Monday, October 01, 2012

Ghost-da ka ghosla (a haunted-house tribute to cinema and the past)

The title of Anik Dutta’s Bhooter Bhabishyat – a massively popular Bengali film from earlier this year – translates as “Future of the Past”, and appropriately enough it begins with juxtapositions between what we think of as “old” and “new”, “modern” and “traditional”. The very first shot is a close-up of a woman, dressed in an elegant sari, heavily made up and bejewelled, who appears to be from a non-contemporary setting (or at least a very orthodox one). But the frame is held for barely a couple of seconds before she raises a cigarette to her lips and a cellphone rings off-camera; she picks it up and goes “Hi! Ki Khobor? What’s up?” while a girl in casual shirt and jeans appears behind her to attend to her hair. A film, probably a period drama, is being shot – the woman is the lead actress and the crew bustles about a crumbling 250-year-old north Calcutta mansion with modern cameras and other equipment.

There will be many such contrasts throughout Bhooter Bhabishyat, the main plot of which begins with young people scouting the same old house for another film. A writer-director named Ayan (Parambrata Chatterjee, who was so good as Vidya Bagchi’s courtly “saarthi” in Kahaani) works on a script – in English – on his Apple laptop, then gets distracted and plays some classical music on the same device. Sounds from different eras run into each other continually: there is a transition, later in the film, from "Auld Lang Syne" to Rabindrasangeet to contemporary pop music; the ringtone on Ayan’s phone is the otherworldly voice of the bhuter raja that Satyajit Ray himself recorded for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. (Incidentally Ayan refers to his hero Ray as “Joy Baba Manik-nath” – the first time I had heard this term of endearment, though for all I know it's popular in Bengal.) And a 360-degree pan shot of the desolate house is accompanied by an incongruous soundtrack that brings its former days of glory – festivals, entertainment shows – to our ears.

The idea that the past and the present are constantly interacting with (or brushing abrasively against) each other is central to this tale of the supernatural, which is also a light commentary on inexorable “progress” and on modernity’s neglect of old things. This premise is spelled out with delightful economy during an opening-credits sequence that involves animated ghostly eyes and background music in the electronic-distortion mode of the ghost scenes in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne.

Calcutta is now a concrete jungle,” the ghost-voices sing as the titles appear. “Heritage is disappearing, promoters are taking over the land, even the intellectuals are silent. Where will all the ghosts go?” And then, in a neat meta-touch, “We have made this film to protest.” The appealing conceit is that the movie we are watching is a sort of magical projection, financed and sponsored by marginalised spirits to raise awareness of their plight.

Over the next two hours we see how this idea plays out. It involves Ayan, the young director, encountering a genial middle-aged man (played by Sabyasachi Chakraborty) who tells him a possible story for his next film – a story about a group of ghosts who live in this very mansion. Most of what we see from here on is a visualisation of this tale: we are introduced to these relics of the past, including an 18th century zamindar, a gora sahib from the East India Company, an actress-singer from the 1940s and a generic buffoon who continues visiting the local fish-market in his spectral state because he can’t overcome the Bengali habit of bargaining. There are also two young people who died very recently – a musician named Pablo who wears a Che Guevera T-shirt and a bubbly girl named Koel (Mumtaz Sorcar, granddaughter of PC Sorcar) who killed herself in the name of love. As someone says late in the film, “Ojeeb collection hai.”

The back-stories of these ghosts – originally from different time periods and socio-economic strata, now living in a shared purgatory – facilitate references to environmental and social issues, from global warming to rich youngsters mowing down pavement-dwellers in their SUVs. The relentless destruction of flora, we learn, has left a tree-dwelling ghost as much of a refugee in death as he was in life. An ancient ghost recalls his granddaughter who had died of the “black fever”. But this lot certainly knows how to live it up, and their jollity emerges in full force during an anachronistic fashion parade where they dress up in outfits they wouldn’t have got to wear when they were alive.

Entertaining though this set-up is, it also leads to a slack midsection containing a little too much tomfoolery and the sort of ensemble comedy that actors must dread – where they have to stand around in a group, speaking in turn, while those saddled with the task of listening struggle with the appropriate reaction shots, nodding their heads or rolling their eyes meaningfully; the effect can be like a hurriedly prepared college play. Also, don’t expect this “ghost world” to be a properly worked out universe with rules that clearly distinguish it from our own. Apart from their ability to teleport and walk clean through walls, there is little to separate these spirits from regular people: they go for picnics, they have cellphones, they use a social-networking site called Spookbook to contact other members of the living dead, and – most puzzlingly – they can get out and interact with real-world people whenever they want to (though they continue to shed the occasional tear when they recall those whom they have left behind).

All these qualities come into play when their existence is threatened by a mall-builder who we know must be evil because he – gasp – quotes Tagore in a dubious, self-serving context; this terrible man plans to erect a “Five-Star Plaza”, a mini-Singapore, where the haveli now stands. Personally I failed to understand why the ghosts are so troubled by this development (why can’t they just live in the mall like millions of real-world zombies everywhere do?) but such questions are beside the point because this plot turn leads
to more fun and games. Feeling just as bullied as Mr Khosla cheated of his precious plot of land in Khosla ka Ghosla, the ghosts must – like the characters in that film – perform a subterfuge to foil the builder’s plans. This involves the participation in a guest appearance of Saswata Chatterjee – Kahaani’s Bob Biswas – as another, much more flamboyant hitman.


Most of these shenanigans are enjoyable enough, but what I found more interesting about Bhooter Bhabishyat is that it is also a homage to a cinematic past, sprinkled with filmic references, many of which I’m sure I didn’t get given my weak knowledge of non-Ray Bengali films (I did get that the frequently rhyming dialogue was a tribute to Hirak Rajar Deshe). A ghost extols the virtues of Truffaut, Fellini and Bergman but admits to not knowing anything about contemporary brats like Wong Kar Wai and Tarantino (ghosts can’t watch new films on their cellphones or laptops?). Taking Ayan through the ghost story and its protagonists, the storyteller uses phrases like “Now cut to 1970s Calcutta.” They ponder the technical challenges of recreating different periods and settings: I might have to use a sepia tone for this sequence, the young director muses, and we could do that one in classic black-and-white.

Through all this, one sees a deep love for a medium that can accommodate vastly different modes of storytelling, from the politically charged cinema of Mrinal Sen (“with handheld cameras and jerky movements”) to the magnificently imaginative ghost dance in GGBB to commercial elements that many of us reflexively dismiss as vulgar – comedy that takes the form of crude puns or stand-alone “humour tracks”, for example. And Bhooter Bhabishyat affectionately draws on these many modes by incorporating them into its own narrative. Thus one scene simulates a moonlit romantic song from a 1940s movie while another shows stark footage of police-Naxal encounters in the early 1970s, and there is even a head-banging rock number filmed in the frenetic style of a modern concert. There is lowbrow wordplay (“massage” used for “message”, a secretary who says “hard-dicks” for “hard-disk”) and there is an item number with lyrics that may or may not contain sexual innuendo (if a seductress sings “Mere ang ang mein aag lagaai diye” to a horny man, it might seem like it can only mean one thing – but what if she is the ghost of a woman he had set fire to?).

All of which means that this film about a bunch of happy-go-lucky spooks can also be seen as a film about its own conceptualisation and execution. Near the end, Ayan says that though he personally finds the ghost story very interesting, it would be difficult to pitch such an “absurd” premise to a producer. Within the narrative, this problem is sorted out through the convenient appearance of priceless coins from the East India Company days. But let’s hypothesize that the real-life director Anik Dutta faced the same problem as the fictional Ayan, and didn’t have access to hidden treasure. Perhaps, then, the solution was to shoot his film not as a straight (therefore square) ghost story but as a meta-movie that constantly acknowledges its own craziness. If so, it was a terrific idea, and though the ghost sequences have their ups and downs there is much else in Bhooter Bhabishyat for a movie-buff to appreciate.

P.S. As a viewer who has had some ghastly experiences with subtitles in the past, I was relieved to find that the subtitling on this DVD was done with care and some wit. Even to the extent of discerningly playing about with word-meanings so that a joke or innuendo would translate across languages. At one point the dialogue involves a confusion between the words "antar-baash" (undergarments) and "antar-jaash" (which, a Bengali friend tells me, can be roughly translated as "inner concerns"). The English subtitles use "lingerie" and "lingering doubts".

[A post on Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne is here]


  1. Lovely review, Jai! Apart from it being a love letter to cinema (and Ray), I also loved the political subtext of the movie. Ghosts, as Param's character tells us, have no votes, no voice - which is of course why it is so easy for the realworld 'Bhoot' in the shape of Bhutoria to uproot them in the name of a shining future. No wonder Sabyasachi's character is a Naxal. In the context of West Bengal's present day upheaval over land, his presence as a figure of conscience is a brilliant choice, I felt; the promise of a 'biplab' (revolution), however late it is in its arrival (biplab does not come in a hurry, he reminds us), fascinating.

  2. Great work Jai. Really enjoyed reading it.

    I was amazed to see how much of the movie you actually understood given you being a non-bong. And I mean it as a compliment :)

    Keep it up

  3. "Bhoot" also means ghost in Bengali. So, "Future of the Ghost"? Could be a pun for all I know. Oh, the other movie you linked to is Hirak Rajar Deshe, not Hirak Deshe Raja.


  4. Puranjoy: oops, have just changed it.

    Anon: thanks. I'm a bit surprised myself to be honest, but some references did spring out at me. I only noticed the rhyming dialogue for the first time during the Chowdhury back-story flashback and the "kalki"/"palki" bit. Normally one tends in these situations to focus on the subtitles and not pay close attention to the spoken lines.

  5. swatkat: oh yes, the political subtext is notable too - guess I didn't dwell on it much because for me its effect was slightly dulled by the broad comedy in the central sections of the film. Should see it again sometime.

  6. The 1940s song sung in a slightly nasal voice typical of movies in the 50s is a complete rip off on the song "Bhalobashar Tumi Ki Jaano" from Ray's film "Chiriyakhana". In Chiriyakhana the song is shown in an old movie that the detective Byomkesh is watching to research an actress from the past. The song was composed by Ray himself and, in my opinion, has been sung better. The Bhooter Bhabishyat song is a little too overdone.

  7. Link to the DVD, please? So we know which edition to purchase. Thanks!

    - Pavithra

  8. Thanks Jai for a nice review for what has been the movie of the year so far for me, better than Kahaani, haven't watched GoW. What works best in the film is the effortless handling of various social issues / aspects spread across almost 100 years, but all the while not taking itself too seriously :) Kudos to the director for that. The best scene for me was the ghost fashion parade, which was a splendid tribute to the ghost dance scene in GGBB. Also, the best two actors in the film were Saswata and Swastika (Kadalibala), who incidentally are children of Suvendu Chatterjee and Santu Mukherjee respectively. They were competent and good-looking heroes of Bengali cinema in 70s, but did not get enough fame mainly due to presence of Uttam Kumar and to a lesser extent, Soumitra Chatterjee.

  9. Sudipta bhattacharjee11:35 PM, October 02, 2012

    Glad you liked the movie. While I have recommended recent gems like 'Autograph' and '22she Shrabon' to you a couple of times, I never mentioned this one because I felt the humour would be lost in translation. But the sub-titling clearly is very good if you have had no such issues- I recommend a rewatch as that is likely to bring to light nuances that you might have missed out in the first viewing.

    On a different note, 'maniknath' is not commonly used in Bengal either- his close aides called him Manik da (Manik being the nickname). Couple of trivia points: this story was originally a part of a larger script that the director took to Prosenjit for feedback. Apparently, Prosenjit asked him to chuck the rest of the story and build this particular subplot. Secondly, when the director didn't find a producer for over a year, he apparently looked at a Satyajit Ray poster and muttered about the unfairness of it all-next day he got a call from a producer :-).so clearly, this movie has Ray's blessings :-)

  10. Sudipta Bhattacharjee8:07 AM, October 05, 2012

    Also, the "generic buffoon" is actually quite a specific reference one in a Bong cultural context :-) Even amongst Bengalis there was a lot of distinction being made between 'bangal' (those from Eastern Bengal, Now Bangladesh) and 'ghoti' (those from current West Bengal) especially till about early 1980's. The love for fish (especially Hilsa) was supposedly more typical of Bangals as opposed to prawn favoring Ghotis :-) the character you referred to was playing a typical Bangal refugee who can't get over his love for fish/hilsa-he even speaks, what we would today refer to as the 'Bangal' dialect :-)

  11. the film was also full of some interesting references to real life people and incidences...
    Haath-kata dileep (as in haath-kaata kartik in the film) was actually a dreaded political goon who was killed by one of his own people in the recent past...
    the love story of koel is reminiscent of the rizwanur rehman case...
    biplab's encounter was borrowed from actual incidents during the naxal days of bengal...
    also the puns used in dialogues like bypass-chhaipaash, mall-mutro, and many other like these were hilarious

  12. I quite enjoyed the film...its part of the happy deluge of interesting movies that has suddenly engulfed the Bangla filmdom. The only thing that makes me squirm at times is the unnecessary (to me at least) use of profanity...looks like some of the new filmmakers think that use of expletives denotes smartness!

  13. Got hold of this film only after reading Jai's review, hadn't heard of it before. I'm not a Bengali, but let me assure one and all that it works very well even for non-Bengali audiences, though I guess some of the references and wordplay would escape us. Samir, this is not the movie of the year for me, it is the movie of the decade. This is the film that should have been sent to the Oscars, not Barfi, which is just a run-of-the-mill sweet film, redeemed only by good performances. With some pruning of the 'slack mid section' as Jai correctly noted, and maybe a bit of the framing story too, which goes on for over 20 minutes before the first ghost appears, it would have stood a good chance in the Foreign Films category. The copious amounts of 'high camp, the juxtaposing of the sublime and the ridiculous are just what Western critics like. And one last point: the 'evil' promoter's firm is called 'Magic Realty'. Is this purely serendipitous or is the director acknowledging a Rushdie/Marquez influence? Bhooter Bhabishyat is magic realism at its best.