When I read the news of Soumitra Chatterjee’s passing away, my first thought was: I need to write a tribute, talk about how much I liked this actor. Then, reality crept in. It’s not as if I’ve seen too many films that starred Soumitra Chatterjee. Charulata, Kapurush, Jhinder Bondi, Aranyer Din Raatri, Sonar Kella, one of the three episodes of Teen Kanya… and that was it. I didn’t recall having seen any of his other films.
Which might sound odd; how could one like an actor so much based on only such a handful of films? But I suppose when you’re looking at quality rather than quantity, it can work. And Soumitra Chatterjee, even in the few films of his that I’ve seen, proved himself a memorable actor. Not just handsome, not just superficially charismatic, but also so very talented. His ‘coward’ of Kapurush is so very real, so flawed and believable a protagonist; his Mayurvahan in Jhinder Bondi is a deliciously evil portrayal of the flamboyant, boyishly attractive yet very wicked Rupert of Hentzau. It’s easy to see why a bored and neglected housewife would fall in love with this young man in Charulata, and he is Feluda. Sharp, intelligent, well-read (and intelligent and well-read are apt descriptions of the man in real life too, from what I gather).
But a full-fledged tribute, a run-down of all his best films: no, that was not something I thought I would be capable of. Instead, I decided to commemorate the life and career of Soumitra Chatterjee by watching one film I’d only heard of in passing, never really got down to seeing.
Barnali begins a couple of days before a wedding. Trideep Chandra Sarkar (Kamal Mitra)’s daughter is marrying Dr Saileshwar Ghosh (N Vishwanathan), and the household is aflutter. Because everything must be just right in order to impress those who matter. It’s a question of the Sarkar prestige, their standing among ‘respectable’ people. How the venue of the wedding will be decorated, what paper the invitation cards will be printed on (it’s been flown in especially from Bombay), even the invitees themselves. Mr Sarkar is very, very particular about all of that, even going personally to invite a VIP whom he hopes to be able to wheedle a contract out of…
Mr Sarkar’s nephew, Ashesh (Soumitra Chatterjee) also goes out with a bunch of invitations, to be distributed to people in the neighbourhood. He has a lot of trouble finding one particular address, and after asking several passersby, he finally manages to get to the place. No. 41, which stands in a small lane, a tiny and nondescript house.
This turns out to be the home of a school teacher named Biman Choudhary (Pahadi Sanyal), who lives here with his wife and two daughters, Aloka (Sharmila Tagore) and her little sister Triloka. The Choudhary family is a little surprised that Trideep Sarkar would have deigned to invite them for his daughter’s wedding, but Ashesh assures them that they have been invited, they must come. He shuffles through the bunch of invitations he’s been carrying about, but cannot find the card addressed to Mr Choudhary. Never mind, Mr Choudhary assures him. That’s a formality, we will come.
When Ashesh is gone, hurrying away to get back to distributing invitations, Mrs Choudhary wonders how someone as wealthy and (presumably snooty) as Mr Sarkar would even have come to know of their existence, let along invite them for the wedding. Her husband says that these are probably invitations meant for the entire neighbourhood. Everybody’s invited.
But when Ashesh gets back to Trideep Sarkar’s home, it is to find that he’s made a blunder. Sitting there chatting with Mr Sarkar is a visitor, Nagen Babu, who lives nearby, at No. 41. It turns out that the teacher, Biman Choudhary, lives in the house next door, a sort of annex. Nagen Babu assures Sarkar Babu that he will be there for the wedding, and then he leaves.
The problem of course is, what’s to be done with the invitation Ashesh has gone and extended to Biman Choudhary? For Ashesh, that’s a problem; his uncle doesn’t think so. Trideep Sarkar is clear about what needs to be done: go and tell Biman Choudhary that the invitation was given by mistake, they’re actually not invited.
Ashesh protests. That will be unforgivably rude. But his Mesho Moshai refuses to listen. The school teacher is no use to Trideep Sarkar; he’s no-account, making his acquaintance is not going to help Mr Sarkar bag a contract, or any such thing.
So, much against his will, Ashesh is compelled to go back to the Choudhary home. Fortunately for him, Biman Choudhary is more amused than affronted at what has happened. He laughs it off, and insists that Ashesh sit and have tea. Aloka, who brings the tea, stays on and they have a brief chat. Ashesh explains that he’s a doctor, and it emerges that Aloka is studying for a BA in Philosophy. Her father jokes that she studies till late into the night.
Their kindness does not do much to relieve the guilt Ashesh is feeling. He goes back home, but he’s so restless, so oppressed by the ‘everything for reputation’ atmosphere prevailing in Trideep Sarkar’s house, that he again leaves… and, late at night, wanders back to the Choudhary home. Aloka is sitting and studying at her desk, and Ashesh stands outside, looking in through the window, watching her.
When he finally talks, it’s to apologize again, and to invite Aloka and her family to come the following day to his home. His sister Sudha will be happy to meet Aloka, and it will be so nice… but Aloka bridles at this. Does he think he needs to compensate for the wedding invitation that was withdrawn? Is the Choudhary family so poor and so lacking in self-respect that they must be beholden for whatever crumbs they can get from the wealthy?
Ashesh is mortified, and hastens to assure Aloka that this was not his intention, and finally Aloka relents. She says they won’t come to his home for a meal, but he should come over to their home the next day. They’ll be happy to play host.
Ashesh arrives the next day, and is given a meal by Aloka, who is the perfect hostess. Her parents aren’t at home: the family was supposed to visit relatives today and Aloka had forgotten that when she issued her invitation to Ashesh. But since she’d invited him, she stayed back.
Ashesh is curious: why did Aloka invite him? She had been angry at him for inviting her over to his home, then what made her decide to turn that around and invite him? Aloka says that she realized how contrite Ashesh was about something that wasn’t his fault after all. He was so sorry for that invitation being withdrawn, she couldn’t blame him for it.
They chat, and Ashesh sits down at her desk, absent-mindedly looking through the books lying piled up on it. Opening one, he finds a surprising inscription on it, to Aloka from Dr Saileshwar Ghosh. Ashesh is taken aback, and when he asks who this is, she explains. Saileshwar Ghosh, of so-and-so address (it’s the same address as on that wedding invitation which never was given to the Choudhary family). Saileshwar Ghosh, she explains, used to be a student of her father’s, he would come to their house everyday…
… and she, Aloka, is engaged to Saileshwar Ghosh. This is no clandestine alliance between two lovers; her parents know and approve. The wedding will be soon.
Ashesh, of course, finds himself in a fix. He has, over the course of a little over one evening, pretty much fallen in love with this young woman, and (unlike the usual Hindi film hero, who might rejoice at the thought of a rival being pushed out of the way by fate itself) he cannot see Aloka unhappy. Yet, what can he do?
It’s been several years since I came to the conclusion that Bengali directors, as a group, made better films than the average Hindi film director. Better comedies, better dramas. And better romantic films, as this one (directed by Ajoy Kar) proves. The romance here builds up slowly, over the course of a coulee of days (mostly, over the course of one night) and its subtlety, the organic way in which it develops, is what makes it so believable.
What I liked about this film:
Soumitra Chatterjee as Ashesh. Ashesh is a genuinely good man, a gentle, sensitive man. His dilemma, being unable to do anything to prevent the girl he loves from breaking her heart (as is inevitable) is part of his overall kindness, but so are the other little things you notice now and then: for instance, how uncomfortable he is in the presence of the constant “everything for reputation” parroting of his uncle and other relatives. Or how mortified he is on learning that his uncle wants to withdraw the invitation that’s already been extended to the Choudhary household. Ashesh is a rich man, but a rich man who doesn’t take his wealth for granted, and doesn’t let it come in the way of his being a good human being.
Soumitra Chatterjee portrays Ashesh superbly. He seems to slide into the skin of this earnest young man with such seemingly effortless ease that I forgot this was an actor I was watching, not really Ashesh. His acting is wonderfully subdued, often it’s just his eyes doing the talking.
The expressive silences that say so much, between Ashesh and Aloka, are among the other elements that make Barnali such a good film. Instead of filling each frame with dialogue and crowding the background with dramatic music, Ajoy Kar lets silence play an important part in what’s happening onscreen—and it works very, very well.
A simple story, and beautifully told. Plus, the chemistry between Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore is fabulous. The trust, the quiet comfort in the other’s company, the moments of lightness and laughter, even the friction because of Aloka’s occasionally volatile temper: all are portrayed really well by these two.
I loved this film. There wasn’t anything about it I didn’t like, though I do harbour a grouse against Angel Video or whoever lopped off what was almost certainly a substantial part of an important scene at the end.
RIP, Soumitrada. You will be missed.