Jonaki movie review: Aditya Vikram Sengupta's uncompromising approach makes up for film's heavy-duty metaphors, loopy storytelling
Jonaki is a film that is meant to be experienced. At its best, it renders all criticism meaningless.
castRatnabali Bhattacharjee, Lolita Chatterjee, Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Jim Sarbh
directorAditya Vikram Sengupta
Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s second feature film nudges us up close and personal to an idiosyncratic and achingly beautiful cinematic vision. His Jonaki is suffused with courage and uncompromising commitment that more than make up for its occasional heavy-hitting metaphor and a loopy style of storytelling that delays gratification with varying results. From the outset, the audience becomes aware of a deeply personal film — an ode to the director’s grandmother — which, as a result, will spend as much time mulling over its relationship with time as it does wandering in and out of her memories.
In tableaux after carefully arranged tableaux mined from the past, things, gestures and feelings that comprised her life creak, squeal, chuckle and drip drop by drop through the sieve of time. Meanwhile, her ageing lover hobbles through her world, quietly searching, picking up bits and pieces here and there in a bid to reach her.
Quite like its protagonists, the film is deliberately, almost reflectively, paced by a director cognizant of the effort it must take to change the course of time’s river. So we often spend more than ample time gazing at a particular snapshot from her life. Our gaze travels the entire length and breadth of the frame, often allowing for a tactility to set into our act of seeing and exploring. Jonaki’s world is ethereal, pregnant, often beset by decay and beautifully alive in a strange, faraway manner that is an exclusive property of the past. A great majority of the individual frames are heavy with beauty. Mahendra Shetty’s keen eye has conjured a world of astonishing detail within a subdued and quiet colour palette. A ‘truly’ beautiful image makes you aware of the simple act of your breathing. Sengupta’s near-obsessive attention to sound design ensures that we are offered ample opportunities to do that.
Jonaki, by its very design, invites immediate praise, despite the immensity of the task it sets out to accomplish. Structurally speaking, Sengupta’s choice of snapshots and tableaux to mine the past in composing a heartfelt love letter that can pass between its protagonists is apt. His decision to place an old body in the shoes of her younger, or even child self, is inspired, to say the least. It leads to wondrous cinematic results. But I was not so impressed by the heavy-duty metaphors that end up distracting from the loving, personal nature of the film. The oranges, for instance, while used judiciously and lovingly in the earlier sections, become tiresome and derivative by the time the film nears its end. Then there’s the image that’s meant to depict the going out of the spark of childhood which, although the most searingly beautiful shot of the film, is too explicit for its own good. A case can be made for the individual images being all inclusive and merely meant to be seen. But metaphor remains a constant throughout the film. And when it works, it is a marvel to witness.
The story of Jonaki’s life is unravelled in a manner that imitates the mysterious workings of memory. It delineates the unusual narrative logic of the film, which leads to a peculiar expectation from the viewers. The long walk through the passages of her life mirrors the carefully arranged nature of the individual tableaux in their disarming complexity. Creditably, Sengupta’s film renders us both close and distant to an individual whose reality holds an altogether different meaning to the director than it ever will to us. It’s an intricate balancing act in accomplishing which he makes a most lasting artistic impact.
Jonaki is a film that is meant to be experienced. At its best, it renders all criticism meaningless. It refuses to revel in the shameless exploitation of nostalgia that even the most gifted directors can often fall prey to, in effect marring the sacred nature of a person’s memories. This is a film inviting surrender, perhaps even sleep, from its viewers; anything as long as it is honest and true. Very few films can afford to lose our attention, a notion that must sound like anathema to the Marvel lot. Jonaki is one among a unique tribe where the rules of engagement are meant to be decided by the audience. In reaching for that state, it tries to come as close to becoming a part of life as any work of art ever could.
Editor's note: The 20th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.
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