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.
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.
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,**
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.
** 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.