Professor Shonku O El Dorado movie review: Satyajit Ray's memorable scientist doesn't come to life in son's film
Professor Shonku O El Dorado is as incalculable a loss as the usurping of the famed scientist’s greatest inventions.
castDhritman Chatterjee, Shubhashish Mukherjee
Among renowned filmmaker, Satyajit Ray’s many contributions to the world of the arts and literature is his immortal creation Professor Shonku. Initially conceived as an independent one-time lighthearted science fiction short story, epistolary in nature, the character became so popular Ray was forced to write one story after another. And soon, one of the most popular science fiction series in Bengali literature was born.
Which is why, when news about the first film adaptation of Shonku began to do the rounds, excitement was high. An entire generation of readers now saw the opportunity to fulfill their lifelong desire of seeing Professor Shonku on screen. But how far can you ride on nostalgia alone? Not too far, apparently.
Sandip Ray’s interpretation of Shonku is nothing quite like what at least I grew up imagining the world of the brilliant inventor to be. And despite actor Dhritiman Chatterjee’s best attempts at holding things together, the poor writing, the tacky visuals, and some really over the top performances by a supporting cast literally blew the tent off what was clearly intended to be a tentpole movie.
The plot of the film is simple but is exciting to the core. Professor Shonku is a world-renowned scientist, living and working in Giridih along with his pet cat Newton and his manservant Prahlad. With limited means and resources, Shonku has been able to invent some of the most amazing gadgets and drugs, none of which can be manufactured on a large scale in a factory or assembly line setup. This is deliberate because the Professor does not want his inventions to be misused against mankind. He lives a quiet life, and often communicates long distance with his scientist friends Jeremy Saunders from Britain and Wilhelm Kroll from Germany.
One day, a naïve young man named Nakur Chandra Biswas pays the Professor a visit and warns him his forthcoming journey to Sau Paulo is fraught with dangers. When asked how he knew of these dangers, the young man explains he possesses certain special powers, which enable him to sense things that a normal human being cannot. Professor Shonku decides to take Nakur Babu along with him to Sau Paulo, where the latter’s prophecies do come true.
When the news of Dhritiman Chatterjee (a regular in Satyajit Ray’s films) being cast in the role of Shonku broke in the media, like many others, I was quite skeptical if the right actor had been chosen. But Chatterji is an actor worth his name. He completely owns the part with his impeccable acting. Watching him play Shonku with such elan, I was very fondly reminded of an incident that I had read about Sir Peter Ustinov, who played the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile, to which Agatha Christie’s daughter remarked Poirot looked nothing like Ustinov. In his usual dignified grace and wit, Ustinov is known to have responded by saying ‘He does now!’ I am inclined to admit Professor Shonku now has a face. And it is the face of Dhritiman Chatterjee. If there are certain moments of visible discomfort that we seem to find him in at times, the blame of such mishaps must lie squarely on the writing, and the writing alone.
One of the distinguishing features of anything Satyajit Ray has ever written is the conciseness of it all. There is always something happening. Each page, each sentence is loaded with information, and often as the story progressed, a certain sense of urgency crept in. It is this sense of urgency that is missing in Sandip Ray’s screenplay.
The film is so unevenly paced, the actual action is so insipid and unexciting, it becomes a Herculean task to simply remain invested in the film at times. The characters are poorly written, the dialogues are unnatural (what works in a book does not necessarily work on the screen), and there are major gaps and flaws in the characters’ actions and behaviour.
Another problem I found in the film – and this is one that I have found in several Bengali films I have come across recently – is the way foreign actors are used. Other than an actress, all of the other international actors are reduced to caricatures. Compare this, for instance, with how Satyajit Ray had dealt with his foreign actors. In Sandip Ray’s Shonku, their performances come across as artificial and over-the-top. Every gesture is exaggerated as if being performed in a kindergarten play. The worst among these, tragically, has to be the antagonist, who does not look menacing or villainous even in a single frame. An otherwise potent actor who I have lauded in my reviews in the past, Shubhashish Mukherjee comes across as a bit off-key too. His constantly failing attempts at modesty (which, mind you, is the need of the character) become a bit too 'forced' for my taste and viewing comfort. Not that he did not come across as a good Nakur Babu, but if I were to draw a parallel here, simply to illustrate my point, his performance can be likened to a Rabi Ghosh’s Lalmohan Ganguly, instead of a Santosh Dutta’s Jatayu.
As always, I have nothing much to say about the visual effects employed in the film. My expectations of the quality of VFX in Bengali films has always been low, which is why I am seldom disappointed by them. I was quite pleased with Sandip Ray’s background score though, although a pub song towards the end of the film could have been entirely avoided or better placed. The cinematography was strictly average, and the editing was sharp and precise.
In the end, Professor Shonku O El Dorado did not work for me. It is as incalculable a loss as the usurping of the famed scientist’s greatest inventions – the brilliant mind we have grown up loving and revering so much.
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