failed love with hit songs: Meri Pyaari Bindu and Praktan

Last weekend I happened to watch two recent Bengali-milieu films that provide unconventional finishing points while repeatedly incorporating old film songs: Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017) and Praktan (2016). Both also touch on the "older but wiser" idea, which is utterly refreshing for a few reasons. Primarily, it's just true in life that we have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and experiences, and that generally we're better off when we act on that learning. People who are figuring things out are more interesting than those who haven't started to question.

There's a sort of demographical issue to think about as well: as a significant set of film stars (heroes, specifically) ages, filmmakers really need to find ways to incorporate the slipping of time out from under them into the stories they enact. Granted, that's not what the makers of either of these films are about, but we've seen recent examples that are. Both Aamir and Shahrukh have had to deal with not getting exactly what they initially want—a consistently obedient daughter in Dangal, a secure future in Raees—or being denied the typical reward of the young, attractive woman, as the heroine does't reciprocate or is regretfully forgone in PK and Dear Zindagi. Stories like these make rich source material.

According to the timeline in MPB, the characters in current day are about 40 (they are shown as young children when they meet in 1983), even though the actors aren't, and that's a perfect point in life to realize you have confident knowledge of self and others, to stop hoping that other people will change simply because you want them to, and to accept that perfection-cementing happy endings are fictionally simplistic. The focal pair in Praktan is a similar age, and the film also shows us older and younger couples at different points on the timeline of interpersonal commitment. In both films, the lead pairs show growth based on what they have learned in previous relationships (and in the case of MPB, not just the principal relationship), which is not a story I've seen very often. It is both happy and romantic in a way, but not in the "permanently instated mutual commitment to the first love" way that masala cinema prefers. The lessons are different from one another, too, ranging from the importance of individual independence in a modern city (adulting!) to a sort of "hold on loosely" philosophy towards inconsistent friends to women trusting their gut when they think a situation is wrong for them even when society wordlessly tells them they should stay.

On the films individually:

Meri Pyaari Bindu skates too close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl for my taste, and Bindu deserves fuller treatment than the script gives her. Bindu (Parineeti Chopra) does not exist solely to teach Abhi (Ayushmann Khurrana) about the beauty of life or to snap him out of brooding with no goals of her own—in fact, chasing her own unrealistic dream without any plan B or regard for other people is part of what makes Bindu frustrating, if recognizable.
But it's impossible to describe her without saying "quirky" and "free-spirited" etc. (and Abhi doesn't even try to resist), partly because the film isn't really concerned with her as a person, even when it drops bombs about life events that would surely shape her, such as growing up with an abusive parent, leaving university unfinished, ditching two engagements before age 25, etc. The film doesn't even show Bindu or anything about her when Parineeti's name comes in the credits, making her a visual footnote to Abhi's trajectory. The important word in the film's title is "pyaari," not "Bindu."

It's probably telling that Bindu has no other friends, leaving her essentially emotionally isolated in the world except for Abhi, maybe suggesting that she needs him in a way that she doesn't quite recognize, thus making her refusal of his shared life all the more tragic, even if she wouldn't define it as such. In order to have another companion, Bindu has to give birth to one (we never hear anything about her husband or meet him). She is pyaari only to Abhi because she's too self-centered for anyone else to choose to spend time with her; her own assessment of her likability in the face of a breakup is that she's hot and sings well, neither of which speaks to character. I wish Bindu well but definitely do not want to spend any more time with her, if you know what I mean. 

Someone on my twitter timeline said that Ayushmann Khurrana was born to play a bhadralok, and I couldn't decide if I thought the comment was sarcastic. Lovelorn Bengali writer-man is a character type I am very familiar with, and both the script, which refrains from much moping and entitlement, and Ayushmann, who twinkles endearingly and looks joyful doing anything physical or musical, make Abhi more likable and sympathetic than I expected. By the end of the film, I was convinced that Abhi loves Bindu more for who she is than for what she can do for him, and he is enough of a secure and generous adult to send her off into the next phase of her life with a public, happy dance. He's much more interested in her as a person than the script is. Despite the film's initial setup of Abhi surrendering himself to Maa Durga and hoping for inspiration as he projects Bindu's image, overall we see that he hasn't been a hopeless mess for very long, certainly not his whole life (even when his frustrated manuscript blows out the window, he tries to pick up the pages, rather than abandoning it). He has found happiness and success in various ways without Bindu's presence. 

Really, the worst thing about Abhi is that someone decided to set him up with an old typewriter in front of a mirror in exactly the same ridiculous portrayal as Arjun Rampal's writer in Roy
And much of Bindu and Abhi's exchanges is sweet in those everyday ways that you miss most when a relationship ends. I was convinced by their fondness for one another, maybe particularly when it wasn't romantic.

Praktan, on the other hand, is worse than the basics of its story suggest. (Trailer with subtitles here.) Being stuck in a train cabin for two nights with one's demeaning, controlling, isolating, selfish ex-husband's new wife (Aparajita Adhya) and daughter sounds HORRIBLE—in a fascinating way, as long as it isn't happening to you.
The film's flashback to architect Sudipa (Rituparna Sengupta) and tour guide Ujaan's (Prosenjit Chatterjee) marriage is quickly painful, partly because neither of them is turning in a thoroughly convincing performance but mostly because he is a mama's-boy ass of the highest order. There is so much screaming. The meaningful part about their whole arc to me is that while Rituparna puts up with this for awhile, she does eventually leave by the end of the flashback, and not without getting lots of her own critique in, which is great.
HOWEVER—and it's a big however—conversations she has with the current wife at the end of the film seem to indicate that she was wrong not to have compromised more with this guy, even though he himself knows he was no good and (mildly) apologizes. The speaker of this conservative truth bomb is the second wife, who by all visual and verbal markers is more traditional than Sudipa. Ujaan has a line about how tour guides reenact and revitalize the history of their subject matter each time they perform, and Sudipa works on restoring old buildings, so I wonder if the film is saying that valuing the old isn't just a job but also a way that one must live. Sudipa is not demonized, thankfully, and the end of the story for her seems mostly pleasant, but she still has to agree to the idea that compromise is the same as victory, which frankly is dangerous garbage if the person you're compromising with is abusive with no intent to respect you. Significantly, the second wife has no idea about her husband's first marriage, so when she talks about the importance and joy she finds in "adjusting," she speaks from a position of deep ignorance—yet one that Sudipa is left praising and mulling over wistfully.
I've seen several other Bengali films that deal with rocky marriages in less punitive and reactionary ways than this one does, so maybe it even counts as a micro-genre: the tour de force Saat Pake Bandha (1963, featuring Suchitra Sen being AMAZING against a sulky Soumitra), the sad and probably ultimately corrosive Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969, a frazzled Tanuja with a thoughtful, reserved Soumitra), and the too-convenient solution of Pratham Kadam Phool (1970, same lead actors). I like all of these films much more than Praktan despite their bleakness, even if just for the acting.

What's fun about train stories is that they stick people in a confined yet mobile environment, and the interplay between the physical journey and the limited society provides lots of potential friction. Praktan takes the smoother (and less compelling) approach: as the train hurtles forward, so does Sudipa. The level of self-discovery and drama for the leads are not at the level of Nayak,* but Praktan also adds in characters who stay fairly inert, as far as I can tell from the subtitles: the adorable retired couple played by Soumitra Chatterjee and Sabitri Chatterjee,**
newlyweds who spend the trip getting to know each other but don't seem to change in behavior or outlook at all, and an all-dude rock band whose arc isn't even an arc and added nothing except an easy excuse for Antakshari. You're in luck if you've wanted to see Prosenjit sing "Kabhi Kabhi." [Antakshari spoiler ahead] Personally, the highlight is Soumitra bursting into the Kishore masterpiece "Sing Nei Tobu Naam Tar Singha" from Lukochori, soon followed by Sabitri performing "Ami Miss Calcutta 1976" from Basanta Bilap, which discerning readers will recall is actually performed by Aparna Sen to a badly-disguised Soumitra. This same meta-Soumitra trick is used by the directors in their previous film Bela Seshe, and it's funny there too, but admittedly perhaps only because I love him so much. [end spoiler] All that is to say that the three secondary-level stories are really underdeveloped, which is a shame, because I think they could have been more fun, and frankly if you've got Soumitra in your film, you should give him more to do.***

Even though these films aren't perfect, I'm glad they exist. Seeing filmi people have imperfect lives is an important counterpoint to the idealized yet textureless or formulaic lives we get on screen most of the time. Someday maybe we'll get a film about two people who don't end up together even though there's nothing seriously wrong with either of them. Sometimes it just doesn't work out, and we need stories about how to live with that sadness. As Abhi says, everyone wants to teach you how to love, but nobody will tell you how to forget a love that didn't go as you hoped. Neither Praktan nor Meri Pyaari Bindu cares about forgetting. Instead they focus on something more important: learning.

* It is surely state policy to mention Nayak once the topic of Bengali train movies comes up.
**  They get the film's best comedy, seen in this clip. Basically, she berates a bewildered railway staff member in bad Hindi, and after the staff leaves he just shakes his head and says "Your Hindi is terrible"...ok, so you have to see it, but trust me, if you are not tired of "Haha! Bengalis speaking Hindi!" then you might like it. And either way, Sabitri's frustration and Soumitra's deadpan are aces.
** I gather he brings the Tagore text that underscores the whole story, which is to be expected.


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