Durga Pooja is often used by Bengali cinema and sometimes, by Bollywood filmmakers also as a backdrop or as the core of the narrative. Sujoy Ghosh’s blockbuster Kahani is a classic example of how the grandeur of the festival can be used to build the film up to an electric climax. Parineeta also had a wonderful dhunuchi dance cutting into the Durga Pooja that adds to the dynamic entertainment value of an otherwise melodramatic story. Kaushik Ganguly’s Bisorjon, Arindam Sil’s Durga Sahay, are examples of films that have jumped onto this Durga Pooja bandwagon that have sometimes clicked and sometimes not.

Srijit Mukherjee has been desperately trying to move out of his trap of films ‘inspired’ or ‘adapted’ from or around old films and noted stories narrated differently offering his individual creative perspective as a filmmaker who never gives up, either on his style and approach to filmmaking or in trying to win over the mass audience with aesthetically designed and cleverly disguised ingredients of carefully selected mainstream spices. He also won the National Award for Chotushkon a few years ago.

He has done it finally with Uma where he takes a true story as his base with a strong universally emotional content, twists and turns it around to give it a pan-Asian and then Indian and a distinct Bengali identity. Uma is inspired by the true story of Evan Leversage, known as “the boy who moved Christmas.”

This seven-year-old who lived in St. George, Ontario, Canada was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2015 and doctors said that he would not survive to celebrate Christmas. An appeal by the mother on a social media site mentioning the first thing in Evan’s bucket list created a modern day miracle – the entire town set up a series of actions to set up Santa Clause and a “real” Christmas for Evan without his being aware that this was not the real Christmas. What is surprising that these people did not even know him.. And they were right. He did not live to see a real Christmas ever again.

Srijit picks this story from real life set in Canada, shifts it first to Swtizelrand and then to Kolkata. He turns Evan, a boy, to Uma, a girl and places the father and daughter in special bonding what with the mother having left with another man when the little girl was two. Is it a father-daughter story? It is more than that because the screen father-daughter is a father-daughter pair in real life too. Jisshu Sengupta who plays Himadri is the father of Sara Sengupta who plays Uma.

Uma reaches far beyond familial ties to embrace this little Uma’s dream of seeing the Durga Pooja in its homestead – Kolkata. But hey! Durga Pooja is celebrated in October and the oncologist has told Himadri, Uma’s father, that Uma might not make it till then. This is the time to slip from reality to step into the dream world of a fairy tale spun together by real people in real Kolkata and wait – in the month of March! A fairy-tale ‘mother’ is brought in because Uma had once expressed the possibility of “bumping into mom” in Kolkata!

Uma maps several journeys in one. One is the director’s journey into a story he has relocated entirely in India. The Diaspora Bengali in Uma gives credibility to her often slipping into English though her father’s narration in detail all about Durga, the Goddess, keeps her hunger to see Durga Pooja live in Kolkata and not the painted Durga motifs in Switzerland alive.

This adds more zip to the narrative what with everything wrapped neatly within the absurd world of film-making where everything is being created – sets, characters, costumes, actors, cinematographers, editors, spot boys and the rest but no shooting at all! Everyone except Uma is aware of what is truly behind this fake “Durga Pooja” but the “fake ness” soon catches flesh and blood and everyone in the complex where the “film” is being made but not shot, is involved in this “festival” of festivals.

There is a villain too, within the same complex, Mohit Sur, a Hindu fundamentalist complete in a deep orange kurta and a red elongated tika on his forehead who will not tolerate any playing around with Hindutva. He is corrected by two very polarised characters. One is Bhramananda, a failed filmmaker who is “directing” the “film” and the other is the local lord of goondas who warns Mohit Sur not to toy around with the festival because he too, is a single parent to two daughters and he will not have anyone touch Uma and her dream.

The structure of the film demanded a lot of permutations and combinations that would run smoothly minus jerks and starts. Srijit has handled them all deftly like a skilled technician handling different parts of the same complicated machine. Pronoy Dasgupta’s editing runs away with a prize. Samik Haldar plays around with his camera joyfully with top shots of the wonderful roads of a city in Switzerland to land straight to different pockets of Kolkata through the massive “fake” immersion ceremony in Babu Ghat taking a drop in between to step into the loudly painted room of the local don, played marvellously by Babul Supriyo, a minister at the centre in the current ministry! The juxtaposition of Kolkata and Switzerland comes out in harmony without prioritising the one for the other.

There is a moving night scene. Bhrahmananda stands alone on the balcony of his flat overlooking the garden outside. The only sound that punctures the silence is the whistle of the night guard. Bhramananda climbs down. He is shocked to find a bunch of kaash flowers blooming in the garden! This can just not happen because the season for the kaash to bloom is during Durga Pooja! He changes his decision and decides to say “yes” to Himadri to the so-called film project! This is one of the most beautifully shot, edited and sound designed moments in the film.

Srijit has put together an enviable cast of wonderful actors with Anjan Dutt running away with the top award of the once-famous director now drowned in the frustration of being reduced to a failure as a husband, a father and a director. He makes his irritable nature, his quick-change moods and volatile temper so very convincing that he almost makes you believe that the character is for real. He outsmarts Jisshu too, who has the most challenging character of his career having to play father to his own daughter yet accept her script-created terminal condition. The credit for extracting the true potential of Jisshu as an actor par excellence goes squarely to Srijit who has brought the hidden talent of this actor out in the open, not once but several times.

Sara with her wide eyes look and large eyes is the discovery of the year and, one wishes she is not pulled into this crazy world away from her academics and her sports both of which she is very good at. Rudranil as the production executive who cannot speak without spitting out betel juice is in total control of the metamorphosis the character goes through from being an exploitative film agent to an empathetic human being. The scene where he tears off the paper with the figure Jishhu has still to pay him strikes just the right note.

Anirban Bhattacharya who has a very strong screen presence lives the character of Mohit Sur though his miraculous conversion from villain to empathetic friend smacks strongly of melodrama as does Uma’s suddenly appearing out of the blue to offer him Prasad! Also superfluous is the segment showing Uma’s real mother in flashback and in Kolkata with husband (Srijit playing this role) in tow because it does not add to the film’s core subject. The tearful repentance of the real mother (Shayontika) appears like a bad pock mark on an otherwise beautiful face.

The mythological metaphors are rendered superfluous mainly because the actors are marvellous and so committed to their characters that they do not need mythological clutches to lean on. Besides, the many layers of the story did not need this one too.

While Jisshu, his close friend and the latter’s wife go in search of the right director to make this “film”, Srijit takes wonderful pot-shots at himself through established directors like Kamaleshwar Mukherjee, Arindam Sil and Raj Chakarborty, famous directors in real life who offer pretentious reasons to reject the proposal.

His “film team within the film” is also dotted with real directors – Partho Sen, Anjan Dutt and Abhijit Guha which proves two important truths – Srijit’s rapport with his peers in an industry dotted with one-up-manshiip and back-stabbing and two, the solidarity that comes across through the brilliant performances by directors as actors. The climax also witnesses the top stars of Bengali cinema chipping in during the immersion at Babu Ghat – Prosenjit, Dev, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jehan, and so on.

Take a bow Srijit and company. This is the best tribute to Durga and Durga Pooja on celluloid in recent times. The last outstanding cinematic use of the festival one can recall are in Rituparno Ghosh’s Hirer Angti and Utsab. This is also Srijit’s best film to date. This is not a manipulation of the festival and the Goddess for commercial or even cinematic reasons. This comes straight from the heart, explores as it does, the multifaceted layers of a relationship between a father and his daughter that, unlike the real tragedy, ends on an open note.