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Abhijaan (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 30, 2013

Narsingh a.k.a. “Singhji” (Soumitra Chatterjee) operates a taxi with his assistant Rama (Robi Ghosh).  He’s an aggressive and impatient driver, and when he cuts off the wrong person, he loses his job and his license.  He takes his 1931 Chrysler — and loyal Rama — and heads back to his hometown.  On the way, however, he picks up a wealthy, stranded man named Sukhanram (Charuprakash Ghosh) and his “maid” Gulabi (Waheeda Rehman).  Sukhanram offers to finance Narsingh, and get him his license back.  Singhji starts to work off his debt, and makes a new friend: Joseph (Gyanesh Mukherjee), a Christian with roots in the same hometown.  Singhji also takes a shine to Joseph’s sister Mary Neeli (Ruma Guha Thakurta).  Gulabi also warms to up him and sees him as an ally.  As Singhji goes to repay Sukhanram, he’s made an offer, an offer that will raise his status… but it comes with a heavy price.

Satyajit Ray didn’t intend to direct this film, he was helping out a friend and got stuck with it.  While it’s not as stunning as his best dramas (although it was his biggest hit in Bengal), it’s generally pretty good.  The characterization of Singhji is somewhat uneven… at times he’s portrayed as intense, angry and misogynistic, other times just like a regular joe.  Some of these shifts seem reasonably motivated (e.g., the calming influence of Neeli) but others feel arbitrary.  There’s also not as much depth as one would hope for, and a giant boulder that might as well have “METAPHOR” painted on the side of it.

But there are some definite positives.  If the moral quandaries aren’t especially sophisticated (the theme of corruption is handled much better in Ray’s “Calcutta trilogy”), the narrative flows nicely and holds the viewer’s attention for two and a half hours.  Chatterjee makes the character work beautifully, despite the unevenness (and a beard that looks incredibly fake, but I don’t know for sure).  Rehman — who notably stars in Guru Dutt’s best-known films — is fantastic as well, and her scenes with Chatterjee are some of the best in the film.  It’s a shame she didn’t do more work with Ray.  And the film has some rare commentary on the prejudice towards Christians, which adds an extra layer.

It’s also interesting to see the parallels between Singhji and Travis Bickle.  Scorsese is known to have been influenced by Ray, and the characters both seethe with antisocial bitterness, struggle with alcoholism, and turn to the “bad girl” when their attentions towards the “good girl” are rejected.  They even wear a similar jacket.  I can’t say for sure there’s a connection (for one thing, Paul Schrader wrote the Taxi Driver screenplay, not Scorsese) but it’s a possible source of inspiration.

The cinematography and technical construction is up to Ray’s usual standards… except for a rather ineptly staged fist fight that’s like 95% two guys grabbing each other’s shirts.  Ray again composes a beautiful score and uses it nicely to heighten the melodrama.  Rating: Good (75)


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