Bengali Film Review

Peace Haven

Three septuagenarian friends embark on a journey to build their own mortuary.

Peace Haven opens with the death of an old man whose son is settled in the US and cannot come in time to light his father’s funeral pyre. A close friend of the son (Neel Sujan Mukherjee) agrees to perform the last rites. This violates a very important and traditional custom of the Hindus that makes it mandatory for the son to perform the last rites of his parents. The dead man’s three friends, Sukumar (Soumitra Chatterjee), Prabhat (Paran Bandopadhyay) and Achyut (Arun Mukhopadhyay) who are nearing their eighties and also have children settled abroad, are shocked to discover that there is no place in the city to preserve the dead till their children arrive. Till the interval, when the three friends are waiting for their friend’s last rites to be performed, Peace Haven is inclined to be on the morbid side unavoidable considering the subject but quite scary for this writer in her seventies and all senior citizens who will watch the film. Who likes to look at three freezer drawers in the real Peace Haven that inspired the film’s title and once stored the bodies of Jyoti Basu, Mother Theresa and so on?

But the tale is not really sad which we realize post interval when the mood changes and without the three old men, one might have felt clued to a different film altogether!. The three friends, egged on by their ‘leader’ Sukumar who is the savviest of them all, and is computer and Internet friendly and dapper in his dress sense in relation to his age, takes them to look for the right site where the mortuary will be built. One of them also caustically refers to the walk turning out to be Mahaprasthaner Pathey, the last journey of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat when he finds that the walk is a never-ending one. The days they are away are shown in suggestion by newspapers and milk packets lying at the door of Achyut’s home who forgot to inform the newspaper boy and the milkman not to deliver till he came back.

Director Suman Ghosh touches on tiny details that tell much more than just the visuals and words. In one scene, even as the body is lying on the floor, the health-conscious young lad from upstairs says, “sad, isn’t it?” as he bites into a banana. The servant of the dead man cannot locate his dentures and the man is cremated without them. The son’s friend is constantly on his cell even while he is lighting the pyre sans any sign of emotion. Another nice touch is the very old man who works at Peace Haven and looks like a living corpse himself but is precise in his memory for data and details.

The film pushes beyond the borders of realism and vacillates constantly between the real and the surreal till in the end, one is left wondering whether one is watching reality or whether one is looking at an illusory reality. It brings back the past and also suggests the future for the three men, mixing the dead with the living, real spaces with the waves of a sea that does not exist, creating a mindset that makes the audience get unwittingly engaged in the journey to destination unknown. The greenery of the long walks begins to turn into a beach with the three old men seated on a bench. The film keeps veering more and more towards the surreal till there is no real left for the film and for the audience and the film ends on that note of dreams and illusions and the surreal merging to be one, till we realise that the three old men have finally been able to find the “peace haven” they were looking to create.

Peace Haven would not have been the film it has turned out to be, unless it featured the three classic actors of Bengali theatre and cinema. Both Soumitra Chatterjee and Paran Bandopadhyay have their origins in theatre but Arun Mukhopadhyay, a legend in Bengali theatre, has done very few films and has remained loyal to theatre through his life.  Besides being brilliant performers who can slip under the skin to “become” the person they are portraying, they also belong to the septuagenarian age group of the character they play. This adds to the realism and also makes the surreal credible, emotionally rich and aesthetically unique.

The tiny cameos are alternately funny and well-defined. Most of them reappear towards the end within the surreal world in a strange and interesting mixture of those who connect and those who do not. The young man who works out with two filled plastic buckets in lieu of dumbbells is seen again, the camera capturing his back as he does his work-outs in the lap of the waves of the sea. Peace Haven is also a sad comment on senior citizens forced to live alone in an unfeeling metro like Kolkata where their affluent and successful children are not only far away but also have almost stopped caring. The music by Mayookh Bhaumick is suitably low key and subtle but the single song is spoilt by the actor’s terribly wooden performance. The cinematographer and the editor had tough jobs but they have done it very well to fit into the scheme of flitting and floating between several worlds at the same time as it was also a challenge.

Ghosh says he was deeply influenced by the writings of Chinese write Mo Yan who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 for his work as a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” Peace Haven is very niche film that deals with a subject not known to have been explored before in cinema. The first half does not carry the promise that is present in the second. Its relatively short screening time adds to its attraction because otherwise, it could have turned out to be quite depressing.

Score60%

Bengali, Drama, Color

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