Uma movie review: Srijit Mukherji forces a simple, feel-good story to look unnecessarily urgent

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

June 08, 2018 16:30:12 IST

2/5

With his latest film Uma, writer-director Srijit Mukherji takes up as many as three rather noble and challenging tasks. First and foremost, he sets out to tell a remarkable story of human courage and inspiration. Second, he tries to pull at the heartstrings of every Bengali audience by placing before them images and emotions connected with what is by far the most celebrated annual event in their lives – the Durga Pujo. And finally, buried somewhere deep within this backdrop, Mukherji tries to tell the beautiful story behind the making of cinema in our country.

A still from Uma. YouTube

A still from Uma. YouTube

The story of Uma is inspired by the real-life story of Evan Leversage – a terminally ill Canadian boy from St George, Ontario, whose dying wish of witnessing Christmas celebrations for one last time moved the entire townsfolk to organize a ‘fake Christmas’ several months before that hallowed time of the year. It is a marvellous and heart-warming tale of human emotions – nothing short of a miracle, really – and I have to say Mukherji does a very good job of transporting the story to the city of Kolkata.

When doctors in Switzerland tell a little girl Uma’s father that she has barely a few months to live, her father takes up the unthinkable and impossible task of recreating Durga Pujo in the month of April, painting the entire city of Kolkata in festive colours in the process – just to fulfil Uma’s final wish of witnessing Bengal’s most celebrated festival for the first time. The setting is perfect, the emotions running high and despite the sheer audacity at the very core of the story, one has to admit that it is a perfectly believable one. It is, what one might call, the perfect platform to launch the story from. And you literally cannot go wrong from here.

But Mukherji does. Where he does falter in the telling of this heart-warming story is the amount of incredulity he injects into it. In order to create a sense of tension, he unnecessarily introduces notions of tight deadlines and time crunch, and even impossible situational demands that can never be fulfilled. Sadly, none of these are properly executed, let alone resolved. What could have been a simple tale is told in a convoluted manner, merely to create a sense of crisis. For instance, when Uma arrives in Kolkata and demands to venture out into the city to go pandal-hopping, the crew hired to set up this mammoth project inform his father that they need a bit more time for the preparations to be full and final. But Uma is adamant, she wants to go out and enjoy the Pujo.

So, a family friend, conveniently named ‘Barun’ (Varun) nonetheless, creates a fake torrential shower outside Uma’s window with the help of hired water tankers. Unfortunately, from an audience perspective, other than to induce unintentional chuckles across the length and breadth of the theatre, the scene simply does not work. How the actors participating in the scene were convinced to play out this farce will always remain a matter of great mystery to me. Even as I was hearing everyone around me laugh, I myself could not because it broke my heart to think how unnecessary the entire scene was in the scheme of things. It is the sort of superfluous, illogical and force-fitting indulgence that every filmmaker ought to be wary of, and every crew member must have the courage to say ‘no’ to.

And then, of course, there is Durga Pujo – the heart and soul of every Bengali, an emotion that can never go wrong. And Mukherji does only a half-decent job of portraying those emotions on screen. Mostly hurried in pace, and certainly not as exhaustive as one would like it to be, there are moments of festivities that are barely captured. One of my favourite frames from the film is a closeup profile shot of Uma – played by Sara Sengupta – folding her hands and simply looking up at the idol of the goddess. The look of awe, love and reverence in her eyes is something that we have seen so many times, and yet one that never gets old. But despite this, the very essence of Durga Pujo is hardly captured.

What Mukherji does succeed in doing – at least to some extent – is to tell the many tales behind the making of a film in our country. And he does so in a brilliant little twist he gives to the story of Evan. He writes the character of a washed-out film director (again conveniently named Brahmananda), who Uma’s father turns to in order to create the massive illusion of Durga Pujo in the month of April. Brahmananda is struggling with issues of his own, including but not limited to an estranged wife and son, and he promptly throws Uma’s father out of his house. But in what is clearly my favourite scene from the movie, when he goes to visit an old acquaintance, a former filmmaker that he used to assist, the dying old man gives his protege a precious lesson in the making of cinema – that every filmmaker is, first and foremost, a storyteller. And no matter how small the audience, how grim the situation, it is the solemn duty of every filmmaker to go on telling stories. It is a short scene but forms the basis of the entire film, as we see Brahmananda’s crew running around the city, from pillar to post, to set up a dream, often fighting seemingly immovable hurdles along the way, often hitting a wall, and yet having the grit and courage to push through it. And I could not help but sit back in the dark and marvel at the fact that this is exactly how cinema is made in our country – not by money, not my textbook lessons, but by sheer passion. To me, more than the story of the dying girl, it is this emotion that is the biggest takeaway from the film. The world of cinema, where there is chaos at first glance, but there is a beautiful order even in that chaos. Where there is hardly any hope at times, and the entire crew is sitting with their heads hanging in grief and dejection, and yet, like a brilliant spark, somebody gets an idea – and the film is on its way again. That, is what Uma beautifully captures.

Among the performances, there is hardly any that I can laud. Relatively speaking, the performance of Anirban Bhattacharya as Mohitosh Sur (Mahishasur?) as the orthodox right-wing Hindu fundamentalist hell bent upon playing spoilsport and stopping the farce of an untimely Pujo is something that caught my attention. As the cranky old filmmaker and the leader of the project, Anjan Dutt does shine in one or two scenes, but more often than not, I found him overacting. Jisshu Sengupta fails to show the nuances required of a father whose daughter is dying. And in a cameo, Babul Supriyo, a Bihari goon hired to wreak havoc on the sets erected (and deliberately named – you guessed it – Mahesh!) is astonishingly unimpressive.

As with almost all Srijit Mukherji films, it is the writing that is the biggest problem area. Scenes pop out of nowhere, and vanish even before they register – leaving no impact at all, merely an itching question – was it necessary at all? The entire thing looks piecemeal, and not one continuous, seamless whole. Characters are never painted in consistent colours, and transitions are almost always jarring. Mukerji certainly needs a better editor and if he is short on budget, I recommend siphoning some out of the department of photography and putting it in editing. Because after all, what is a beautiful shot worth, if it is not cut well?

As for Srijit himself, every time one of his films come along, I religiously go and watch it, hoping that someday, I will be able to see him shine the way in which he had in that delicious little thriller that he had made, by the name of Baishe Shrabon. But every single time, I come away disappointed and let down. I so, so wish that once, just once, he would display the same sparks I had seen in him and create something that is truly wonderful. Unfortunately, that day has not come, but I will wait for it.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 16:30 PM