Monday, June 12, 2006

Film Review: Enigma of Arrival

Ontorjatra (Home-Land)
Director: Tareque and Catherine Masud
Script: Tareque and Catherine Masud
Camera: Gaetane Rousseau
Editing: Catherine Masud
86 minutes; 35mm
An Audovision production with support from the British Council


Let us go to another country…
The rest is understood
Just say the word.
--William Plomer

The Masud duo's new film depicts a world in fragments. Using displacement as their central theme the twain attempt to depict a journey into the heart of their protagonist's forlorn past. The trick is we are to confront two distinct levels of uprootedness. For Shireen (Sara Zaker), a mother who had fled a bad marriage 15 years ago, it is a personal, almost private, affair. Sohel (Rifaqat Rashid), her grown-up son, on the other hand, faces (or should have faced had the theme been well-handled) a myriad of problems that are altogether different. Faced with a culture he has never been acquainted with, Sohel clings more and more onto his dead father, who, like Bangladeshi hinterland, remains to him a distant and fuzzy photograph. After more than a decade in Britain, a country he thought he belonged to, Sohel realises he does not really know who he is. While, after a theatrical confession, his mother sleeps in the bunk of a fast-moving carriage, he reflects and arrives at what many may justly find a rather hasty conclusion: That his sense of belonging is not totally lost, he is going to come back here.
One will be sorely disappointed if one tries to find a post-colonial story line in Ontorjatra. The dislocation of quasi-slave labourers of tea gardens is aptly put, so is the in-a-limbo situation of the "Bihari" people. Though through the song of the tea-garden-labourers the filmmakers allude to two different degrees of displacements, at the end of the day (the film ends at dawn), they are not similar in nature. It will get even more obvious if one takes class and race into consideration. This eludes Masuds: we never see any one of the tea-garden-labourers in person, neither do we run into anyone who was made a refugee during the gory partition of the South Asian Sub-continent.
At the same time when it comes to exploring relationships, the duo fails to live up to expectations. Sohel, it seems, never finds it necessary to talk to Salma, his stepmother, about Rafiq, his father, even when his (own) mother obstinately refuses to shed any light on her (we presume) turbulent married life. The characters do not develop themselves throughout the film; all of them stand alone as inert and monolithic.
Gaetane Rousseau's camera is prosy even when the film moves onto the seductive landscape of Sylhet. One reason can be that from the beginning to end, Rousseau's camera never moves. Why is it so we do not know; if it is a part of the duo's cinematic language, then one must admit that it is spoken in a stilted, stammering voice.
Catherine Masud's editing is skilful but lacks rhythm and tempo to set the duo's Ontorjatra apart from a cluster of "alternative" films that are going to hit the theatres this summer.
In one of the early sequences when Shireen asks Lakkhan Das about past acquaintances, we get a point of view shot of Lakkhan; except for that the subalterns are destined to be subalterns; their pathos and estrangement never come into being. It is a little less than strange that in the film both the home-workers are from a religious minority. The filmmakers do not take the trouble to make this point (we assume there must be one) clear.
In another sequence the duo makes use of parallel cutting to compare and contrast the difference of alienations from which the mother and son suffer. But this leads us to nowhere. Buno and Anushey's presence in the film is pointless; equally thoughtless are the bouts of hysteric laughter that ensue at the end of their song.
The filmmakers are best at using death as a leitmotiv: at a cemetery of early British settlers in Sylhet Tareque and Catherine take on dying in one's known environs as a symbol. Death in Ontorjatra is entwined with leaving (and, perhaps, discovering) home. In another scene, using a game of snakes and ladders as their symbol, the Masuds depict an idea where home becomes one's sense of belonging, a long and ardent journey into one's soul. But these two are lone instances where one witnesses some flickers of intelligent filmmaking in Ontorjatra. Failure will be too ghastly a word to describe it, and it is lagging far behind from becoming a successful endeavour. Like both of its major characters, Ontorjatra dangles between these two. It feels like a cinema in the process of making and one expects the Masuds to take up the theme again and pray that they will handle it with care the next time round.