Dir: Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Cast: Ritwick Chakraborty, Basabdutta Chatterjee
A young Bengali artist, presumably a theatre actor, falls in love with a beautiful girl. He is inspired by her to chase his dreams. They study in the same government college in Calcutta. She is a trained classical singer, and aspires to lend her voice to the cinema he will create one day.
They are a passionate twosome, dewy-eyed college sweethearts that believe in the power of love over money. They lock eyes across rooms at parties and performances. Their parents think they’re too young, but they’re convinced of their compatibility. They get envious glances; how can two good-looking artistic youngsters find each other in a sea of mediocrity? They make artful, humid and silhouette-driven love every night, through every season. They can’t get enough of each other. They probably elope, get married and start an eternal tale together from scratch in a dilapidated area of the city.
College mates, most of who vanish once they realize the gravity of their situation, spur them on.
None of these scenes actually exist in debutant director Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour Of Love (Asha Jaoar Majhe)
This is just the picture we’re accustomed to watching as an audience—a love story that blossoms over time, with a beginning, turbulent middle and a happily-ever-after end.
It is a picture that is possibly the prelude to this film, a backstory that isn’t seen but immediately understood.
Because what we see here is Mr. Sengupta’s meditative representation of what happens after those end credits roll.
Because, then what?
The boy and a girl, now a man and a woman, find themselves stuck in a rut to survive.
This is where the film begins.
Their life is halted to a languid exercise in repetitiveness, a ‘reality check’ that must have hit them not long after losing their rose-tinted glasses. His dreams quickly vanish in a haze of recession, and she must ensure that his moods don’t rule their grim existence.
In such a troubled economic situation, their love is reduced to a laborious state, one that is reflected in the menial jobs they take up.
A working-class and more unconditional version of yuppie call-centre couples; they exist in different time zones.
He works the night shift at a printing press, and she is a listing supervisor at a bag-making factory by day.
Cruelly, the end of her day is the beginning of his.
They do not meet. And even though they do not physically pine for one another, one senses it.
One senses it when she wakes up, bathes, prepares and covers his lunch with a plate.
One senses it when he syncs his sleep with the functioning of an erratic water pump, just so that she can bathe next morning.
One senses it when they punctually give each other missed phone calls as reminders to do chores.
And one senses it when they look into space, contemplating their reality, while absent-mindedly munching on the fish he buys at bustling markets.
They’ve forgotten how attractive they are. Their looks, not yet weathered by the storm, still hold true, yet only as an afterthought.
There’s a little bit of love in all these routines, a result of far too much time spent apart.
The double bed they’re meant to share bears only one figure at a time. It’s always the empty side of the bed that distracts us.
Not a word of dialogue is spoken throughout this film.
Close your eyes, and you’ll hear Calcutta speaking through its traffic, mills, fish markets, water pumps, macher jhol, congested streets, cooking oil, rustling papers and cat-infested lanes.
Anish John’s sound design is impeccably detailed. It needed to be.
Errant vehicles outside frames, creaky ceiling fans, deafening factory machines and a neighbour struggling to impress her music teacher; these sounds—usually irritating noises of city life—punctuate the backdrop of this 24-hour capsule of time.
It surrounds, invades, overwhelms, and refuses to fade away.
Occasionally, lilting soundtracks of old Bengali songs drown out these noises, ones that perhaps inspired her to become a failed singer. They echo across time; more a mind-space and product of their moods than actual audio waves wafting across the cramped room during their chores. As a writer, I’ve been through such wordless days of solitary confinement and tunes in my head, and struggled to communicate with humans that penetrate my haze.
This sets the stage for visual imagery to take precedence as a storytelling tool over unnecessary verbal exposition.
The opening voice over, more of a dreary radio report that tells us about the desperate economic situation, seems unnecessary and, even in hindsight, interrupt the wistful spaces to follow.
For a while, it looks as if Sengupta has designed the film to boast of his considerable technical skills. After all, 83 minutes of no dialogue reeks of festival aspirations.
But this isn’t mere decoration or artfulness; it is an important part of the texture and atmosphere he wishes to impose upon viewers. And it works; it works far more than songs or exchanges of furious emotional warfare and arguments over the phone.
Based on Italian author Italo Calvino’s story ‘The Adventure Of A Married Couple’, Sengupta must have been tempted to paint his vision in blacks and whites. But the colours and vignettes of everyday life in Calcutta is a palette that evokes too much to ignore. That his name appears as director, producer, co-cinematographer, writer and editor only proves how unwavering and single-minded his treatment is.
It isn’t easy to watch, only because it requires patience and a faith in the filmmaker’s skill to collaborate craft with storytelling. Instead of getting carried away by his environment, he gently invites us to participate and eventually share their longing.
A brief shared dream—an otherworldly extension of their rhythmic, creaking lives—is the only fantastical moment of their day, and perhaps the only break in aesthetic and tone.
The thought behind this is compelling, but one isn’t too sure of its placement.
Because by the end, you’re rooting for them to meet, if only for a moment, before they become robots again. A fleeting glimpse of each other would do. But it must remain grounded in reality. I found myself yearning for him to reach home just before she leaves: Cycle faster, don’t let her go!
But really, he wasn’t cycling quicker. She wasn’t getting dressed quicker. They are destined to meet, and not because they try.
An established acknowledgment serves as fuel, a daily reminder of why they’re trudging through life separately, yet together.
And just like that, an ordinary cup of tea becomes the most romantic gesture in contemporary Indian cinema.
We’ve seen our parents do this. We’ve watched, awestruck, as long-distance couples work towards a closer future. And we’ve also watched as husbands and fathers leave to work in the Middle East to provide for young families back in India.
What is the point of being together?
Somewhere along the line, in the battle for survival, they forget why they began together. Love becomes a luxury, and must find place in the littlest and most mundane aspects of their routines.
If you look closely though, it exists.
Not many of us, especially ones burdened with the responsibilities of adult life and careers, find the need to look closer.
But 31-year old Mr. Sengupta does; and demonstrates to us with a lyrical insight, that this soulless existence is perhaps a state that requires immense soul.
It requires hope and foresight. And long stretches of silence.
(The film is rated U. This is, only by making, a Bengali film. The language, however, is universal. Everyone, including the junior artist cats and dogs, irrespective of cast and conception, can and should watch this)
Review by: RAHUL DESAI (@Reelreptile)