Style and substance

Herbert 8/10

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 10.03.06


Director: Suman Mukherjee
Cast: Subhashis Mukherjee, Joyraj Bhattacharjee, Anindita Mullick, Bimal Chakraborty, Lily Chakraborty, Subroto Nath Mukherjee, Bratya Basu, Sujan Mukherjee, Debshankar Haldar, Senjuti Roy Mukherjee, Nandini Chatterjee, Supriya Dutta, Kanchan Mullick, Chandan Sen, Sabyasachi Chakraborty


A story about a simpleton with a golden heart and complex troubled mind. Trapped in a desolate existence, he begins to ‘communicate’ with the dead and eventually commits suicide. How does a sad dark tale like this prevent itself from being too maudlin or too morbid? And instead become an exciting inspirational film? With conviction of a director. And a film’s convincing language (treatment) and confident body-language (form); expressed by superb histrionics of actors and rendered with excellent filmcraft of technicians.

And theatre director Suman Mukherjee achieves this feat with his debut film, Herbert. Intense, funny, ironic, dark, even macabre, Herbert is a rich intricate tableau that depicts the saga of orphaned, neglected, bullied Herbert, the most disenfranchised member of a crumbling north Calcutta household inhabited by eccentrics and idealists. The film narrative spans several decades, using this typically quirky Bengali family as symbol of decadence ? cultural, moral, political ? of the times. And employs protagonist Herbert as a kind of pendulum, swinging back and forth in time, pausing and breaking its linearity. Stylistically, too, Herbert shuttles between monochromatic classic to multi-coloured kitsch.

Cinematographic images are requisitely varied in tone and texture apt for such a stylised film. And Arghya Kamal Mitra’s flawless editing tightly holds this film’s structure and thus also our attention.

Mukherjee employs a range of cinematic, dramatic devices in the film. Flashforward-flashbacks (parents, childhood) to Brechtian alienation (father behind movie camera). And strong influences of several European masters, especially Fellini is clearly evident. But despite such ‘educated’ references, somehow he never lets his ideas or storytelling become ‘alien’ or elitist. Maybe because he manages to keep his film grounded, rooted to our own culture-specific milieu, utilising all its banal characteristics, colloquialism and linguistic slang (profanities bit too excessive though) with passion and flamboyance.

So when young Herbert goes for movie outing with Marxist uncle, and the film turns out to be Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin, you cannot cringe. Because later in turbulent 70s Calcutta Herbert (with Naxalite nephew) imagines the staircase of Presidency College turning into ‘Odessa Steps’. And you don’t miss the romance and irony of such ideas. And you don’t grudge the director because by then he wins you over with his style. And you’re ready to see his ‘take’.

Mandira Mitra