December 5, 2010 (Calcutta Tube): Many films open on a note of grief, such as a sudden death within the family. Where does the family go from this feeling of emptiness? How do the members- husband and children – cope with a loss they did not even imagine would take their lives to the edge of a dangerous precipice? What happens immediately after the loss till the formal rites are performed six days later? Beneath these questions lie other hidden questions; secrets tumble out of the family cupboard revealing the real portrait of what seemed to be a ‘happy family.’ The harmonizing member of the family is suddenly no more and the façade of unity seems to collapse around the rest till scores are settled and peace and harmony is restored in this small world.
Cast and Crew:
- Banner: Stormglass Productions
- Script, Story and Direction: Sangeeta Datta
- Music: Soumik Datta
- Lyrics: Rabindranath Tagore, Javed Akhtar, Fiona Bevan
- D.O.P.: (India): Avik Mukhopadhyay
- D.O.P.: (UK) Robert Shacklady
- Art & Production Designer: Simon Gillman
- Cast: Sharmila Tagore, Girish Karnad, Om Puri, Soha Ali Khan, Mukulika Banerjee, Neerja Naik, Rez Kempton, Steph Patten and Christopher Hatherall
- Rating: 6/10
LIFE GOES ON IS AVAILABLE for ONLINE WATCH from DINGORA.Com. The Film has been distributed in USA by Databazaar Media Ventures.
These are questions Sangeeta Datta raises in and through Life Goes On. The film is set against the backdrop of London, featuring the affluent, upper-class, educated and cultured Bengali diaspora who have settled down to a content life in a foreign country. The opening frames capture the picturesque beauty of Trafalgar Square during the summer festival with Big Ben in the distance, towering over the Bengali dancers performing merrily on the streets with gay abandon. The dance is being shot by two young television producers. Among them is Tulika, second of the three daughters of Dr. Sanjay Banerjee and his talented and beautiful wife Manju. At the beautiful home of the Banerjees set in the midst of the lush velvet greens of a flourishing garden, Manju is preparing for a party egged on by her husband’s close friend Alok Mathur. But she dies suddenly and the Banerjees’ world comprised of her husband and three daughters collapses.
Spanning the brief six-day span till the funeral in a prayer hall followed by a gathering at the Banerjee home, the film explores the different worlds that live within the larger matrix of the diaspora. We see a Bengali against the stereotypical celluloid representation of the immigrant Bangladeshi, often an illegal immigrant, or the very conservative and rigid, singing and dancing Punjabi diaspora. Tulika, we discover, is a lesbian. Lolita, married to the Briton John and the mother of a small girl and an infant, is going through a marital crisis. Dia, the youngest, a student of drama is the only one who lives with her parents. Her mother’s death brings her relationship with a young Bangladeshi Muslim doctor out in the open, shocking and scandalising her rigid father who carries the ghost of his bizarre memories of arson during the Partition that left behind a permanent hatred towards the minority community. To avoid breaking under the emotional blackmail her grieving father subjects her to, Dia tells him that she is pregnant.
Take away the London backdrop and the story could belong to any affluent, English-educated, highly cultured Bengali family in Kolkata or USA or Germany or France and the story would not have been very different. The same conflict in values, the same ghosts of the Partition resulting in a life-long bias against a given community, the same conflict about sexual orientation, about pregnancy before marriage, about a Hindu girl’s relationship with a Bangladeshi Muslim boy would have sustained albeit against different geo-political and social backdrops.
So what is the USP? There are many. The London atmosphere adds to the visual richness of the film, invests the visual and narrative tapestry with a rich musical score and underscores the universality of the affluent Bengali family’s belief in traditional moral values, love for music, art, food, language, literature and performance, in constructing and sustaining relationships and learning to accept the shock of betrayal. Life Goes On is an example of a diaspora film that shows a paradigmic shift from national responsibility to familial loyalty to individually chosen habitats. The film also demonstrates that the British-Asian immigrant has learnt to inhabit what has historically been over-determined as White linguistic space and how native Britons have accepted this with warmth, recognition and harmony. Yet, the older NRIs like Manju and Alok and Sanjay have kept away from blending into the mainstream because roots are very important to them. The youngsters do not think in the same way because born, bred and educated in England, they do not feel they are not British. So, Lolita chooses a Briton for a husband, Tulika has a White girlfriend and Dia performs King Lear with her British peers.
[ReviewAZON asin=”B003M5P9GK” display=”inlinepost”]Life Goes On presents well-formed characters that get into a state of flux when Manju dies suddenly. But the cinematic greatness of the film lies more in tiny moments of nostalgia, bonding, memories and tributes. The scene where the three sisters watch their mother sing a beautiful Tagore song first in Bengali and then in Hindi on their laptop that makes them both laugh and cry touches a chord somewhere. Another scene shows the three daughters taking off their mother’s saris from the wardrobe and sharing memories of when she wore which one and why. The three daughters choose their mother’s saris to wear for the official funeral. A sad and silent Dia sits with her mother’s tanpura in the darkened music room, trying to hum the Tagore song mone rekho that forms the theme music of the film. We see the thoroughly Westernised Tuilka asking Lolita to adjust the pleats of her sari. “Join the club,” laughs Tulika with Dia when she learns that Dia has ‘knocked’ herself up and become one more “black sheep of the family”. A shocked and scarred Sanjay wandering aimlessly down the streets of London through the night like a lost man till he comes to rest on a bench on Hampstead Heath is very moving. Towards the end, Lolita’s husband John pulls Dia the night before the funeral to his car saying, “I’ll take you for a nice, long ride – I am selling the car tomorrow.” While driving, he tells her that he just lost his job. Alok’s tragic secret he keeps hiding under his 100-and-odd jokes is expressed with the right touch of pain and suffering of not being able to pour the truth out.
Soumik Datta’s music is mind-blowing. He dips into his rich stock of music that fits seamlessly into the physical ambience of a story about Bengalis in London. The music track is soaked in Tagore, Bangla folk, Rap, Hip-Hop blending beautifully with the characters, their delineations and the sequences. His magic box of Indian classical music and Cuban rhythms and symphonic gestures are in keeping with the colourful visual and narrative collage the film presents. The cinematography too, is very good. It tellingly captures the lonely wandering of Sanjay in the darkness of the night, or offers a brief glimpse of Manju in her garden slipping away from the grasp of her children but present in spirit, the empty swing swinging away, Sanjay chasing Imtiaz across the fields as a small boy shot in silhouette, Sanjay breaking down alone in a dark recess of his room, the dimly lit scene in Imtiaz’s room when he tries to console Dia, or the strategically lit stage where Dia performs in King Lear. The editing seems a bit contrived at places where suddenly, flowers fill the screen as a bridge to the next shot.
Datta has extracted very good performances out of a strange mixture of full-blooded Indian actors like Girish Karnad mainly from theatre, Puri and Soha Ali Khan who are part of mainstream Hindi cinema, along with local British actors and true-blooded NRIs like Mukulika Banerjee and Neerja Naik. The sugar-and-syrup Manju is revealed to have had more rebellion within than she appeared to have. Sharmila fills the screen with her regal bearing and her beautiful elegance, peppering her English often with a generous smattering of Bangla. Karnad who is not very comfortable in front of the movie camera, has risen over this discomfort as Sanjay Banerjee. Puri is his usual, amusing self though his character could have done with some stripping of his too-obvious weakness for Manju. Soha Ali Khan as Dia gives a moving account beautifully complemented by Mukulika Banerjee as Lolita and Neerja Naik as Tulika.
The film suffers from an overcrowding of issues–this critic counted not less than 17 – the historical evolution of the conventional Hindu’s abhorrence of the minority even if he is a NRI, alcoholism, property issues, premarital pregnancy, alterative sexual orientation, conflict in marriage, Indo-British marriage, adultery, domestic violence within the diaspora. Datta plays out these issues on a very low-key without allowing any of them to overshadow the main subject but then also, there are one too many. The scene in the living room where dignitaries like Lord Meghnad Desai and others are recalling their family’s suffering in the Partition is superfluous. The same goes for Sanjay’s longish interview on television. Datta has kept Manju’s death away from the screen registered beautifully through reaction shots mainly captured in medium shots.
The use of extra-cinematic elements like newspaper clippings, scenes from King Lear, Jibananda Das’s poetry, Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful take on children, and the dance performance add new dimensions to the film’s form. But the overdose of cerebral references might either go beyond the comprehension of a mass audience or perhaps distance them from the film. Its magical music and songs tracks however, will become the bridge that will close this distance. Looked at in retrospect, Sangeeta Datta’s Life Goes On will charm and mesmerize the 23 million-and-odd Indian diaspora across the English-speaking world. The film is a tribute to the emerging symmetry in Indo-British relations as much as it is a celebration of the urban, intellectual and culturally rich Bengali who has redefined his identity on foreign soil without losing out on his ethnic roots.
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