Rituparno Ghoshs Noukadubi is like a mahogany bagatelle board where the shiny ball called love wants to roll into the right pockets but keeps getting deflected by the rusted pins of life. True to the spirit of the original Tagore novel, the four people at the heart of the boatwreck first become victims of calamities, social and natural, and then start building new worlds around the remains. Before they are tossed around again.
And thats the beauty of Noukadubi and what makes it veer away from the other Tagore adaptation by Ghosh, Chokher Bali. When the characters here cannot be with the ones they love, they fall in love with the ones they are with. On the surface, this sexless love game may come across as tepid and tame, slow and sombre compared to the roller-coaster passion play that was Chokher Bali, but Noukadubis charm lies in the lingering aftertaste, the enduring pleasure in the pain.
Almost Shakespearean in its premise and plotting, Tagores Noukadubi, set in the early 20th century, explores mistaken identities leading to misunderstandings and wife-swapping. But while the Bard would use such devices for a romance or comedy, Tagore rustles up a tragedy out of the mayhem. The concept of a boatwreck bringing together a groom and a bride from two different sets of newlyweds may sound preposterous today but Tagore used the event as an excuse to examine relationships brought about by chance against those by choice and compulsion.
Ghosh understands that and hence despite the title, he doesnt show the noukadubi. Its a 10-second blank screen, with the speakers bellowing out the doom. Once the images come back, Ramesh (Jisshu) returns to consciousness and presumes that the other survivor in bridalwear lying nearby must be Susheela, the woman he was forced to marry by his father despite being in love with Hemnalini (Raima).
But that little lady is Kamala (Riya), who had got married to Nalinaksha (Prosenjit), who in turn assumes that his new wife must have drowned in the river. Of course, none of the four people who got married before boarding their boats had, quite incredibly, seen the faces of their partners. Otherwise this whole plot would be dead in the water
Once Ramesh realises that the wife hes brought home is not his, he empathises with Kamala, starts looking for her husband and puts his own plans with Hemnalini on hold. Kamala herself is happy with the husband she got on the river banks and gets busy showering her pot of love on him. Responsibility rolls into romance for Ramesh as he begins to enjoy the play of words and the game of names with Kamala.
Ghosh, a self-confessed Ekalavya of Ray, reprises the playful post-marital dynamics of the Apu-Aparna relationship from Apur Sansar for the Ramesh-Kamala romance, which is clearly the fulcrum of Noukadubi. Almost echoing that famous line Apu asked Aparna, Can you accept a life of poverty?, Ramesh asks Kamala here, Can you live an entire life as my wife? The joys and jolts of suddenly getting married to a stranger surface again on celluloid beautifully.
But Kamala soon learns that Ramesh is not her husband and has gifted her the mithye shongshar out of obligation. She jumps into the water by choice this time and surfaces only in Kashi, where Nalinaksha is now a practising doctor and Hemnalini has landed up with her father (Dhritiman). Once Ramesh arrives in the scene as well, the four-way see-saw battle of hearts is hurtled towards a conclusion.
Ghosh is a master of chamber dramas and he has made period films before, but over the years he has become more and more ambitious with his script structuring. Even for a small scene he goes to and fro several times in time and space, matching images (the foot plays a big leitmotif here) and emotions, till he has visually and verbally communicated the essence of the moment. But when he punctuates such portions with long scenes, those scenes become tedious and the lines sometimes lose their worth.
When Ghosh says that Noukadubi is less complex than his other films, he must be comparing it to the knotty narratives of his last two releases Shob Charitro Kalponik and Abohomaan. Because the layers are very much there the parallels with the Bhawal Sanyasi case (Ghosh sets Tagores 1903 story in the 1920s) and Shakuntala, which Kamala wants Ramesh to read to her and the movies world is populated with the usual fine detailing synonymous with his films.
Noukadubi is only inspired from Rabindranath Tagore and not ditto the novel. In the pretext of tailoring the original story to his needs, Ghosh turns the adaptation into a full-blown celebration of Tagore. Besides the yarn itself, the characters express their pain and pleasure by breaking into Rabindrasangeet (Khelaghar bandhte legechhi and Tori aamar being the two main themes). Whats more, they have his photo on the bedside table, and Hemnalini even wishes to marry the poet at one point. The 150-year celebrations of Tagore just got better.
Prosenjit, Jisshu and Raima are all frequent fliers of Ghoshs filmography. They are now veterans of the directors school of underplayed, single-tone acting. Prosenjits is an extended cameo and yet he brings a starry aura to the scenes he has. Jisshu is the protagonist here and he makes Rameshs dilemmas come alive with the right mix of anguish and affection. Raima is a sight for sore eyes, looking fetching in the rich period costumes and jewellery.
And then theres Riya, who just had a couple of scenes in Ghoshs Abohomaan, but is a complete revelation in Noukadubi. Just like her elder sister was in Chokher Bali. Playing a similar character thriving on the innocent delight, Riya (voiced brilliantly by Monali Thakur) uses her eyes and body language to optimal effect. When she surfaces on that river bank in a red sari and sindoor, almost floating like a Durga protima the scene stunningly captured by Soumik Halder and an orchestral version of Je raate mor duar guli bhanglo jhore plays on the soundtrack, Noukadubi starts cruising.
By the time it reaches its destination, you are not sure whether love wins or circumstances again get the better of the lonely hearts, whether marriage becomes the anchor or it is the flag-off of another stormy boat trip. It is this communal introspection that makes Noukadubi such an enriching ride on stranger tides. Bon voyage!