I admire Satyajit Ray immensely. Not only for his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to interpret that in a meaningful, restrained and memorable way, but also for so much more: his intelligence, his eye for detail, his artistic ability. And, up there with all the rest of these qualities, his versatility. Several people have called him a ‘Renaissance Man’, and I agree completely: this man was a fine director, as well as a great writer, artist, costume designer, font designer- and so much else.
And he was versatile even in the world of cinema itself. For those who equate Ray only with ‘art’ films, works like Chiriakhana, Shonar Kella, Joy Baba Felunath and Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne may come as a surprise: but to me, at least, they constitute a happy surprise. Different from Jalsaghar or Charulata (or so many other films of Ray’s) but in their own way, manifestations of Ray’s genius. Comedy, whodunnit, adventure: Ray could do it all, and do it well.
Or romantic comedy. While Ray did not direct Baksa Badal (his assistant Nityanand Datta did), he wrote the screenplay for this delightfully romantic comedy about two people whose identical suitcases get switched, and what that switch leads to. (Ray also composed the music for Baksa Badal).
Note: The original story of Baksa Badal was a short story by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. You can read an English translation of it here.
The two people in question are Pratul Bhattacharjee (Soumitra Chatterjee) and Amita ‘Minu’ Majumdar (Aparna Sen), both travelling in the same compartment of a train, headed for a break from life in Calcutta.
Pratul is going to visit his brother and sister-in-law in Siliguri, and Amita is going with her mother Nirupama (?) to visit Nirupama’s brother in Kalimpong. Neither Pratul nor Amita and her mother pay attention to their fellow passengers, so they never even realize that Amita’s and Pratul’s suitcases are identical.
Thus, when the train comes to a stop and everybody alights to greet those who’ve come to receive them at the station, nobody even notices that two suitcases, plonked down on the platform next to each other, are exactly the same. Thus it happens that when Pratul arrives at his brother’s home and opens his suitcase along with his sister-in-law, it’s to find a woman’s clothing in it. They soon realize what’s happened, of course, but Pratul’s sister-in-law is too intrigued by the unknown, unseen woman to simply pack everything back in and close the bag.
She discovers a diary and reads out a few excerpts from it. Amita’s words prove her to be somewhat of a maverick, outspoken, and with offbeat views. Pratul’s interest is piqued, but for now, he doesn’t do much. His sister-in-law jokingly says that they’d best eat the sweets in the suitcase (after all, they’ll be all spoiled by the time the suitcase reaches its rightful owner), but Pratul stops her.
The same question arises—eat the sweets or not?—at the other house, that of Amita’s uncle, where they’ve discovered that the suitcases have been switched. Amita is very upset: there were so many interesting things she’d brought along here, and now, look! All gone, God knows to whom. She had also brought along a photo of hers with her brother, for her uncle to put on his mantelpiece, but even that’s gone (her uncle ribs her a bit about the man whom he really wants to meet: not her brother, but her boyfriend; and Amita laughingly fobs him off).
Anyway, Amita, unlike Pratul, has no qualms about finishing off the sweets she finds in his suitcase. Meanwhile, they’ve also found Pratul’s name and address in his suitcase…
And Pratul has found Amita’s name and address on her suitcase. He has also discovered the photo of Amita and her brother (whom Pratul, of course, has no way of identifying as Amita’s brother). An extrovert and a sportsman, Pratul says, doing a quick analysis of the man in the photo. He then proceeds to get a pen and draw a moustache on the man’s face. That done, he sends the suitcase off to Amita.
When Amita sees the photo, she’s furious. How dare this Pratul Bhattacharjee mess up her brother’s face? Her brother, when she shows him the vandalized photo back home in Calcutta, is more amused than anything (in fact, he’s inspired by it and starts growing a moustache). But Amita is annoyed enough to write a curt note and place it in Pratul’s suitcase before she dispatches it. Men don’t look good with moustaches, she says; she hates men with moustaches, and he’s ruined her brother’s photo by this prank.
Hmm. Pratul, stroking his own moustache, is thrown off his stride by this remark. He asks his friend Ratna (Gitali Roy) if that’s so: do women really not like moustached men? And Ratna agrees; yes, they don’t. Food for thought, obviously, for Pratul.
Meanwhile, Amita is off on a date with her boyfriend. This is Shovan (Satindra Bhattacharya), and he’s taking her out to the cinema. The relationship between these two is a little odd: Amita treats him with a somewhat offhand nonchalance, as if he were a younger sibling whom she’s trying hard to be patient with. He, on the other hand, seems distinctly nervous around Amita. He obviously loves her, but lacks the confidence that comes from knowing his love is reciprocated.
And right now, on this date, things are not going well for Shovan. First, when they arrive at the cinema theatre, he discovers that he’s forgotten to bring along the tickets, which he’d bought earlier. Then, when he decides to compensate by taking Amita for a drive, the car soon comes to a standstill—because Shovan forgot to fill petrol. Amita is exasperated, but also amused. His memory is really bad. She gives him some advice: go to a psychiatrist. She even gives him a name and address, remembered from that chance switching of her suitcase with another: Pratul Bhattacharjee.
Thus it is that Shovan turns up at Pratul’s clinic and has a long conversation with Pratul. They end up discussing Shovan’s love life, and Shovan admits that he is not sure of his girlfriend’s feelings for him. That stress, of not knowing how she feels, is what is causing Shovan’s memory to play tricks on him, says Pratul. He advises Shovan to propose to his girlfriend, find out how she feels. That certainty is essential for Shovan’s peace of mind. Shovan agrees and goes away, relieved at having found such a competent doctor…
… and Pratul does not realize that Shovan’s girlfriend is none other than Amita.
But fate is waiting in the wings, ready to throw a googly at Pratul. Because shortly after, his friend Ratna comes to him asking for money to help towards the sponsorship of a show her music school is hosting. For Pratul’s benefit, she’s brought along a promotional brochure. Pratul immediately recognizes the face of the lead dancer, who’s featured on it. Amita.
He begins to interrogate Ratna: does she know Amita? How well does she know her? When Ratna admits she’s barely acquainted with Amita, Pratul offers a deal: if Ratna finds out stuff about Amita—does she have a man in her life, etc—he’ll give her money for that show.
Ratna is able to discover that Amita has a boyfriend, but beyond that, she can’t say. Nobody seems sure if Amita intends to marry the man, either.
Pratul goes for the show. And is entranced by Amita. Till now, he’s seen her only in photos: that one with her brother, and the one on the brochure cover. The woman, in person, is far beyond what her photograph can convey. Pratul sits in his seat, little aware that in the rows ahead of him sit several people who know Amita much better than he does: Shovan, for one; Amita’s mother Nirupama for another; and some more…
Pratul emerges from the show and decides he has to take action. He has to introduce himself to Amita and woo her.
Fortunately, he hits upon a novel way of approaching the issue. He’s discovered that Amita is again going with her mother to visit her uncle in Kalimpong. Pratul, since he’d sent Amita’s suitcase to her uncle’s address in Kalimpong, knows who her uncle is. Now he finds out (from Ratna, who’s been hard at work) that Amita’s uncle, Horon Chatterjee, is a botanist, and a published author, having written books on plants. Pratul goes book-hunting and manages to buy a book of Mr Chatterjee’s.
Armed with that, with his moustache shaved off, his hair left un-oiled, un-slicked back, and wearing trousers and jacket instead of his usual dhoti-kurta, Pratul sets off for Kalimpong. He calls himself Pramod Bhattacharjee, a plant-lover.
What lies ahead? This is Pratul taking fate into his hands, without realizing that his rival is Shovan. Shovan, his patient; Shovan, whom Pratul has been encouraging to propose to Amita…
What I liked about this film:
Pretty much everything. The story is fun, combining romance and humour in good doses. The acting is uniformly good, and Soumitra Chatterjee and Aparna Sen excel as Pratul and Amita.
What I didn’t like:
The somewhat hurried end. This was a problem I also had with Barnali, which seemed to me to end the same way, too abruptly and too quickly for my liking. In Baksa Badal, however, a further irritant was the fact that I found it hard to believe that Amita could have fallen so deeply in love with ‘Pramod Bhattacharjee’ in just two not-very-long and not-especially-intimate meetings. For Pratul to have fallen for her sounds a bit more plausible, because he’s had longer to think over it. He’s heard a lot about her from Ratna; he’s seen Amita perform at the show; he knows her better than she does him.
Despite that, an enjoyable film.