There is a scene in Bengal writer-director Rituparno Ghosh’s first Hindi film, Raincoat (2004), where the wonderful suggestion arises when the protagonist is shaving that he is putting on a kind of mask. The same thing occurs, involving a lesser character, in the film Ghosh made the previous year: Shubho Mahurat, based on Agatha Christie’s 1962 Miss Marple-novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, its title a line from Alfred Tennyson’s haunting, melancholy ballad “The Lady of Shalott” about the disparity and collision between reality and its illusion. Guy Hamilton directed the 1980 The Mirror Crack’d starring Angela Lansbury as private detective Jane Marple, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. That film isn’t much good; I also do not care for the series of films starring Margaret Rutherford, no less, as Miss Marple. However, Ghosh’s version is brilliant. It richly deserved its best film prize at India’s National Film Awards.
Ghosh’s title refers to customary activities on the first day of a studio film shoot. (Christie’s title also still applies.) This conventional launch proves ironical in hindsight, for Ghosh has eschewed generic convention. He has directed the material as a drama; once the murder occurs, introducing the “whodunit” element, the film continues as a complex, non-theatrical drama in which characters and their relationships take vast precedence over clever, twisty plotting. Coupled with the updating of the story and its transplantation to India, as well as the relegation of the Miss Marple-character to a subordinate role, something else entirely emerges. Moreover, a distilled sadness (like that of Tennyson’s poem) makes the film far more a meditation on the nature of human existence than anything that Christie wrote could be.
Ghosh handles deftly three simultaneous investigations of the crime: by journalist Mallika Sen, the India Police Service investigator (Tota Roy Chowdhury, giving the best performance), who tentatively approaches Mallika romantically, and Ranga Pishima (Rakhee Gulzar, best supporting actress, National Film Awards), Mallika’s aunt—madeover Marple, who sleuths both in concert with her niece and alone. A bravura soulful and searing passage involves crosscutting between aunt and niece as each contributes to the combinate investigation.
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