In his latest film Zulfiqar, director Srijit Mukherjee has travelled a considerable distance from his previous outing Rajkahini. From a brothel full of women in the middle of nowhere, what we have here is a neighbourhood full of men in the heart of the city. A ghetto which the film imagines to be a different nation altogether owing to its predominantly Muslim inhabitants, where the filthy streets are piled with waste and garbage breeding disease and crime in equal measures. And yet it is perhaps less offensive in content than Rajkahini because the film does eventually realize that it is waddling deep into Islamophobic territory and takes the binary way out of good Muslim versus the bad Muslim. But nonetheless one detects a sly and dishonest tendency as the director attempts to hide a typical generic gangster narrative beneath the literary and elite veils of Shakespearean tragedies.
The film deals with the Mafioso like organization called Syndicate, operating within Kolkata from the Muslim dominated neighbourhoods surrounding the dock area, mainly involved in smuggling, extortion and illegal real estate deals among other criminal activities. It follows the motivational and instinctive logic of pack animals, never allowing any individual to gain too much power over the public and hence the territory. When Zulfiqar Ahmed’s rise to power seems to go unchecked, some of his fellow members of the Syndicate conspire against him including his closest aide and old friend Bashir Khan. Zulfiqar’s death results in a revenge ride led by his nephew Akhtar and aided by those still loyal to his memory. And following the bloodbath, Akhtar ascends to the throne by killing off even his allies and thus wiping off any possible threats, challenges or competition. And in spite of all these events unfolding one after the other in the dock area, unlike the river, the narrative doesn’t flow.
The twin Shakespearean adaptation by the self-proclaimed ‘First Boy’ of Bengali film industry is as elaborate as it is superficial. And yet it is not entirely devoid of ideas which might come across as fresh and exciting especially in the regional mainstream context. The writer-director succeeds in carving out an interesting assortment of characters, rough edged, masculine and even violent, out of the regular stock of Bengali actors such as Kaushik Sen as Bashir (a reimagined Brutus) who brings a lot of physicality to the character or Dev as the mute Markaz Ali, a role far removed from his usual Khokababu (lover boy) persona. In fact the idea of Bashir and Kashinath, the honourable and the corrupt, being impaled by the same sword also resonates with interesting implications. But unfortunately for First Boy, ideas alone don’t make a film. And that is where the downhill ride begins.
It might sound incredulous, especially in the context of a Shakespearean adaptation, but the entire film is marked by the lack of character arcs and scene developments. It almost seems that the writing department invested their entire efforts in undoing the job by the greatest writer of scenes and characters in history, reducing the whole ‘Shakespearean’ aspect to a mere figment of a plot. Even the decision to split the film in distinct halves, adapting the two plays, is puzzling to say the least and it goes completely off target since most of the principal players are dead following a climax, by the time the entire Antony and Cleopatra trope begins and it progresses with an agonizingly tedious pace till the end. Furthermore, the character of Rani Talapatra, based on Cleopatra, is as ill written as it is poorly performed by Nusrat Jahan. Contrary to the intended strength and enigma of a conniving femme fatale, her complete inability to emote reduces her into a snivelling victim of circumstances, thriving on her helplessness. But it was the narrative thread of Akhtar’s (Octavius Caesar) rise to power which proved to be assault on the senses as Ankush Hazra looked as out of place and ill-at-ease as a dead fly in a bowl of milk. He neither had the appearance or the acting skills to come across as a ruthless crime boss a la Michael Corleone in The Godfather who’d stop at nothing to reach the top.
And not to put too fine a point on it, this sense of haste resulting from poor screen writing lacking in characterizations and development of scenarios, seems to plague the film throughout and amplifies alarmingly when complemented with bad editing technique and decisions. Scenes merely follow one another instead of leading from one to the next resulting in an exasperating lateral movement of the film robbing off any sense of depth, both literally and figuratively. The images in the film seems to range from video games to television to god-knows-what’s-happening. The latter becoming most evident in action scenes or when there is much movement on screen. These scenes are among the most poorly crafted and executed where the entire audio visual communication in terms of logic, motive and spatiality are discarded for smaller shot durations, dizzyingly stylized camera movements and an artificial kinetic energy generated through editing. As a result it becomes impossible to figure out who is chasing whom or looking at what direction or the positions of characters or anything that would help the audience make a sense of things. And consequently, everything is elaborately explained in words in the following scenes making the film more verbose and bringing down the pace to almost a crawl.
In spite of not-well written scenes and the overall inconsistencies in characterizations, some of the actors have managed to hold their grounds. The biggest surprise has definitely been Dev whose turn as a mute and loyal henchman has left quite a mark. In the absence of his delivery, his body language and the earthly naiveté in his face resulted in the most accessible character in the film. Even his death generates an affect which is otherwise absent even during the demise of more significant characters. Jisshu Sengupta on the other hand is turning out to be a gem of an actor especially in his villainous turns. As Kashinath (Cassius), he didn’t have scenes or dialogues and yet with his sheer presence, he managed to communicate every despicable aspects of the character. Rahul’s performance as Laltu Das provided an effective moral centre and viewing position although one might wonder why this tale of crime requires the voice of the lawman.
Srijit Mukherjee described his seventh film Nirbaak as his diploma film and going by that he is a professional filmmaker now with a graduation degree behind him. In Zulfiqar he comes across to be less offensive and less pretentious compared to his earlier films. Hopefully in time he will grasp the craft of cinematic narration. Till then, as Cassius said about the Noble Brutus, “you have no such mirrors as will turn your hidden worthiness into your eye”.
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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