Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Sex… and the city-based thriller”

Posted on November 1, 2013

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On seeking out, um, interesting films at the Mumbai Film Festival. And how the Bengali film industry seems to have managed a viable middle-of-the-road cinema.

The most interesting film I saw at the Mumbai Film Festival was Srijit Mukherji’s Baishe Srabon. I didn’t expect it to be the most interesting film. That slot, I thought, would go to The Canyons, which Wikipedia coyly calls “an erotic thriller-drama,” which is a little like labelling The Avengers an… “action movie.” The Canyons features a topless Lindsay Lohan and a bottomless James Deen, the porn star who, in a most entertaining (and eye-opening) GQ profile titled The Well-Hung Boy Next Door, revealed that he will not “dress as a clown and have sex with someone; nor will he permit someone dressed as a clown to have sex with him.” Why, you may ask, did I pick a film whose leading man confesses to such shocking prejudice? One reason, of course, is that any self-respecting film buff visiting a film festival seeks out at least one movie with lots of “scenes,” and as I missed Blue Is the Warmest Colour, otherwise known as “that lesbian sex movie,” I had to make do with The Canyons.

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But more importantly – um, or at least as importantly – the director is Paul Schrader, who wrote (or co-wrote) Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and who directed the extraordinary Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. (The score by Philip Glass is equally extraordinary.) When a writer or a filmmaker achieves a certain stature, anything he does is always interesting, even if it isn’t always successful in achieving its aims. The Canyons, though, is one of those films that appears more meaningful than it is, and it’s filled with some of the worst acting in recent memory. (Lohan is great, though.) Schrader seems to be out to prove that despite orgies and murders and cheating and tension between lovers, he can manage to make a complete snooze. (I wondered, later, what Brian De Palma might have made of this trashy screenplay, by the notorious Bret Easton Ellis. At least, there would have been some style.) Afterwards, I ran into the festival director Srinivasan Narayanan and told him how disappointing the film was. He said he wasn’t impressed himself, but he picked the film because “even a great director should be allowed to stumble.”

Anyway, back to Baishe Srabon. I found it interesting because it addresses one of my pet issues: movies-for-some versus movies-for-all. How do you make a classy product – filled with lofty Bengali poetry, in this instance – and yet lure in audiences? That’s a riddle a lot of filmmakers have been trying to crack, and Mukherji appears to have done it. On the surface, the film’s success is not surprising. It’s a thriller about a serial killer on the loose. There’s a romantic subplot involving young, on-again-off-again lovers. And there’s one of the greatest “hero introduction shots” I’ve encountered. We see the hero – Prabir Roy Chowdhury, played by Prosenjit Chatterjee – only from the back, at first, in a flashback. And when we finally meet him, he establishes his superiority (over a rookie cop played by Parambrata Chatterjee) so thoroughly, so entertainingly, we’re left in little doubt about who’s boss. There’s a lesson here: how a fifty-plus star can be the centre of a movie – a commercial hit – even while playing his age.

Still, there’s all that poetry, all those longueurs… how did the general junta take to it? The Kolkata-based film scholar Shoma Chatterji, who seemed surprised that this “old film” (released in 2011) had been screened at this year’s festival, told me that three factors contributed to the film’s success. (1) There were a lot of filthy abuses in the dialogue, which became popular with youngsters. (When I protested that I saw nothing very objectionable in the subtitles, she laughed and said that the abuses were untranslatable.) (2) It had music by Anupam Roy, an “overnight sensation.” (3) It gave a new image to Prosenjit. Chatterji said that he was always a huge hit with the masses, to the extent that he couldn’t shoot in the interiors without being mobbed, but this film helped him cross over to the classes. When I mentioned that he’d already done “class” movies with the likes of Rituparno Ghosh, she said that those films had a niche audience, in Kolkata, but “this was different.”

Arijit Dutta, film exhibitor, dismissed the role of the star. He said that he’s seen too many films with stars “go for a toss,” and that films like Baishe Srabon – which he categorised as “urban genre Bengali cinema,” made for the “urban, educated audience” in Kolkata and the immediate suburbs – were director’s films. He said that the success of this type of film – “neither too arty, nor too commercial” – depended on PR, positioning, marketing and timing of release, and, finally, the strengths of the film itself. When I asked him how the Bengali film industry – unlike other regional industries – has managed to make this genre commercially viable, he said that the audience was very evolved. I’m not sure I buy that. I think it has more to do with sensible budgeting and good marketing. Dutta said that these films are here to stay. They have eaten into the market of the more commercial films by almost 25 per cent – as the success of Baishe Srabon and Mishor Rohoshyo (Mukherji’s latest film) have convinced more theatres to screen this kind of cinema. There’s just one problem. These films don’t play in the second-run theatres. “So if one of them bombs, it’s a total bomb.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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Posted in: Cinema: Bengali