by Subhash K Jha
Starring Abhishek Bachchan, Jackie Shroff, Soha Ali Khan, Roopa Ganguly
Directed by Rituparno Ghosh
In the bowels of feudalism there cries a female heart.....The deep anguish of desolation has never created a more piercing and indelible dent in our soul. The refined, evenly defined resonances of Ghosh's new Bengali work of art leaves behind the awkward rhythms of his last film (in Hindi) Raincoat .
In Antar Mahal he gets it right....The astonishing grace with which the director steals Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay's skimpy short -story and turns it into a scintillating study of feudal and patriarchal oppression, immediately links this work to some of the greatest literary adaptations from Bengal.
Ghosh's exposition on the innards of female desolation go much further than Satyajit Ray's rightly -celebrated Charulata.
The lonely wife Madhabi Mukherjee in Ray's five-decade old film was more flirty .. Soha Ali Khan as the child-bride who is smothered in ritualistic subjugation in the inner chambers of a feudal household, is far more tender, fragile, vulnerable and heartbreaking. Images of her peeping anxiously and forlornly from behind filigreed curtains just sweep your heart away.
Soha resembles the child-bride in Ray's Devi...with a difference. Ray could've never imagined going into the graphic scenes of sexual subjugation. He was too much of a puritan to project sex in anything but silhouette.
Ghosh brings feminine oppression out of the closet. In resplendently-lit scenes of poetic languour (cinematogrpaher Abhik Sen creates a lilting and magical play of light and shade) director Ghosh conjures images of unbearable pain and torture,as the heir-hungry decadent zamindar (Jackie Shroff, aptly cast) heaves and thrusts into his child-wife while the lascivious priest chants ritualistically to plead to the gods of procreation.
The contrast between love and sex, male oppression and tender minstration is brought into the frames with teasing sensitivity, when the Bihari sculptor Brij (Abhishek Bachchan) arrives in the sepulchral mansion to create a ripple effect in the lives of the brutish zamindar's two wives, the doddering and crumbling elder bahu (Roopa Ganguly) and the sweet and heartbreaking younger wife (Soha).
You can't forget Roopa's look of erotic longing as the Bihari sculptor shivers in his sleep in the outer courtyard. You cannot forget the bonding between the two wives, deeply but diametrically reminiscent of Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das's camaraderie of desolation in Deepa Mehta's Fire.
But Ghosh doesn't dwell on the bondings. He sweeps across the burning ghats of emotional desecration , entering the enchanting embers of simmering discontent only long enough to sweep us into the vortex of these demonaical emotions. We are then pushed out of the inner chambers like unwanted guests.
But the hospitality while it lasts, is overpowering. This is a film that invites you into fascinating folds of emotions, creating pockets of intangible feelings for us to savour... and live with forever.
The doomed characters wrench us out of our habitual repose to evaluate the space and sound of cinema in a novel light.
Though Ghosh's film is exceptionally literate and articulate, it doesn't do away with that cinematic quality of moist emotions which make the characters seem to be simultaneously sublime and obtainable. The anguish of the women is handled with a graceful delicacy unequalled in the work of any other Indian director.
You cannot forget Roopa Ganguly and Soha Ali Khan's collective desolation...or their shared unexpressed passion for the soft and kind sculptor...or the way they handle the suffocating brutality of their household ...
The two ladies specially Ganguly remain with you after the film. Abhishek Bachchan as the unexpected catalyst uses his eyes and inward-drawn body language to create a socio-economically oppressed prototype. He almost seems like a distant kin of Om Puri in Satyajit Ray's Sadgati. With less than 20 minutes of screen space Abhishek's eyes pierce a hole in the narrative's searing soul.
The lowly young sculptor's bonding with the aging British painter—both called into the zamindar's home to do a creative job—is again, proof of Ghosh's ample skills in interweaving cultural and emotional diaspora in one lyrical line of vision.
The film's fine and fascinating boudoir-design is enhanced by an extraordinary soundtrack. Incidental sounds of birds, vendors and household stirrings add a feeling normalcy to the terribly twisted tenor of gender interaction.
As usual Ghosh creates nuggets of periodicity in physical details. He exteriorizes the inner-most yearnings of his women with set-pieces and locational designs .
Antar Mahal is an extraordinary work that brings with itself the director's impressive reputation and builds on it. Now, it would be no exaggeration to call Rituparno Ghosh one of the most powerful filmmakers of the country.