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Is Aparna Sen's latest film 'Arshinagar' her biggest disappointment in the recent times?

Monojit Lahiri | IBNLive Specials

Updated:January 12, 2016, 12:58 PM IST
Is Aparna Sen's latest film 'Arshinagar' her biggest disappointment in the recent times?
During my innumerable interactions and conversations with the late, evergreen Dev Anand, one stands out. It was a few months before he left us in year 2011. After exchanging a few, warm pleasantries, I confessed to him that I was always very curious about one thing, (I had to word it tactfully) that why he didn’t quite get the same attention, accolade and appreciation as a film director that he did as a glorious star? Why none of his films (post-78, last being ‘Des Pardes’) didn’t remotely resonate with the masses? What happened? Who went wrong? The once dazzling Raju (‘Guide’) well into his 80s, flashed his trademark, toothless smile, tightened his light pullover slung carelessly over his frail shoulders and with typical, nodding-head and finger-wagging style, responded with a startling comeback only Dev Anand could unleash. “Monojeeet, ek baat samajh le. It is the audience that flopped – not my movies! They are not open, modern and evolved. They are stuck in the same conventional Bollywood themes and treatment. Mera sochne ka tarika alag hai, new-age hai, always racing at breakneck speed. Neither the industry, critics, nor audiences have been able to keep up with my creative place or thinking. Their loss, yaar.”

I flashback to this amazing anecdote, not to ridicule the great, charming star’s slightly exaggerated delusions of grandeur, but to share with readers the simple fact that for creative people, when their project, powered by two hundred percent dedication, passion and energy doesn’t fetch the kind of results expected, it is tempting to go the Dev saab route … or declare the two greatest cliché on earth “the audience are not cinema-literate” or “the film was before its time!”

Aparna Sen’s ‘Arshinagar’, which hit the theatres in Kolkata on Christmas eve, rode in on huge expectations. Quite naturally too. From ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ in the early eighties to 2013 ‘Goynar Baksho’, Sen’s ‘Japanese Wife’, ‘Mr. & Mrs. Iyer’, ‘Iti Mrinalini’ and ‘Paromitar Ek Din’- all have been acclaimed universally as a class act nationally and internationally and considered Kolkata’s pride and joy. But Sen’s latest offering however, seems to have – for the first time in her distinguished career – not really connected with either her zillions of hard-core fans or new audiences who were curious to check out how this musical Bengali adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would pan out. Disappointing, surprising, even shocking was the general feedback of audiences that comprised both young and old. Since films – for both art-house guys and masala manufacturers – are ultimately made for the public, the report card lies in their hands and the film makers must pull back and listen to their version of what went wrong.

First thing first. It is not unusual for gifted, creatively-driven film makers to want to cut loose, breakaway and try a new genre, excited by an idea, thought, storyline or concept. This rush of blood is seldom influenced by how-the-audience-will-react factor, zonked as it is by the seductive quality of the idea. Sen’s idea of making ‘Arshinagar’ surely was no different. As noted scholar Partha Chatterjee pointed out in his insightful review of the film ‘A different Future’ [Telegraph Dec 31, 2015] “Brilliantly innovative, Sen has combined the natural realism of the cinema with the staged dramatic narration of the theatre, to produce a form never seen in Bengali cinema before. What marks Arshinagar as a landmark in Bengali cinema is the fact that formal innovation in commercial entertainment is always a risky business, since producers, actors & audiences have deep stakes in the comfort and pf settled conventions. But if no one is bold enough to break the form, how is the miasma of cloying sentimentality and nostalgia – that currently hangs over Bengali cinema – ever going to be lifted? Everyone who wishes for a different future for cinema in West Bengal will/should congratulate Sen for her remarkably courageous achievement in Arshinagar.”

While this superbly articulated POV of an evolved and sophisticated mind must be respected, it is critical to checkout voices from the paying public – many of whom are hard-core Aparna Sen fans – that seems to have blitzed both the collective minds of filmgoers and social media. Also the masses, who view film primarily as entertainment, but consume any value-addition with joy if its lucidly and uncomplicatedly presented [as in almost all Sen’s films] are not really expected to share the same informed and refined sensibilities as Chatterjee’s, right? Their general take is: ‘Arshinagar’ is not an Aparna Sen film! It is a khichdi of drama, music, dance, rhyme, fantasy, reality and heaven knows what else! In trying to do lots, it ends up doing nothing! ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a romantic tragedy … here there is little romance and even less tragedy! Everything is stagey, contrived, theatrical – where is Aparna Sen’s core brand value? It lacks both body and soul. To Aparna Sen’s dedicated fans, the film lacks her matchless and inimitable trademark touches. To Dev’s masala devotees, where is their sexy, hot star’s dialoguebaazi or jhatka action? The result is – mass confusion, mixed buzz and infectious negativity.

So, what is the takeout from Arshinagar’s audience response? While one school of thought believes that the consumer is God, public, the king and it is they who make or break a film because once it is out in the public domain, it is their voting-with-tickets that count. Another challenges this proposition with their counter argument. They dismiss summarily the popular bray of today’s audiences are very intelligent and discerning and point towards their collective approval of soppy nostalgia-dripping fare or stuff that - cosmetically in form or content – attempt something different. Real, revolutionary, game-changing, path-breaking stuff that slams the status quo and flies a different trajectory is both confusing and unacceptable for this tunnel viewed lot. Where is the ability or desire to embrace change and welcome a new, exciting genre with open minds? Sure, it’s a tough call but quality cinema – audacious and adventurous – is not like Bata shoes … customised, remember?! At the end of the day, creative, path-breaking, game changers can only rise and shine if they are complemented by a similar, compatible audience, not a cluster stuck on the Jurassic notion of stereotype …

What’s your take, esteemed reader?
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