A Prince, and a Ghost
Ballabhpurer Roopkatha, is a proscenium play that always runs to full houses across the country
Ballabhpurer Roopkatha is perhaps the best thing to have happened to Bengali cinema in a long, long time. It is the best Bengali film of 2022, and there can be no second opinion. It marks the directorial debut of the talented actor Anirban Bhattacharya.
The film is a rendering of a famous play with the same name written, directed and staged by renowned theatre rebel, the late Badal Sircar. The play has been extensively performed in different languages throughout India.
It is remembered for its brilliant satire cloaked in wonderful comedy, against the backdrop of a dilapidated mansion owned by a Raja. There is also a ghost from his ancestral heritage who arrives every night, as soon as the clock strikes 11. The ghost wanders across the huge mansion, quotes from Kalidas in Sanskrit and vaanishes before the break of dawn.
As playwright and director, Badal Sircar evolved and defined his individual content, form, aesthetics and philosophy he called 'Third Theatre'. That in the course of time, became synonymous with his name. Third Theatre is performance that recognises, establishes and continuously reinforces maximum intimacy between actor and spectators.
Sircar's strategy and methodology appeared simple and uncomplicated. But peeping behind the apparent simplicity was a philosophy that made theatre a performance for the people, of the people and in a manner of speaking, even by the people.
He began by performing in small halls and with benches and stools to create varied shades of relationship between actors and spectators. He moved on to the open streets, gardens, parks, everywhere, turning the whole world into a stage. He drew theatre out of the confines of folk, and urban styles, and into the Third Theatre to expose us to an unconventional theatrical dimension of free theatre, courtyard productions and village theatre.
Ballabhpurer Roopkatha, however, is a proscenium play that always runs to a full house wherever and whenever staged across the country. Imagine a prince who is reduced to such a tragic financial state that he arrives stealthily from Kolkata to his village palace.
He comes in the darkness of night on a boat instead of taking the train because he wants to dodge his debtors – the village grocer, the cigarette-tea-cigarillo-vendor and one more small time trader. They manage to follow him in the darkness of night through the forests and arrive early the next morning to recover their loans.
Bhupati Roy, the young "Raja" is a dentist by qualification but has no money to open his own clinic. He is desperate to sell the mansion along with the huge tract of land that surrounds it, for a sum enough to open his clinic. But buyers scoot when they learn from the villagers that the mansion has a 'walking ghost'.
The setting is around the 1960s and the place is a fictitious village called Ballabhpur, where the station is too far away to walk. Only two of the rooms in the palatial mansion are livable and where one needs to take the train to fetch a doctor. So, who will buy the house with a walking ghost?
Haldar, the 'soap king' of Kolkata is ready. He is obsessed about buying the mansion, egged on by his one-upmanship with his 'rival' Choudhury, equally interested in buying dilapidated mansions. The more dilapidated they are, the better!
He arrives in his ancient jalopy wanting to buy the mansion. Along with him arrive his cantankerous wife and beautiful, doll-like daughter who falls in love with the young and handsome Raja. To give the impression of a regal palace, three debtors are persuaded to act as butlers and waiters.
An unsuspecting college friend is forced to act as the king's 'manager', he is made to look convincing with a huge moustache borrowed from the local beherupiya. Manohar also begs the local flower seller to "manage" three or four roses to make the Raja look convincing and the stage is set to sell the property and help Bhupati out of his terrible state.
The rest of the film engages the audience with the ghost, and how its presence enhances the value of the mansion for Haldar and the late entrant, his rival Choudhury.
The satire lies in the presence of a king who is a pauper desperate to sell his mansion but cannot, because the ghost who looks just like him will shoo potential buyers away. The story also points out that here is an honest 'king' who refuses the hiked price the mesmerised Haldar offers, because he needs just Rs.10,000 to pay off his debtors and open a clinic in Kolkata.
The king smokes bidis on credit, because he cannot afford cigarettes. He lies on the terrace wearing a gamchha, and Manohar, the multi-talented old retinue (a brilliant performance) says Bhupati is the sole royal who has gone to sleep clad in a gamchha.
The ghost of Bhupati's ancestor died at war, as he was fond of poetry and pretty young things rather than warfare. He is a look-alike of Bhupati so when the ghost winks at Chhanda Devi, the young daughter of Haldar, Bhupati scolds him saying, "remember, she is 400 years younger than you," and the audience bursts into laughter.
Director Bhattacharya along with Pratik Dutta must be credited with the script for their eye on the cameo characters that dot the film. These include the three lovable debtors who are more worried about the Raja's financial straits than about their debts.
The one who runs a cigarette-paan-tea shop promises his small son a flute at the next village fair if he keeps the shop running while he is chasing the elusive Raja. At once, the bare-bodied boy steals sweets from the glass jar on the counter.
Bhupati's friend is terrified by the mere mention of the ghost and is uncomfortable with the pasted-on beard, the beherupiya who lends the 'royal' moustache, the flower seller who readily brings four roses for Manohar, Haldar and his nagging, loud wife, plus Choudhury who enters late and sets the climax rolling along with the audience.
Haldar's wife puts up an impressive performance, but Surangama as Chhanda Devi is too puppet-like which perhaps, is deliberately designed to fit into the "fairy tale" mode. The cast is brilliant, all drawn from theatre not used to facing the movie camera. So the characters look 'real'.
Soumik Haldar's cinematography proves once again that he counts among the best ten cinematographers in the country today. The opening scenes show Bhupati arriving on a boat. A nasal and ancient voice of the boatman, probably a ghost, narrates how a story repeated many times over changes as it goes along.
Subrata Barik 's production design is incredibly magical as it brings alive the 'reality' of a crumbling palace with an open roof where birds are generous with their droppings on unsuspecting heads the paintings of the ancestors that have become blurred over time and lack of maintenance. Abhijit Das's make-up lives up to the challenge of the 'period' deliberately overdone for Haldar and Chowdhury to add to the caricaturish characterisation of the two.
Sanlaap Bhowmick's editing knows precisely when and where to punctuate the 136-minute narrative. He seamlessly cuts from the interiors of the palace to the visual landscape of the village, then jumps to capture the ghost who hangs from above and chants Kalidas in Sanskrit! Subhadeep Guha and Debraj Bhattacharya's music plays around with the changing moods of the narrative. And one must not forget the sound design, so integral to a film, that beautifully blends a ghost story woven into the present day crisis of a pauperised heir and his dilemmas.
This is most certainly one of the best films for mass entertainment one can watch with the entire family and a not-to-be-missed film, never mind the language.