LABORATORY (2010) Bengali Movie: Exploring Rabindranath Tagore

Laboratory Bengali Film
Laboratory Bengali Film

December 5, 2010 (Calcutta Tube): Raja Sen deserves credit for taking up a very controversial Tagore story LABORATORY to make a film on. There is a moving scene shot in the semi-darkness of the night when Sohini sits on the bed, her face in profile, remembering Neela fighting for a paintbrush as a little girl. But with too many layers, the power of the two women who create the story, the real and the metaphorical laboratory within it, does not come across as strongly as it ought to have.

Cast and Crew:

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  • Direction: Raja Sen
  • Cinematography: Rana Dasgupta
  • Costumes: Ruma Dasgupta
  • Editing: Arghya Kamal Mitra
  • Art direction: Tamnoy Chakraborty
  • Music: Partho Sengupta and Rabindranath Tagore:
  • Cast: Ranjit Mullick, Sabyasachi Chakraborty, Raveena Tandon, Arpita Chatterjee, Shaheb Chatterjee, Biswajeet Ghosh, Lama, Papiya Sen.
  • Date of release: 26/11/2010
  • Rating: 05/10

LABORATORY – TAGORE SANS THE POWER

Laboratory was authored by Tagore in the last days of his literary life as a writer of short stories. His treatment of the characters in Laboratory does not match the rest of his work. It is a strikingly radical story about the determination of Sohini (Raveena Tandon) a young Punjabi Jat woman to attain her goals in any which way. For her, the goal is more important than the means to attain it. Her moralistic views are different from those of normal women. She gets married to Nanda Kishore (Sabyasachi Chakraborty) a Bengali scientist and settles down in Bengal. When her husband dies suddenly, she determines to fulfill his dream of completing the laboratory he had begun to work on for helping budding Indian scientists to be able to work in India. She constantly clashes with her young and beautiful daughter Neela (Arpita Chatterjee) a flighty young girl who does not shy away from hiding her flirtations which her mother does not like. The mother is scared to see the reflection of her youth in her daughter. Whether Sohini succeeds I finding find a young scientist to take care of the laboratory and whether she is finally able to bond with her daughter makes Laboratory a twists-and-turns story of two very radical and courageous woman, so similar and yet so different.

[ReviewAZON asin=”B0044FBVYG” display=”inlinepost”]Nanda Kishore, despite his scientific bent of mind believes in the true equality of the sexes. He is attracted to the much younger Sohini for her manner of ‘frank-speak-and-think-different’ attitude than by her beauty. Sabyasachi gives a very convincing and interesting performance as a Nanda Kishore. Manmatha Choudhury (Ranjit Mullick), a ‘family friend’ and science professor is absolutely besotted by the sensual charms of an ageing Sohini. He too, spouts forth on the merits of matriarchal society in the days of yore. It is a performance by veteran Ranjit Mullick distanced from the stereotype of the social do-gooder is plays in film after film. He is very convincing as the charmed and ageing bachelor. Shaheb Chatterjee as the young scientist chosen by Sohini to look after the laboratory is sincere to begin with, but soon surrenders to the brazenly seductive ways of Neela. He is a naïve young man suppressed in his ambitions by his widowed aunt. He does not suspect the ulterior motives of Neela once. Shaheb Chatterjee is sparkling in a role that is filled with the naïve innocence of discovering the importance of romance and sex, the painful frustrations of being suffocated by the love of his aunt, the sudden opening of a window to his dreams only to collapse around him. Arpita as Neela looks beautiful but is given a sharp and brittle look perhaps to enhance the negativity of the character and also to make the very strong and no-nonsense Sohini look softer and gentler. She is designed to be obviously manipulative who thinks nothing of speaking ill about her mother to the gold-digging young men around her. Arpita lives the ‘period’ her character belongs to as much as she can and therefore, is very credible in a highly stylized performance. That is how educated young women of elitist and affluent Bengali families in the 1940s behaved and lived and talked. The characterization reminds one of Kanan Devi in New Theatres’ Mukti. Papiya Sen in a brief role as Rebati’s Pishima is strong and honest.

Raveena Tandon as Sohini plays her first role in a Tagore presentation on celluloid and in a Bengali film. She is convincing but carries a heavy burden on her shoulders. As an actress, she  fights a constant struggle between her dedication to the character and her anxiety to deliver her lines in Bangla, a language she cannot speak, just like the character she plays is caught between her commitment to her dead husband’s laboratory and her anxiety about her daughter’s future. In trying to invest his own kind of ‘reality’ to the character of Sohini by keeping the heavily accented Bengali intact, Raja Sen strips Sohini of whatever little Bengali identity she might or should have imbibed over her long stay in Bengal. From some of her dialogue such as “I am a Jat,” or, “they are scared of a Peshawari woman” or, her manner of keeping a dagger tucked in her waist, or, hiring a Sikh security guard, etc. it is apparent that she never forgets her original Punjabi roots. It would have been ideal had her Bengali lines been dubbed by a Bengali actress. The film would have turned out to be more logical, convincing and aesthetic too.

Top marks go to costume designer Ruma Sengupta who has perfectly recreated the period through the two women, the men, the junior artists and also the restaurant crooner not only in terms of dress but also in terms of jewellery and hairstyles. The music and the songs enrich the film’s intensity to a large extent. The picturisation and positioning of the Tagore number belted out by Neela in the opening party scene and the crooner number at Rebati’s party are wonderful. The art direction deserves compliment for being able to recreate the period up to a certain point. Rana Dasgupta’s camera remains mysteriously static, refusing to move at all, giving the first half of the film, (minus the two song sequences in the beginning) the air of a stage play being cinematographed for placing on film. It rarely pans or tracks and when it does, the movement is very slow. Why? Arghya Kamal Mitra’s editing too, does not reflect the craft he has mastered so well as reflected in his other films. Sometimes, the movement from one scene to another is just a shot of the exterior of Sohini’s spacious home with the shades of trees falling across its walls.

The superfluous feminist underscoring dilutes the inner strength of the characters of Sohini and Neela, both courageous in their own way. It is also contradictory at times. Nanda Kishore tells Sohini that he likes her way of original thinking. Soon after, he tells her he wants her to become Nanda Kishori. Manmotho goes gaga over his open admiration for Sohini yet at one point, tells her that women ‘sometimes’ display intelligence. The pre-marriage deliberations between Nanda Kishore and Sohini sound very much like a ‘market’ discussion around ‘gains’ and ‘losses.’ Why Sohini and Neela paint semi-nude women either in profile or from the back is intriguing. The same goes for the mother-daughter pair finding common emotional ground through that one unfinished painting. This unfinished painting is not there in Tagore’s original story. Did Sen really need to include this? The two kissing scenes do not come across too well but need to be commended for the courage of the director’s convictions to carry them through.

Review

Shoma A. Chatterji

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