Review Bengali

Mahalaya review: Soumik Sen successfully pays a tribute, but with a problematic intention

Release Date: 01 Mar 2019

Cinestaan Rating

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Roushni Sarkar

Mahalaya merely manages to weave multiple facts and narratives about a few known personalities in order to keep the film running for 108 minutes.

Soumik Sen's Mahalaya is an attempt to archive the episode of public outrage that broke out when Birendra Krishna Bhadra got replaced by none other than Uttam Kumar in the longest running radio programme Mahishasur Mardini composed and directed by the legendary Pankaj Mullick.

According to producer Prosenjit Chatterjee, the film is a docu-feature. It successfully manages to document certain unknown and mostly known facts of that era, and the stalwarts associated to the radio programme. However, the film doesn't come across as a fascinating revelation that can enrich the experience of the audience. Mahalaya merely manages to weave multiple facts and narratives about those personalities in order to keep the film running for 108 minutes.

The incident is known to Bengali audiences, but they were hardly aware that behind the replacement there was not only an instruction by a non-Bengali station director with a hardcore business mentality, but also a series of conflicts between stalwarts and legends of a different generation that they idolize and worship.

In the film, it is not clear whether it was Mulick's intention to bring out the grey shades in these legends or if he wanted to glorify tradition over change.

During the Emergency period in India (1975-1977), the non-Bengali station direction of All India Radio, Shashi Sinha (Prosenjit Chatterjee) began to serve his position with the intention to control the radio station and its programmes and exercise his authority over the much revered artistes.

He proposes to Mr Banerjee (Kanchan Mullick) to bring a change in the longest running programme Mahishasur Mardini, by replacing old artistes and adding star value to it, instead. Banerjee is aware of the reach and influence of the programme. He knows Birendra Krishna Bhadra's chant in the programme has an unparalleled effect on the Bengali psyche. He tries to persuade Shashi Babu to go on with the tradition, but in vain.

On the other hand, it seems that Hemant Kumar was looking for such a proposal to prove his worth as an artiste, to get out of the shadow of his guru Pankaj Mullick. As per, Shashi's proposal, he persuades none other than Uttam Kumar (Jisshu Sengupta) to chant the mantra in Mahishasur Mardini. Like Banerjee, Kumar is also convinced about the deep rooted impact of Mullick's programme and Bhadra's voice. He is initially reluctant, but he finally gives in to his borda [elder brother] Hemant Kumar's entreaties.

Now the climax of the story is known to all, but director Sen manages to engage the audience with a compact screenplay that is entirely dialogue based. He also successfully depicts the change that was in the wind in those days.

Mullick and Bhadra (Subhasish Mukherjee), both the representatives of the previous generation are outwardly calm in the face of the transition that is trying to outwit their influence. When Mullick is rather staunch in his stand, Bhadra is depicted as a more spiritually enlightened personality who does not mind being the audience when Uttam Kumar's chanting is finally broadcast on the radio.

Here, director Sen infuses various subtexts in order to draw a short biography of Bhadra and add to Mullick's glory, by depicting his episodes with Rabindranath Tagore.

On the one hand, the audience gets the chance to peek into the lives of these legends, but on the other hand, it comes across as problematic. It seems the director wanted to exert the importance of these artistes by demeaning his subordinates because Hemant Kumar's character is reduced to a villain to a certain extent. The director apparently portrays him as a musician, who despite being equally enterprising in both Bombay and Kolkata, wanted to prove his worth by defying Mullick's norms and work ethics.

However, Sen doesn't make this mistake when it comes to bringing alive Uttam Kumar on screen. Kumar is shown to be dragged in the project despite his reluctance from the beginning. Also, he takes the blessing of Bhadra and even during the broadcast recalls the effect Bhadra's chanting used to have on the auspicious day of Mahalaya, heralding the days of Durga Puja.

The film is definitely a tribute to Bhadra and the entire project of Mahishasur Mardini as it establishes that the radio programme is not about its star value rather the dedication that is invested in order to create an ambience of the arrival of Maa Durga through the chanting and songs.

Though the film is a lot about Bhadra, his narrative is rather established through his reactions on the on-going situation and a few flashbacks about his career. Subhasish Mukherjee puts up a restrained act in order to bring out the magnanimity of his character.

The actor who plays Hemant Kumar does a commendable job, regardless of the demands of the character. He is natural and sinks his teeth into his role.

Jisshu Sengupta delivers a decent job in bringing out the showmanship along with the suave dignity of the Mahanayak.

The actor who portrayed Pankaj Mullick, too, deserves credit for bringing out the authority in his character.

It is good to see Kanchan Mullick in a serious avatar rather than the mere comical characters and he does full justice to the nuances of his character.

Debojyoti Mishra's music enhances the emotional and sentimental aspect of the film. Mrinamay Nandi's camerawork and Niladri Roy's editing make sure that the audience does not get bored as there is a consistency in the screenplay. Tapas Sarkar puts in his best effort in order to create the era of the 1970s with limited lights and a sepia tone.

Before the new Mahalaya radio programme is broadcast, listeners seem to be eager to listen to the chanting by Uttam Kumar; however, when the broadcast finally takes place they seem to be totally outraged, as if they were unaware of the entire change that was taking place. Also, it is difficult to create the charm of a period film when it is based on stalwarts such as Uttam Kumar, Hemant Kumar, who people are aware of and besotted with.

Mahalaya is an average film that doesn't have its intention clear, apart from paying a tribute and unveiling a few unknown facts, which come across as rather problematic.


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