Saturday, July 14, 2012

SESH SANGHAT: Not Exactly Ageless

sesh sanghat, shesh sanghat, jaya prada, jayapradha
Still attractive, but SO not 23.

The next time someone tries to tell me how superior Bengali cinema is to mainstream Hindi cinema, I will say two words: Sesh Sanghat.

This film left me with one burning question: Who decided to cast Jaya Prada (who by my calculations was 47 at the time of the film’s release) as a 23-year-old? My guess is that the simple answer is this: Jaya Prada produced the film. 

The story of the young village girl, Raji, might have been effective if handled differently. She is singled out to work in evil Ramanuj Pratap’s household because he develops designs on her when he spots her while he's driving around in his luxe car. The young actress who plays Raji at age 15 is believable, and the dynamic among the women in the household--the aging, infertile first wife, the second "wife" who also arrived as a maid at 15 and bore the zamindar's child, and the helpless new arrival--is intriguing enough to support a film of its own. But that's not what this film is about. 

Raji is raped by the zamindar and becomes pregnant, runs away to her parents' house to have the baby, comes with her whole family to confront Ramanuj, and ends up attacked in the jungle and left for dead by the zamindar's thugs. A couple find her and bring her to their home to recuperate. But then the young actress's part is finished, and we flash forward a bit to see Raji as Jaya Prada. I thought, “Wow, interesting choice to focus on this character as a considerably older woman—not what I expected.” But then I realized that only seven years had passed and that the character is supposed to be a young adult, not a middle-aged woman. Every man who lays eyes on her asks for her hand in marriage. Not to be ageist—would that it were true that 47-year-old women were the standard of desirability! But this clunky casting made it hard to buy anything that happened thereafter.

Ashish Vidyarthi, Jaya Prada
Will no one stop him?
And then there's the bad guy--and the men who not only don't step up but are often actively complicit in the abuse. I certainly do recognize that there are men like Ramanuj (Ashish Vidyarthi, the gangster from Is Raat ki Subah Nahin) who think of women as less than human. (And can I just say that a Google search to jog my memory of Bollywood films with similar storylines resulted in way too many hits with the descriptor "HOT + SEXY," ewww ewwww EWWWWWW.) But when Raji meets Ramanuj again after that seven-year gap, the whole male population of the village where this woman has lived for years just stands around laughing as Ramanuj beats her, strips her naked, pours gasoline on her, and prepares to burn her alive. Nobody objects to or even looks unamused by this? Say it ain’t so. 

Immediately after the attempted involuntary sati, the rebel leader who sees Raji being dragged off by two armed men tells her, the way you do, that she has hands and that if she can't free herself, she deserves to die. The music swells so that you know Raji's summoning her inner Schwarzenegger; she flexes her arms in slow-mo, and with one thwaaannng the thugs gripping her go flying off in opposite directions. Ohh-kayyyy. We've moved into a whole different movie.

Not a reflection on Jaya Prada personally; it would be a major stretch for any actress to go from village belle to action star to revolutionary leader. She has said that this film was her "gift to the people of Bengal." It's difficult to imagine the occasion for which such a gift would be appropriate....

Jaya Prada, Jayapradha
Action-figure Jaya Prada.
Jackie Shroff doesn’t fare terribly well either, looking more like a Madame Tussaud’s version of himself with every film. But at least he isn’t running around the jungle wielding a machine gun in dressy heels, struggling visibly to do the physical work needed to bust out of jail (we see Jaya for a painfully long period ostensibly doing a hand-over-hand haul up a knotted rope, clearly not getting anywhere, as her fellow Naxalites politely try to help her over the wall). And at least Jackie isn’t taking repeated tentative nibbles at a hand-grenade pin as if afraid of chipping a tooth, as Jaya does in another scene that looks as if it’s a first take she expected to end up on the cutting-room floor. (It didn’t.) 

So what on earth was director Ashoke Viswanathan thinking in including those clumsy shots? Was he unaware of (or indifferent to) the fact that including them makes both director and star look bad? Probably, since these are but two of the many clunky action scenes--with and without Jaya--that bring the excitement to a halt and have the peculiar effect of focusing our attention on how unbelievable it all is.

I can’t address the political questions to which the film alludes other than to wonder why we’re supposed to be aghast at some casual atrocities and supportive of others (the last thing we see of Ramanuj—admittedly a very bad man—is the villagers preparing to burn him alive as he slowly strangles from a tree limb, which strikes me as a sign that the justice system is not working with optimal effectiveness). I agree that it's not right for one man to have final say over the lives of dozens of villagers, or complete control over mineral-rich land that provides subsistence to those people. I agree that corrupt politicians and police officers are bad for everyone. I also object to beating children to death (which happens in Sesh Sanghat) and to being mean to puppies (which fortunately doesn't). 

Oddly, I can find no mention of this title on the IMDb at all—not in Jaya Prada’s entries, not in Jackie Shroff’s, not in Ashish Vidyarthi’s, not in Ashoke Viswanathan’s. Hmmm. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing. I’m sure I must have dreamed the scene in which Ramanuj is relaxing at home reading a magazine called Women’s Era.

On the plus side, Bappi Lahiri’s music is decent, and there’s an item number with some enjoyable faux-tribal dancing around a giant drum. But if that’s all you’re looking for, you’re better off sticking with Chandralekha. Let me save you the trouble and just point you toward this fine number that doesn't pretend to be anything other than sixty-odd years old.

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