Mahalaya movie review: Soumik Sen's film is laced with nostalgia but suffers from a sloppy, repetitive writing
In Mahalaya, there are numerous examples of out-of-character actions and downright trivialisations of what could have been serious dramatic moments
Nostalgia is a strange thing. Sometimes, it can move mountains and make miracles happen. But on other occasions, it can prove to be dangerous. Because it can make something ordinary look beautiful. Strange as it may sound, Soumik Sen’s new Bengali film Mahalaya amply demonstrates both these facets of nostalgia — in ways that may not be music to the filmmaker’s ears.
Sen’s film tells the story of how the longest running radio programme in India — the Mahisasurmardini — was redesigned with a more modern, more glamorous version of itself on the event of Mahalaya (the pre-cursor to the Durga Puja) in 1976, only to face unprecedented public backlash. That the adverse response to the change was despite the replacement of the star attraction of the show — the reciter Birendra Krishna Bhadra — by the legendary matinee idol Uttam Kumar, is not only testament to the average Bengali common man’s love for tradition and heritage, it is also a clear pointer towards that one singular notion that is the fulcrum of the film — nostalgia. Sen drives this point home over and over again, in many ways, until a time comes when it becomes a bit too much.
The film opens with the declaration of Emergency in the country. A bureaucrat sitting in Delhi orders the officers of Akash Vani to start considering a fresh approach to their annual programme, that plays at the crack of dawn on Mahalaya, asking them to get new artists, fresh voices and a new composer. Despite all the songs of the programme, the main draw — as most Bengalis would know — is the Chandipath, or the invocation of the goddess Durga through a series of rousing chants in the voice of the immensely popular Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Thanks to orders from said bureaucrat, Bhadra is replaced by Uttam Kumar, with the expectation that the iconic stars popularity, distinctive voice and king charm would surpass that of the aged chanter. But things do not go according to plan, in fact they take an ugly turn, and Bhadra is reinstated as the indisputable ruler of hearts at the crack of dawn on Mahalaya morning — a position that he holds even today, 88 years after he had first gone on air with the programme.
This piece of cultural history is known to most Bengalis, and the film beautifully captures some backstories and emotional moments during those few months of indiscretion. It shows how legendary composer Pankaj Mullick — who had originally created the 'Mahisasurmardini' — is replaced by his protégé — a young and popular composer who could not resist the lure of film music in Bombay. Although the film does not name the younger composer, it is not difficult to figure out who this gentleman was. What is shocking to note is his sense of insecurity and angst that leads him to betray his guru’s trust and loyalty. Also remarkable is Bhadra’s own reaction to the news that he is being replaced by a superstar who acts in the movies. Clearly of the view that the old must make way for the new, he takes the news in his stride, even going on to embrace Uttam Kumar when he comes to him seeking his blessings, in one what can only be described as the most beautiful sequence of the film.
Where the film falters though is in the structure and the repetitiveness. Going back and forth in time, it tries to establish a justification for everyone’s actions, often taking the focus away from the central point of the story. There are extended scenes which provide no additional value, except for to repeat what has already been said a dozen times. It is during these scenes that the film lost me, and I found myself struggling to get back on the track. There are numerous examples of sloppy writing, out-of-character actions and downright trivialisations of what could have been serious dramatic moments, not to mention a few sequences — including one with Rabindranath Tagore himself — which could have been much better handled. In the end, Mahalaya would be a far better film if it had been written well.
Despite some overzealous acting by a few members of the supporting cast, it is the performances of the central characters that save the day for the film. While Jishu Sengupta is no Uttam Kumar, he puts in a sincere act and manages to pull off one of the scariest film roles that can be offered to any contemporary actor. He summons an easy, casual swag to his personality that we have all come to identify with the late superstar. I was invested in his character throughout, despite all the distractions of wondering whether he is a lookalike or not, simply because the motivations of his characters have been beautifully portrayed. I would not want to give away key facts of the story, but Sengupta says a lot with his eyes in the second half of the film.
Subhomoy Chatterjee plays Pankaj Mullick, and is spot on with the temper, the principles, the discipline and the sheer hunger for good music. Seeing him on screen, I once again found myself lamenting the void that men of such stature have left in our midst, now that everything seems to be guided by quantity rather than quality.
But as with the Mahisasurmardini way back in 1976, in Soumik Sen’s Mahalaya too, the star of the film is Birendra Krishna Bhadra, or rather the man who plays him — Subhasish Mukherjee. Mukherjee’s performance transports us back to those days more than any other prop or establishing shot in the film could. His calm reserve, his uncompromising ethics, his devotion to his art, and his lack of interest in the commercial side of art — everything is pitch perfect. Just like everything else in the film, Mukherjee too is overexposed and overused, but his is the track that I did not mind at all. A truly stellar performance by a brilliant, brilliant actor.
I have nothing much to say about the technical aspects of the film, except that in the end, when the credits roll and the original potent voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra invokes the goddess of power, not a single soul in the audience moved a muscle — till the voice faded and the lights came up. Even then, there were dozens of people who were glued to their seats, dazed and overwhelmed by a chant that had been giving them tears and goosebumps for close to nine decades now. If that is not immortality, I do not know what is.
Having said that, I am compelled to give Mahalaya only 2 stars, and half a star more for the nostalgia it put me through. You see, nostalgia is a tricky thing. It can work miracles, but it can also make the ordinary look beautiful.
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