Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Shesher Kabita (The Last Poem) is a lyrical Bengali movie that played to full houses at the recent Dubai International Film Festival. A purist may grumble that it is more literary than cinematic, but then if one were to adapt a novel from a giant like Rabindranath Tagore, there is always this danger that the screen version will have the feel of a book, the scenes flitting by as the pages of the tome.
Shesher Kabita, published in 1929 (but serialised in the magazine, Probashi, a year earlier), is considered a gem in Bengali literature. The novel set in Oxford and in Shillong was certainly radical for the time, but Bengal was always socially and culturally far ahead of the rest of India. The plot centres on Amit Ray (Rahul Bose), whose rebellious intellectualism clashes with the community’s mores and traditional thinking. He loves Ketaki (Swastika Mukherjee) and gets engaged to her. But while the ring on her finger still retains the sheen, Ray meets Labanya (Konkana Sen Sharma), when he visits Shillong. What follows is a radical mix and match of relationships that finally find their slots.
Sirsha Ray’s cinematography is absolutely alluring, capturing the misty hills of Shillong in all their etherealness -- even while panning from one love story to another in what could be befitting of Tagore’s times. Narrated with remarkable subtlety, Shesher Kabita has an arresting quality with fine performances by all three actors.
Bose and Sen Sharma are coming together after their roles in Aparna Sen’s 2002 Mr & Mrs Iyer. But, yes, I felt that Konkana was somewhat better in Mr & Mrs Iyer. Maybe, it is Aparna who can get the best out of her daughter, Konkana.
Bose has been a Sen regular (15 Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife), and he tells me during a recent interview at Dubai that it was the character of Amit that drew him to Shesher Kabita. “Amit is like Oscar Wilde. Ray is intelligent and interesting and romantic, but such a cad if one were to look deeper into him. Remember, the way he treats his two women, what he says about them. Ketaki is like the water I drink from a bucket every day, while Labanya is the lake I swim in!” What audacity, what arrogance.
Amit Ray has always been an iconic character in Bengali literature. He has always been much loved and much hated. “He is in the end such a pretentious character, such a problematic character. Yet, I had to have an affection for him sympathy for him, had to identify myself with him”, Bose quips. “It was easier to like Omar in Kamal Hassan’s Viswaroopam, because he is an idealist. He may have been a radical, but he was not layered like Amit Ray, who was eminently dislikeable, because he was such a hypocrite."
Rahul avers that it is always a complex role (like Ray’s) that is challenging for an actor. “His mannerisms, his diction, his behaviour are all very convoluted. Labanya becomes his project. I am now going to fall in love with this plain looking woman, he decides. When he first meets her after an accident on the hilly roads of Shillong, he decides his plan of action. He is a schemer. The character is almost scary."
Labanya of course plays along till the end. Ketaki is almost one-dimensional, happy to be sporting Amit’s ring on her finger and engrossed in her makeup kit and shopping sprees.
The Last Poem was shot in the exquisitely pretty Bath in England with its regal looking castles. It was also filmed in Shillong and in some of the old zamindari bungalows in Kolkata. As Rahul adds, Shesher Kabita is ideally suited for a Bengali audience, passionate about Tagore and poetry.