What We Liked
What We Disliked
Chander Pahar is a nostalgia film. It brings back memories of an unforgettable book one read while growing up and then forgot all about. It reminds one of its beautiful, light green cover, a pencil drawing of Shankar’s back with his head of curly hair, wearing shorts, a haversack and a gun slung across his back walking through the forests of Africa. The cover design was done by Satyajit Ray. It evokes the nostalgia of looking through the lens of the street side bioscopewallah’s decorative contraption to see Delhi and Madras and London one might never visit in real life.
Recreating the period (1909-1910) was challenging but as one watches the Uganda Railways black train steaming its way into the small station on Rift Valley near Mombasa one’s fears are set to rest. Recreating the African forests was not difficult because even if the topography has changed over 100 years, the difference is minimal. The ambience is set when Shankar takes his position in the small railway quarters coming out every morning with his red and green flags to greet the amiable motorman Dan Mabiru. But the peace is deceptive and terror steps in taking the form of a man-eating lion out to pounce on the terrified Shankar hiding behind the glass window of his small room.
The rest of the film consolidates this opening. While journeying with Shankar and his close friend, the Portuguese explorer Diego Alvarez whose life he saves, Mukherjee dots it generously with tragic stories of other explorers like Jim Carter and Attilio Gatti who tried to discover the diamond mine in the Moon Mountain in the Richter Valley but never came back. Small episodes in flashback bring informative relief to Shankar and Alvarez’s story. The journey, filled with travails we vicariously participate in is mesmerising with its simultaneous evoking of fear, terror, death, amazement, confusion, nervousness, hunger, panic, patience, determination and triumph.
Soumik Haldar’s cinematography is inextricably bound to the spirit and the purpose of the film – adventure, exploration, fear, beauty and challenge. There is a small shot of a thorny branch with Shankar’s face in focus. Suddenly, the image of the thorn becomes sharp and Shankar’s face is still there but out of focus. This suggests the risks and the fear the journey is riddled with. The incredible beauty of the volcanic eruption with its spilling lava, flying sparks of fire and the remnant ash is brilliantly juxtaposed against the danger it holds for the two explorers who look happy though their tents have been destroyed leaving them without a roof over their heads. The camera pans on the faces and figures of Shankar and Alvarez, smiling with the lava ash stuck to their faces and bodies. Another mesmerising shot is of the silvery moonlight streaming through the top of the cave where Shankar steps in to discover the pebbles that later turn out to be diamonds.
We get the vicarious thrill of travelling through the African continent most of us will never see – Mt Kilimanjaro, the Kalahari desert, the deep forests of Africa, the diamond mine and the skeletal remains of earlier explorers and the boots left behind for Shankar to discover and get the diamonds that hold lesser pull for him than the challenge of exploring and discovering new lands and new places. The animals captured in their natural habitat including the birds and the insects and the flowers and fruits are another attraction. Soumik Haldar’s cinematography is matched beautifully by Indradeep Dasgupta and Debojyoti Mishra’s musical score that enriches the locational texture and mood of the journey not to leave out Biswadeep Chatterjee’s sound design filled with silences and natural sounds picked out of the forests and the hills. “Man is a bigger enemy than animals” is a philosophy repeated through the film. But the consuming of Tirumal Appa by a man-eating lion and the killing of Alvarez by the legendary mythical beast bunyip disprove this theory completely. Rabi Ranjan Mitra’s editing takes on the challenge of the rhythms of adventure seamlessly without jars and jerks.
The wonderful re-discovery of Dev the star of masala films like Poran Jaye Joliya Re and Khokababu as the committed actor/character of Chander Pahar is perhaps as good if not a better discovery than Shankar’s discovery of the volcano he christens after his mentor Alvarez. Gerard Rudolf as Alavarez is brilliant in a role that blends humane emotions with the spirit of adventure. Dev does a Stanislavskian take on Shankar, infusing him with flesh, blood and spirit with his precise capturing of the core that Shankar was in the book. His desperation when he screams and laments the death of Alvarez is incredible. However, his determination to avenge Alavarez’s death by trapping the bunyip is too far-fetched in his condition of near starvation and near-death experience. Tirumal Appa’s death is a melodramatic twist because we can guess it when he shows the picture of his fiancée to Shankar an hour ago. Shankar should have lost a lot of weight after three months of jaywalking on a hungry stomach and a parched throat but he looks quite healthy apart from his face filled with scars and bruises and his hair and beard just long enough to retain the glamour. The bunyip must be a CGI but who cares if no one knows what a bunyip really looks like?
The three-layered structure – a voice-over telling the story, underscoring that it is a story, a slightly older Shankar intermittently penning a letter to his mother, suggesting that he still lives within his strongly moral and social universe and the actual happenings that move the story forward are handled with great restraint by Mukherjee. The magic chemistry between Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Chander Pahar (1937) and its celluloid recreation by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee (2013) plus the time (1909-1910) and place-setting (Africa) of the original story defines the film as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the audience and a monumental challenge for the director and his crew. Does the film stand up to these challenges? Yes, it does and much more, give or take a few blemishes that might perhaps be generously ascribed to cinematic licence.