Pakaram brings the Bengal village back into the theatres through a maze of characters springing from the story of a ten-year-old boy Topu (Sham Maitra) who has been nicknamed Pakaram by the village nut Shantu (Lama). Topu lives in a world of dreams that make him feel that he can fly like a bird based on the belief that if humans can learn to swim like fish, why can’t they also fly like birds? His best friend Raja believes in him and looks up to him as his icon.
The film has the usual collage of cliché characters of any Bengal village – the mason who cannot understand his son Topu’s dreams but is amazed by them; Shantu, the crazy bum who believes that the Tagore bust is actually a deity; Deepak (Subrata Dutta) who understands Topu’s dreams and sees his own childhood reflected in the small boy; Deepak is loathe to go to the city for work but is finally compelled to; Raja, who fails to understand why his father, who works in Kolkata hates his friendship with Topu and sends him off to a Kolkata boarding school which he hates and cannot cope with the ragging his hostel mates subject him to; Topu’s mother (Anjana Basu) who is convinced that the woman who hung herself in the forest nearby has returned as a ghost to ‘possess’ her son; Raja’s mother (Kamalika) who understands what her son’s problem is but has no say in the matter; Deepak’s widower father who is frustrated by his son’s aimless wanderings; Haru Kaka (Shankar Debnath) whose successful son away in the city is always “too busy” to talk his father even on the phone.
The villagers are intrigued by the persistent stealing of their caged pigeons till Shantu is caught red-handed. He catches pigeons and lets them fly away because he cannot stand them being caged. He screams to be freed when his guardians tie him up to stop him from mischief. When Deepak is informed that the two rain trees will be axed to widen the road to make way for a bigger road, he feels very sad because he has grown up loving those two trees. Pakaram is a collage of characters, incidents, festivals, songs and events that together paint a picture that is larger than the sum of its parts. The village schoolmaster welcomes the habitual latecomer Topu to class with caustic comments which make the mischievous boys laugh at him. Why does he come later to school everyday? He is late because some fancy catches his imagination and he stops on the way and forgets about school. In one scene, we find him painting a boat!
Pakaram proves that even clichés repeated ad infinitum in cinematic language can work quite well if handled and presented aesthetically with imagination and restraint. The camera caresses the scenario as it kisses the cloud-dotted skies in long shots. There is one particular very long shot captured in silhouette that shows Topu standing alone, away from the crowd that has come to immerse the Durga idol he has shaped. He is sad. Deepak walks back to console him. In another shot, as Topu imagines that he is flying like a bird in the sky, the scene is suddenly superimposed with a flock of pigeons in flight. The cinematography is beautiful, romantic and poetic. There is a lot of colour in the film, mainly adhering to the colours of the sky, the greens of the fields, the rusts and browns of the roads and the dilapidated mansion which never go overboard. Bright colours add the relief in the festival and song scenes.
Topu creating splashes of colour on a sheet of white paper; Topu crafting a small Durga idol with his deft hands and fingers that subsequently leads to the first Durga Pooja in the village; Topu fluidly answering his teacher’s question on the distance of the planets from the sun; Topu missing his friend Raja and not able to understand why Raja’s father hates him so much; Topu dreaming that he is actually flying in circles in the sky with Raja only to be shocked to wake up and find it was only a dream; Topu winning the first prize at the village painting competition – the film is all about Topu and Soham Maitra realises the character very well with the marvellous naïveté he invests his acting with. Yet, at no point in the film is the friendship between Topu and Raja sentimentalized or exaggerated.
Pakaram does not begin and end with Topu. Pakaram reaches out to touch other areas of the fast-changing society in the village economy, sometimes unfolding at the adda in the tea-shop every morning where villagers come to share their tales of sorrow and happiness. Raja’s over-ambitious father is deep into debt but does not learn from his mistake. Raja’s city headmaster, the boarding superintendent, the psychiatric counsellor and his cruel hostel mates offer a microcosm of life in the city,
Director Shankar Debnath has packaged his film very well to feed the international audience with the right kind of Bengali ethnicity without surrendering to normal commercial temptations. The festivals are covered well with song-dance numbers to fit into each festival such as the Durga Pooja followed by the sindoor utsav with married women in red-bordered saris smearing each other with sindoor, or the baul song-dance number towards the end of the film. In fact, there is one song too many but none of the songs thankfully, are lip-synced by Topu or Raja or any other character unlike the average masala film. The violence is restricted to boyish pranks without allowing it to go out of control. The editing is sometimes a bit jerky but is smooth most of the time.
The director has handled his acting cast, a mix of experienced actors who are popular faces on cinema and television and absolute newcomers very efficiently. In fact, he has successfully deconstructed the screen images of most of the professional actors to fit into roles they have rarely enacted before. Ritesh as Raja is very good too and so are the character actors who play the myriad cameos the film is dotted with. Subrata Dutta as Deepak is quiet, low-key, subtle and sober, which exemplifies his versatility as an actor. Lama who is wasted in stupid funny capers in most films, is outstanding as Shantu, jumping and romping all the time and at times, makes us wonder whether he is half as crazy as we are led to think he is.
Pakaram is an honest film aimed at the mass audience with all ingredients of entertainment filled into slots that might have been ruined by concocted melodrama. One only hopes it hits the bull’s eye at the box office.
Bengali, Drama, Color