Review of “Mahalaya” – A tribute to Mahishasurmardini and its creators.
Director – Soumik Sen
Cast – Subhasish Mukherjee, Jisshu Sengupta, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Shubhomoy Chatterjee, Saptarshi Roy, Kanchan Mullick
Overall Rating – 3.5/5
Mahishasurmardini composed by Pankaj Mallik and recited by Birendrakrishna Bhadra is not just the longest running program of All India Radio but also is attached deeply with the sentiment of every Bengali. Bengali’s Durga puja is incomplete without hearing the recording in the morning of Mahalaya. During emergency period in 1976, Akashbani had tried to do some experiment with this much appreciated program and they had to face a massive rejection. This historical event is well documented on internet but still most of the younger generation people are not aware about it. We must give credit to Prosenjit Chatterjee’s Nideas Creations and director Soumik Sen for bringing out this story on big screen for a larger section of people.
The incident that had happened in 1976 can be told in one or two lines but to develop it in a script for a full length feature film is a tough job. Director and screenplay writer Soumik Sen has smartly handled this tough task by adding the backstory of one year which starts from Mahalaya in 1975. It shows how the particular situation was developed. We see a non Bengali bureaucrat Sashi Sinha (Prosenjit Chatterjee) who hardly has any understanding about the sentiments related with the recitation by Bhadra (Subhasish Mukherjee), suggested for a change. He suggests to record a new program with new composer, new singers and a new voice and the new voice behind the microphone will be none other than the matinee idol Uttam Kumar (Jisshu Sengupta). Bhadra being the polite person accepts this gracefully as he knows change is inevitable. On the other hand Uttam Kumar agrees to do this after being insisted by a brother figure but he knows very well he can not match the level set by Bhadra. There is a mutual admiration in both of them for each other as an artist. The good thing about the screenplay is that it is not only limited on the fact that Uttam Kumar replaced Birendrakrishna Bhadra, because not only the voice but the whole musical program was being replaced and it involved replacement of music composers as well. Pankaj Mallik (Shubhomoy Chatterjee) who had composed the original Mahishasurmardini was being replaced by his own disciple who has not been named in the film and has been referred as Bor Da (Saptarshi Roy) only. Although people can easily identify that Bor Da’s character is modeled on Hemanta Mukherjee. Unlike Uttam Kumar and Bhadra, Pankaj Mallick and Bor Da do not share similar equations. For Bor Da it is a challenge to prove his mentor that he can do something bigger coming out of his shadow. In fact there are scenes where Uttam meets Bhadra and Mallik meets Bor Da. One scene comes before the new program airs and the other comes after the rejection of the new show. Both the scenes are very well written and has great impact. The dialogues written by Tanmay Mukherjee is another big highlight. Although in some portions, it is too intellectual and heavy for common people who are not much into literature but it is refreshing and is in total sync with the era and characters.
Besides these good points the screenplay has lots of shortcomings too. There are several sub plots including few unnecessary flashbacks which has nothing to do with the main plot. Specially the whole sub plot related with Tagore and his death serves no purpose and adds run time only. There is one hint that much before 1976 there was a situation when some politically influenced people had asked to replace Bhadra as the voice of Mahishasurmardini as he belongs to a lower caste. But that track has not been taken properly to any conclusion. It comes and goes without having any impact. The most unsatisfying part of the script is the climax. It fails to capture the mass rejection of the new show properly. It looks very much hurried and stereotype. We wish to see more about the after effects and how it leads to a mass rejection during that period when communication mediums were not that easy.
As a director Soumik Sen deserves credit for choosing such an unconventional a subject and treating it with authenticity. But his narrative style looks more like a docudrama, he could have worked more to build an emotional connect with his characters and their situations. The technical team specially the production designers, make up and costume department has done good job to make it look and feel authentic as per the period.
Subhasish Mukherjee is one fine actor who is mostly wasted in insignificant characters in Bengali movies. He gets such an important character rarely and he has fully utilized this chance. The way he has bring the humble nature of Bhadra that is really commendable and convincing. To play the legendary actor Uttam Kumar is really a risky choice for any actor as there will be obvious comparisons. But Jisshu Sengupta has accepted the challenge and played this character on his own without trying to copy Uttam Kumar. He has wonderfully showcased the charisma of a super star and also the simplicity of the man who is very down to earth when interacting with the people near to him. Subhomoy Chatterjee and Saptarshi Roy have played their parts very well. Hope to see them more in movies in future. Prosenjit Chatterjee is very likable in an extended cameo with some grey shades.
On a whole Mahalaya has been made with good intentions and this is one story that needs to be shared with a larger section of people. It has some really good performances by the lead actors but the writing is weaker with many unnecessary subplots and a hurried climax.