Their last film featured a heroine tearily regretting her failure to “compromise”, that led to the end of her marriage with a selfish, deeply patriarchal, jealous, egoistic man. Nothing succeeds like misogyny, as directors Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee discovered on the release of Praktan ( Former ), which starred Rituparna Sengupta as that ex-wife bemoaning her self-respect. The film was 2016’s biggest Bengali hit, following in the footsteps of Roy and Mukherjee’s equally prejudiced Belaseshe ( At The End of the Day ) that drew crowds in 2015.
After two consecutive money-spinners, release plans for the duo’s latest, Posto , have just been announced. It will arrive in theatres in May, riding the wave of Belaseshe and Praktan ’s unprecedented box-office triumph that has made Roy and Mukherjee the toast of Banglawood and Posto a tent-pole project.
According to Eros International, worldwide distributors of the three, Praktan is the first Bengali film that released globally on the same day as in Kolkata; both Belaseshe and Praktan lasted 100 days in halls; Praktan was released in 101 theatres in Kolkata and over 25 elsewhere across India. Eros has increased that all-India number to about 100 for Posto , “a first for any Bengali film,” we are told.
While Posto is an unknown quantity, Belaseshe and Praktan ’s success should be cause for soul-searching among liberal cinephiles. How does one come to terms with the sad realisation that the social backwardness of these two films is being celebrated by an industry once known globally through Satyajit Ray and an audience that once toasted this great man whose feminism was an intrinsic part of his cinematic genius? That large sections of the public and press are unfazed if not outrightly impressed by the shocking conservatism? One of the rare voices in the media raised against Praktan last year was Debapriya Nandi who wrote in this publication: “The reason why a film like Praktan is detrimental to the discourse around female characters is very simple: it panders to the basest, most crudely primitive assumptions made about women. It takes a strong, positive female character and then outright assassinates her.” The Telegraph invited responses to the question: “Is the message of Praktan regressive for women?”
Most coverage, however, did not even mention Belaseshe and Praktan ’s extreme misogyny. One review went to the extent of applauding Roy and Mukherjee for their “progressive themes and fresh ideas”. Seriously?
In Belaseshe , an old man decides to divorce his wife of almost 50 years because their relationship has been reduced to a “habit”. The starting point of the film suggests that it would give us a refreshing take on the boredom that sets into marriages. Instead Belaseshe goes down a safe path from there, glorifying the traditional Indian wife’s role as housekeeper and maid, and endorsing socially pre-determined roles for man and woman within the institution. The elderly wife at one point reveals that she used to eat her husband’s leftovers after he was through with his meals and she would reuse his wet towels after he had bathed, since they smelled of him. In the end, the old man returns to her because he misses the perennial presence of that person who would clear up his messes and always knew where to find his shoes. Apparently, true husbandly love is about acknowledging that your wife is an excellent housemaid.
Praktan is even more cringeworthy. At least Arati from Belaseshe wants nothing more than to be the home bird her husband seeks in her. Praktan ’s Sudipa though has ambitions outside marriage for which she is ultimately reviled. I say “ultimately” because the film is sneaky with its agenda. At first it fakes empathy for Sudipa as her husband Ujaan taunts her for earning more than he does, accuses her of having an office affair and demands that she ask his “permission” before making travel plans. In short, Praktan does not gloss over his mean, ill-tempered, bitter, resentful, unpleasant behaviour. However, as the film progresses, you realise it does not unequivocally condemn Ujaan but is of the view that it was Sudipa’s duty to accommodate his ego.
Much of Praktan is spent on a train in which Sudipa’s co-passenger, coincidentally, is Ujaan’s second wife Molly. Sudipa is a conservation architect. Molly is a housewife. The contrast between them is used, in the end, to project Sudipa as a failure and laud Molly’s malleability: Molly speaks with childlike satisfaction of the compromises she made to win over her husband and in-laws, and a sorrowful Sudipa in the finale tells Molly that she has learnt a lot from her, she has learnt now that the result of “adjustment” and “compromise” is, in a sense, victory.
I wonder how Arati from Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) would have reacted to that as she strode towards a future partnered by a well-meaning but insecure husband compelled to come to terms with his wife’s new-found sense of self. The tragedy of Belaseshe and Praktan is not that they were made, but that we have rewarded Roy and Mukherjee for their regressiveness. Think about that as their PR campaign goes into overdrive before the release of Posto .
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad