Till 2011, the release of a ‘Feluda’ movie was akin to an annual event. When Bibhu Bhattacharya passed away after completing ‘Royal Bengal Rahasya’, director Sandip Ray failed to find an adequate replacement for the role of ‘Jatayu’. Sabyasachi Chakraborty, who had donned the role of the master sleuth with elan for years, was also showing visible signs of aging – and a new ‘Feluda’ was needed. These challenges forced Sandip Ray to put ‘Feluda’ on the backburner for the nonce, and make anthology films (his father, Satyajit Ray, had showed the way with ‘Teen Kanya’ (1961)). Last year, it was the supernatural flick ‘Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy’ – which did brisk business at the box-office. This time, Sandip Ray is back with yet another collection of stories packaged in a single film – ‘Chaar’. And once again, he has delivered a winner!
‘Chaar’ as its name itself suggests, has four short stories in it. The movie opens with ‘Boteshwarer Obodan’ (story: Rajsekhar Basu/Parashuram). Here, we find veteran writer ‘Boteshwar Shikdar’ (Paran Bandopadhyay) at Bolpur, nearing the end of his latest novel ‘Ke Thaakey Ke Jaay’. He is accosted one morning by a young man – earnestly requesting him to not kill off the novel’s main heroine ‘Oloka’. ‘Boteshwar’ brushes off such suggestions, asserting that this was a tragedy piece. Next morning, however, he gets a visit from Dr. Sanjib Chatterji (Saswata Chatterjee), who almost threatens the author to get the ailing novel heroine back to fitness. ‘Boteshwar’ is in for further surprises, when actress ‘Kodombanila’ (Sreelekha Mitra) comes to his home at night and makes the same request. A peck on the cheek from the glamorous actress later, ‘Boteshwar’ agrees to twist his novel’s climax, and revive ‘Oloka’. But why has everyone started to make the same request? There’s certainly something more than what meets the eye.
The second offering in ‘Chaar’ is ‘Dui Bondhu’ – one of Satyajit Ray’s more famous short stories. The narrative revolves around childhood friends ‘Mahim (Pijush Ganguly)’ and ‘Pratul’ (Rajatava Dutta)’, who are forced to drift apart at a tender age. The two make a pact to meet in front of a posh Bhowanipore cinema hall 25 years later. ‘Mahim’ keeps his end of the pact up, arrives at the meeting spot – only to find that ‘Pratul’ has not shown up. After frustratingly long minutes of waiting, he gets a letter (written in a page torn from an exercise book) from his buddy – apologizing for his no-show and promising to visit ‘Mahim’s house the following Sunday. This time, ‘Pratul’ keeps his word, ‘Mahim’ gifts him his latest book – but why is there so much commotion outside his house? Also, is there a link between ‘Pratul’ and hotshot Bollywood villain ‘Kishorilal’? If you have not read the story, you will be in for a surprise.
Post-interval, the third story – ‘Kagtarua’ (story:Satyajit Ray) starts. Here, we find singer ‘Mrigankasekhar’ (Saswata Chatterjee) on a long road trip, with only his driver for company. His ambassador runs out of fuel in the middle of a ploughing field, the driver has to scoot off to the nearest petrol pump, and ‘Mrigankasekhar’ has no other option than to read an Agatha Christie novel and sip tea from his flask while waiting. Coming back inside the car after some time, he dozes off, and has the strangest dream – in which his old servant ‘Abhiram’ (who was booted out from their home many years ago) appears. ‘Abhiram’, mentioning that he has passed the veil now and had always known that ‘Mrigankasekhar’ would pass by that road someday, tells the latter a secret – which proves that he had been wrongly accused earlier. What is the secret is for you to find out though – no spoilers here!
Sandip Ray keeps the finest of the four stories (‘Porikkha’; story – Saradindu Bandopadhyay) for the last. The screen goes black-and-white and pans to vertical cinemascope, as we meet the foreign-returned engineer ‘Binayak’ (Abir Chatterjee) – a man who has a reputation for being a womanizer. He receives a letter one day from ‘Monika’ (Koyel Mullick), requesting for a rendezvous at his house – at 10pm in the night. There’s one condition though – no one else must be present at the time. ‘Binayak’ readily agrees, the dainty ‘Monika’ comes, and while the two are chatting – the power goes out, plunging them in darkness. ‘Binayak’s moral character is said to be shaky at best, so will he remain decent when there is a pretty lady in his presence, asking him to sit beside her, in the deserted house? Suffice to say, the ending is beautiful.
‘Chaar’ is a much more challenging anthology film than ‘Jekhane Bhooter Bhoy’ – simply because you cannot group the stories under any common genre (human relationships is far from being a well-defined genre). For viewers who have not read the stories, ‘Boteshwarer Obodan’ and ‘Dui Bondhu’, in particular, might appear rather simplistic and a tad silly. Even ‘Kagtarua’ is not an out-and-out horror story, and can leave fans of spookfests disappointed. The final story, though, does not need to be read in advance – its presentation and sheer elegance makes it a winner.
Like most Sandip Ray movies, ‘Chaar’ is littered with superlative performances from almost every member of its cast. Saswata Chatterjee has what you might call a double-role – and he excels in both (although his cameo in ‘Boteshwarer Obodan’ is more impressive). Paran Bandopadhyay is his usual sincere self. The way in which his face breaks into a slow smile, after receiving a lipstick-stained kiss from ‘Kodombanila’ would raise more than a few chuckles. Sreelekha Mitra, as the actress (or is she?) brings in that precise dose of nyakami in her lines. There’s another young actress in this story too – but hey, you can see her on the big screen. Reviews do not cover everything, anyway!
‘Dui Bondhu’ is, acting-wise, the weakest story in ‘Chaar’ – but even then, the performances are above average. Pijush Ganguly looks the part as a relatively successful author – almost sure that his friend ‘Pratul’ has fallen into hard times. Some of Ganguly’s dialog delivery seem a bit stiff, but those repeated glances at his Titan wristwatch (credit to Sandip Ray here) and the common-Bong appearance (stubble, slightly dishevelled hair) make his character believable. Rajatava Dutta, as the more mysterious ‘Pratul’, sparkles in an extremely brief role. Sudipta Chakrabarty, as ‘Mahim’s wife, is wasted.
The next story, ‘Kagtarua’, is literally a one-man show from Saswata Chatterjee. His expressions change from sudden joy at the chance of giving an autograph to a fan, to irritation at his driver’s ineptitude, to boredom, and then to sheer terror as he encounters the deceased ‘Abhiram’, transition seamlessly from one to the next. Here is a man for whom professional adulation has come late – but he has grabbed his second innings at Tollywood with both hands. Be it the frustrated central character in ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’, the stern yet helpless teacher in ‘C/O Sir’, or the ‘laugh-out-loud’ character in ‘Bari Tar Bangla’ – Saswata is coming up with one excellent performance after another. One would be hard-pressed to think up the name of any other character artist who could have handled the nearly solo-act in ‘Kagtarua’ as well as Saswata has done.
‘Porikkha’, easily the most publicized story of ‘Chaar’ prior to its release, has a slow narrative and if the performances had been even a bit off – it would have seemed boring. Abir Chatterjee, as ‘Binayak’, does not let nothing of the sort happen. The black-and-white screen with the soft face contours make the ‘Byomkesh’ man remind viewers of Gregory Peck at times (cinematographer Shirsha Roy deserves all the kudos). Koyel Mullick appears slightly stiff at first, but warms up to her role soon enough. It’s an old-fashioned story, and Sandip Ray does not try to modernize it in any way. Ray had once said that this was a sort of dress-rehearsal for Abir – who is slated to don the mantle of ‘Feluda’ in the upcoming ‘Badshahi Aangti’. The actor passes the test with flying colors.
A couple of years back, another anthology film – ‘Mayabazar’ – had released, and the shoddy editing in it had been one of the key reasons for its dismal performance at the theaters. In ‘Chaar’, Subrata Roy does not commit any such mistake. Each story is crisply packaged, and do not have an iota of extra baggage in them. The final story is a treat to the eyes, thanks to its stylization. At just a little over 90 minutes of running time, Sandip Ray stays true to his reputation of making short, smart films.
‘Chaar’ does not have any songs, but the background score (also by Sandip Ray) does its bit to complement the stories. The sound of a horse-carriage passing by as ‘Binayak’ and ‘Monika’ are talking in ‘Porikkha’ is the perfect indication that Ray knows how to make the best use of background score. Satyajit Ray’s signature tunes have an unmistakable influence on the background music of the other three stories.
There are many movies which elicit polarized opinions from viewers – and ‘Chaar’ can easily be one of them. It will be hailed as the perfect presentation of four rather simple stories on the big screen – complete with bravura performances and top-class narratives, by those who have read them earlier. For cinegoers who haven’t, the stories might seem a tad too far-fetched. Sandip Ray takes that risk – and going by opening week numbers – the gamble has paid off.
By the end of 2015, ‘Badshahi Aangti’ should be ready, and Sandip Ray would no longer ‘need’ the stopgap arrangement of making anthology films to fill up the time-gaps. However, given the expertise with which he has helmed ‘Jekhaney Bhooter Bhoy’ and now ‘Chaar’ – we sincerely hope he keeps making them from time to time!