Bengali films continue on their dismaying path as Khawto, a psychological thriller directed by Kamaleswar Mukherjee displays all the “hallmarks” of the so-called urban Bengali cinema. The narration has no sense of economy, the scenarios and dialogue are extremely cliché, the cinematography serves no other purpose than mere recording, editing fails to generate any rhythm and the art department has stuffed every corner of the frame with junk, as usual. As for the acting, the best one can say is that few of them are not as insipid as the rest. And then there is Anupam Roy. In a rather twisted sense, one can say that while form is temporary, class is permanent!

Film after film Bengali Cinema has shown little or no efficiency in the technical departments. In fact it often comes across as something that is totally ignored in the process. It might be a wise decision to exclude them from further discussion as well. However what Khawto attempts and fails to accomplish is somewhat different from the usual industry offering. The film is about a writer called Nirbed Lahiri (Prosenjit Chatterjee) who took a self-exile in a desolate sea side bungalow twenty years back, fleeing from his life and memories in the city. When a young couple, Rishav (Ronodeep Bose) and Sohaag (Tridha Choudhury) run into him, Lahiri narrates to them the incidents of his life, his fame, his affair and carnal misadventures.

Now the problem of the film is in the very imagination of this plot in a Bengali cultural context. Nirbed Lahiri is depicted as an author of roman noir, pulp novels dealing with crime and erotica narrated in a modern existentialist voice, a la James M Cain. The success of his novels have resulted in wide critical acclaim and a certain respectability in the ‘Bhadralok’ cultural milieu. Therein lie the two-fold contradiction. Firstly genre fiction is something that has been largely ignored in Bengali Literature in terms of serious and extensive practice. As for something anywhere even near to roman noir, the names that come to the mind are Nihar Ranjan Gupta and Swapankumar, both of whom are considered extremely low brow and have not enjoyed the critical acclaim of Nirbed Lahiri in the film. The Bengali literary canon doesn’t have a place for Nirbed Lahiri and that is why the film needs to create an imaginary canon of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville which are completely off the mark and throw in phrases like “Father of self-destruction” and “Dark romantic” or random quotes from Manik Bandopadhyay which actually do nothing to help the cause.

Furthermore, the film heavily depends on an atmosphere which in turn depends a lot on the use of excerpts from Lahiri’s writings heard in a voice over. A familiar trope borrowed from the film noir which had its roots in the hardboiled school of American Literature, these kinds of voice over narrations demand a certain language which has the unique combination of an everyday mundaneness and the destructive poetic sense of a man facing his death. As already mentioned, Bengali literature do not have this tradition and hence the film has no template to follow. As a result the onus is on the script writer to arrive at a language with the necessary resonating qualities. But the film fails to do so and consequently the language of the voice over becomes overtly literary, something acceptable by the educated middle class, but lacks the precision or sharpness of an urban borderline existence found in the words of American writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc.

On hindsight, the failure of the film has less to do with poor craftsmanship or technicalities. That, unfortunately, has become symptomatic of contemporary Bengali Cinema. Khawto failed with the inception of its idea itself. Not only Bengali cinema, but the larger apparatus of Bengali Culture doesn’t accommodate a figure like Nirbed Lahiri. Hence the very imagination becomes historically disconnected, resulting in a lie! And given such weak foundations, the entire body of the film is extremely ill-at-ease with itself all through. But before going about mending that, Bengali films must take an oath to stay away from referring to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, if they have any intention to be taken seriously at all.

Arup Ratan Samajdar

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