A group based in the US called Hemlock Society founded in 1980 assisted people who wished to commit suicide. The name was later changed to Compassion and Choices that reportedly helps in physician-assisted suicide. Hemlock comes from a conifer tree or a waterweed. The root of the weed was used in Greek and Roman times as a deadly poison when death by suicide was either ordered by the state or chosen by a rational person. For over two thousand years Socrates personified the drinking of hemlock in 329 B.C. as a symbol of rational suicide. Can any suicide be ‘rational’? This is the moot question Srijit attempts to address.
- Banner: Shri Venkatesh Films
- Production: Shrikant Mohta and Moni Shrikant
- Story, screenplay, dialogue and direction: Srijit Mukherjee
- D.O.P.: Saumik Haldar
- Lyrics and Music: Anupam Roy
- Editing: Bodhaditya Mukherjee
- Art Direction: Ananda Adhya
- Cast: Dipandkar De, Roopa Ganguly, Soumitra Chatterjee, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Bratya Basu, Sabitri Chatterjee, Biswajit Chakraborty, Sudeshna Roy, Parambrato Chatterjee, Koel Mullick, Saheb Chatterjee and others
- Rating: 06/10
Meghna (Koel Mullick), convinced that no one loves her, decides on suicide. Her boyfriend (Saheb Chatterjee) of 14 years ditches her a week before the wedding; She learns that she is about to get the pink slip; she feels her father (Dipankar De) does not care. She hates her stepmother Niharika (Rupa Ganguly). When she is about to slash her wrists, a knock on the door brings in Ananda Kar (Parambrato Chatterjee) who says he can help her commit suicide through a three-day workshop for suicidal people conducted by Hemlock Society, a society he has founded, controls and owns. Ananda Kar’s character is an unabashed tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand (1971). His character is fleshed out with the same casual approach to death, to the happy camaraderie and bonhomie Rajesh Khanna presented with generoous references drawn from other Hindi films. It harks back to the 1970s Hindi cinema phase where characters dominated scripts and not the other way round.
The twist in the story gives itself away the minute Soumik Haldar’s camera steps into the plasticized, synthetic, garish, funny and unreal world of Purple Film City, the Hemlock Society workshop venue. Bright primary colours fill the walls of the classrooms except one room that is painted entirely white with huge B & W portraits of celebrities who have committed suicide like Cleopatra, Socrates, Guru Dutt, Silk Smita, etc. – an imaginative touch. Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley shattered the ‘snakebite suicide’ of Cleopatra in her book, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt in 2008.
The workshop comprises of faculty trained in different methods of committing suicide – the noose, the gun, chemical poisons of different kinds, slashing of wrists, jumping off bridges, etc complete with a white-robed, contemporary Chitragupta dressed like a Catholic priest overseeing the proceedings. These episodes are filled with black humour – short, pithy and funny.
Hemlock Society is about a suicidal person’s realisation of the value of life, relationships and family, not necessarily in that order. The love angle is understated which suits the diametrically opposed characterizations and ideologies of Meghna and Ananda. Parambrata is very convincing as Ananda but it is Koel Mullick who steals the show. With her torn jeans, smudged eyeliner and simple sandals, she defines her fashion statement that rationalizes her suicidal character. The cameos are fleshed out well by the actors and the script. Dipankar De is excellent and Roopa does justice to a well-etched role. Biswajit Chakraborty is good too.
The dragging second half once the narrative gets back to Meghna’s boyfriend is the film’s undoing. There is no point in bringing the script back to the boyfriend. The very loud background music does not go with the character and mood of the film and sometimes drowns the intelligent and pithy dialogue. Soumik Haldar’s constant shaking of the camera at some points is intriguing. He weaves his magic in the rest of the film. The actors fighting over the TDS is a needless intrusion while Ananda asking for condoms in a pharmacy is devoid of logic. The same applies to his uttering an obscenity when Meghna professes her love for him. Meghna breaking into a song so soon after her aggressive suicide attempt is an exaggeration. Hemlock Society could have cut out at least a good half hour to make its telling more intense and carry more impact. The humour in the dialogue sometimes has an overload of intellectual references like the Feluda-Neruda-Derrida line Ananda feeds Meghna the mass audience might not get the hang of. We see Niharika thumbing through Interpreter of Maladies while her husband reads some dictionary on clinical medicine – he is a doctor.
Srijit Mukherjee deserves credit for having struck on the unique concept of placing Hemlock Society as assistance for suicidal people and then turning the entire concept neatly on its head. The idea of making the real appear like the surreal is imaginative. Some moments are very touching – (a) the silent reaction of Meghna’s father in the morgue which tells us that the dead girl is not Meghna, (b) Meghna and her step-mother Niharika having a booze party defining the new friends-bonding they have come to share and (c) Meghna walking out of the white-walled room when Ananda whispers his secret into her ears. I specially like the open ending.