Special Review: NOUKA DUBI (Boat-wreck)/KASHMAKASH

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Noukadubi (also released in Hindi as Kashmakash), directed by Rituparno Ghosh, perhaps India’s boldest and most sophisticated director, was the film chosen for screening at the Closing Night Gala at New York’s prestigious Indian Film Festival earlier this spring. The movie was adapted from a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Laureate, and was shown as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of his birth in May of 1860.

In Ghosh’s original and beautiful re-working of the novel, set now in Bengal in about 1925, Raima Sen and her real-life sister Riya Sen are cast as two unrelated women, one urban and progressive (Raima as Hemnalini), and the other rural and totally traditional (Riya as Kamla), whose lives are fatefully tied to the same man (Jisshu Sangupta as the young law student Ramesh). Ramesh is in love with Hemnalini. Under family pressure he marries a woman he has never met, Susheela, but ends up bringing home a third woman, Kamla, by mistake.

About 100 years ago, Tagore’s fine idea was to adopt two kinds of plot situations often used by Shakespeare, the shipwreck (and its consequences), and the “mistaken identity” tale, and use them to tell a totally Indian story, anchored in a familiar Indian situation, the arranged marriage: in a society where two strangers might be assigned to a lifetime together, what would it mean, and what could happen, if a man accidentally brings home the wrong bride from his wedding?

The cinematically lush Noukadoubi has the pleasures and the power of an old-fashioned tale, as well as the challenging themes and non-filmi acting style of a 21st century international film. A love-match disrupted, a shipwreck, a case of mistaken identity, people lost and then found, and amazing coincidences causing paths to cross and cross and cross again: in distinction from most movies made in the west, some of the best Indian commercial cinema has always been the fairy tale-like story, where somewhat super-normal things happen to somewhat normal people. If there aren’t so many of these at the moment in Hindi cinema, it’s a joy to find that kind of story told here, laced with the nuance and originality for which Ghosh is so deservedly highly regarded.

Shakespeare’s mistaken identity stories tend to be comic, with people mixed up about love and then happily getting to know themselves just enough better, and just in time, to end up with the truly right person. Noukadubi, however, has more to do with the potential for tragedy where actual identity is disregarded for the sake of tradition, and people are not able to live their lives as who they really are.

Noukadubi opens beautifully and seductively, in a place we’d love to stay in, the book-filled and serenely comfortable Calcutta home where Hemnalini, a poised and lovely young woman, arranges flowers and sings a song (from Tagore) of her dreams of a sweet married life soon to come. With the appearance of Ramesh, Ghosh completes the picture of a modern love relationship, a man and woman who are connected on every level, intellectual equals who tease each other about books they’ve both read and are also truly in love.

When Ramesh’s father abruptly calls him back to his village, we are suddenly in a world that has changed very little in the last thousand years.

From the elegant drawing-rooms where individuals, male and female, meet and connect, with perhaps someone in a suit playing “The Foggy Foggy Dew” on the piano in the background, and a father’s heart’s desire is his own daughter’s happiness, Ramesh has stepped back to the restrictive feudal world of the unfeeling patriarch, the suffering widow, the life ruled by an astrologer’s chart. Devdas-like, Ramesh agrees to marry – immediately — the village girl to whom he’s been promised. Not only has he lost forever the true companion he has chosen, his father lets him know that the woman he has chosen for his son to live with for the rest of his life cannot even read.

Ramesh is in a state of acute distress following his unwanted wedding. Then his riverboat back to Calcutta, carrying a large number of couples, is shipwrecked in a storm. Ramesh survives, though many do not. When he awakens on a riverbank, surrounded by bodies of those who have drowned, he assumes that the young woman who happens to be at his side, still swathed in her bridal wrappings, is Susheela, the stranger to whom he has just gotten married. And because communication between the two of them is so constricted, it is quite some time into married life that he realizes it is Kamla, and not Susheela, he has brought home.

Once Ramesh has ascertained that his real bride is dead, Noukadubi provides the pleasure of twists and turns and mystery about who will find out what, and when. Will Hemnalini absorb her sensible father’s advice, and find someone else to love? Can the now not-really-married Ramesh, encumbered with a woman who still thinks she’s his wife, straighten out the situation created by his own father’s advice? Will Ramesh break the news to Kamla, and if he does, can she survive it? What does it mean, in Indian society, to be erroneously married? Or to be married at all? What about Kamla’s real husband, then? Did he drown, or might he turn up?

Raima, in a performance that tells us there is always intelligence at work, is perfectly cast as a woman who would most naturally be a whole person and equal to her husband in marriage, a daughter raised in a progressive home. In a wonderful moment after she knows what has happened, her loving and congenial father (Dhritiman Chatterjee), tells her something like, “There is no reason to feel your life is over. This is just one year of your life.” And the performance of Riya as Kamla, a meek but intelligent traditional girl, matches Raima’s in power. Hemnalini sets out to survive her disappointment and get on with building a life; Kamla (who does not know she has the wrong husband) is determined to adjust and succeed as a wife in the marriage in which fate has placed her, even if it’s not what she expected and includes, incomprehensibly, chaste behavior on the part of the man who knows she is not really his wife.

The handsome Jisshu’s portrayal of Ramesh, contained, slightly indecisive but emotionally present, lets you ache for the life he’s just lost, and also share the frustration of both Hemnalini and Kamla as long as neither one has what she longs for with him.

The coincidences in the movie as this all unrolls are left for the viewer to encounter and enjoy, as is the appearance of Prosenjit in a fine performance in a pivotal role in the second half of the film.

Ghosh’s decision to set the film in the 1920s pays off in lushness and variation of costume, as well as the recognizable presence of the western and modern, including a progressive view of women, in urban Calcutta.

Art direction by Indraneel Ghosh over a dazzling range of interiors and exteriors, lavish and modest, in Calcutta, a village, and Kashi (Varanasi), among other locales, and costumes by Saborni Das, make this one of the richest Indian period pieces I can recall, with a lot of credit too to the cinematography of Soumik Haldar. Gulzar’s translations of Tagore’s poems for song lyrics are praised by Hindi-speakers, and the songs themselves are sublime, even to a viewer who relies on subtitles in English.

Life-wrecking events and mistakes, caused in part by fate, in part by the ways that women are failed by tradition — what can be repaired, and what has to be endured? Can happiness take root again in the aftermath? Of Ghosh’s recent work, Noukadubi/Kashmakash perhaps has the most accessible popular appeal – with no sacrifice in mental pleasure or sophistication, Noukadubi is essentially a plot-driven story about a set of well-drawn characters that keeps the viewer engaged to the end.

If the wonderful Sen sisters, as two highly different women, make a stronger emotional impression, even though Jisshu’s stoic Ramesh may have more time on the screen, that is probably not a mistake.

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