“A Musical Romance based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” is the tagline on every poster of Aparna Sen’s Arshinagar (Mirrorland). Wrong. Arshinagar is the most sharply edged, incisive political comment by the director in her first ever no-holds-barred mainstream entertainment film over a directorial oeuvre of 35 years. The sharpness, one must concede is somewhat blunted by the frothy romance of the contemporized, Bengali avatars of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is the music, the songs and the lyrics that define the political content of the script, authored by Sen herself. Add to this the imaginatively created rhyming dialogue that spikes the entertainment value and gives the film an added dimension.
The essence of the film is spelt out in its title – Arshinagar – the mirrorland that is a microcosm representing any pocket on the fringes of an Indian city or town today centred in a slum. Two rival businessmen with shady deals, one a Hindu (Shankar Chakraborty) and the other a Muslim (Kaushik Sen) are sworn enemies with each trying to edge out the other in their attempts to grab the land on which the slum stands to build a spanking new shopping mall. The slum is lorded over by two rival gangs – one headed by Tayyeb (Jisshu Sengupta) where everyone is dressed in black and one dressed in red. They are constantly at war over the lordship. Tayyeb is the nephew of the Muslim businessman and uses a sharp-edged knife he runs through his teeth before every attack.
Caught between these two gangs is Mitra’s son Ronny (Dev) who hates gang-wars and violence because his focus is in rock music. He belongs to a band named Garage Band that aptly reflects the mood of the film’s central space – the slum and its inhabitants. He falls in love at first sight with Julie (Rittika Sen), the only child of the Muslim businessman. The Hindu-Muslim conflict between two warring families is firmly established to build up to the tragic Shakespearian climax. Dev and Rittika are too immature as actors to be able to portray the intensity of love Romeo and Juliet is famous for. Their romantic interludes are too naïve and frothy to convince. Ronny’s immobile face when Julie is killed is an example. Rittika, an overgrown teenager, looks like a fragile porcelain doll but that is it. In the acting department, the prize goes without debate to Jisshu Sengupta as the evil Tayyeb with his arrogant body language, ugly smile and tremendous conceit who peppers his lines with his deadly knife.
The slum actors are very loud and crude in speech, action and song which, however, make their portrayal credible and real. Roopa Ganguly as Tayyeb’s mother, Waheeda Rehman as his grandmother, Aparajita Addy as Julie’s mother are marginalised by the script that prioritizes the mafia gangwar and the shopping mall conflict between the two businessmen over the romance and its culmination in a tragedy that was embedded into the relationship. Koushik Sen, Subhashish Mukherjee, Shankar Chakraborty, Paran Bandopadhyay and Shantilal Mukherjee as the corrupt politician do justice to their roles. However, one has the feeling that Sen has used too many characters that crowd the script that might confuse the lay viewer.
The other source of confusion is the metaphorical character of Fatima excellently portrayed by Swagata Mukherjee in her first major role in cinema. Her character is used as a framing device where we see her as a puppeteer putting up a puppet performance that takes us to Arshinagar, the main story. She is also Fatima, the warm-hearted but strong ayah who brought up Julie and helps her to meet up with Ronny. Then we see her as the Hindu wife of Salim (Kamaleshwar Mukherjee) a generous-minded music teacher. With a powerful political narrative, was this framing device necessary? The scene that shows Tayyeb terrorizing a Muslim couple with a small daughter to force them to sign on their house papers is an argument that is left incomplete. Why? Another needless intrusion is the reference to the forgotten love story between Ronny’s mother and Julie’s mother which adds to the footage without enriching the narrative.
The sound design is apt with every sound hitting you like a hammer, designed to hit and shock. The art direction specially of the slum in Arshinagar is excellent with its tea shop juxtaposed in one scene with a high funda coffee shop that sells a cup of coffee at Rs.100 to lure the teashop owner to part with his small piece of private sunshine. A good touch. Rabi Ranjan Maitra’s editing could be confusing in the Baul and traditional song numbers but he had a tough job to accomplish with the script traversing across many different locations and musical references which he has done well in. Shirsa Ray’s cinematography plays around merrily with primary colours thrown up at the brightest dotted with splashing water, the railway tracks, ruins of old mansions and palaces where the two lovers have their rendezvous, the spacious and regal interiors of Julie’s home and so on.
Sen’s script weaves in every political issue with a song that rarely reflects romance, but puts up a mirror that reflects and addresses the audience diegetically as if accusing it of being a part of the capitalist and mafia exploitation and the constant threat of forced displacement. Or perhaps, pointing out to the audience how the society stands today. Kala Paisawalla is the most hard-hitting of them all, choreographed in the opera style that weaves in theatre within cinema asking the audience to come and join them in their collective fight or, alternately, accusing the audience of being part of the exploitative system, the music derived from the Spanish Flamenco in its rhythm. Shanti Shanti is based on Rock and Heavy Metal where the song is a complete counterpoint to the visuals spilling over with graphic violence ending in the killing of Tayyeb by Ronny purely in self-defence. The director has used this to express satire and elements of Black Comedy dripping with bloodshed and two killings.
The first song is as unusual as is its picturisation. Jaan Jodi Jaye Jaak sees the two rival gangs confronting each other in the slum inspired by the Blues Rock of the 1980s where shouts and screams that define expressions of rage are integrated into the song along with the stylised choreography that includes the kicks in the water that to make a big splash incorporated into the performance.
Chhotto Ekta Kamra moves between reality and fantasy indulged in by the lovers that reminds one of country pop qualified with a sense of the mellow and the candy floss. It is peppered with frothy, post-modern words like “noodles”, “omelette”, “bread” etc that has a fantasy and fresh swing to it. The other light number is Jaan Qubool performed by Ronny on stage that is derived from Pop Rock.
There are at least four songs rich in their philosophical, ideological and spiritual content. One is Maula Meri Maula which spells out a blend of the quawalli and the Sufiana slightly distanced from the normal quawalli set against the backdrop of the blooming love between Ronny and Julie. The Lalon Fakir number Barir Kaache Arshinagar is a famous number sung in different styles by different Baul groups in different parts of Bengal. Aami Ami Kore Berai is a traditional song by an anonymous author that is superimposed on visuals of communal violence within the slum like a musical and visual metaphor with the images of the dancing Parvati Baul who has given voice to the number herself as she has in the previous number too.
However, both these spiritual numbers with outstanding lyrics are so long that they tend to move away from the centre of the action and border on boredom. Jaaye Bheshy Jaaye, enriched with the music from a whistle suggests a myriad medley of moods – a Bohemian spirit, the fresh arrogance of youth, adventure, romance, towards an unknown destination – Mumbai which could also be another Arshinagar for all you know. Ronny and Julie wish to run away to Bombay without knowing what the city is all about. For them, it is a destination not of a place but for a culmination of their love. When Ronny tries to run away after meeting Julie for the first time, Debajyoti Misra enhances this running away with a beautiful blend of classical Western music from of Schubert and Beethoven on the soundtrack trying to unite the two streams – the boy having just met the girl of his life and then having to run away almost at once.
A mirror is more than just a reflection of us when used well by a great director or cinematographer. It can be the ultimate doppelganger, a vision of the past, a remembrance of what we were. Aesthetically, it can make a small room feel much larger. Or it can accentuate relationships, parallels, and fragmentation. For Lewis Carroll’s Alice, a mirror contained the possibility of a new world. It can suggest duplicity of character through the doubling of images, or it can multiply internal confusion, show arrogance, and highlight depravity. It can be a luxuriant, a seducer, or present an altered reality. In the hands of masters like Douglas Sirk, Martin Scorsese, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, John M. Stahl, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bernardo Bertolucci, it is a profound tool — both informative and beautiful. This is borrowed from Reflections on the Cinematic Mirror by David Robbins (https://thefadeout.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/reflections-on-reflections-the-cinematic-mirror/).
Does Arshinagar fit the bill? Yes, it does. The Shakespearian parallel should have been kept out. It will scare off the mass audience and will send the intellectuals on a fault-finding crusade. Arshinagar belongs entirely to Aparna Sen with Debajyoti Mishra lending his command over every school of music to weave in one the most integrated and versatile musical scores created in Indian cinema in recent times.
Bengali, Drama, Color