemic world. Atanu dexterously makes Ayesha an ally of Pratiksha, so that she can win her battle against hard and raw adversity. No stars, no gimmicks, no special effects, no gizmos - Atanu depends on his creative instinct to lean on the characterization and his script, which, too, relies on a deeper human bond. In one such moment in the film, Pratiksha wakes up from a disturbed slumber inside the boat where Shrikanto had looked at her and was drinking. On realising Pratiksha’s uneasiness, he had said to her, “Are you scared of me? Should I go out of the boat so that you feel safe?”
As the film reaches its climax, there is ample violence without the added sound and visual effects meant to pump adrenaline into the audience’s vision, which is already blurred by the charisma of the stars. Instead, Atanu uses violence so that he can liberate his characters from the suffocation of estrangement and at least unite them temporarily so that they may again be separated. The open sky above Pratiksha and Aritro at the back of a running car in the last scene let the breeze be blown over the audience who also breathe respite after becoming so involved with Pratiksha’s harrowing journey to find Aritro.
I agree with the fact that the audience of Pathaan cannot be the audience of Aaro Ek Prithibi. This is not because the tastes are different. One of the reasons that people will not be interested to watch a modern fairy-tale over a franchise of spy-universe is a large and well-oiled PR machinery at work restricting the audience to just the gross denominator. There lies the frailty, duality and tragedy, when we equate popularity with sensibility.