The perplexed, confused ambition of Pratim D Gupta in his new film, Shantilal o Projapoti Rohosyo, comes glaringly across right at the opening sequence and introductory note that harks back to a time of DVDs and early 2000s, which instead feels entirely unnecessary and wasted going by how the film then changes tacks and the timelines shift awkwardly, jumping into Mac books and a portion from Pratim’s own 2018 Ahare Mon.
At the outset, the film is the journey of a Kolkata based weather reporter, Shantilal (Ritwick Chakraborty), who hasn’t quite slipped into his routine job and is frankly aspiring. He wants more and, propelled by his eye for detail, he chances into a leading actress, Nandita’s (Paoli Dam) world, and discovers links that put him on a road to places as wide ranging as south India and Singapore. He runs into the underworld southern porn industry, and both Shantilal and Nandita’s lives collide in ways that help them out of their stasis, both emotionally and materially.
From the very start, director Pratim D Gupta sets the film up as a story of an ordinary man who gets mired in extraordinary circumstances, as he begins sniffing around for a new scoop that will promote him in the newsroom. The every man character of Shantilal is an interesting riff on the atypical Indian male, believing in righteousness but also betraying a perverse lens, coming through in the scene where he gazes intently at the tattoo, as Nandita sleeps. I am unsure about the point of this scant sequence, as Pratim establishes the holistic decency of Shantilal in the preceding face off scene between Nandita and him; maybe it conveys Pratim’s not entirely misjudged view that men will be men, nevertheless. Few signs of good demeanour and decent actions cannot cap a man’s inherent contradictions.
The little roundness Shantilal is given is nowhere when it comes to Nandita. She is presented as a woman wholly defined by her history, her decisions and it shadows the entire film. Back stories are essential in character detailing and development, but the problem here lies in the fact Pratim aggrandises it so much that Nandita is never seen partially independent from her history. Paoli tries with all her soul and might to capture the sheer vulnerability of a public persona whose secrets tumble out under the scanner, her extreme agony and crestfallen sense at having to re- confront her past. There is nothing to her beside these; Pratim throws in her introductory scene as one which posits her as an incredibly powerful, no hold barred, fearless person, but save for that fiery speech where she quotes Voltaire, we do not see her channel the power. It’s more spoken and exposited than enacted, so it becomes totally ineffective and never resonant.
Ritwick does well, he embodies his ordinaries effortlessly, blending into the mundane drudgery of his milieu, wordlessly evoked in his gestures, his mien and whenever he returns home from work and has his dinner quietly, unaccompanied. His loneliness is rendered with just as much subtlety as needed, a fine reminder of Pratim’s earlier film Maacher Jhol. Goutam Ghose as the boss is vapid, but then again he is given nothing to work on. The film has an uncertain tonality, and too many incondite, either painfully overdone or lazily half baked scenes lack in directorial finesse. The humour feels laboured and outright caricaturish, from Lakshmi Gopalam, middle aged Tamilian woman whose husband has run away, whose sexually suggestive behaviour is mined for cheap laughs, to Rocket Ranjan. Both are an abomination in the name of being funny. When will we get over ethno specific slapstick farce?
A crucial scene of Madame Roshni, the first lady of Malayalam porn cinema, and her coterie is amateurishly staged. The actress playing her is over theatrical, hams a lot, and exudes not an ounce of supposed menace. She glowers and huffs and scowls vehemently and imposes by artificial externality, leaving no impact on the viewer whatsoever. A very ripe opportunity to let loose or fleetingly bung in some industry specific wisdom or secrets or stories is willfully squandered. The scene where the Nandita and Shantilal meet and open their hearts in candid conversation stemming from a well of personal anguish and pain and resentments is loaded in dramatic tension and there are a lot of uneasy undercurrents that make it intriguing.
One constantly feels there’s not really much at stake, the seriousness is never quite palpable despite Nandita’s urgency. The viewer stays as somebody looking in from the outside and it would have been perfectly all right, had it not been for the rather inchoate writing that brims with ideas which are not allowed to fructify properly. Pratim picks one strand and twiddles with it casually, noncommittally, and proceeds to the other, resulting in all strands in a jumbled, poorly etched fashion. The world of investigative journalism and the porn industry is shown as a kid’s job to hack and crack, contingent on circumstantial luck and serendipity. Where have all the powers that be and higher ups scampered off when a curious rookie starts untangling and uncovering the buried mysteries, except for some muscled goons who beat Shantilal up in the street?
Shantilal o Projapoti Rohosyo suffers from broad strokes writing; specificity or nuances are found only in meagre bits. The over aching theme of both Shantilal and Nandita seeking solace and redemption needed more fleshing, their psyches and motivations are either dealt with in a bafflingly asinine way or there is no attempt at it. The interiority of the characters remains consistently unknowable. Arko’s music is a saving grace. The pulsating Shomoy takes the story forward through a trough and one leaves the theatre with Durnibar’s Ekai bhalo that negates some of the disappointment of the climax.
Pratim clearly envisaged the film as a reinvention, a reworking of the conventional thriller genre, by playing on audience expectation, misdirecting them, leading them towards an anti climax of sorts that spirals into a disquieting calm instead of ascending into a high narrative acme. It is an experiment, which required smarter, more sincere writing throughout, instead of some stray moments of sparkle. To be fair, Pratim manages a brisk, taut and sufficiently enjoyable first half that had me invested completely in spite of some bumps, but as he forayed into developing the subplots into a whole, the absence of clarity and thought in the writing widened the narrative cracks and distances the viewer immediately.
As a result, the film falls on Ritwick’s herculean talent to salvage it and he sustains it just barely. All the energy of the first half deflates ultimately and the film winds down into a release for both its protagonists and for the viewers.