Saturday, December 10, 2005



Wonders never cease: one of the producers of Rituparno Ghosh’s Antarmahal (Bengali with English subtitles) is Vashu Bhagnani (with AB Corp), so far associated with purely mainstream offerings.

The sumptuous looking (Abhik Mukhopadhyay is a magician with the camera), slow-moving Antarmahal is more a festival and awards kind of film (and perhaps aimed for that elusive new object of desire—the Oscar entry). It requires patient viewing, for which the reward is a flaccid story told with painterly visuals and some impressive performances.

Ghosh’s obsession with the loneliness and repression (particularly sexual) of women’s lives in the patriarchal culture of feudal Bengal carries on after Chokher Bali (the theme was replayed in a more contemporary setting in Bariwali and Raincoat) in this film.

Based on a short story by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, and set in mid-19th century Bengal, Antarmahal is seen through the bemused eyes of an English painter, commissioned to do a portrait of Bhubaneshwar (Jackie Shroff), a pompous zamindar, who has two main obsessions – begetting an heir, and winning more prestige than the neighbouring landlord.

His second marriage to young Jashomati (Soha Ali Khan), has produced no results, despite his nocturnal exertions (for several nights in the presence of a chanting priest, who promises that the ritual would work). His first wife Mahomaya (Rupa Ganguly) seethes with anger and sorrow, cast aside in the vast mansion, while the younger wife is bewildered and unhappy.

Before Durga Puja, Bhubaneshwar gets the odd idea of making the goddess’s face look like Queen Victoria’s, that piece of flattery would get him a title, or so he hopes. For this he gets a young Bihari potter Brijbhushan (Abhishek Bachchan), who won’t object to this travesty.

The presence of the bare-bodied stranger ignites an erotic spark, which leads to unexpected consequences.

Ghosh succeeds in building up a claustrophobic atmosphere of sexual desire, jealousy and desperation, but does not make us care enough for any of the characters to wait impatiently for the inevitable conflagration in the end. One is reminded of Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam that depicted this culture in a far more watchable fashion. Antarmahal’s satirical elements are too understated to be effective.

Rupa Ganguly is wonderful as the complex first wife, who is the only one with any heroic shades. Jackie Shroff is suitably debauched, and Soha Ali Khan pretty and delicate. Abhishek Bachchan doesn’t have much of a role, but it is still difficult for a contemporary star to get that kind of abjectness in his eyes and bearing—it is definitely a brave performance.


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