On the evidence of three prior films of his that I had seen, Rituparno Ghosh is a master at making films that are conceptually suggestive, but leave the viewer disappointed. Utsab, the tale of a dysfunctional family gathered in the parental home was perhaps the best, but was nevertheless marred by a flatness, and an often uncinematic sensibility on Ghosh's part; Chokher Bali could have been the best, except Ghosh in his wisdom decided to mutilate the film by about 40 minutes in its Western and Hindi release (the three hour version released in West Bengal is unavailable on DVD), with the result that the film promises much but feels truncated, and is light on the political -- unforgivable when one considers the explicit concerns of the Tagore novel on which it was based -- with the result that the film seems to be "about" the widow at its core (played with assurance, but not the requisite passion, by Aishwariya Rai), not the subjugated but awakening India Tagore likened her to; Raincoat was an embarrassment, and although Ghosh's adaptation of O. Henry's short story The Gift contained some affecting moments, including some (odd as this sounds) compelling sentimentality, it conveyed the distinctly uncinematic sense of a stage play that had been filmed. Not even a soulful soundtrack and one of Aishwariya Rai's most memorable performances (hard though it is to imagine her as a woman who is "past it", Ghosh turns her Bollywood persona inside out in portraying her as a malfunctioning flesh-and-blood marionette) could save this film, and the less said about Ghosh-the-director here, the better. [Confession: I, um, own the DVD, though don't ask me why].
I thus approached his latest offering with a fair bit of trepidation. I needn't have: Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber is a strange, and strangely compelling film, unforgettable because of its evocation of the sordid impact of colonialism on even the "inner chamber" of the sacred. Jackie Shroff plays a Bengali zamindar, a Thakur obsessed with outdoing his peers when it comes to the annual Durga pooja, and the erection of the idol the festival entails; since he also earnestly wishes for a "Rai Bahadur" honorific from the Crown, he hits upon the idea of making a Durga idol with the head of Queen Victoria. Once the viceroy (who is to be invited to the festival) sees Shroff's devotion to the Queen, the idea goes, he will certainly recommend the award of the "Rai Bahadur" title. The issue is complicated by the fact that none of the local Bengali sculptors are prepared to acquiesce in the sacrilege; no matter, as Shroff arranges for a penniless "Hindustani" artist (Abhishek Bachchan) to come and do the needful.
Shroff badly wants the "Rai Bahadur" title, but he also wants a son, which is why after over a decade of marriage he has taken a second wife, the achingly vulnerable Yashomati (Soha Ali Khan), though in the film his desperate attempts to sire an heir (through some of the most loveless sex ever filmed) have proven unsuccessful. In desperation, and in a disturbing representation of the sacred in the service of an utterly wordly project (not to mention the commandeering of female bodies for utterly instrumental purposes), Shroff agrees to the presence of a priest while he copulates with Soha, in the hope that the chanting of Scripture will outweigh the bleak fact that has been unable to sire children with either of his wives, or his mistress of five years. The irony is bitter: this, after all, is a man who defends himself against charges that his Durga bearing the Queen's likeness is sacrilegious by smirking that the Gods lack the power to bless or curse in these times.
Yet sex, as in Chokher Bali, a destabilizing force without equal, suffuses this film, perhaps in no way more than in the figure of Brij Bhushan (Abhishek), who simply by his presence incites lust and longing in both of the Thakur's wives. The elder wife herself uses her body to distract the priest when he is chanting Sanskrit verses while the Thakur and Yashomati copulate (the last thing she wants is for the ritual to be effective, and for Yashomati to produce an heir), and most bitingly, the English portraitist hired by the Thakur frets that the Durga idol Brij Bhushan is fashioning might end up, not as a homage to Queen Victoria, but as a scandalous work of art, given the regal nudity of the idol. And, most significantly for the plot, the Thakur's project for the Durga idol is itself ultimately subverted by the erotic disordering that Yashomati sets off in Brij Bhushan -- with catastrophic results.
A word about the performances: for those who worry that Abhishek's singularity might be submerged amidst films like Dus, there is much to be heartened by here. His role does not require much range, but his combination of innocence and effortless carnality is potent in this film, and reminds the viewer that no one among Bollywood's younger male actors uses silence as effectively as the post-Yuva Abhishek. Soha Ali Khan is surprisingly effective here, and her assured handling of a character who is anything but assured bodes well for her development as an actress. Jackie Shroff is forceful as the coarse Thakur, but he lacks the acting intelligence to suggest any depth to his character, and the result is a rather one-dimensional character. Rupa Ganguly is superb as the Thakur's first wife, though in all fairness she also has the most well-rounded character to work with: one sees her in a number of lights, from the older woman simultaneously jealous of her young souten and protective of Yashomati in the face of the Thakur's depredation, to the woman who lusts after the provocation in the form of Brij Bhushan: I found the disappointment that flits across her face when the young sculptor addresses her as "maaji" to be the most poignant momemnt in the film.
I have not read the book on which Antarmahal is based -- Protima by Tarashankar Bandhopadyay -- and thus cannot comment on how good an adaptation the film is. But such reservations cannot detract from the obvious fact that Antarmahal is by far the most accomplished Rituparno Ghosh film that I have seen (fittingly enough, it's apparently his first home production), and he is well-served by Abhik Mukherjee's camerawork here. Sadly, the fact that this film was dismissed as vulgar by sections of the Indian media, its director earning the moniker "Rituporno Ghosh", speaks volumes about the cinematic illiteracy that characterizes most of the country's "critics", including the ones who thought the frighteningly obscene Kya Kool Hain Hum was harmless good fun. As far as I'm concerned, Tushar Kapoor's latest antics can be left to these imbeciles; me? I'll just look forward to the next Ghosh film.