The Bengali director, Rituparno Ghosh’s last movie, Satyanveshi, was screened at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival on Sunday to a packed auditorium. Ghosh, who was greatly influenced by Satyajit Ray, died prematurely some months ago in his Kolkata home.
Borrowing one of Ray’s most popular characters, Byomkesh Bakshi, the screen detective, played by Sujoy Ghosh (who helmed Kahaani) in Satyanveshi or Truth-Seeker, is transported to the 1930s North Bengal, to a zamindari house. A friend of the zamindar, Himangshu (Indraneil Dasgupta) himself, Bakshi and his companion, Ajit (Anindya Chattopadhyay), are called to solve the case of a disappearance. Himangshu is very keen that his wife, Alka (Arpita Chatterjee), is convinced that her husband was not responsible for the disappearance of her friend and the house librarian, Anirban Ghosh.
Although Satyanveshi is purportedly a crime thriller, it ends up more as psychological plot, where the characters are seen as complex creatures in a web of mysterious happenings. As I watched the movie, questions kept popping up. Was there really a tiger on the prowl in the jungles around the zamindari bungalow? If so, why were the pug marks of all its four legs uncannily similar? Did the librarian go away on his own free will or was he murdered? Did Himangshu have a hand in this? And what about the poor Brahmin and his widowed daughter (Anandi Ghose) who also live in the mansion?
The film – which was entirely helmed by Rituparno Ghosh before he died though the post-production work had to be completed by his core team -- does suffer because of this unfortunate transition. One can see this in some of the movie’s crucial scenes.
Even otherwise, Satyanveshi lacks a certain kind of energy which modern cinema has. Often, the camera is static, the characters are plonked in richly upholstered period furniture. It is claustrophobic, it is a chamber piece. Not that chamber pieces need not be interesting. Ray made a few during his last years when he was medically advised not to strain himself. These were as brilliant as his earlier work.
Performances are good in parts, but conversations are often stilted. The bhadrolok or nobility in Satyanveshi appear a trifle too boring, a little stiff for a magical medium like cinema.
Although, the sombre mood lightens up in the second half, when skeletons tumble out in the open during a picnic (an obvious reference to Ray’s memory game in Aranyer Din Ratri), Satyanveshi cannot quite decide whether it is detective story or one about relationships, particular between the husband and wife that is crumbling. Interestingly, Ghosh establishes Ajit as an intellectual equal and not just a passive pal to Byomkesh – as was the case in Ray’s version.
Unfortunately, Ghosh's last work seems like one made in another era. A work about 20th century need not necessarily look like one directed in those times.