Aparajito: A timely film about a timeless masterpiece
Back in 2014, Anik Dutta gained massive popularity in both Bengals (Bangladesh and West Bengal, India) with his paranormal comedy Bhooter Bhabishyat, crossing over to an audience that weren’t necessarily admirers of mainstream Bangla cinema. His latest film, Aparajito, an homage to the all-time great Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, has a similar transcendental quality to it.
At the time of its initial release, most audiences and critics raved about it. That is not to say that Aparajito was universally successful at winning hearts. If we take the example of the Indian Competition section of the 14th Bengaluru International Film Festival, BIFFes (March 23-March 30, 2023), we’ll find that while the FIPRESCI jury unanimously voted for it as the winner, the other festival juries of the section did not give any of its three allocated awards to this film. Such was the disparity of opinions among the audiences as well during the film’s theatrical run in 2022.
The story is based on how Satyajit Ray began his filmmaking journey, from working at an advertising agency to the grand success of his first film, Pather Panchali (1955), which is dubbed “Pather Podaboli” here.
This aspect of changing the names of the protagonists and the films is baffling. It’s Ray, but not Ray. The first name of the legendary director was swapped with the title of the Apu trilogy’s second film, Aparajito, the literal meaning of which is “undefeated.” It is unclear as to how much creative freedom this alteration afforded the director, as with so many elements taken from Satyajit’s life, no one’s identity could be contested if the need should arise.
The lead, small screen star Jeetu Kamal, looked like a Xeroxed version of the director, which was one of the wow factors of the film for the local audience. The Xeroxing wasn’t limited to the looks of the characters, the effort put into staying true to the period and Ray’s story shone through in every scene, to the extent that it sometimes comes through as a reproduction and visualisation of an interview, rather than a film with an engaging story or a character study or a noteworthy experimentation.
Even though the story lacks progression, it is beautifully crafted around an interesting structure. An interview of Ray is used as the cue to jump between anecdotes of the director’s life, all the while providing a practical source for audio narration. However, the structure failed to produce any dramatic tension seeing as everytime tension rose, it was nipped at the bud. For instance, in one scene, Ray is at his wits’ end about where to get the finance to continue shooting his film. Instead of giving the audience the time to wallow in his sorrow with him, his wife, Bimala (Sayoni Ghosh) immediately resolves the issue by giving him her gold jewelry to offset expenses.
Although Bimala comes through as one of those, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman” characters, the women here are as secondary as they are in many, if not most, of Ray’s films. There are the actresses of “Pather Podaboli” who we observe from a safe distance, not going deeper into their psyches beyond the superficial desire to act. In fact, Dutta’s Aparajito is crowded with such walk-on parts we don’t get to know up close.
Despite the criticism of the film being too cosmetic, it did the job with a polished aesthetic fit for the highbrowed Kolkata film society activists of the 50s it portrayed, a timely tribute to celebrate the birth centenary of one of the world’s greatest filmmakers of all time.
Sadia Khalid Reeti
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2023