By Ananya Dutta Gupta
It is interesting that Atanu Ghosh should have named an earlier film of his, Rupkatha Noy (‘No Fairy Tale’). For in his latest, as well as in several others that I have watched, Ghosh seems to be exploring the power of the fairy tale to convey the unhappiest of truths while holding up the possibility of a happy outcome. In short, contrary to what their condescending label might suggest, fairy tales at their best are open-ended texts, embodying promise and deferral, rather than satiation. As Ghosh’s mercurial street musician in Aaro Ek Prithibi reminds the glibly sceptical Ayesha, “What is wrong with life pretending to be like cinema once in a while?” Tellingly, this Falstaffian Srikanto Munshi is played by Kaushik Ganguly, whose Cinemawala (2016) paid gushing tribute to Bengal’s enduring love for the magic of celluloid. In Aaro Ek Prithibi, cinema returns the compliment.
As a storyteller who does not necessarily see realism and fantasy as contrary impulses, Atanu Ghosh seems to have picked up from where Tapan Sinha left cinema in Bengal. Aaro Ek Prithibi, however, is not a magical realist fantasy in the same sense in which Ghosh’s Abby Sen (2015) was. That sci-fi adventure, deploying time travel as a means of setting the present right, has an unmistakable kinship with Sinha’s Galpo Holeo Shottyi (1966). In Aaro Ek Prithibi, no such quick fix capsule is available to pop into one’s mouth. The post-pandemic, post-Brexit world of London’s immigrants, legal and illegal, white and coloured, is viciously cutthroat.
Ghosh does not use the fairy tale or the romance in the same literary manner, say, as Sinha does in Jhinder Bondi (1961). As a rule, Ghosh does not adapt stories from literature. The script in Aaro Ek Prithibi offers apposite anecdotal references to classics as Bengalis know them, not least of them being the very name Srikanto. However, like all preceding full-length feature films by Ghosh, stretching all the way back to Angshumaner Chhobi (2009), Aaro Ek is an original story, fashioned for narrative cinema out of contemporary lived-in experience. This is evident from the screenplay itself, and the way in which Ghosh slowly builds up a sequence of finely crafted scenes. Each of these scenes is a delicate visual construct, distinct in its use of light and darkness, indoors and outdoors. If the change of light helps map the transitions, then the measured, restrained sound track, complete with some deeply evocative lyrics, preserves the free flow.
This fluidity is central to the cinematic flânerie that best describes Ghosh’s art of storytelling. He is the quietly watchful flâneur around the city and a little beyond, peering underneath the otherwise placid carpet of normality with a gaze that is both piercing and humorous. There is no overt flamboyance and sensationalism to his narrative style. No shock therapy. No tear-jerking. Aaro Ek Prithibi has all the masala it takes to make a successful thriller. There are taut, tense moments when it feels like one. And yet thrill is hardly the film’s mainstay. The experience is comparably muted in Ek Phali Rodh (2014), which uses disruptions to the everyday pattern to confront people with uncomfortable questions. Yet it deliberately stays away from the gloom and snarling frisson pervading Mrinal Sen’s Ekdin Protidin (1980).
Ghosh, then, is a slow exfoliator. He has been taking time getting here, getting to a point where he can take his cinema of flânerie to an elsewhere that nonetheless occupies a large and powerful place in the urban Bengali imagination. Aaro Ek Prithibi begins with an arrival at a specific port of entry and ends with an uncertain departure towards an uncertain destination. What happens in between challenges us to rethink what we know about ourselves and others, how our everyday differentiation between familiar and strange, known and alien, right and wrong comes crashing down in crisis situations.
The Bengali filmgoer is no stranger to a filmy montage of London’s most touristy sights. Post-globalisation, Tollywood song sequences often present gyrating heroes and their eye-candy dancing partners outside Piccadilly Circus. In artsy Bengali films such as Aniruddha Choudhury’s Anuranan (2006), on the other hand, we see lonely housewives window-shopping in posh London neighbourhoods. As to the league of Hindi blockbusters like Namastey London (2007) or the iconic DDLJ (1995), they are emphatically about wealthy NRIs who have “arrived”.
Aaro Ek Prithibi pulls off a post-colonial noir by uncovering a London that Bengali cinema and the Bengali spectator have not explored. Readers of Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart (2010) may have encountered similar vignettes of the London underbelly. Ghosh peels away all the glitz of the erstwhile capital of a far-flung Empire and, mind you, there is a loaded reference to Downton Abbey from, of all persons, a young Ethiopian immigrant. Ghosh destabilises the fantasies that fuel the desires that in turn sustain the NRI dream. It is worth adding parenthetically, though, that none of this gets in the way of Ghosh and his cinematographer keeping the beauty of the city of London firmly in focus. In setting about uncovering what is literally yet another world (aaro ek prithibi) within London, Ghosh’s story envisions an increasingly tangled world of petty crime, hacking mafia, online gaming, casual prostitution, and homeless illegal immigrants. His objective is to show us how in the real world, fair and foul fail to remain neatly boxed categories. The distance between Ghosh’s London and provincial Naihati or middle-class Kolkata is thus geographical rather than moral or social.
When the savvy prabashi girl from Benaras asks the newly married and newly arrived protagonist, “Kolkata na Dhaka?”, the reply succinctly deflates our metropolitan bias. The Naihati girl’s readiness for the “brave new world”, mapped through little changes in mien and brief contextual disclosures, keeps growing on the viewer. There are no heroes in this story. But by the end of it there is certainly a heroine. An unexpected heroine. One of Ghosh’s greatest strengths is his casting. He is predisposed neither towards the veteran, nor the first-timer. As director, he keeps his options open.
It is crucial to the plot that this soft-spoken, reticent but inwardly resilient protagonist should have a troubled family history. In fact, she finds it in herself to trust a homeless stranger who accosts her in a park with the promise of assistance because she is the loving daughter of a petty criminal, a Micawber-ish dreamer who is prepared to live in and out of jail as long as he can send his daughter to an English medium school. In Ghosh’s noir-meets-fairy-tale, unrespectable people prove to be good Samaritans and impel us to re-adjust our assessment of the bases of human bonding. Not only does the daughter prefer her flawed father to her conventionally moral and dutiful mother, skills she picks up from him prove vital to her survival in the foreign and alien world of London.
Ghosh has already explored the grey area of interpersonal connection in Robibaar (2019), where after years of shunning her con-man ex-boyfriend, an independent researcher in criminology finally agrees to strike up a compromise with him because he has a set of skills and the experiential knowledge indispensable to her book-project. Having said that, Ghosh does not reduce the ex-lover and the father to useful pawns. Nor does he glamorise crime in Aaro Ek Prithibi or Robibaar. Criminals remain losers. Nor does Robibaar pit archetypal opposites in an epic contest between a moral woman and a human beast the way Silence of the Lambs (1991) does. Ghosh’s objective is subtler and more cautious. He will perhaps cross the line and explore darker materials when he feels ready for it.
For now, in Aaro Ek Prithibi, too, there are two kinds of people. People who do wrong for the wrong reasons and people who stray and do wrong out of relatively venal lapses, sometimes even for weirdly right reasons. Ghosh sticks with the latter and kills off the former. He is not afraid of being sentimental. He does not associate the urban temper with cynicism. There is room in Aaro Ek Prithibi for a third lot, namely people who help others survive. The film pays homage in particular to kindly English ladies, the Mrs Hudsons of the land.
What clicks between people is not the mechanical usefulness of one person to another, but the connecting force of real stories from real life. People fall for one another’s stories, grey or white, as long as they manifest an honest, abundant and abiding love of life itself, a passionate commitment to something larger and deeper than what meets the eye. Hence the wonder at the strangeness of truth that runs through Aaro Ek like a leitmotiv.
Binisutoy (2021) is, in fact, the very inverse of Aaro Ek, in that its protagonists seek to relieve the ennui of their privileged lives by taking on a clandestine, recreational game of role play and secretly living inside the stories that they create. Both films, the one where nothing ordinarily happens, and the other where ordinary people are swept into a vortex of unexpected occurrences and encounters, place their protagonists at the junction of fact and fiction, truth and lying. Both invite the viewer to realise that worlds must stray so that worlds may meet and mingle. Ghosh’s strayers, be it Srikanto Munshi or glamorous Managing Director Sraboni Barua, are respectable picaros, turned on by their hunger to see shades of life outside the ambit of urban Bengali-ness. This hunger for life is not to be equated with greed for the good life. Their talisman is this profoundly concrete, vital, but non-materialist desire. The examples of Sraboni and Pratiksha alert us to Ghosh’s natural womanism. Women in his stories are not intended or contrived to look agentic. Some already are, while others become as they make their way through the plot of life.
In the end, Aaro Ek Prithibi brings together essentially two worldviews: the one privileges truth-seeking as a rational enterprise and the other foregrounds affective truth, with its less concrete but not necessarily shakier moorings in faith, love, hope, compassion and goodness.
It is remarkable that Atanu Ghosh should continue to find fresh stories and fresh faces within the seemingly limited, unsensationally quotidian circle of life that is urban, middle- and upper-middle-class Kolkata. It is even more remarkable that each new story should inspire him to stretch his cinematic art little by little to accommodate these ever-expanding worlds enlivened by his ever-expansive world-view.
Ananya Dutta Gupta teaches at Visva-Bharati, and writes academic articles, poetry, travelogues, book reviews, and reflective essays on literature, culture and society. Her books currently in circulation include a revised Orient Blackswan edition of Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene, Book One (2012) and a debut collection of bird poems, for tomorrow the birds might still sing (Birutjatio, 2021). She has realised lately that she is more interested in cinema than she likes to acknowledge.
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