Laal Juto (Red Shoes, Bangla, 23 minutes, 35 mm, colour), adapted from a short story by the iconic Bengali writer, artist and intellectual Kamal Kumar Majumdar, is about 15-year-old Nitish who goes to a shoe shop to buy shoes for himself. What Nitish had not bargained for is a self-discovery leading to a change in his feelings towards Gouri, his 14-year-old neighbor who had till then seen like an annoying intrusion in his life. Shweta Merchant, the director of the film who had her training at the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute in Kolkata, describes the film as Nitish’s ‘journey from adolescence to maturity’.

An intriguing yet moving exploration of adolescent sexual psychology, Laal Juto does credit to Merchant’s feel for narrative and eye for detail. The little confusions mixed with dashes of colour in a middle-class family plodding along in an old city trying bravely to appear modern, have been sympathetically captured. The film’s visual imagery is energized by a clear concern for varied sounds and noises in the multistoried building where the family of old, the young and the very young live. Kamal Kumar Majumdar, a writers’ writer whose sense of cinema is still spoken of with respect by people in the know of things, would not have been disappointed at the way Merchant has breathed cinematic life into his written word.

Laal Juto is clearly an act of love for the young director. As much is evident from what she says in relation to the conceptualization and realization of the film. Merchant: “I do not know how to read Bangla, but the moment the story was read out to me I knew this was going to be my diploma film. I loved the simplicity of the language and the emotions contained in the story. Think about it, a pair of red shoes can trigger so many thoughts in your head about so many things. Just look around, anything can make you fall in love…

“The characters were simple, everyday people, simple and innocent… I needed the story to be written in English script but in the Bengali language, which was done very patiently by a friend. With the script ready, finding the location was the biggest hurdle because the film’s second main character (the first being the red shoes) was the house in which the boy Nitish lives. This was solved by my cameraman, Hari, who found the perfect home…

“We faced many problems during the shoot, like rain, actor trouble, etc., but the joy that we felt after bringing this story to life was unparalleled. While doing pre-production for the film, I explored the wonderful city that is Kolkata. The culture, the history, the architecture, and the people… They were some of the best days of my life so far.”

The family shown in Laal Juto is middle-class, educated and cultured. It can be imagined that its members of varied ages have no pretentions to wealth or high learning. Yet, they are rich in the closeness of the emotional connections that bind them. The matriarch is loving, but can be strict when strictness is called for. The loving nature of the grandmother has passed on to her teenaged grandson, in fact to every member of the family. All in all, the picture we have before our eyes is one of healthy family life steeped in those conventional social virtues that are currently taking a heavy beating at the hands of sundry wayward elements.

In contrast to the familial peace inside the building, what exists outside it – on the city roads, complete with the clanging of tramcars and the rush of pedestrians, etc. – amounts to utter chaos. In a sense, the city provides the backdrop that helps articulate the character and daily schedule of different members of the family. Merchant has been able to bring it off with elan this ‘merger’, so to say, between the city and its citizens, or to be more specific, one set of citizens belonging to a particular family which provides her with the mainstay of her story.

*****

Shiladitya Sanyal (born 1973) has a diploma in film direction from the SRFTI, Kolkata. Currently, he works as a freelance director. Abhiman Bandparty (The Musical Band), which takes its name from a fictitious grassroots music group, is Sanyal’s diploma film which has over the years traveled to many festivals, from Kerala to Cannes.

The film (2002, 35 mm, colour, 30 minutes, Bangla) may be said to be a seething, teasing passion play situated in present-day middle and lower middle-class Kolkata. Done in a neo-realist style that flirts constantly with a hilarious romanticism, the film grows around the relationships between at least four principal players, each as improbable as the other – a bored, middle-aged, office-going mother; her young son who tries his desperate best to save a band party inherited from his late father; the mother’s tram-conductor lover, an engaging creep of a proletarian; and the son’s lover, a sensuous woman living in the same neighborhood.

A dark journey through physical desire and emotional emptiness, Sanyal’s acclaimed film tries to look at several layers of a society caught in the grip of decadence and gnawing, self-centered merry-making. When I first saw the film several years ago in a Kerala auditorium in the company of a small but clearly devoted audience, I thought it to be quite a handful for a beginner. But now, it is obvious that Sanyal was even then mindful of cinema as art and aesthetics; and as a potent vehicle for telling individual stories. But, the case with Sanyal did not stop with just telling stories. His intention was also to go into sociological explorations in a way or ways he thought best.

On hindsight, Sanyal’s preoccupation with portraying his characters as ‘victims’ of a certain directionless hedonism seems almost prophetic. One would have to be living in Kolkata of the present times to appreciate the accuracy and insight with which the young director made his almost oracular statement on the moral decline that has set in the middle-class society depicted in the film. Here, the family is more a site of carefree erotic engagement than an institution denoting higher emotions than mere physicality. Yet, the quirkiness, the suggestiveness, and even the occasional kinkiness with which the narrative unfolds, can be a source of delight to the uninhibited viewer whose aim is to derive pleasure even as he keeps measuring the height from which both the high and the low have fallen.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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