Friday, May 02, 2008

Jonoiko Mahapurush-er Kahini

For almost 30 years without a break (from the mid 50s to the early 80s), Satyajit Ray churned out one film a year. In his characteristic modesty, Ray had claimed that the reason for his prolific output was the need to keep his filming unit busy as most of them were exclusively associated with him and they had to be given work.
While most of these films have won numerous awards and have been accepted as masterpieces by diverse audiences at home and abroad, some of them have received reasonably harsh criticism as well. Though, the criticism – like in the case of most icons – was seldom balanced.

For example, Chiriyakhana (The Menagerie) was panned by the critics. Ray acknowledged that his involvement in the film was perfunctory to start with and he took on the director’s mantle only because his name lent a certain commercial weightage to the project (coordinated by his assistants). But the film went on to win the Best Director prize at the National Awards for the year. Ray was quite amused at this and wrote as such in a letter to Marie Seton.

The other film, which is generally felt to be one of Ray’s lesser works, is Kapurush-O-Mahapurush (The Coward and the Holy Man) – a double bill of two short films, of which the second one (Mahapurush) is generally considered to be a rather weak adaptation of a landmark work of Bengali literature.

Of course, my problem is that I liked Mahapurush (the film) way too much and feel more than a little surprised at the rather cavalier attitude towards the film, shared by critics and some of the viewers as well. In fact, one comment to this effect is the reason behind this post – which is an attempt to defend Mahapurush’s stature as a great comedy as well as a brilliant adaptation equaling, if not surpassing, the original, which is a novella by Parashuram (Birinchi Baba). It has an extremely contemporary theme, that of the Indian social dependence on gurus and the large number of con-men in this field.

It tells the story of a god-man who lands up at the household of an affluent lawyer, spins a web of fantastic stories and looks to usurp the lawyer’s mansion as his ashram and the entire family as his disciples. The spanner in the works comes in the form of a suitor of the lawyer’s daughter, who sees the Baba as a serious threat to his romantic pursuits. His group of friends – who are more than a little appalled at the Baba’s tall tales – join to expose the Baba.
Apart from the Baba – brought to life on screen with great panache by Charuprakash Ghosh – the story had a series of excellently executed cameos. The Baba’s disciples, the friend circle of the suitor and even the smallest of characters were brilliantly cast and performed. The biggest addition to the film is probably the character of the Baba’s assistant (which is insignificant in the book), which is played on screen by one of Bengal’s finest comedians – Robi Ghosh.

In any story about a conman, there can be two parts.
The first part is the build up of the conman’s stories, which establish his aptitude and attitude. The second part is the puncturing of his spell by the hero(es). In the film, Ray inserted a very humourous third part in between, which was the hatching of the plan after seeing the conman in action. Here, the central character acknowledges the talents of the god-man as a erudite, intelligent super-actor. Somehow, this scene reminded me of Sherlock Holmes describing Moriarty as one of the most intelligent men ever. And indeed, Birinchi Baba was no ordinary mortal. For somebody who had seen Nebuchadnezzar as a nabalok!

I think the film did a great job of translating the verbal humour of the film into visual elements and this led excising some of the great one-liners from the book. Obviously, this rankled for anybody who had read and loved the novella (including me). But when you see the quality of the additions, the deletions become more acceptable.

The book had a perfunctory sentence to declare that the renowned advocate (identified as Buchki’s – the ‘heroine’s - father) had taken up a guru. The context in the book was a discussion between a group of friends on the proliferation of god-men in the country. While the descriptions of the various kinds of Babas were hilarious, they were essentially word sketches and translating them on screen would have meant having reams of dialogue or depicting them live (leading to long running times devoted to peripheral elements).
Instead, Ray chose to write a scene (not in the book) in which the Baba meets the lawyer and his daughter on a train and they get completely taken in by a psychological trick. The Baba made him believe that the Sun rose that morning because of him!
Every one of Baba's tall stories was presented in a different style, with perfect visual buildup that one is forced to hang on to every word. Be it Eisntein's consultation with the Baba or having roast hippos for lunch - the stories come thick and fast.

Mahapursh - despite critics feeling contrary - is, in my humble opinion, a great comedy as it follows all the requirements of one. A tight plot, brilliantly performed ensemble roles, snappy one-liners and a rousing climax. The film does a perfect job of threading together all the visual elements of a cult classic.

And if that was not enough, there is the ultimate depiction of the transience of NOW.
Imagine your right index finger to be the indicator of past and the left index finger depicting future. The right index moves clockwise and blazes away. The left index moves anti-clockwise and hurtles towards you. The point at which they meet is the present - Now. You cannot catch it. You cannot stop it. It comes and goes in a flash.
Those who have read A Brief History of Time would remember the two cones of past and future, with their vertices meeting at present. Only, Birinchi Baba said it about two-and-half decades earlier. And yes, while you are at it - you might as well try moving your right hand in a clockwise direction and the left hand anti-clockwise - simultaneously!

The greatest cinematic genius this country has ever produced wrote novels, drew pictures, designed book covers, invented fonts, composed music, designed costumes & sets, translated, made advertisments - and as the index-finger-rotation-in-opposite-directions suggests, was not behind a few parlour tricks either.
And 87 years on, they still don't make 'em like that any more!


March Hare said...

ah. another universally criticised ray movie is 'ghore-baire'. probably because of swatilekha being chosen for bimola.

a quick defense of 'ghore-baire' hoye jaak ebar?

and for the record, i loved 'kapurush o mohapurush'.

udayan said...

I liked kapurush far better than mahapurush in relative terms... but like any other fan cannot quite comprehend why mahapurush was panned so much.

On the other hand, do not think the sheer magic of the parasuram story got surpassed in the film. It was an impossible task.

bongopondit said...

I actually had no idea that Mahapurush was panned by some critics. Most people I know have always loved the film.
Nevertheless, thanks for writing about one of my favorite Ray films.

My own favorite scenes in Birinchi Baba include those of Professor None and his scheme for hyrdolysing grass, and the dialogue: 'Gandar-er Mangsho ? Oh theek pao jabe - aajkal New Market-e to sob-i pao jai' :)

(not to mention the wonderful wordplays like: 'Loke bole Crucifixion, Aami boli Cruci-fact')

Anonymous said...

Mohapurush was the first bengali film my younger brother fell for. He has grown up out of bengal, and never been a huge bengali reading-viewing person. But I saw him practice the 'rotating-index-fingers' gimmick for a year, till he got it right, and ROFL listening to the punch lines in the movie (I doubt he knew where New Market is)...

For me, that is the biggest achievement of this film. It made a cartoon watching bengali kid into a movie watchin-book reading bangali chhele, interested in listening to and solving bengla word-play.

As for me, the film is too good. I have never read the book anyway.