Labour Of Love, or Asha Jaoar Majhe as it is titled in Bengali, is a silent film without dialogue. Debutant director Aditya Vikram Sengupta, a NID graduate in Graphic Design who is an artist, exhibited his paintings at exhibitions, made ad films and worked for television, has scripted and edited the film and is also its co-cinematographer. It is a silent film so far as the characters’ way of communication goes. But there is a lot of ambient sound so it is not the silent films we experienced during the silent era where there was no soundtrack at all. Nor is it anywhere close to Pushpak, a box office hit made many years ago starring Kamal Haasan in the lead.
The film deals with two characters – a young man and a woman who are never identified by their names. There are notes of old film songs floating into the frames from some radio music. The setting is in the crumbling segments of Kolkata featuring two Bengali characters getting crushed in the recession, their lives as if hanging in limbo. Culturally, ethnically and visually, the film is Bengali. Set in the crumbling environs of Calcutta, Labour Of Love is a lyrical unfolding of two ordinary lives suspended in the duress of a spiraling recession.
Yet, this is one film where the lack of dialogue expands the horizons of the subject that is universal – how a young couple, trapped in the midst of heightening recession, manages to extract the juice of happiness within this limiting world in its own way. The story would appeal to audiences across the globe because the recession has affected all working families struggling against price-rise of essential commodities, rising rate of unemployment and other financial constraints.
Labour Of Love is unique in the sense that it features two characters, both young and both Bengali living in small flat in a dingy bylane of contemporary Kolkata. They are a working couple but the director has refrained from labeling them with proper names. Yet, over the film, the two acquire distinctly individual identities, separately and together. The film uses silence as its main strategy, character and subject underscoring the significance of how visuals can tell a story without using words at all. The silence is punctured with ambient sounds such as old songs floating across into the lives of the couple, a music teacher teaching Rabindra Sangeet to a girl who sings off-note quite often, hawkers’ crying their wares on the streets below, all captured beyond the visual frame of the film.
The wife (Basabdatta Chatterjee) works in a bag factory and lists the packaged bags ready for disposal to buyers/distributors. When she is on day shift, the husband (Ritwick Chakraborty) keeps himself busy in household chores – washing, cooking, and putting the clothes out to dry till he readies himself to go to work in a printing press. When he is on night shift, the wife takes over. The minute detailing of mundane household chores also subtly suggest the dilapidated home they reside in where their washing has to be put out to dry on a rope strung across what appears to be a common balcony. The wife captured by the camera from behind as she walks out of the dingy lane to her work place is another example of the director’s attention to detailing.
The script makes it clear that the wife always works in the day shift and the husband on the night shift. As a consequence of this clash in their time schedules, they meet only during the small pocket of time when he comes back from work and she is ready to step out. It is a lifestyle millions of Indian families have conditioned themselves to accept and live by but no one thought of bringing this across on film before.
The other characters in the work environment are either kept out of the frame or sidetracked visually and narrative-wise. In other words, there is no hint to describe the couple’s social network or respective family backgrounds.. This could be for several reasons – they have no time for socializing, no money for socializing and most importantly, no need for socializing as they find fulfillment and company in each other. The director deals exclusively on the present within the film which makes any reference to family backgrounds redundant. This juxtaposition of love in a setting of tremendous financial constraints comes across more eloquently than what dialogue could have achieved.
Through the film, they are never shown together except in the climax which takes us on a surrealistic journey with the young couple who are together for some time when, perhaps, either their holidays coincide or they have time for brief moments of togetherness very precious to them. They treat these moments with the unique recipe for happiness they have devised for themselves and have learnt to live by it.
The visual narrative is occasionally broken by graphics that talk about unemployment, rising inflation and recession across the financial scenario. These graphics must be taken as the backdrop of the couple’s love story throwing forth the message that happiness is a state of mind and those who wish to take advantage of small fragments of time, can an do extract that happiness like drops of precious diamonds denied to them for reasons of pure survival. It is only if the viewer reads the film along with the graphics, the film makes of sense. If the graphics are taken to be mere ribbons to decorate the flame, the film will seem boring and meaningless. The story and the script thus, have two layers that must be taken together. One layer comprises of the daily routine life of a young, married couple and the other is the pressures they are burdened under expressed through the news flashing frequently as ribbons that are a visual framing device at the bottom of the frames.
The camera is extremely delicate, filled with panning shots that as if incidentally focus on apparently minor details such as the husband soaking the clothes, churning up the soap in the bucket, going to the market, buying fish, hanging clothes up to dry, taking them off when dry, packing his wife’s tiffin and so on. He even gets a bicycle to make the journeys easier. In the same way, the wife engages in household chores when the husband is at work. This symbiosis in a husband-wife relationship is established (a) minus the two meeting at all, almost and (b) minus the normal dialogue used in films – mainstream and off-mainstream.
The ambient sound design by Anish John is stunning, and can easily function as a model lesson on how sound can and sometimes, ought to be designed to bring out the richness and beauty of the visuals. The climax creates a surrealistic scene of images of the couple captured inside a translucent mosquito net hanging from an antique four-poster bed in the midst of a cluster of tall trees which is a surreal landscape that expresses with eloquence, the lyricism in the love the couple shares. This is shot in Black & White which returns to color when the film returns to ground reality, the wife preparing to go out to work, completing the circular motion bringing it back to where the film began.
Labour Of Love premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and won the FEDEORA Award for Best Film by a Debut Director and two National Awards (Best Film by a Debut director and Best Sound Design). In May this year, the film won three major awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the 15th Edition of the New York Indian Film Festival. The film was the sole Indian entry in the Cinema International section of the 20th Kolkata International Film Festival. Further, it won the Special Mention Award in the New Horizons Section of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014.
Bengali, Drama, Black & White and Color