The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Getting darker


Director: Rituparno Ghosh

Cast: Soha Ali Khan, Jackie Shroff, Rupa Ganguly, Abhishek Bachchan


Rituparno ghosh’s antarmahal is a period drama staged within veiled, closed, constricted spaces of the inner world (physical and psychological) of women from a bygone era. Inspired by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s story, Protima, the director with well-known affinity to women’s stories and eye for small detail, mounts his film on a large canvas. Draws in biggish stars to portray characters, contoured with black of their kohl-lined eyes. And coloured-in with splashes of aalta, sindoor and blood. And embellished with flourish of gold jewellery. And thus with vivid visuals he recreates an aristocratic household of 19th century Bengal. And takes us through partition screens inside the stifling confines of its inner chambers inhabitated by Borobou (Rupa) and Chhotobou (Soha), two wives of a powerful lustful zamindar (Jackie).

Desperate for a male heir, he forces Chhotobou to have sex while a voyeuristic priest chants scriptural verse. (Needless repetition and lingering scenes make unwilling voyeurs of us, too.) And equally desperate for a title from British rulers, to please them he commissions a clay modeller (Abhishek) to sculpt an idol of goddess Durga with queen Victoria’s face!

Jackie hams as debauch zamindar like a filmy villain. But his exaggerated mannerisms become valid in accentuating caricature-like character symbolising grossness of patriarchal oppression/exploitation. Soha does a good balancing act in her role of child-woman straddling dual world of clay dolls and marital rape. Abhishek’s is an endearing, redeeming male cameo in a film peopled with crass obnoxious men. And Rupa is easily principal actor, emoting a wide spectrum. Alternately resentful and empathetic co-wife. Playful seductress and frustrated wannabe-mother trying to reclaim her position of power.

Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography is stunning both in controlled and available light conditions. Rich textured, colour-saturated interiors to almost monochromatic open fields of wild white-grass (kaash) with gray-shadowy figures and palanquin passing through it. Or rain-drenched image of zamindar with servants holding up antiquated flat umbrellas, reminiscent of vintage paintings of that period.

Foregone conclusion: Antarmahal and Rituparno’s earlier film, Chokher Bali, will be compared for apparent commonality. Similar cinematic treatment. And both are based on literary classics which explore women’s predicament in Victorian Bengal. Is Antarmahal a kind of prequel to Chokher Bali' Flashbacking to a dark phase, preceding more enlightened female protagonists who wander off to freedom from oppressive plight' Maybe. Because in Antarmahal women are trapped and the only escape is death.

Mandira Mitra

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