Chaplin Review (2011) – A Bengali Film




Rating: 40% 

Director: Anindo Bandhopadhyay


Bangshi – Rudranil Ghosh

Rina – Rachita Bhattacharya

Nimua – Sohum Maitra

Zafar – Mir Afsar Ali

A few too many people hold sympathy for struggling mime artist Bangshi’s Tramp. The original Tramp, immortalized by actor-director Charlie Chaplin in silent feature films such as ‘City Lights’ (a testament to his mastery over both comedy and pathos), ‘The Kid’, ‘Modern Times’ and countless short skits during the earliest days of cinema, persistently remained an outcast. Legendary critic Roger Ebert cogently remarked in his essay, while adding City Lights to his ‘Great Movies’ collection, that “…his shabby appearance sets him apart and cues people to avoid and stereotype him; a tramp is not … one of us…the Tramp is an outcast, an onlooker, a loner”.

Hence any slapstick or dramatic incident involving him treats us with an altogether special form of happiness or pain; the same applies for reclusive poet Emily Dickinson’s works, which are tinged with universally recognized emotions yet made distinctively special with her individualistic writing style. Dickinson was a real person, while the Tramp exists in a fictional world, where “he exists somehow on a different plane than the other characters; he stands outside their lives and realities, is judged on his appearance, is homeless and without true friends or family, and interacts with the world mostly through his actions” (Ebert). A few who do care or support him are usually in similar situations themselves or perhaps, as in case of City Lights, drunk or sightless. In the end, he may attain little joy, little respite, little or no companionship but we’re touched by his ability to smile alone in the face of adversities. He may not speak a word, and yet his emotions ring true.


Padmanabha Dasgupta, one of Chaplin’s screenplay writers, was apparently inspired to pen the draft (later reshaped by Anindo Bandhopadhyay, also the film’s director) after witnessing a nondescript Chaplin impersonator stuffing the only Cadbury bar given to him by the hosts into his pockets so he could carry it for his entire family. I’m aware of the immense struggle faced by local artistes, many who put in hours of hard-work only to find their work going unnoticed and/or unappreciated. I knew a man who would spend his mornings and afternoons practicing Bharatnatyam, an Indian classical dance form, his evenings in drama rehearsals, and work as security guard during night shift, along with earning some cash as an auto-rickshaw driver during weekends. He was ghostly pale, and you heard a strain of unhealthiness in his voice, like it hurt him even to speak after endless grueling. I saw him at a seminar a couple of days ago. He seemed healthier and happier.


Bangshi (played by Rudranil Ghosh), the film’s hero, performs as a Chaplin impersonator at birthday parties and events but has no other source of income, despite persuasions from Rina (Rachita Bhattacharya), a well-to-do social worker who’s also his son Nimua’s (Sohum Maitra) teacher in school. Bangshi and Nimua are a happy-go-lucky father-and-son duo who survive on little income, and yet find out ways to remain happy and get love and support from within their community. Close ones include Bangshi’s companion Zafar (Mir Afsar Ali), who’s compelled to borrow money from Bangshi after his previous owner cruelly refuses to pay him his dues, and Bangshi’s landlord, who dons a muffler around his head and fixes a stern landlord-y look but has love in his heart both for Bangshi and Nimua. Both latch onto optimism, even when their heart’s desires are unmet; Nimua is so eager to have a grand birthday party hosted for him, just like the ones he watches from a distance when accompanying his dad to work, but he knows his wish won’t come true when all he gets for meals is bread dipped in water.


And yet, his unfulfilled desires find some respite in his dreams. Bangshi’s own dreams may be realized, after he gets an opportunity to participate in a talent hunt for the ‘Great Indian Comedian’. But there’s a major shocker when Bangshi’s son diagnosed with brain tumor. Tears are shed and with days running out, Bangshi needs to set his life straight and pursue to fulfill his son’s dream.


The film begins with a private close up shot of Bangshi applying make-up to transform into (a fractured version of) Tramp. He has got a wider mouth with prominent set of teeth, and fuller cheeks. The first skit, perhaps a dream sequence, involves Tramp, a heroine and a tough guy chasing them, but it plays at such rapid speed it doesn’t register in our heads. In fact, except for the final sequence involving Tramp, there isn’t a single scene that draws laughs and, in a particular moment involving him getting slapped hard by an annoyed guest, we unfortunately empathize with the latter; the guy playing the trumpet, who only gets a scene or two, is funnier and less irksome.


Another issue is that although we assume from the opening sequence that the film will be restricted to Charlie’s perspective, it constantly shifts to behind-the-scene activities of the guys conducting the reality show, which includes Rina’s boyfriend. When their hearts melt eventually for this ersatz Tramp, we get sappy close up shots of literally everyone clapping and tearing up for the protagonist’s plight. Instead, if Bandhopadhyay had worked on drawing parallel between dad Bangshi’s desires and son Nimua’s dreams through camerawork (say, having scenes where we see from Banshi’s (first-person) point-of-view as he enters the unfamiliar environment of the television show auditions, just as we’re shown Nimua dreaming about his birthday from a first-person view), and left us audience members (and maybe just a few supporting characters who’ve remained supportive) to cheer for the two at the end, the film would’ve put a genuine smile on our faces. What happens is that when you add in too many people to indicate that a scene is supposed to tug your heartstrings or inspire you, it ends up losing impact. Just yesterday, spurious India TV reporter Rajat Sharma interviewed Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on his show ‘Aap Ki Adaalat’; Modi maintained his composure and gave dignified, well-formed responses for every question raised. The channel could’ve done without all the audience members fervently screaming ‘Modi! Modi’, almost to a cultish extent which really got on my nerves. Some silence would’ve helped.




Review of World Of Apu, A 1959 Bengali Film Directed by Satyajit Ray and Starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore

GRADE: A / 80%
Sharmila Tagore – Aparna
Apur Sansar title card.jpg

A naughty moment happens in the morning after newlyweds Apu and Aparna have made love to each other. We know they have made love because of the way Aparna blushes when she gets up to start her morning chores. Just when she gets out of bed, her saree ka pallu is caught under her sleeping husband. Aparna gently tries to pull it once, twice and finally gets it out the third time when she nudges her husband slightly. She pats him on his back, smiles and walks outside to wash her face. Apu, who was pretending to sleep this whole time, then smiles back at her. She coyly asks him ‘How long will you continue staring at me?’. They have fallen in love at last.

The film I speak of is World of Apu, released in the year 1959. Forward to the present time. You switch on your idiot box and watch the latest Indian television serial. Tragedies are yet to strike the protagonists and their families with the hellacious force of Jupiter’s thunderbolt (usually joint families that seem to spawn rapidly like an epidemic virus, only so that there can be plenty of reaction shots; oddly, many of the children look nothing like their parents…). Currently, the story revolves around a single guy and an unmarried girl falling in love gradually over twenty episodes(or fifty, depending on TRP generated by googly-eyed kitschy romance-loving female audiences). There are a couple of stolen glances usually after some obnoxious flirting, and its generally found that the boy and the girl begin their relationship on a wrong note. Until the famous ‘saree ka pallu’ sequence, after which the two finally fall in love.

Now here’s how the scene would be filmed. The lady absentmindedly bumps into the guy (most young female viewers have already begun already fanning themselves like they’ve got their hands on the guy) and the two spend lengthy minutes staring like a couple of very stupid dogs (proud owner of three Labrador retrievers, so know it) into each other’s eyes while holding each other in static position. The cameras frenziedly try to capture the couple from all possible angles of modesty until the couple finally let go of each other. The girl begins to turn very slowly in a slightly different direction from where she was originally heading (maybe to dump something into the dustbin or to wash her hands after potty, but that doesn’t matter) when suddenly she realizes her saree ka pallu is caught with the hero’s shirt cuffs (another aahhh! from the girls). It’s like she’s got metal hooks attached to her saree that somehow manage to cling themselves onto the hero.

She nervously looks back at him, and he too looks p*ssy-faced at her. Camera cuts to static close-ups alternating with long-shots and mid-shots, again com every possible angle of modesty. Usually the girl’s too freaked out to pull the pallu out from his cuffs so its the guy who does the honors. Wait till they discover kissing, forget sex! A generic romantic score will play all over the scene, and cliched background sounds shall be heard too, like invisible leaves rustling or non-existent wind whistling. It’s sad there’s no horny wolf around to howl.


It’s also very sad and unfortunate that many would actually prefer to watch this kooky depiction of love than the one we see in The World of Apu, which kicks into the bin any form of pretentiousness that often plague scenes of love. Here we find Apu and Aparna, a couple that has married under the most extraordinary circumstance, quietly accept their fate and learn to live together happily till fate directs another change. She knows no English, he spends his hours teaching her spellings. She fans her husband while he eats his dinner and then has her husband fan her while she eats, which rules out sexism; I remember feeling very uncomfortable watching one of my aunts in Chennai serve the whole family first (including my cousins, who would keep telling her ‘Mom, you are coming in the way (of the television)!)’) and take her food after everybody leaves the table. He acts like a spendthrift so she becomes cautious with money. While taking her home in a taxi after they watch a talkie, she asks him why they couldn’t ride in a bus, and he replies she would’ve felt uncomfortable in a crowded bus. She was not brought up in such surroundings, you see. And now I want to come to the extraordinary circumstance that tied the fates of Apu and Aparna: Aparna’s intended husband turned insane (literally) on the day of the wedding, and if Apu, who was only a visitor invited by his best friend Pulu to his cousin Aparna’s wedding, did not marry her, then her life would be cursed.

Then why did Apu, a literate who would scoff at any superstitious ideas, agree to marry Aparna? He struggled to make a decent living; having no money to continue his undergraduate studies, he was under qualified for the teaching job, and it was below him to accept a job he was terribly overqualified for. He earned a meaner salary of ten rupees a month, and some additional whenever his short stories were published in the journal.

It is difficult to answer this question, but then again, is it really? Anyone who has seen Pather Panchali shall remember how Apu’s father Harihar could never say ‘no’ to anyone; the man promised to buy a shawl for an old lady known to the family even though his family was in the most desperate financial circumstances. So while the marriage does come as a surprise, it isn’t that hard to understand why Apu acquiesced. If you notice well enough, you’d find a Harihar in Apu and a Sarbajaya (Apu’s mother) in Aparna. Again, I guess it would not be difficult to make this observation because Satyajit Ray, the film’s director films the scenes of Apu and Aparna in a composition that reminds us of his parents. The laconicism of dialogues helps here too, obliquely hinting that a similarly extraordinary circumstance might have led to Apu’s parents’ marriage.

When Aparna dies during childbirth, Apu is not by her side. She dies a tragic death in her village, while Apu stays back to manage his home, his job and continue writing the partly autobiographical novel he is working on. A messenger informs him about Aparna when he returns home, expecting to find Aparna back from the village after a two month stay at her ‘maayka’. The shot is captured memorably by Ray using an unsettlingly slow zoom and a foreboding sitar note (chosen by Ravi Shankar, whose work in The Apu Trilogy has been consistently immaculate). Imagine how a moment like this would be captured on a television serial, with its shrieking score and frenetic camerawork. An absolute disaster.

A theme of abandonment is recurrent in the trilogy, with Apu refusing to take his newborn child Kajal with him. The child remains for years at his mother’s ancestral home with his grandparents. Apu now carries the haunted look we often saw on his mother’s face in Pather Panchali whenever her husband would leave their home for months on end. We see the shadow of Harihar in him as he wanders haplessly in search of work and stability.

In one of the most stirring scenes in movies, Apu decides to abandon his novel, letting his manuscript fly away with the dismal wind. The camera here almost freezes and so does Apu as the pages slip from his hands into the woods below (he stands at the foot of a hillock). Its an extremely difficult choice, and yet its for his own good; he would now be able to shoulder the responsibilities he has been abdicating all along.

In terms of psychological complexity, I honestly believe the film could have gone deeper, and I think the problem here is me: I have watched a lot of movies. And I am well aware that Apu’s character is secondary to the journey he undergoes, as emphasized by the sound of the passing train, there were times I wanted to hear Apu contemplating his decisions because he seems like a very intelligent adult. The absence of dialogue functioned better in Pather Panchali because Apu is only a kid then. But again, it may be that I’ve seen so many great films already, I’m expecting too much!

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Review of Aparajito, the second instalment in the Apu Trilogy by Oscar winning Indian Director Sayajit Ray

Cover of "Aparajito"

Cover of Aparajito

GRADE: A / 80%  

Summary: In a simple world, Apu lives a profound life and Satyajit Ray captures his Apu’s transition wonderfully in Pather Panchali’s sequel, Aparajito


Pinaki Sen Gupta – Apurba “Apu” Roy (boy)
Smaran Ghosal – Apu (adolescent)
Kanu Banerjee – Harihar Roy, Apu’s father
Karuna Banerjee – Sarbajaya Roy, Apu’s mother
Ramani Ranjan Sen – Bhabataran, old uncle

The sun wakes up in the land of Benaras. An aged temple priest scatters seeds for the pigeons. Men take their morning dip in the holy river bordering a ghat (series of steps). Women wash their clothes in the same waters. A couple of pehelwans (wrestlers) exercise with gadas (heavy Indian club) close to the river banks. Priests sit close by sermonizing to their loyal devotees. Ships can be heard at a distance. It is morning.

Have we never seen a morning like this? We probably have, at least most who live or have lived in India. Yet why do we watch this morning with a quaint fascination? This is because Satyajit Ray doesn’t regard his morning sequence as an establishment shot as most directors would – his camera gazes with wonderment at how life begins in the land of Benaras, and that gives his morning a wholly distinctive identity.

We find young Apu walking beside the ghat one morning, passing by the chanting priests and their devotees and stopping where a pehelwan is exercising. He fixedly gazes at the gada which the hefty pehelwan is swinging around his body, and then leaves. After his father’s untimely demise, he reluctantly becomes a priest at the insistence of a male relative.

But he seems to have little interest in this, as evident in a scene where he watches, in his priest’s attire, a couple of young boys his age tumbling and gamboling happily at a distance and then follows them after ditching his dhoti. He watches as they enter a school and then at night asks his mother whether he can join the same school. Once he gets admission, he’s found to be a bright student who can recite lok-geet (folk music) fluently, and we realize maybe his short stint as a priest did pay off well.

Apu’s world is simple, yet his life is profound. There isn’t explicit symbolism anywhere yet but we know how symbolic each event in his journey is, as evident from the paragraph above. Moving to a big city like Benares from a tiny village like Nischindipur, living the city life shortly till the death of his father, moving to another village called Dewanpur, attending a school nearby and earning a scholarship, moving to Calcutta for further studies with little enthusiasm to return to the dismal village life are covered in Aparajito.

Apu’s thinking, values and priorities blossom as his life passes these phases; take a scene in the film where Apu, in his teens, watches a couple of street children performing but finds their act uninteresting and leaves. Had this been young Apu, he’d be very enthused by their performance and watched it till the end. Aparajito is Apu All Grown Up.

His self-sacrificing mother Sarbajaya gives him all her hard-earned money so he can move to Calcutta, and she surrenders herself to a life of loneliness. Apu’s priorities shift towards college studies and printing press work, and he only visits her once in every few months. Satyajit Ray uses still shots to capture her emotions and actress Karuna Banerjee’s eyes speak volumes; her memorable ‘Opu!’ for calling Apu (Bengalis usually pronounce many of their words with an ‘O’ intonation) stayed with me long after the film ended.
Apu’s college life was probably the only sequence that impressed me less, only because I’ve already seen similar scenes in many other recent movies. But what matters at last is our strong attachment to Apu’s world; we laugh with, weep for and find joy in watching his world. Part of the credit has to go to Ravi Shankar’s enchanting score, dominated by sitar, flute and dholak, for creating the right mood for each scene.

Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Aparajito give the pleasure of experiencing the same world through his eyes. And we are swept over completely.