Thoughts on a beautiful (and near-wordless) Bengali movie that won a couple of National Awards this year (Best First Film, Best Audiography).
In the last week, approximately 1200 people have lost their jobs in West Bengal. In a state of fear, panic and rage, people are taking to the streets to rally and protest. The Chief Minister has formed a committee to investigate the unprecedented recession. You’d expect a film that opens with these words (heard through a voiceover) to be unrelentingly bleak – but the word that kept coming to mind while watching Labour Of Love (Bengali title: Asha Jaoar Majhe) is “beautiful.” The first-time director, Aditya Vikram Sengupta, trained as a graphic designer, and his sense of composition is breathtaking. A woman steps out of the bath and walks across the floor; the camera gazes at a wet footprint, as it slowly dries up. A piece of cloth is hung to dry on a clothesline; its orange fills the frame.
Most filmmakers, while narrating a story set in a time of economic hardship, would let clutter and squalor seep into the visuals. It’s a way of adding an extra layer – we flinch at the content, we also flinch at the form. But Sengupta, who based his film on Italo Calvino’s story The Adventure of the Married Couple, seems to be saying that there’s beauty everywhere – if only we choose to look. Every filmmaking choice is justified. The film unfolds over the course of a day, and it follows the lives of a man (Ritwick Chakraborty) and a woman (Basabdatta Chatterjee) who aren’t named. The conceit works because their names are irrelevant. They’re one of the million faces we see on streets, and their anonymity is repeatedly underlined by shots that show us hands and feet but not the face. Who they are, their identity, isn’t important. Only what they do is – what they do to get through this day.
The day is as unremarkable as these people. When storytellers choose to restrict themselves to the events of a twenty-four-hour period, there’s usually something about the day that stands out. In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, it’s the day a demonstration is taking place protesting the US invasion of Iraq, the day the protagonist gets into an accident that will change everything. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it’s the day Clarissa Dalloway is throwing a party, the day a war veteran throws himself out of a window. In Before Sunset, it’s the day a man and a woman explore where they are in their lives, all these years later. In other words, it’s the day something of note happens. But in Labour Of Love, nothing happens. At least, nothing worth noting except the passage of hours and minutes.
Sengupta shows us these passages quite literally. The screenplay direction must have said: “Man buys fish.” This is how the scene plays out in the movie. The scales are shaved off, the fish is chopped and put into a cheap plastic bag and handed over to the man, and he hands over a note, and the shopkeeper takes the note and counts the money in the folds of her sari and hands him the change, and he takes the change and quickly ascertains it’s correct and leaves. The most interesting stretch is the shot of the fish when it is still alive, breathing in the shallow pool of water in a pan. The shot lasts about 10 seconds – it may not sound like much, but try counting out 10 seconds and imagine seeing a still shot of a fish for that duration. After a while, I became fascinated with the duration of these shots, these time passages in this hour-and-twenty-minutes film. About 40 seconds, as we wait for an elevator to come up. About 63 seconds, as we see the water in a cooking utensil evaporate slowly over a flame. About 78 seconds, as we see the man pedalling his cycle home (we see only his feet and the wheels). About 104 minutes, as we see the evening sun sink into the horizon.
The following is a short-film adaptation of the same Italo Calvino story.
These longueurs will no doubt exasperate some viewers. After a screening of Labour Of Love at the Venice film festival, the esteemed trade journal Hollywood Reporter dismissed it as “a will o’ the wisp art piece that seems more interested in beautifully photographing the texture of concrete walls and the wonder of oil frying in a pan than in telling a story.” But these walls, the oil in that pan – they are the story, these ordinary things in this ordinary life. Slowly, we learn that the man and the woman are married. (The film opens and closes, appropriately, with shehnai music.) She works the day shift, he works at night – so their time together is limited. And yet, they are in constant communication – say, through the oil in that frying pan that she uses to make the food that he will later eat. Or through her bindi stuck on the mirror that he sees his face in. Or through the shelf of gods in front of which both of them bow their heads in prayer. Or through the cut from the ceiling fan in his bedroom to the ones in her office. Or through their labour, which makes us look at the title in a new light: the labour that sustains love. He buys the fish. She cooks the fish. He soaks the clothes in detergent. She washes the clothes. It’s a silent duet sung through different halves of the day.
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