Amidst contemporary noisy cinema with maudlin dialogues and high-decibel songs, came a quiet Bengali film in 2015 from a debut director, which made a grossly underrated contribution to Indian cinema. Compared with Wong Kar Wai’s masterpiece In a Mood for Love and described as reminiscent of the works of Bengali masters like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, it garnered some critical acclaim in India, but toured over fifty international film festivals and won ten awards worldwide. Asha Jaoar Majhe (A Labour of Love) is an adaptation of the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The Adventure of the Married Couple’ which has earlier been adapted into a black-and-white short film by Iranian film maker Keywan Karimi. Aditya Vikram Sengupta, who wrote, edited, co-shot, co-produced and directed the film, gifted us with an unusual labour of love that soothes our nerves and makes us savour each cinematic moment, in times when outrage and titillation rule the roost. What could have been the film’s biggest drawback becomes its biggest strength—the film has no ‘dialogue’.
Paul Goodman laid out for us, the different meanings that can be attributed to silence. Asha Jaoar Majhe is a tasteful depiction of some of these forms of silence. And yet none of these jar or seem artificially imposed at all. Instead, the film erects a different soundscape and landscape for our senses to feast upon. To commend the director’s eye for detail is to say too little, for the divine can be found in the details. He shuts out the distractions of modern city life by blurring the cityscape in motion or focusing on sparsely-populated street scenes or a distant top-down view of a bus being boarded. This focus alternates with highly evocative domestic scenes of water sizzling in a kadhai on low flame, or jars of pulses being filled or a cat feeding upon fish bones, all inexpressibly satisfying sights. What takes over the space of dialogues, are the ambient sounds and images that capture the spirit of a Northern Kolkata neighbourhood in a unique manner. A lot of action unfolds off-camera, but by hinting at them and pushing them out of the frame, the film succeeds in building a mood, rather than angling for a reaction. Playing on the radio or cassette, are romantic songs like the hit ‘Tumi Je Aamar’ and ‘Nishi Raat’, as well as snatches of Hindustani classical music. These, and a sequence of the plaintive shehnai conjure up a world replete with old-world charm, ripe for a story of old-fashioned romance, characterised by longing and waiting and patience. Juxtaposed with these romantic interludes, are television news items, loudspeaker speeches and rallies marching through alleyways, that point towards the economic slump and workers’ union strikes that face the city’s working class population.
Love between Two People
The film has two characters, a man and a woman played by Ritwick Chakroborty and Basabdatta Chatterjee, and follows them through a day in their lives as each goes to work and then returns home. The former works the night shift at a printing press and the latter, the day one at a bag-manufacturing factory. Though it is not unclear that the two are a married couple with different work schedules, initially one is unsure about where the film is headed and when and if we shall see them together in the same frame. And that is where the English name of the film comes in—a labour of love. Their strained daily routines are laid out for us, even as they go about their chores with dignity and patience in precarious times. For the two of them, what seems like a life of drudgery and frustration day-in and day-out, is actually all towards the cause of love; the possibly bitter thus gives way to a soulful melancholia. For if the home is a sanctuary, all such chores and braving the big, bad world outside indeed become labours of love and care. In between quotidian sequences of shopping and cooking and sewing and washing, are hidden their tokens of love for each other. Their charming love story does not declare itself aloud, but seeps in through assorted gestures of love (giving a missed call as a wake-up alarm, washing and drying each other’s clothes, laying out the other’s meal) and the way their actions are captured by the camera, which lingers over them affectionately. There is no unseemly haste, only the seamless sync between two people who need no words to express their love. All this culminates in the last five minutes of the film, in a breathtakingly surreal sequence shot in black-and-white, that puts the film into perspective. What had begun as an interrupted dream earlier in the film, finds fruition in a transformed mindscape where the lovers treasure their little time together, revelling in each other’s company, as their slow smiles light up their faces.
This depiction of silent companionship and conjugal compatibility in a world of dysfunctional relationships is endearingly refreshing. There is an aching loveliness about a love that needs no words to communicate and finds contentment in ‘asha jaoar majhe’ (literally, in between arrivals and departures). It is an uplifting film of love about fleeting moments of togetherness that are really all we need to see us through the day. And it gives us hope that our lives and daily struggles too, like the film, will make sense at the end of the day. It is the romantic film par excellence that we desperately were in search of. As one reviewer on IMDB says about the film, “It creeps up to you and snuggles close to your heart. And you embrace it with all you have, knowing it appeals to what’s best in you and embracing it will help to keep that part of you alive.”
Love of the City
Embedded in the film is also another kind of love—the admiring love of the city of Kolkata, specifically the lives lived in the alleyways of north Kolkata. By paring down unnecessary noise or the overwhelming sights of the big city, the film allows us to meditate on crumbling, cracking walls and flapping pigeons, soak in the blowed conchshell and the bicycle tinkling down the street, imbuing them with a gentleness that makes them at once, recognisable and new. The pulley of a tram or an elevator, or the shifting angles of the clothesline, the cylinders of the printing press, the bus ticket rolled up under the watch—objects too acquire character and perspective of their own. The use of tight frames curiously does not evoke a sense of claustrophobia, but guides our eyes towards these oft-overlooked wonders in the world around us. Along the way we also have the comforting sounds of daily life—the national anthem playing at schools, the street vendor hawking his fare, the next-door girl being trained in singing…the picture painted is one of connected humanity. The film works for different audiences at different levels. It is universal as far as language is not a barrier and the story is not merely true of recession-hit Kolkata, but can be imagined in very different circumstances too, as earlier adaptations elsewhere have shown. But it is also a ‘Bengali’ film and location-specific, as many references to the nuances of life in Kolkata, evoked through sound and image and motion, might be lost on an audience unfamiliar with the city. Kolkata in all its famous leisurely elan, with its food and religion and politics and art seeps into the frames of this well-documented and incredibly sensitive ode to the city.
Love of Cinema
And finally, the film is a labour of love in yet another way—as a tribute to early Bengali cinema of the yesteryears. The hauntingly slow shots lovingly resurrect Kolkata for the jaded eye and summon a strong nostalgia for the great Bengali masterpieces that have influenced Sengupta. Suns set, wet footprints evaporate and birds make and break formations in real time, skilfully presenting illusions of passing time captured on camera. It is sheer poetry in our prosaic times, a fluid montage of contemplative sequences where each moment is a spectacle, that fills the heart with joy and wonder. How the director, in his very first cinematic venture, wove an unusually lyrical film on a richly textured canvas (and indeed, the director paints as well), can be gleaned from this video here. The ‘choreography of camerawork’ that he alludes to, and the downplaying of facial expressions and emotive acting, all go towards a marvel in film-making that deserves more attention and praise in the land of its genesis and not just in Bengal. He insists that his is not a ‘silent film’ for, “Dialogue can be spoken through sounds, through images, through certain things depicted on screen. Words are only one way of expressing something.” Thus, like in the best of poetry, much is left to the imagination of the audience, with gentle nudges along the way. Chakraborty and Chatterjee’s pitch-perfect acting is nothing short of marvellous for this film where pace and rhythm are of paramount importance.
Incidentally, also released around the same time was another interesting Bengali film, Nirbaak (roughly, Speechless) directed by national award-winning Srijit Mukherji—an anthology of interconnected and unusual love stories where silence again plays an important role. In India, though Asha Jaoar Majhe did win the National Awards for Best First Film of a Director and Best Audiography, it found limited release in theatres in Kolkata (to sold-out tickets), relying solely on word-of-mouth publicity and internet promotions. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, independent gems like these today find their way into the curated, subtitled watchlists of curious film buffs, much past their release dates. One wishes more commercial success for these films so that newer film makers feel confident to experiment more and find it financially viable to invest their energies in such labours of love.