Rajkahini

Director: Srijit Mukherji | Year: 2015

I haven’t had such a bad time at the movies in a long time. Rajkahini was not only plodding and unengaging for the most part, it was also plain revolting so often.

What offended me the most about the film? Its insincerity. And its gratuitous scenes of sleaze and morbidity.

For a start it is difficult to fathom what the scenario of the partition on the eastern borders got to do with the goings on in the brothel. Since it is not the retelling of some historical incident one would think some insight about the partition violence would emerge from this narrative contrivance. But no such insight is forthcoming. Yes there is killing. There are rapes. So what’s new about that?

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So much of the film is taken up with detailing of the partition process and the goings on inside the brothel without any economy of selection. And the storytelling is so unengaging, jumping back and forth  between the brothel and  the partition office without anything to hold our interest. And what was the Wagah birder sequence doing there? Anything goes, if it looks remotely interesting, is it?

The basic premise of this novel-sounding narrative is itself so weak. Whoever has heard of a brothel in the middle of nowhere! What does the madame expect? That the customers will do a trek or pilgrimage to visit this sanctuary? And if Radcliffe Sahib has drawn a line on the map that has to be respected, I am sure this is not the only building that fell on the line? I am sure there was the provision for going around if such a thing happened. No school, hospital, temple, mosque or a bungalow fell on the line, only this brothel?

And the all  the key narrative contrivances are either clichéd, or childish, or mawkish, or ridiculous. Sen and Ilias are childhood friends. They both have close relatives who have been raped and killed, or nearly raped and killed.  Begum Jaan comes back to set up her kotha in the same house from where she had gone off in a doli. The brothel has a cache of guns and cartridges that would put any terrorist organization to shame. And the girls all become expert gun wielders after a few days of training and start staging a Gunfight at OK Carrol or Shootout at Lokhndwala.  The local goonda Kabir wearss a sacred thread and has been circumcised. How inventive! I could go on.

Yes there are such coincidences, exaggerations and childish inventions  in a Manmohan Desai films, but those films are play on a different key. Even a serous film like Matru Ki Bjli… also has scenes with level of absurdity. But that too has a different timbre. The key at which tat film plays is inspired madness not exploitative somber surface realism.

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And then the most revolting part …the sleaze and the depravity. Yes, the film is set in a brothel. So surprise us. Don’t show us bodies humping. Don’t give us the foul language. Don’t give us a catalogue of depravity you can think of.  Especially because none of this is telling us anything new or insightful about why people behave the way they do during an event like partition. And the scenes conceived and shown in the brothel are totally gratuitous, without any artistic veneer or aesthetic self-control. A man is shown humping a woman’s body while the camera catches her teary face for what seems like an eternity. There is a Nawab who can’t get it up without music, and he couldn’t bring along his damaged gramophone. So Begum Jaan has to sing. After the mastermoshai gets one of the girls into the tonga two men start raping her then and there and the tonga starts moving. We would have got the gist of what has happened if we had just seen the two men in the tonga. And the icing on the cake is the line “ Beshyader bawr hoyan babu hai.” A great revelation indeed! And there are many such cringe-worthy lines sprinkled throughout the film. ( “Pimps cannot LOVE, is it?” is another such gem. And the mawkish scene that follows is as sickening as all the scenes of violence and sleaze that litter the film. A grown up child says ‘ Mom, I want to play with you only”, and the mothers says, “ No, let me finish a little business and Then you can play.”  A teenaged girl strips herself naked and a policeman begins retching. Voyeuristic pleasure as well as moral indignation both have been served. Then there is the gruesome dog meat scene. Inventive, yes. Perhaps as shock-inducing as the severed horse head in Godfather. But contrast the economy and control with which that scene has been shot with the serial throwing up that goes on in this film and all the gruesome scenes that have come before and will come after and you can see we are either numbed or revolted rather than moved.

The master moshai’s character makes no sense whatsoever.  And the re-running of his talk with Begum Jaan to cook up a Rashomanesque scenario is as boring a narrative device as so many other scenes that go on and on after the point has been made. Take for example, the scene where they all declare that none of them wants to leave the kotha. We have to go through EACH ONE of them, including the thakuma, declaring their undying love for this haloed premise.

Then there is the climax. Begum Jaan is not only Begum Akthar and Rani Lakshmi Bai, she is also Rani Padmini committing Jauhar. And Thakuma has to read that particular story from Abanindranath Tahkur’s Rajkahini while fire is arging all around. Why? So that some scholarly reviewer can write a long paragraph making the connection and pontificate on the nature of sacrifice made by women down the ages. This is the kind of scenes we used to write in our college skits while trying to spoof an art-filmwala type filmmaker.

And why Abanindranath’s Rajkahini to start with? It woukd have been so much more natural for thakuma to have been reading the story of Behula-Lakhindar or some such brothel-grade pulp fiction than this high-falutin stuff. So why? Why Abanindranah? Why Manto? Why ‘Ohoroho tobo ahwaan procharito’ , so that a middle-class Bangali can indulge in some voyeuristic pleasure, some depraved indulgence under the cover of poignant partition drama, with suitable intellectual embellishment.

That is the insincerity that hurts the most. Almost all of the director’s earlier films had some gimmicks, some chaalaki or the other that struck a discordant note, but one overlooked them as there was a genuine story at the core that the director wanted to tell. And until Nirbak, there was an aesthetic register, a fir bit of self-control. But this one has no story to tell, no insights to offer, and a bagful of tricks to pander to your basest instincts, all based on human depravity.

I had planned to sit this one out, but somehow got trapped into seeing it. I wish I hadn’t.

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