Bengali Film Review

Natoker Moto

Natoker Moto is a fictionalised reflection and projection of the tragic life of famous group theatre actress Keya Chakraborty. She died in1977 in a mysterious boat’accident’ during the location shooting of her first film, Natoker Moto. The film borrows the name of this film-within-the-film which is structured as an investigation into her death by port police officer Bhabataron Roy (Rajatava Dutta) who gets involved in the humane tragedy that led to the intriguing death of a talented artist and a brilliant young woman who lived life on her own terms and perhaps, died for it too.

Though director-writer Debesh Chatterjee insists that Natoker Moto is not a biopic, the names of the characters are so close to the real names of the people involved in Keya’s life belies this statement. Add to this the incidents in Keya’s life that led to her tragic demise. “The script uses her life as a metaphor for all women everywhere and especially in theatre who have lived life on their own terms and Keya has been a trigger for the film” he says.

The protagonist is named Kheya Chakraborty (Paoli Dam). The film opens with her sudden and impulsive leap into the river waters, her sari floating away and her face, supine and peaceful, brimming on the surface of the waters. The climax comes full circle to the beginning – the leap. Bhabataron tries to find out answers to uncomfortable questions like whether it was suicide, murder or an accident. The shots point out that it was certainly not an accident because she actually leaps into the waters. But that was already written in the script which she was supposed to enact. But was the safety net really laid out just under the waters as promised? Or, was she told differently and as she did not know how to swim, and also wanted the shot to be natural, she had no fear of jumping?

The script points out again and again that the story is not about how she died but about the social and filial circumstances that conspired silently in a manner that led to her death. As Bhabataron goes about his interviews with people close to the actress, her grieving mother (Roopa Ganguly) who had walked out of her home when Kheya was a child, or bits and bytes of her achievements in school and her friendship with a close friend (Shaoni Ghosh) the film captures glimpses of Kheya’s life as she grows from a little girl in a home filled with domestic violence, through life lived with her father after her mother walks out, to her brilliant results in academics running parallel to her involvement in group theatre which began by chance when she was in college and then became a serious passion.

The narrative often cuts into scenes from Kheya’s notable stage performances that brought her to the limelight in Bengali group theatre spanning Bengali adaptations of Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan and of course, Antigone and Noti Binodini. Each play is a recognized classic that remains as universal as it was when first penned. Some of the dialogues that Kheya delivers from the play, either during rehearsals or during a performance, are imaginatively used as double entendres where Kheya actually is speaking her mind as much as she is mouthing her dialogue and the editor suddenly cuts from a real life scene to the stage props and scenario in continuity of the lines she speaks.

In the scene where she walks out of her marriage to Prasad (Saswata Chatterjee) as Prasad feels insecure about Kheya’s closeness to another theatre stalwart Amitesh (Bratya Basu), the editing cuts to a stage scene showing Kheya walking through a corridor filled with a number of open doors. This reminds one strongly of that famous scene from New Theatres’ Mukti symbolising freedom from a marriage which has become a virtual ‘prison.’

In order to demarcate the ‘real’ from the ‘theatrical’ Debesh Chatterjee has used an over-stylized and overly theatrical method of acting in the stage scenes while the ‘real’ scenes are handled gently and subtly. The contradictions jar the senses of the audience and somewhat spoil the aesthetics of the film not only because they suddenly disturb the low-key treatment of the story but also because they do not jell with the kind of acting group theatre of the time was experimenting with –trying to move away from the jatra style of performance and exaggerated theatricals and bring in a more naturalized style of acting into Bengali theatre of the time.

As opposed to commercial theatre in Kolkata, group theatre was a movement that did not have commercial aspirations or focussed on entertainment alone. It was rooted in social agenda of some sort though the source came from different literary traditions and writers. It was characterised by experimentation in theme, content, production, art design, props and most importantly, acting. This began around the 1940s but grew into a solid and popular movement during the 1970s when Keya worked and suddenly died. Group used the proscenium to highly social messages. But though Chatterjee has remained loyal to the actual plays in which Keya performed versatile roles including that of a man and a woman in the same play, the stage performances belie this experimentation.

Debajyoti Misra’s musical score is a scintillating mix of theatre songs of the 1970s, intercut with lines from Tagore numbers hummed by Kheya to a background score with Western classical notes that follow the fluctuating moods of the film beautifully. Faced with a tough uphill climb, Bodhaditya’s editing sails smoothly along the various tracks of the story – the steamer shots from where Kheya takes the final leap, the investigation, the flashbacks, the current scenario, Kheya’s changing relationships with her friends in theatre while Indraneel Mukherjee’s camera uses soft focus when we see Kheya just before she jumps shot from behind and then Kheya walking through those doors also shot from behind. The choreographed dance number is also a staged shot and is entertaining.

The script should have been crisper. It tends to get out of control when we are suddenly thrust into the stage scenes. But these negative points are undercut by the brilliant performances of the acting cast with Roopa Ganguly as Kheya’s sad mother taking away the frosting on the cake. “Why place so many flowers on her body? They will hurt her,” she cries, sitting beside the flower-decorated hearse. Paoli fleshes out the different layers of Kheya with a very controlled and low-key performance while Sujon Mukherjee as Manoranjan, her professor who first eyed the talent in her proves how wasted his talents are in comic and cheap roles with this subdued performance. Rajatava Dutta fits like a glove into the character of the rather off-beat police officer who believes in conducting research on group theatre before he takes up the investigation! Saswata Chatterjee is fine except for his establishing shot showing him as a footballer in college! It is Bratya Basu who disappoints as Amitesh Banerjee because his dialogue delivery is becoming both mannered and clichéd. Shaoni as Kheya’s childhood friend has not overacted in this film unlike what she usually does and on the whole, it is the acting that keeps the film alive and intriguing.

Someone says (probably the policeman), “All suicides are actually murders.” One wonders – was Keya killed or forced to die or pushed metaphorically to her death? No one knows. And now, no one ever will.

Score55%

Bengali, Drama, Color

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