FIRST LOOK – GAUTAM GHOSE’S MONER MANUSH: Bengali movie Moner Manush is now complete. Few Bengali filmmakers have tread on the delicate and somewhat controversial territory of the Baul tradition. Filmmaker Gautam Ghose has done it. If reports are to be believed, and the total commitment Prosenjit who plays Lalon Phokir, the protagonist has put in, is probed deeply, then Moner Manush is a film to be looked forward to for overlapping many genres of contemporary cinema where genre is the bottom line.
It is an approximate biographical account of that Baul of Bauls, Lalon Phokir, probably born in 1774 in the part of Nadia district now in Kushtia, Bangladesh. He died in 1890. He composed 1000 songs of which just 600 can be traced. Lalon rejected the division of society into communities, protesting and satirizing religious fundamentalisms of all kinds. It is also an ethnographical film as it traces the anthropological and cultural history of this ethnic sect of wandering minstrels, the Bauls of Bengal who spread their progressive and secular faith through their song and music. It can be defined as a historical film as it spans a period and a geography Indian cinema has not mapped the way it has been mapped in this film. It is also informative and educational because it sheds light on a little-known sect, on their unique ideology and lifestyle and their resurrection in modern times through cinema, theatre, literature and so on. Moner Manush is contemporary and topical as it talks of peace, harmony and peaceful tolerance of all faiths at a time when India is ridden by fundamentalist pockets and intolerant groups across its expanse.
The film can also be categorized as a musical because, “it has 32 songs that form part of the verbal interaction between and among the characters,” says Gautam Ghose. “There are no notations for Lalon’s songs. That is what pushed me to Lalon’s village Kushtia in Bangladesh, to find out about the notations. I adapted songs that were sung by the existing Phokirs there. Latif Shah and Khuda Baksh have rendered the playback for Lalon in my film. Shahzad Firdous has written the lyrics. Farida Parveen, the famous Bangladeshi singer, has lent her voice to the single dance number lip-synced on screen by Paoli Dam,” adds Ghose. Paoli plays Komli, a young widow who takes shelter in Lalon’s akhra in Simultala. “Playing Komli has been a learning experience. It was difficult to walk with a pitcher brimming with water. It was tougher walking up the bamboo steps to the river. Komli has a relationship with Lalon. Once, on a cold December morning, I had to take a dip in the river Bania and walk along a cobbled forest track with the pitcher resting on one hip,” says Paoli who is on the fast track to success in all kinds of films in Bengali cinema today. On the first day of their Bangladesh schedule, while they were travelling towards Sunamganj, their mini-bus hit an auto and her mother and hair-dresser Kalpana Pradhan got hurt. “I was in a daze during the first few days of the shoot because I was crazy with worry,” adds Paoli.
Says Prosenjit who went into a kind of professional sanyas for five months in preparation for the role of Lalon, “My involvement with the character has changed my world-view and my philosophy. I have learnt that under the apparent restive spirit and wandering, under his repertoire of spiritual songs he composed, lay the basic philosophy of humanity Lalon held above everything else. They did have female consorts but it was just like a basic biological desire like hunger for food. Lalon believed that emotional ties would take him away from his ultimate destination, finding oneness with the Almighty. It took some time for me to come back to ground level after I came back.” Golam Phokir, a Nadia-based Baul who has played a cameo in the film, also doubled up as Prosenjit’s trainer in this unusual role. “I taught him to play the ektara and dance like the Bauls,” he says with a smile peeping out from his grey beard.
Bangladeshi actor Chanchal who is from theatre, plays Lalon’s friend Kalua in Moner Manush. Zeeshan from Bangladesh plays the teenaged Lalon. Others in the acting cast are Champa, Tathoi and Raisul Islam Azad from Bangladesh. Moner Manush is set against the early 19th to the 20th century. It begins with Lalon as a teenager who leaves home, to when he is in his 50s, and then the 45-50 age-span ending with when he is very old. Bibi Russell, the internationally renowned fashion designer who has tuned the homely gamchha into a fashion statement, has done the costumes for Moner Manush along with Gautam’s wife Nilanjana. “This is my first film project. I have given Prosenjit khadi kurta and dhoti that he wraps around like a lungi. I have given him a tulsi mala, a gift I received from a Baul I knew, as a lucky mascot for the film,” informs Bibi.
The Chilapata forests in North Bengal, a four-hour drive from Jalpaiguri covered the schedule in the Indian part of the locations. The scenes here were shot along the banks of the Bania River. Samir Chanda, who has won the National Award for Best Art Direction several times, created an akhra with some thatched huts and three houses. “The most challenging part of my designing for this film was getting the right props. We had a tough time finding a sarinda, a now extinct musical instrument the Bauls played on. To recreate the architecture of Lalan’s time was another challenge. There were almost no frames of reference so we had to rely on whatever little was available and rest had to be done from imagination. A project like Moner Manush does not attract me for the money or the budget constraints we have to work in compared to the budgets in Bollywood. It attracts me for the special kick I get out of working in these films.”
Ghose expects to release the film, a joint venture of Rose Valley Productions of India and Ashirbad Films of Bangladesh, by the end of April in Bangladesh and India. The film is a loose adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Moner Manush But Ghose has invested it with his personal perspectives too.
By Shoma A. Chatterji