Mahanayika translates as ‘superstar’, female. It is almost like a ‘looking back relaunch’ for Bengali cinema’s numero uno Rituparna Sengupta. Does this work? This is a difficult question to answer because this genre is not an oft-beaten genre in Bengali cinema. At the same time, the subject offers interesting possibilities of exploring the multi-layered life and relationships of a super star through her evolution as a top star.
The film opens with Shakuntala Sen in her various avatars, in love with another matinee idol Aniruddha Mukherjee (Shaheb Chatterjee), whose father Arindam Mukherjee (Soumitra Chatterjee) seems happy with the prospect of his son marrying Shakuntala. He places a condition that after her marriage, she would be allowed to work in films produced only under the Mukherjee banner. Shakuntala agrees. Like any top star, she goes into swinging moods of anger, arrogance, phases of depression and anxiety, fluctuating behavior with members of the media and her close staff. Her life changes when Priyabrato Roy (Indraneil Sengupta), a detective officer, turns the tables on her life threatening to expose the crimes she was in some way involved in on her way to the top. Shakuntala gets into a torrid affair with Roy and falls madly in love with him but by then, he has disappeared from her life like magic.
Rituparna has done a Stanislavikian take on Shakuntala Sen through the various roles the star’s life demands and does a good job of it. She breaks off with Anirudhha because she does not care for limitations placed n her personal choice. But Priyabrato has disappeared and Shakuntala finds herself getting the top award as the best International Star, whatever that is supposed to mean. But who is Priyabrato? We learn that he is actually the inner guilt-ridden conscience of Shakuntala blocking her way to the top by reminding her of the anti-social ills she is somehow guilt of.
Rituparna dominates every single frame with her overpowering screen presence, sidelining everyone else who is close to her in life.The other actors give her solid support such as Subhashish Mukherjee who is her friend and confidante now reduced to playing Hanuman in low-budget films, Anindyo as her concerned manager, Soumitra as the patriarch who runs a multi-million dollar film business and also his son’s life, Indraneil, sometimes dressed in bizarre costumes, and Shaheb, who more or less does justice to his relatively minor role.
Sadly, if only good acting could have lifted a film from mediocrity to artistic excellence! Mahanayika, directed by Saikat Bhakat, fails on infrastructural counts. The editing (Maloy Laha) is disconnected, full of jerks where the camera focusses on cars speeding by on Kolkata streets, or sky rises puncturing the sky that are over-used editorial strategies in television serials. Raja Narayan Deb’s background music is good but is lost within the narrative because the placement and positioning of the two Tagore numbers do not jell with the script. Nachiketa Chakraborty’s song number in which he portrays himself at a party scene is superfluous and does not add to the narrative.
But the worst culprits, are (a) the extremely incredible and long-winding script and (b) the terrible costumes of Rituparna Sengupta. She needs a change in her costume designer desperately and urgently if she is to make something out of her career at this stage when she is already at the top. Shorts do not flatter her figure even in a song sequence and the over-use of bright red in her dress and costumes left, right and center is so loud that it makes you wince. The frilly white floor-length gown she wears in the last scene is totally outdated and we wore it when we were kids. In one scene, she lifts up her legs and crosses them on a center table, thighs in full view, while talking to a media person who is interviewing her for a serialized autobiography. She looks ludicrous in that scene. How can she meet Priyabrato at restaurants and hotels without first checking on his credentials he claims he has? What is most distressing is that the character of Shakuntala and her body language throughout the film undercuts the dignity that ought to have been a part of a top star’s persona. There is a huge portrait of Suchitra Sen beside Shakuntala’s own on one wall somewhere. I wish that dignity rubbed off on Shakuntala.
The recounting of situations in Shakuntala’s life by Priyabrata captured in flashback is good. But the script gets unwieldy and goes completely out of control when Shakuntala has her torrid bed scenes in a hotel room with Priyabrato. If Priyabrato is a fantasy figure Shakuntala has created from her pangs of guilt, then how can the sex happen at all? The film has no answer or explanation. The films that took her to the top are not elaborated at all. She drives her car in a huff all alone in the middle of the night but where are the hangers-on, the security, the autograph hunters and the crowds? Which is the film that fetched her that topmost international award? What award? Who bestows it and why? If one is portraying the rise and fall and rise of a top star, one needs to fill in these gaps with minute detailing even if this is pure fiction to make it convincing. But who knows? The audience might just lap it up and for the director, the producer and the top star, that is all that finally counts, doesn’t it?
Bengali, Drama, Color