Kaushik Ganguly’s artistic graph as a director shows a rising curve from the time he made Laptop through Shabdo, Khaad, Chhotoder Chhobi and now Cinemawala. His earlier films, targeted at the mass audience and some quite commercially successful, were so diversely messed up that one watching his growth had almost given up on him as being a better maker of telefilms than feature films. That said, there have been a few dips. Apur Panchali was good but too dependent on its source of inspiration, Pather Panchali, borrowing from the clips of the Ray classic so generously that one had to look for the director between clips from PP. But after that, there has been no looking back.
West Bengal, till not very long ago, had about 700 single-screen theatres screening 35 mm films. Then digital stepped in and the film projectors began to gather dust, the theatres that failed/refused to accept and execute the change failed to attract viewers and now, as the film states in the end, the state has only 250 single-screen theatres screening films digitally. Cinemawala is about Pranab Das, (Paran Bandopadhyay) a single-screen theatre owner, who staunchly puts his foot down and refuses to adapt to change.
Das’ theatre, Kamalini, named after his wife, has closed down but it continues to be the world Das and Hari (Arun Guha Thakurta), his projectionist of 23 years, live in. They religiously open the collapsible gates daily, climb up the rickety stairs with a poster of an old film on the landing and later pasted on the decaying walls. They either go into the office or the projection room which happens to be Hari’s passion while Das bores him with his stories or sometimes they listen to old gramophone records with the dialogues of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak. Das’ wife, Kamalini (Alakananda Roy), has left him to live with and tend to a paralytic, very old father and has nothing to do with the family. The son, Prakash (Parambrato Chatterjee), having failed to convince his father to make the technical conversion to digital screening, finds a short-cut to make money through illegal buying, selling and screening of pirated DVDs of latest film hits or X-rated films. He gives up helping his father in their family fish business too and is eager to make some quick money as his wife is pregnant and he hates to depend on his father. This conflict of values between father and son is never-ending. The twist in the tale comes slowly, within a surrealistic ambience stripped completely of melodrama or cinematic clichés. The wife (Sohini Sarkar) is convincing and credible as the young woman sandwiched between her husband and her father-in-law oblivious to the husband’s appropriation of the gold bangle his mother gifted her with that he sells of to buy his digital projector.
The art direction by Dhananjoy Mondol is a beautiful blend of the imaginative and the culturally contextual. The office is filled with framed photographs of Uttam Kumar, PC Barua, Chhabi Biswas, awards and discs that are relics of a happier past, an old phonograph, and three framed portraits of Karl Marx, Rabindranath Tagore and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The projection room has the dust-gathered projector with large film reels empty of spools of film, the empty theatre with seats in decay, cobwebs filling empty crevices and the ceiling, where the two very different ‘friends’ drink till midnight.
The same applies to Soumik Haldar’s cinematography that switches eloquently from the interiors of Das’s home to the projector being carried down into the truck that looks like a human corpse being carried away. The editing is a bit confusing with its sudden switches and cuts but when placed along with the sound design, it fits in. The loud sound of the projector being carried away cuts sharply into a flight of pigeons flying away into the sky, as if scared by the sound. This scene recalls the scene of Apu’s father’s death followed by the flight of pigeons in Ray’s Aparajito. The background score carries the haunting echo of Ray’s music and is an example of the Ray hangover that Ganguly carries.
Paran Bandopadhyay in the title role gives a brilliant performance which, coming from his rich theatrical past and his long innings in cinema, is no surprise at all. His simmering anger at his son’s dishonest and corrupt value system, his anger with the compulsions of selling off the projector by force of circumstances, his eagerness to see how his son is faring at the fare, are all expressed mainly through his mobile face and body language. Arun Guha Thakurta, a brilliant actor marginalized by most filmmakers, thankfully, gets his due in every Kaushik Ganguly film. He invests Hari with the right mixture of pain, sadness, anxiety and caring for his master. Parambrato Chatterjee as the son and Sohini Sarkar as his gentle, caring wife are both symbolic of the youth of today and also an effective juxtaposition in contrast to the older Pranab Das and Hari. Alakananda Roy as Das’ estranged wife makes a mark in her brief cameo.
Cinemawala is finally a touching and beautiful cinematic tribute to single projection theatres that screened 35 mm films to an audience different from the ones crowding the multiplexes of today.
Postscript: Interestingly, I watched the film seated next to the fair and handsome, white dhoti-kurta clad Dipen Mitra, the 70+ owner of one of the oldest single screen theatres in Kolkata called Mitra Cinema. Located in the crowded Shyambazar, it was earlier Chitra Talkies. His father bought it in 1930 and named it Mitra. It remains one among the 250 single screen theatres. It has adjusted to the changes with digital projection from QUBE, Dolby SR sound with QSC amplifiers in JBL speakers and centralized AC. But I could see him saddened while watching Cinemawala. “What have you done with the projectors?” I asked, curious. “I got them dismantled and kept them away. Do you want to buy one? I will sell it to you cheap.” I smiled and he smiled back, his smile tinged with the sadness of loss.
Bengali, Drama, Color