I had avoided watching Praktan, Nandita-Shibprasad’s 2016 hit, because I had heard it was quaint to the point of being regressive, moralizing mashima-bait in the way that Bangla TV serials are, and having wasted a few hours of my life watching the supposedly sensual Khwato that turned out to be as erotic as a speech by Rajnath Singh, I was understandably hesitant to wade into yet another Bumba-da film about relationships, arguably not my favorite genre, unless Paoli Dam was showing off her back and shoulders or Mimi Chakraborty was doing some nyakamo.
Praktan had neither, except a recommendation from Baba and Ma, and so I finally got around watching it, almost after a year it was released.
For those who haven’t seen Praktan, it has multiple sub-plots, all united by the theme of broken relationships, all developed in the closed physical space of a train compartment.
There is a group of musicians, played by actual musicians, going through the break up of a band, and just when you think this is developing into something interesting, the director-duo seem to lose interest in that story-strand and use them for an interminably long antakshari sequence, which, unlike the famous one in Aranyer Din Ratri, does nothing to develop the characters. That and a number of songs, which they could have just put in the damned sound track, and been done with it.
There is a newly wed couple, a fat husband and a hot wife, and that subplot is milked for physical comedy of the bhnaramo type. Once again, the directors scratch the surface of something interesting, of the fat husband’s insecurity in measuring up to his new wife’s ex-lover, but that development too is hastily abandoned, like a single by Inzamam.
There is an aged couple, played by Soumitro and Sabitri, praktan as in “old”. I presume they exist so that Sabitri Chatterjee could do a mildly amusing “Bangali talking Hindi” routine and Soumitro could recite Tagore’s “Hotath Dekha”, the movie’s leomotif, which of course he does spectacularly well, Soumitro being the last Bangali who can pronounce Bangla properly.
Which brings me to the central story, of Prasenjit and Rituparna. Rituparna plays a “modern” career woman, an architect (i.e. she wears glasses and as is revealed later smokes) who finds herself in a compartment with a very “traditional” lady (i.e. overweight, dresses like she is in the 50s, watches Bengali serials, talks loudly, folksy to the point of being a rustic) played by Aparajita Adhya and her daughter. Rituparna realizes, soon enough, that this is the wife of her ex-husband, played by Prasenjit, an intellectual like her, and nothing cries out Bangali intellectual than one who wears Shakti Chattopadhay poem lines on his Tshirt. As the new wife pours out details of her happy married life, with superanimated mashima gestures, it triggers flashbacks in Rituparna, and we get front row seats into the dissolution of her marriage. Prasenjit gets on the train at Nagpur to surprise his wife on her birthday and is surprised in turn to find his ex-wife there too. What follows is nothing that you would not be able to predict, even the revelation at the end, unless you are at that time not already distracted by the regressiveness of the central premise.
Praktan seems to show that the reason Prasenjit’s marriage breaks down is because his wife, Rituparna, is a modern woman, a “bitch” who demands continuous attention, who works late into the night not caring for her husband’s suspicions, who is not even discreet about the fact that she makes more than her husband, who wants her husband to break away from the joint family. And that the new traditional wife succeeds because she gives Prasenjit his independence, demands very little of his attention, and because she does not, she actually gets more attention and love than Rituparna did.
Most people who hated Praktan think this.
But that was not what I saw.
Through the flashbacks, we get to see that it is not Rituparna but Prasenjit who is the dick. He is small-minded, petty, self-pitying, immature, and suspicious. His male ego hurts at the income difference between him and his wife, and yet he lacks the drive to change his financial situation. He rebuffs Rituparna’s suggestion to start a tourism business, content to do poorly paid “Calcutta walks” because it allows him to show-off his knowledge and play the “intellectual”. He forgets her birthday. He does not show up when Rituparna expects him to.
And yet as Rituparna listens to his new wife tell her about her husband, she realizes her ex has changed in the way she had hoped he would. He has his own business, he is there for his wife without being told to, and here is where my take on Praktan differs from the general.
It is not because of his new wife that Prasenjit has changed, but because of the old.
That is the crux of what makes a broken relationship special. It teaches us what not to be, and what not to expect, and we, at least some of us, become better persons for it. So Prasenjit becoming a more sensitive husband and a more mature human being has very little to do with “modernity” in the old wife or the lack of it in his new, and everything to do with his own journey of self-realization
Which brings me to the Tagore poem which is the movie’s motif.
In it, exactly like in Praktan, the poet meets an “ex” in a train compartment, and they have a small conversation. I apologize for the English translation, for it is impossible for me to capture the beauty of the original lines, but here is the critical part.
We sit on the same bench, buried inside the sound of the train,
She says quietly “Please don’t mind, but where is the time to waste time?
I will get down at the next station, you will go far, and we shall never meet again.
So the question that I have kept for so long, I shall ask you that.
Will you be truthful?”
I say, “I will”
She looks away to the sky outside and asks,
“The days that are gone, are they really gone? Isn’t there even a little bit left?”
I fall silent.
Then I say “ All the stars of the night live in the depths of the day’s light”
This is where I believe, and I realize I may be over-analyzing this, where Praktan is different from movies like Saath Pake Bandha or Jotugriha.
It does not ponder over why relationships dissolve, but what we take forward from them.
It celebrates, in the spirit of Hotath Dekha, the days that are gone and yet they are not, because they live hidden within us, like stars in the light of day.
Poignant. Despite its limitations.