“Construction, deconstruction, construction,
deconstruction . . .”
Winner of best film and best director prizes at India’s National Film Awards, Bengal writer-director Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab is an exquisite, rich, vibrant tapestry of a mostly middle-class family—two sons, two daughters, spouses and offspring—that has gathered together under matriarch Bhagabati’s expansive roof during Durga Puja, the annual six-day celebration of the fierce, redemptive maternal Hindu goddess who would become identified with India’s independence from British rule. Satyajit Ray’s brilliant Devi (1960), you may recall, opens with fireworks during Durga Puja.
The scattered family is in disrepair in other ways as well. One of Bhagabati’s sons will lose his job if the company for which he works closes next week. One daughter, Parul, has suffered from the arranged marriage that the family deemed more suitable than the poor boy she loved could offer; ironically, Parul’s spouse is absent, at work in Singapore, while the “poor boy,” now wealthy, shows up with an offer to buy the family estate. Parul’s husband is compelling Joy, their son, to get a college degree in business rather than pursue filmmaking, his heart’s desire. (Framing the film’s action are Joy’s videographing of family activities and a delightful glimpse of the gifted result.) Here, future threatens to repeat past, because Joy’s Uncle Asit, Bhagabati’s eldest, was forced to study economics rather than literature. Daughter Keya is on the verge of divorcing Arun, whose failed stabs at painting and politics have turned him into a drunk. Self-determination, it would appear, is no panacea for this family’s woes. But hold on: Out of this mess of a marriage will come reconciliation, revival, renewed tenderness.
Some of the characters, to be sure, are more interesting and affecting than others; but Ghosh’s confident naturalism creates a compelling unity. Visually, each and every shot either sparkles or glows, and many of these shots suggest elements of past and present either colliding or co-existing within the same frame. In one shot, which departs from naturalism toward expressionism, Parul looms in the right-foreground on the upper landing while the man who was once the boy she so dearly loved, enrobed in spacious darkness, exits down below.
A captivating choice: the festival itself, outdoors, isn’t shown except in glimpses—such as through the window in the darkened bedroom where Keya and Arun are making love. Ghosh, here as elsewhere, isn’t distracted by spectacle; he attends to what his characters attend to.
Warning: In Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) and Charulata (1964), Madhabi Mukherjee was twenty or twenty-one. There is quite a bit more of her as Bhagabati.