The title Praktan, which means ‘former’, may explicitly point at the lead pair of Ujaan and Sudipa who were formerly married in the film.
But it’s a theme that runs through every subplot in the film: a musician reminisces about his former bandmate, an insecure husband prods his pretty wife about her ex-boyfriend on their honeymoon, an elderly couple who are only a pale shadow of their former selves, and a city that is not the same anymore. All are travellers in different coupes on the same train from Mumbai to Kolkata.
What is also interesting in this new Bengali film directed by Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy is how some of these stories operate at a meta-level. The musician, is played by Surojit Chatterjee who quit Bhoomi, a pioneering Bangla band that peaked in the early 2000s. The elderly couple, played by Soumitra Chatterjee and Sabitri Chatterjee, are yesteryear stars. And in what is a casting coup, Prosenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta in the roles of the lead couple mark the return of the pair many years after they fell out after a rumoured affair.
“I think in a film like this, which has a title like this, a bit of fun in the casting adds another layer. It plays at another level in the audiences’ mind,” says Mukherjee.
When co-director Roy had first planned to make the film which she had written in 2003, the reason it got delayed was because Chatterjee and Sengupta had decided not to work with each other. “It was not that we wouldn’t have made the film if they hadn’t agreed, but it was our best casting. This time around, though, it was different as they were both actors who were hungry for a good script and characters. It wasn’t difficult at all to get them on board,” she says.
This is the eighth film directed by Roy and Mukherjee since they began making movies in 2011. One may debate the sophistication of their craft, but in a short span the filmmakers have been able to create a space in Bengali cinema where they have struck a balance between making family entertainers, with progressive themes and fresh ideas.
Their biggest success has been their last film Bela Seshe (2015) about a man who decides to divorce his wife on their 50th anniversary, because he feels that their relationship has run the course of time. In Praktan, we see a successful, independent architect Sudipa breaking away from the shackles of a patriarchal set-up after she marries Ujaan, a tour guide of heritage walks in the city.
Here, the directors also show the double standards of the well-read, seemingly liberal Bengali household. Mukherjee says, “Families flaunting Marxist ideals turn out to be the most superstitious. It’s a duality that is normal. We talk about Tagore on the one hand and on the other, we impose rules on what the women in the house are allowed to do. We may have photos of Vivekananda and Ram Krishna Dev framed in our walls, but when the sweeper leaves the house after he is done cleaning the bathroom we make sure we clean the path he has treaded.”
Praktan is also the first Bengali film to have a release as wide as in 25 cities in India plus seven cities in the U.S.
The film seems to have been made keeping in mind the Bengalis living outside West Bengal. Methi chicken, for example, isn’t something we associate with Bengali cuisine. But in the film it figures alongside the usual suspects: luchi and aloor dum. Praktan is peppered with tiny cultural details that reveal a more cosmopolitan middle class Bengali than what we normally see in movies.
Mukherjee says, “The globalisation of Bangla cinema happened long back, during the time of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. What didn’t happen in the middle is that we never considered non-resident Bengalis in our scheme of things. Rituparno Ghosh’s films, for instance, should have had the appeal, but there was no ecosystem for it. I’m not saying that Praktan will be a sure-shot success in other States. But as someone from Eros told me, this could open the floodgates for many more similar releases of Bengali films, a bit like what Yash Chopra began to do with the NRI audience with DDLJ.”
The film also packs in all the quintessential elements of Bengali culture: music, food, travel and Tagore.
Roy says, “We consciously weave in these things because we make films for the Bengali audience, we want them to identify with the characters and feel that this is just like us.” Roy, a Bengali brought up in Mumbai, says that the idea germinated from her frequent travels in the Gyaneshwari Express that chugs between Mumbai and Kolkata.
But that doesn’t mean the film’s market is limited to the Bengali-speaking. Praktan comes at a time when the success of regional films in other States are proving that the more hyper-local it gets, the more universal its appeal is.