Early in Ranjan Ghosh’s Ahaa Re (2019), its lead protagonist, the suave chef, Farhaz, with Dhaka roots, entreats his friend and restaurant owner for a guided tour of the city of Kolkata where he currently has moved to for work. His friend remarks that the city belongs to those who discover her by themselves. Ghosh’s third directorial captures and embodies the open hearted embrace and generosity of spirit of the city with unfussy precision. The design and garb may be that of a quintessential feel good food film with tantalizing lovingly captured shots of all sorts of Bengali cuisine, but Ghosh is smart and perceptive enough to insert more layers and connotations into his film.
The viewer shares the position of Farhaz, an outsider foraying into a city he has never been to previously, a narrative detail which immediately lends itself to alluring possibilities of touristy shots of landmark locations of the city. I am thrilled to report that aside from a mandatory food walk sequence, where Farhaz tastes all the various food joints of the city, Ghosh, cautiously but never underlining the intelligent freshness of his departures, stays off the customary path. Farhaz goes by the name of Raja, which his parents call him by, in Kolkata, as safety net against communal suspicion, even though his friend assures him that Kolkata tolerates no such communal polarization. As the film begins with a scene on a ferry, we sense the simmering friction between him and his girlfriend, Shaheeda, who wishes to move to Paris to pursue her fashion career, and wants him to come along too. But he insists he’s too closely entwined to Dhaka, and he can’t leave. Shaheeda, undeterred, sets to Paris to actualize her ambition. Farhaz, who had been refusing an offer to work at a Kolkata restaurant for it will distance him from Shaheeda, takes it up and comes to the city.
He starts availing the services of Young Bengal catering for his meals at home, and is utterly entranced by the wondrously prepared delicacies. A bond develops between him and Bappaditya, who delivers the meals at his place, and gently, Ghosh manoeuvers the narrative to make space for the woman who makes the dishes, Basundhara, and Bappa’s sister. With care and affection and an inherent decency, Ghosh delineates the beats of the relationship that slowly builds between Raja and Basundhara. The approach and tonality of the film is rather uncommon for these times where films centered on romances favor flashy excesses; if anything, Ahaa Re abstains from any kind of mawkish excesses except few certain scenes involving a sour argument between the brother and sister, and especially one where she breaks down, shedding all guarded vulnerabilities, as she opens up on the guilt that has been gnawing at her for many years, to Atanu. Until the halfway point, we are mostly familiarized with Raja’s backstory and his conflicts. We see how he is unable to accept and reconcile with his mother’s husband who is unstinting in his love and emotional support for Raja. This unresolved equation between the two keeps the tension in his family sphere always latent and introduces a discomfort whenever the three are together. A row is constantly on the brink. This withholds Raja from fully, entirely, and honestly being able to articulate his anxieties and apprehensions to his mother, and he grudges her for remarrying.
While we are intimately acquainted with him, Basundhara’s inner world is mostly kept aloof and resolutely inaccessible. We try to approach and understand her through the peripheral players, be it Bappa or Atanu. We infer her deeper emotional state from the tiniest of personal truths she reveals to them or Raja. As the layers unfold more and more and Ghosh peels the story with gradual delicate gestures, we realize and come to terms with the reason behind the seemingly uneven proportion of character detailing and arc. The initial threadbare layering of Basundhara is strongly rooted in clever, sharply aware directorial motivations that accrue a poignant emotional power and hits few crescendos in the narrative course.
There is a lot to admire in Ghosh’s telling, the devices he employs, but most importantly, the larger humane zeal and probity and sincerity which steer the narrative and propel it to being a work highly rich in its emotional intelligence. Since the film never resorts to stylized techniques or showiness in the manner events play out, the simplicity of it all might come across, on a facile reading, as rather too plain and dull and trite. But Ghosh doesn’t require any such attempt to grab the viewer, because the story has an essential soulfulness, filled with not dollops but an expansiveness and largesse of heart, emotion and feeling; the film is anchored in the purest emotional truth. It is authentic to life itself; warmth, essential goodness and kindness pervade Ghosh’s worldview but it never becomes cloying or sickly sweet.
Ahaa Re has an artfully constructed transparency, which isn’t instantly acknowledged at first viewing but the second unfurls the sheer grace and beauty. This exquisiteness is not rigorously strives at; instead Ghosh establishes it through the internal convictions of the characters. Favors and help are extended and returned with equal ease and dexterity, with no accompanying caveats. The film exercises a low key magic; Ghosh has consciously pared it all down, leaving no room for any semblance of pushing audience sympathy buttons. Largely, everything in the film is held at a restrained breath. Ghosh opts for a scrupulously controlled tone of the proceedings, and the aesthetic of the film has an unvarnished elegance. Hari Nair shoots in soft light, and few sunlit sequences stand out particularly and of course the gorgeously captured shots of food and also the tranquil Padma waters.
Besides being a subtle appraisal of empathy and amity across cultures and religions and languages and any such narrow divide, Ghosh slips in interesting food trivia and compelling snippets of food history, like insightful anecdotes of the origins of Chicken Daak Bungalow, prawn malaikari. Basundhara’s food riddles are pretty fun too. The Bangaliana essence is never sledge-hammered. It’s refreshing to watch two people who have forged a deep connection, elevating each other. In Ghosh’s able grasp, scenes glide by with seamlessness. But the fundamentally subtle screenplay (props to Ghosh for his admirably progressive look at modern Dhaka, and the treatment of boundless ambition of the women from Dhaka, addressing of the religious and age bias, and in the handling of the family dinner scene setup) dips occasionally especially in the second half, with contrived and jarring scenes involving a bitterly rude Bappa which comes out of nowhere and feels unforgivably unfaithful to the larger tonality of the film, and the dialogues risk becoming bland and commonplace (Atanu says with knowing, wise look that love is like magic and that nobody knows how it clicks with whom; an exceptionally aged clichéd line). While the narrative flounders in places, Ghosh’s assured direction never falters, and the sparkling performances by most actors in the film hold it together. Arifin Shuvo is beautifully understated as Farhaz, and is utterly charming.
There is this placidly delightful edge to him that Ghosh has marvelously tapped. He plays Farhaz with an unassuming confidence. Shubhro Shankha Das as Bappa is very endearing and competent in his debut; he is a talent to watch out for. Amrita Chattopadhyay’s performance as Shaheeda doesn’t quite register; the impression she creates is flittingly flimsy. Dipankar De is terrific as the father Farhaz refuses to accept. In the few scenes he gets and scant dialogue, he is persuasive and the viewer instantly feels for his ache for acceptance and gestures of love demonstrated by Farhaz. ParanBandopadhyay is simply extraordinary as Atanu, a man who doesn’t say much but what’s vital and truly essential. He rises above occasional banal dialogues and it’s hilarious to watch his frustration at his failed magic tricks. I also loved Amit Saha’s fantastic turn as Haru-da, who runs a snacks cabin.
At the heart of it is Rituparna Sengupta, in perhaps her finest performance since Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin. I have been watching her for the most part of my formative adolescent years, and it has been crushingly disappointing to see how she has been mostly underutilized by filmmakers, reduced to unwatchable hamming and I applaud Ghosh for finally locating her fine capabilities. She is absolutely luminous, and she seems lit within. She strips all usual star affectations and imbues Basundhara with quiet dignity and resilience. She has minimal dialogues in the first half and Rituparna treads the implications of her character with remarkable maturity and élan. It’s a superbly measured act, and Rituparna traverses the gamut of overwhelming grief and remorse with unadorned humility and poise. One must also commend her for producing and backing the film. It is a brilliant match of producer, director and actress. May I put in a personal, direct request to Ghosh? Please write more for her.
The film’s poetic tonality is evident in both Binit Maitra’s mellow score, Savy’s brilliantly eclectic earworms of songs (favorites are Arko’s Ki Jaala and Ishaan’s Icchera) and Hari’s visually restful camerawork. The film would have benefited from sharper editing and that would have removed all melodramatically indulgent passages in the film. But these don’t impinge on the movie’s deeper quality and voice because it comes from a place of truth and this stands Ghosh in good faith, enabling him to bulldoze over screenplay limitations. I also found the character of the friend especially one note and a little annoying after a while; I wanted more textured, nuanced understanding of the longstanding friendships between Farhaz and him. Whenever the narrative tends to lope listlessly and shift into a reiterative mode of events, Ghosh’s investment of emotional heft into each scene lifts the film.
Ahaa Re ambles along affably. Ghosh’s film might have modest ambitions but it soars suitably in many scenes including an excellent one where Farhaz explains how both taste and smell are equally instrumental in enjoying a chocolate cake. Such small lovely touches and bits keep adding to this film, skillfully seasoned with various ingredients. Ranjan Ghosh’s sweetly affecting Ahaa Re is a deeply abiding reminder of human sensitivities and his benign, but never condescending gaze, is something to be cherished and imbibed, leaving a fondly persisting , and a calming spell on the viewer.
(Ahaa Re is playing at the New York Indian Film Festival on Moviesaints till 9th August).