Movie Review: A dead aunty is the life of The Jewellery Box

Sandip Roy

Apr 26, 2013 14:46:16 IST

When little Cole Spear says “I see dead people” in the The Sixth Sense, a chill ran down the collective spine of moviegoers. But in Aparna Sen’s The Jewellery Box, when the young bride Somlata sees her dead aunt-in-law, the audience bursts out laughing.

It’s hard not to. The ghost is played by the ebullient Moushumi Chatterjee with mischievous gusto. This is no Moaning Myrtle. This is a ghost who craves dried fish, plots extra marital affairs and wants to know what sex feels like. All in a salty Faridpur Bengali accent. She is the most life-embracing dead person you will ever meet. Next to her, nobody in this story of three generations of women stands a ghost of chance.

Moushumi plays Rashmoni, a young woman married off at 11, widowed before she turned 12. Though her hair is chopped off and she spends the rest of her life in white, cooped up in the attic in her paternal home, she also rules the roost. Her treasured possession is her jewellery box, which she guards with ferocious possessiveness; trying on the ornaments behind closed doors, doling out bits and pieces to new brides in the house. When she dies, she bullies the newest daughter-in-law, Somlata (Konkona Sen Sharma), into hiding the box before the greedy cash-starved relatives can find it. In the process, the dead pishima (that's aunty in Bengali) becomes a sort of life-coach for the shy stammering Somlata in matters of business, love and cooking.Konkona’s performance is delicate, her quiet steeliness tempering Moushumi’s more showy fire. But her Somlata really does grow, gathering confidence around her like the pleats of her saree.

The jewellery box is obviously a glittering metaphor for all the unfulfilled desires of the child widow. It’s the attachment she cannot let go of after death, even though she knows it’s a poor substitute for the real thing – a rich life. “Shobkota haramzyaada, nijera chirokaal foorti korchhey. Amake gahanar baaksho diye bhuylya raakhsey, (They are all bastards. They had fun all their lives. And they fobbed me off with a jewellery box),” she says bitterly of men, the ones in her family and in general.

Movie Review: A dead aunty is the life of The Jewellery Box

A still from the Bengali film, Goynar Baksho. Courtesy: Facebook

But the film wears that unfairness, that bitterness, lightly on its sleeve. Even the haramazada men are treated with affection – the purush-simhas more like domesticated sheep and oxen than they are lion kings. When the lords of the manor call a family durbar to interrogate Somlata about her sudden unexplained wealth, her father-in-law (a marvelous Paran Banerjee) threatens to flay her. But it turns into comedy – a hilarious Bengali rap. The women know from the get-go that their job is to humour men, but their priorities are practical – better an angry husband than a poor one. The warring patriarchs sue each other in court, but share a carriage to the courthouse to cut costs. They are hen-pecked by both their wives and their mistresses. Somlata’s husband (played with great verve by Saswata Chatterjee, Kahaani’s Bob Biswas) cannot even commit suicide with any degree of competency.

The effete nawabs of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi played chess while the kingdom was lost. In Sen’s view of decaying aristocracy, these men fish in the local pond while their “enteak” bed and carpets and chandeliers are carried away by tradesmen to whom they owe money. It’s like Shatranj, but the stakes are more domestic and it's bathos rather than pathos. Though his fate is tragic, the most “virile” man in the film is the Bihari servant whom Rashmoni tries to seduce as a young frustrated woman. Even Somlata’s passionate, secret suitor cannot seem to get the fire burning above a low poetic simmer.

In Shirshendu Mukherjee’s original short story, the ghost stops appearing after Somlata gives birth to her daughter, but Sen obviously realised that the film would run out of juice if Pishima exited it. So this ghost has an afterlife, appearing to Somlata’s daughter (Srabanti Chatterjee), a college student against the backdrop of the late sixties and early seventies and the narrator of the film. There are some delicious moments here – the two together on the terrace, one taking drags of her cigarette, the other puffing on her hookah. But this is also the weakest portion of the film. The Bangladesh war of liberation is shoehorned onto what until then is a far more intimate story. If Somlata’s story unfolded too languidly, this one feels too slapdash – trying to do history on a shoestring budget with snatches of Debdulal Bandyapadhyay reading the news and Bangalipi exercise books. The characters are far less memorable, stick figures hurrying towards a resolution. The fate of the jewellery box, while logical, is unconvincing because the final build-up is not strong enough.

This pishima is not the first old aunty to rock Bengali film. Padipishir Barmibaksho had the formidable Chhaya Devi playing another old pishima who had a fabled box of her own. Rituparno Ghosh turned Miss Marple into Ranga-pishima for his Shubho Mahurat. Moushumi's salty pishima is their worthy successor. Sen’s great credit is that she keeps pishima salty instead of slowly transforming her into a more familiar, sugary creature. She advises Somlata to bring a lover home and chew him up. She calls her a “behaya maagi” (shameless wench) and wishes cholera on her kith and kin when she does not get her way. She says all this paap-punya (sin/piety) business is nonsense. She knows because now that she is dead, she has “first hand information.” Pishima gets away with her “loose character” with audiences because she is old, her rollicking sexuality more amusing than threatening unlike say Rakhee’s in Sen's film Paroma.

Dead she might be for most of the film, but pishima is undoubtedly the life and soul of this film. At one point she scolds Somlata saying “Dhukkush dhukkush korey choltasey. Speed baaraa. Speed baaraa.” (You keep chugging along. Increase the speed. Increase the speed). She could well have been talking to the director and Sen would have done well to have heeded Pishima’s advice. Pishima always knows best.

This review is based on Goynar Baksho, the original Bengali version of the film which has released nationally as The Jewellery Box.

Updated Date: Apr 26, 2013 17:05:08 IST