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Talking Head review: A look at the world through Dhritiman Chatterjee's eyes

Release Date: 10 Jun 2021 / 01hr 34min

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Shriram Iyengar

Spandan Bannerjee's documentary manages to reveal portions of the reclusive actor's life and personality but leaves you wanting more. 

Few artistes have eschewed the limelight like Sundar 'Dhritiman' Chatterjee. Once coveted by giants like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, he has remained firmly outside the glitzy world of cinema in Mumbai and Kolkata. Spandan Banerjee's Talking Head is a rare biographical documentary where the actor, his family and friends demystify the enigma that is Dhritiman Chatterjee.

The elusive nature of the central figure of the documentary captivates the viewer. The veteran is quite at home speaking in front of the camera. His presence, command, and exposition of incidents are impressive. One of the documentary's more fascinating moments arrives early when the veteran explains the difference between the film industry in Mumbai and down South. Describing an anecdote with director Shyam Benegal, Chatterjee says, "The audience down South is used to its actors wearing a mask on stage, and being transformed." That, he adds, is the reason Rajinikanth does not have to put on makeup and wear wigs when not shooting, unlike his Hum (1991) co-star from Mumbai. 

This is one of those revelations that pop up through the documentary, which other commercial actors might shy away from. It is a part of the actor's personality that is refreshing to watch. Banerjee takes care to explore the actor's life through the perspective of his family and friends. Even as Chatterjee talks about cinema, his experiences and the filmmaking process, his family sheds light on circumstances, people and the actor himself. However, it occasionally feels too one dimensional. While we slowly see the real Sundar Chatterjee emerge, we are left with a feeling that something is missing. 

The Pratidwandi (1970) actor's views and explanation of the political scenarios that shaped famous directors and their films are enlightening. However, Banerjee does not delve deeper into the social turmoil and rise of Naxalism, which shaped those films. He leaves us with Chatterjee's insights, which exposes the nature of the man, more than the actor.

By that measure, the film holds up for an ardent Dhritiman Chatterjee fan, or a cinephile who has admired the actor and wanted to know about him. For the general audience looking to dive into the vibrant, volatile and artistically fruitful Calcutta of the 1970s, there are only scatterings of personal recollections to enjoy. 

There is one thing that should not be discounted, though. The film is about a man whose role in Bengali and Indian cinema is often understated. To thrive in that artistically, culturally and politically volatile time and place, one had to be a rare personality. It is hard to find examples of such today. That should count for something. 

Talking Head is being screened as part of the 21st New York Indian Film Festival, which is being held virtually from 4–13 June.


Related topics

New York Indian Film Festival