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|May 13, 2000||
A finely packaged product
Shoma A Chatterji
Utsav, in most Indian languages, translates as festival. It is therefore fitting that Tara, Star's Bengali avatar, opened its floodgates to a 'festival' of entertainment with Rituparno Ghosh's Indo-American co-production, Utsav.
His excellent background in the world of ad films has helped Ghosh present a finely packaged product. He already has an impressive repertoire -- Unishe April, Dahan, Asookh, Bariwaali -- behind him.
The story begins with the Durga pooja celebration in an elderly lady's spacious, ancestral house. Like always, her two sons and two daughters arrive with their families to celebrate the festival together.
But the scenario has changed considerably from the happier, crowded past, when many friends and relatives would arrive to celebrate the pooja together and the house would light up with fun, joy and the happiness of reunion.
But the fragmentation of the joint family has broken people up into private islands of isolation and alienation, briefly intruded into during the week from Panchami, the day before the festival begins, to Ekadashi, the day immediately following Bijoya Dashami.
What happens on the first day when the children begin to arrive? Have things changed by Ekadashi, when everything is quiet and the house empties of the children who have reduced themselves to guests who arrive only to depart? This is the story of Utsav, produced by Cinemawalla, an NRI concern founded last year by Tapan Biswas and Sutapa Ghosh.
Rituparno uses the Durga pooja as the peg on which to hang the film. A strapping young man, Joy (Ratulshankar Ghosh), grandson of the matriarch (Madhabi Mukherjee) who lives alone in the mansion, uses his camera makes observations on the house, the family and the festival.
He wants to become a film-maker, but has submitted to his father's wishes and is pursuing an MBA abroad. His comments on the trivialities around the house are allegories that bring alive his passion for films and film-making. "I have heard these pooja vessels were used by Satyajit Ray in Debi," he says. "My mother told me this though she was very small then."
The camera pans across the house, explores the long corridors, the windows, the courtyard where the sculptor is putting finishing touches to the Mother Goddess and her children. Bumba, one of the matriarch's grandchildren, sits in front of the sculptor, questioning him about Durga and her four children.
Slowly, as we warm up to the family reunion, the cracks begin to show. The children want the house to be sold. The older daughter (Mamata Shankar) has problems with her husband in Singapore, who has not come to be part of the festivities. These problems revolve around her earlier affair with a cousin, Sisir, (Dipankar Dey in a brief appearance) who has now made it big and wants to buy the house.
The younger daughter (Rituparna Sengupta) is about to split from her husband (Prasenjit), who chooses to drown his failure in the bottle and live off his wife. The younger son (Bodhisatta Majumdar) has problems with his present job abroad and needs money.
Joy, the filmmaker-not-to-be, recognises his attraction for his first cousin Shampa (Arpita Pal), daughter of the eldest son (Pradip Mukherjee). "I was scared to go to the movies with your family because I was afraid I'd have to sit next to you," she confesses.
The matriarch plays the part of an unbiased but wisened observer who never intrudes and offers counsel only when asked. History begins to repeat itself. Yet, before it does, it is Ekadashi and time for everyone to leave. Each problem gets resolved, slowly, subtly, totally bereft of melodrama, as naturally as life itself.
The narrative is often broken into with insights from Joy, who is in a hurry to capture everything and everyone with his video camera. He keeps interspersing his close-ups with comments on the goings-on, spiced up with his love for Bengali films.
"Aparna Sen's Parama opened with a close-up of the Durga icon," he says, as he captures the Sindoor Utsav on Bijoya Dashami day. "Why must every married woman wear the regulatory uniform of the red-bordered white saree during Durga pooja?" he asks himself.
Intricate womanly details like the women rolling out luchis or sorting out flowers for the pushpanjali enrich the tapestry of the narrative. The film closes with the now-familiar Rituparno insignia of hope and optimism. The house remains unsold, the matriarch now living with her youngest daughter and a now-sober son-in-law, defining a life of contentment and happy reconciliation.
Rituparno challenges the close-up status quo of the small screen format by using mid-shots, long-shots, close-ups and tight close-ups as fluidly as one does for the large screen. He fleshes out every single character in the film, despite the fact that this is the very first film where he has worked with as many as a dozen people.
He takes care to stress the positive side of each character, which helps make each resolution all that more credible and smooth. Dialogue, one of his strongest points, is picked straight out of real life sans circumlocution, sans melodramatic embroidery, sans frills.
Aveek Mukherjee's brilliant camerawork captures the shadows lurking behind the pillars along with the brilliance of the decor around the Durga icon, the single-umbrella Durga symbolising the unity within an extended family. He grasps the frequent tears in Rituparna's darkcircled eyes, the confused expression in Bodhisatta's face when wife Monika (Anuradha Roy) tells him that she knew all along about his problem with his job, the antique, marble-topped table in the matriarch's bedroom as she prepares to retire for the night, as he closes in on every small detail.
Arghya Kamal Mitra's editing matches the rich quality of the film, while the single Tagore song acts like a metaphor, mending relationships, creating new ones, sustaining the ones that are already there. Sounds from outside the space of the film bring the outside world in at times, such as the blaring loudspeaker belting out songs from the neighbourhood's community pooja.
Debajyoti Misra's music, Indraneel Ghosh's art direction and Debi Haldar's make-up do fitting justice to the film.
Rituparno has absolute command over his actors throughout the film. Whether it is Madhabi as the matriarch or the deconstructed Prasenjit as the younger son-in-law, each one lives the role he/she is called upon to play. Rituparna excels as the younger daughter while Ratulshankar sparkles in his debut as Joy. While Arpita furthers the promise she revealed in Asookh.
Does this mean Utsav is a perfect film? Not really. There are three major glitches that could have be edited out, enriching the quality of the film. Firstly, the overindulgence with the Sisir episode, bringing out Mamata's bitterness with the family for having been forced to bend under filial pressures. This could be trimmed down a bit.
Also, isn't Sisir wanting to buy the house a bit too much of a coincidence?
Then there's Madhabi's sudden retreat into nostalgia where she reminisces about her revolutionary husband who turned her life into one of anxiety and fear. The latter is an oft-repeated Bengali cliche one does not expect of a director like Rituparno.
Did I call the film a finely packaged product? So what if I did? What's wrong if the product makes your time spent in front of the televison an aesthetically fulfilling and socially significant experience?
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