Rituparno Ghosh is not exactly what you would call a publicity hound. But he has a smooth, to-the-manner-born way with the spotlight that would put to shame most shooting stars of the Indian dream factory, who stake their destinies on the weekly transience of the marquee—preceded by the dazzle of new-fangled TV promos. He courts PR in a manner that makes it seem it's the other way around.
And this time he has a lethal concoction—Rabindranath Tagore, Aishwarya Rai and a Rs 2.5-crore budget for a Tollywood movie—to boot. So, it's only natural that he be in an expansive mood: "I always thought about filming Tagore's Chokher Bali (Mote in the Eye, officially called Bugbear or Bete Noire), set against the background of the nationalist movement in Bengal during 1902-1905. I've been as thorough as possible in my preparations before we went to shoot."
"At Locarno and other film festivals, where Chokher Bali has been shown, critics have praised our photography, our sets and designs, and other technical details. It'll be screened soon at the London and Chicago festivals." The film is scheduled for national release on October 2.
Any Rituparno offering usually kindles great expectations. And not without reason. The filmmaker, who in his own populist way has revived the Tagore-Ray sensibility and who's supposed to be in constant empathy with the fairer sex, can be credited for having injected some vigour into the decaying Bengali film industry. He has made only nine films, though. But since he debuted in 1991 with Hirer Angti, he's rolled out such acclaimed, richly-awarded efforts as Unishe April, Dahan, Bariwali and the recent Miss Marple adaptation Shubho Mahurat. But the visually gorgeous Chokher Bali would have aroused interest even for more mundane reasons. "We spent some Rs 2.5 crore, making our ambience as period-authentic as possible. It's the costliest Bengali film ever made," says producer Shrikant Mohta. And of course, there's Aishwarya, her hazel eyes turned black to give her a Bengali look. Mohta expects Chokher... to do well.
Tagore's novel was little short of revolutionary for his milieu. Described as a "passion play" by Rituparno, it's about two men and two women. Mahendra (Prasenjit Chatterjee) and Behari (Tota Roy Choudhury) are medical students in early 20th century Calcutta, caught in the vortex of the proposed Bengal partition. Mahendra marries the young and naive Ashalata (Raima Sen). Enter Binodini (Aishwarya), a beautiful widow, as a companion to Mahendra's mother. In the full flush of her youth and with a mind of her own, she rebels against the strictures that constrict a widow's existence. Her proximity to both men and her intellectual superiority to Ashalata, whom she befriends, are ingredients for an explosive climax.
In Tagore's story, the theme of Bengal's partition and the lack of freedom for Indians are entwined with Binodini's personal quest for fulfilment. Says Rituparno: "Tagore wasn't satisfied with his end.... I've given the story a different twist." The film also alludes to Radha whose adultery is enshrined in our mythology.
Reactions from abroad have been encouraging. Variety's Derek Elley said: "Chokher Bali, a slow-burning, dialogue-driven but highly cinematic drama, is lit by a radiant performance from Aishwarya Rai." And Steve Gravestock of Toronto International Film Festival writes: "Chokher Bali (is) a beautifully wrought piece from one of the most adept makers of Indian cinema."
The producers are currently negotiating with Miramax, Sony Classic and several other firms on international screening rights. In view of the high price secured for Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (Tale of a Naughty Girl) from international companies, Chokher Bali could well usher in a new era for better-made non-Bollywood films.