Teenkahon (Three Obsessions) is a triptych directed by Bauddhayan Mukherji and produced by Monalisa Mukherji. It tries to capture the changing face of morality, the degeneration of values, the increasing pollution of the spoken language and the changing social fabric of India through three stories. Spread over a hundred years, the three stories are structured in the manner of the classical Three Act Play with each act (read story) exploring one facet of an obsessive relationship outside the purview of marriage.
The common thread that binds the three stories in Teenkahon is obsessive love beyond the framework of marriage. Teenkahon shows how imagination, aesthetics, artistry and narration can be meshed into one another ideally to bring out a film that becomes its own story. All the three stories are treated with a typical Roald Dahl-style mystique. Bauddhayan insists that it is only the third film Telephone, based on his own story that has the Dahl touch of a twist. All three films shake you from your complacent stupor of the predictable climax to take you to a situation that is a happy mixture of shock and surprise.
Nabalok is adapted from a short story by Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay (1920-1954). It slowly transports the viewer to the nostalgic world of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. The film opens on a night of rain and storm with a couple of men waiting for others to step in before they can get on to a game of cards. The rains keep thundering down and as a new man steps in, the young intellectual fond of spouting Longfellow, suggests telling them the story of his first love. The film moves into flashback when this intellectual guy was eight and became obsessed with the new, 16-year-old, dusky Nayantara (Aranya Sen) bride. From this point on, the film transports you to the world of Pather Panchali, shot in Black-and-White with a haunting music track to match.
The two locations and periods depicted in the film are polarized in every sense – time, space, characters, lifestyle, culture and ambience. The stormy night inside one of the member’s home (Kharaj Mukherjee) carries the air of the traditional ghost story from Bengali literature when friends, trapped by rain and storm, narrate ghost stories to one another. The village throws the doors and windows to Nature open, capturing the natural truancy of the little Shailo (Barshan Seal) as he goes through the throes of the chain of adoration, fondness, infatuation and envy surrounding Nayantara, completely one-sided on the boy of eight who does not really now what words like love or sex mean but feels the stirrings of deep liking for the beautiful young bride.
In a manner of speaking, differently though, Shailo of Nabalok might bring back memories of Antoine Donel, the lost and unloved boy in Truffaut’s 400 Blows. Shailo seems to be an orphan who functions as courier of letters for Nayantara to her husband who works in Kolkata. Barshan Seal shows an instinctive understanding of acting for the camera. Nabalok is filled with moments of delightful humour such as the tole master (Monu Mukherjee) waving his stick like an opera conductor’s wand while the boys do the countdown on Shailo’s sit-ups. The boys who are conditioned to repeat after the master by rote, repeat, on reflex, when the old man announces the latecomer Shailo. Shailo reading the letters between the husband and wife and then discarding them, Shailo tripping the young husband, Shailo ‘becoming’ a ghost from the tree branches chasing the husband back to the city are replete with the truancy of the child that makes everyone laugh. Shailo gets caught when he pens a letter in his childish hand as if from the ghost himself and is banished from the village forever.
The flashback ends, the huge wall-clock chimes the hour of nine in the night and the two visitors prepare to leave. Then we see the Dahlesque twist. Suman Mukherjee (as the grown-up Shailo) who never married, in a remarkably restrained and tongue-in-cheek performance lets the cat out of the bag leaving the end with a question that might be rhetorical or might not.
Post Mortem is based on a story by a more contemporary writer Syed Mustafa Siraj. Set in a narrow old by-lane of Kolkata, against the devastating floods of 1978, it opens again on a thunderous morning of rain and lightning to close in on a flat on top of a flight of stairs. The camera offers glimpses through an open window of the flooded streets of Kolkata on a morning when the streets are so dark that one feels it is night. A middle-aged man, drenched to the skin (Sabyasachi Chakraborty) knocks at a door and a young man (Joy Sengupta) opens it. The older man tells the younger one that his wife, who was the younger man’s lover, committed suicide the night before. The narrative is filled with an unending dialogue between the two men persistently fluctuating between and among varied moods and sentiments that does not reveal why she killed herself but reveals other truths that focus on perceptions about ‘responsibility’ as understood differently by the two men. The woman never appears in the film because it is more about the two men in her life than about her.
Small touches like the neighbour downstairs coming up to request the young man to store his musical instruments from the heavy rains, the older man looking at the wrist-watch of the younger man on the table to find that that watch and his own have a time-difference of a few minutes, and the incredible cinematography that keeps the camera moving incessantly between and among the spaces of the small apartment and switching from the heavily lined face of the older man and the clean-shaven, clear skin of the younger one makes this psychological thriller a discovery in screenplay and multi-layered histrionics by the two actors distanced in every way except by the woman in their lives. The rain does not stop but the younger man announces that he must leave for work and the older man steps out. The twist comes and the story ends –Roald Dahl all over again. The frequent ringing of the old telephone disturbs the atmosphere from time to time as do the sudden entries of the downstairs relative.
Telephone belongs to 2013 and it is a scintillating crime thriller in the genre of film noir that will leave you wondering whether it is also a murder mystery till the climax tells you what it really is. It is about a Kolkata DCP (Ashish Vidyarthy) and his childless marriage of 12 years to a beautiful woman (Rituparna Sengupta) who desperately tries for an IVF baby because she cannot conceive naturally. The marriage is almost on the edge of a breakdown till two things happen –the wife finally gets pregnant through IVF while the husband while chasing a case falls in love with a dancer during the investigation. Interestingly, the entire narrative is dotted with the incessant ringing of the cell-phone either from his workplace, or from his lover or from his wife
When the boy is around six, and the DCP is thrilled with his newly acquired fatherhood, something catastrophic happens to set the apple cart in reverse gear. On an emergency criminal case, he discovers that he has left his loaded gun behind at home. His little boy is fond of playing police-police. Rushing back to fetch the gun, he finds his wife has been shot dead. Is it a murder or is it an accident? This is true-blooded Roald Dahl with Ashish Vidyarthy finally stripping himself of the extremely mannered and overstylised acting we have seen in recent years. Rituparna, shorn of make-up, overdone hairstyles and gaudy costumes, does a wonderful job of vacillating between and among hate and uncertainty and speculation and pain to happiness. The dancer shown fleetingly in only two brief shots, once comes across as a beautiful woman decked in dancer’s costume, Bauddhayan and make-up and once more in a big close-up where the angle gives her a witch-like, bitchy look. Dhritiman Chatterjee as the acutely observant scientist who is quick to catch on his patient’s husband’s callousness towards his wife is outstanding. This is a digital film.
The twist is best left unsaid but the jet-paced action makes Telephone an action-centric thriller with the cell phone functioning as the hero, and also instrument, agency, strategy and everything else – reflecting its role in today’s urban life filled with adulterous relationships, murders, broken relationships and so on.
Boudhhayan’s minute eye for detailing comes across in all three stories. In one shot in Nabalok, we see a wood ant in close-up slowly crawling its way on a horizontal tree branch. Or, in another scene, the camera closes on the crooked, childish scrawl when Shailo writes the ghost-letter adding the chandrabindoos (no translation is possible) to the words as an afterthought to denote that the writer is a ghost! The brinjal fritters served with puffed rice with hot tea in the first story reflects the eating culture of Bengalis in the 1950s while the English-punched dialogues in the last film portrays the brazen forthrightness of today’s youth. “My existence does not begin and end with my boobs” screams the wife at the husband in the opening scene in Telephone and that is the sad part of our language story.
Arghyakamal Mitra’s editing sweeps across the hills and dales and valleys and bylanes of the time-space-person dimensions with remarkable ease The pace of editing keeps changing with the period the story is rooted and set in as Avik Mukherjee’s brilliant cinematography gives him a match frame by frame, shot by shot from the slow-paced, Black-and-White celluloid poetry in Nabalok through the slightly faster Technicolor ambience of Post Mortem to the jet-paced speed of Telephone. One needs to watch the film to believe in the beautiful synchronization between and among the cinematography, the editing and the sound design. Add to this the low-key, mood-centric musical score by Arnab Chakraborty and you have a complete film albeit a few continuity errors that might be forgiven.
Bauddhayan’s Teenkahon is a wonderful tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema. The composite film has been carefully designed, scripted and structured to reflect milestones in the evolution of Indian cinema such as – the marriage of literature and cinema, the changing trends in technique from Black & White to Color to digital filming, specially manipulating cinematic technique to replicate 35mm film on screen and of course, the changes in characterisation and styles in performance within the dynamically polarised narratives, not to forget the socio-technological changes that have seeped into the real world of the living – in the spoken language and in technique.
Bengali. Drama, Black & White and Color