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The outsider and his city

DEEPA GANESH

Winner of Lankesh debut director award Suman Mukhopadhyay's Bengali film, Herbert is at once the tragic story of an individual alienated by history as well as the collapse of Kolkata in the last century



LAYERED NARRATIVE Nabarun Bhattacharya's novel Herbert gets a complex treatment in the hands of Suman Mukhopadhyay; PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Kolkata is the laboratory of the Left movement, says writer Ashok Mitra, and you couldn't agree more. This is the image of the city that lives in the commonsense of the masses. For us, an average Bengali is someone who has a streak of the radical in him.

Quite contrarily, Kolkata today sports a new image, dramatically different from the one of the '60s: it is now a hot destination for IT companies and BPOs. The middle-class Bengali youth no longer sports a stubble and a jhola and mouths the Red Book, but joins the band of cyber coolies who speak in the American tongue. Herbert, theatre director Suman Mukhopadhyay's debut film, captures the changing Kolkata in the last five decades.

So much so the city becomes one of the most important characters of the film. The film, which won the Lankesh Debut Director Award recently, was screened in Bangalore as part of the award presentation ceremony.

Based on Nabarun Bhattacharya's (son of the strongest anti-establishment voice Mahashweta Devi) eponymous Sahitya Academy award-winning novel (1997), Herbert comes as a crucial intervention when the city's future looks drastically different from its past.

And what one gets out of this richly layered text is a complicated tapestry of images that constantly challenge and tease our rational notions of known and unknown worlds.

Herbert, an orphaned member of a crumbling household, becomes a metaphor of the collapsing city, with the narrative spanning several decades.

Herbert, who grows up on the charity of his relatives, is made out to be a good-for-nothing dimwit, thereby denied a normal life.

His life holds in it a range of experiences from being bullied by his crooked cousin, to running errands for all and sundry, flying kites and feeding crows on the terrace as his favourite pastime, a chance landing in the Naxalite movement of the '70s to finally declaring that he can "dialogue with the dead" in the globalised economy of the '90s.



A scene from the film PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.

Suman Mukhopadhyay, in his complex narrative style, uses Herbert brilliantly as the pendulum, which moves back and forth in time, capturing a period and juxtaposing it with its ideology and social ethos. Thus, the film not just covers the life of the protagonist, but also the city which has travelled through the times, governed by different ideologies.

Herbert, who finds himself as someone who talks to the dead, is accused as charlatan by the Rationalists' Society, and the harmless do-gooder commits suicide. The body in the incinerator causes an explosion, recalling the bomb that his cousin, in the thick of the students' movement of the '70s, had hidden in his bed. In an article, Meeting the Challenge, the writer ironically observes how the ghosts of the '70s Naxalite movement, quashed to annihilation by the Establishment, get resurrected from the dead with this episode.

In this highly stylistic film, Suman Mukhopadhyay uses some brilliant techniques which gel amazingly well with the narrative. For instance, the shift from a sepia tone past to a technicolour present is also the movement from the period of individual faith to one which is totally governed by market forces. This comes so convincingly in the scene where Herbert flying kites and feeding pigeons on his terrace is juxtaposed with the dish antenna staking its claim over what was once Herbert's private space. As observed by Mandira Mitra in her review in The Telegraph, the Brechtian alienation that he achieves by using Herbert's parents behind a movie camera also works well. Nevertheless, even in these moments of what one can call Western influence, the film remains faithful to its own socio-cultural milieu.

Excerpts of an interview with Suman Mukhopadhyay, the director of the film.

Herbert is difficult in its treatment with respect to time. What kind of preparations did you have to make with respect to its screen adaptation?

I read the novel around 1995. It is since then I thought of making a film on the novel. The first reading of the novel evoked cinematic images. Visually, the complexity of time and space can be only realised through a medium like cinema. While adapting it to screen, the multiplicity and the polyphony of the narrative is the most difficult matter to grapple with. I worked for six years on the screenplay. I lived with it. I realised the complex character of Herbert and the narration could only be realised in a film through an intricate cinematic structure.

The city assumes the proportions of a character in the film. Since the tone that you adopt is not one of pathos, even though there is an impending sense of doom, what is the Kolkata of your perception?

Herbert is a `tragic history' of our city in the last century. As you have rightly pointed out, the film spans through '50s to '90s. The time travels through Herbert. Herbert perceives time and history in his own way. But he remains an "alienated soul", an "outsider", and an "urban marginal."

The film is a challenge to the rational mind. It constantly moves from the comfort of a known world to the realm of the unknown. Despite a large sense of scepticism at work, when Herbert is dubbed an impostor, it is heartbreaking. How does one understand this emotion?

We have no language to make sense of Herbert. There's no semiology by which we can fully decipher him. He is an elusive entity. He is too much of a misfit to belong in this rational world. Covered from head to toe by indelible signs of the otherness, signs which refuse to be put under erasure, Herbert is bound to be alienated wherever men come together and build a social whole. And this "difference" ceaselessly intervenes, interrupts steady flows, and makes messy all a-priori designs. The society and the state keep him outside of history and for the same reason he remains irrepressible, he "returns" again and again to point towards the unrealised potentials of history.

The government-owned Nandan theatre had a problem with your film. But eventually that's where your film got released. Why there, considering they don't share your anti-establishment positions?

Nandan is the most convenient place for economic reasons only. We did explore the normal chain of commercial release, but the investment involved in terms of hall rent and publicity turned out to be stupendous for our low-budget producers. If we had money, we wouldn't have bothered about Nandan.

With its changed name and new IT image, you think Kolkata is changing?

Of course. But change for whom? Progress and development have different meanings in different historical contexts.

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