It’s time Srijit went back to telling real stories like he can
Story: Zulfiqar has the final word in the dockyard crime syndicate, but there are other forces ready to unseat him from his position. What follows is a haze of blood, guts and gore.
Review: Is Srijit Mukherji an honourable man — as a filmmaker? Once the ringing gunshots, the giddy drone visuals and the crazed background score taper off, the question hangs like Nemesis over Zulfiqar and will not be gone without an answer.
But that comes later. An equally relevant, and perhaps more pressing, question is — is Zulfiqar an honourable (as in, worthy) film? This estimation of its worth is inevitable, since the film, Icarus-like, aims high, drawing from two Shakespeare classics, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The task at hand is unenviable, as Srijit, who also takes writing credits, sets about fusing into one the two tragedies, which are connected only by chronology and a few character links. It can’t be that simple; Shakespeare himself wrote them as two separate plays.
The result of this ‘fusion’ is a film that is an overcooked, hyperventilating stream of images and sound stretching for well over two hours. It runs in too many directions at once — from gangland brotherhood to surreptitious romance, from guns to shayari — but reaches not much anywhere.
But then, it could have. Srijit gets the setting right, placing the power struggle of the Roman senate in the Kidderpore docks, where the syndicate controls the web of crime. The chairs of the syndicate council are equal in height, but Zulfiqar’s (Prosenjit/Caesar) is more equal than the others. He carries his aura lightly, but even in this group of equals, his opinion on matters of business and policy weigh a bit more. Not everyone likes this and Kashinath Kundu (Jisshu/Cassius) sets off a chain of events that leads to the assassination and further tragedies. So far so good, right? If only the film had stuck to this theme of power-betrayal-revenge! But Antony-Cleopatra have to be given runtime too, which leads to some ridiculous moments. Within a few minutes of the deaths of Basheer (Kaushik/Brutus) and Kashinath — a climactic point in the story — Markaz (Dev/Mark Anthony) is romancing Rani Talapatra (Nusrat/Cleopatra) on a boat!
From land-grabbing to extortion, smuggling to drugs, Kolkata’s urban life may be steeped in organised crime, but Tollywood has never actually tried out a realistic gangster film. Forget The Departed or Godfather, we’ve not even had a Vaastav or Sarkar and Srijit is definitely treading new ground here. That may be why Zulfiqar opens with a long and laborious back story on the city’s western waterfront, with its masjids and bylanes, skullcaps and meat shops. The exposition is stereotypically Bong — a bit like Gariahat trying to understand Metiabruz — but even that would have made sense if it added to the story.
Having spent a good 10-odd minutes getting the dock mafia backdrop right, the film then can’t figure out what to do with it. And this leaves the characters tied up in ridiculous knots, especially in the way they speak. Basheer flip-flops between Bengali and Hindi/Urdu after every line, Zulfiqar speaks mostly in Bengali with a weird accent, Tony Braganza (Parambrata/Mark Antony) speaks English, Hindi and Bengali equally well and Markaz, er, doesn’t speak at all. The film also suffers from a sloppiness that we don’t associate with Srijit. Akhtar (Ankush/Octavius) has the only song picturised on a character, and his hands just can’t move on the guitar. There’s a long chase sequence where everyone brandishes a gun, but no one fires!
In a film with such a huge cast and scope, the acting has to be top notch, since every character will only get a few scenes to themselves. Kaushik Sen shines as Basheer, lending the character the right blend of grit and pathos. The rest are mostly ho-hum, with Jisshu as the pan-chewing Kashinath and Param as the fast-talking Tony doing a decent job. Nusrat looks beautiful, but lacks Cleopatra’s enigma. Prosenjit as Zulfiqar tries magnetism, but with too heavy a hand. His collapse in the assassination scene is a throwback to the `80s ethos. All the good work that Anupam does with the songs is undone by Indraadip Dasgupta’s screechy, cacophonic background score that must be one of his worst in recent times.
Which brings us back to the original question about Srijit Mukherji. Why does Zulfiqar’s character look like he’s in a costume drama, with shoelaces for kurta buttons? Why the illegal boxing match? Why the overacting? Why those low-grade, jatra-style beards? Indeed, why this film?
Srijit showed us a Kolkata we could fall in love with in Baishe Srabon, a city of grey shades and dark corners of the mind. In Zulfiqar, the same Kolkata becomes a nowhere city of language, race, creed and behaviour. Shakespeare, ensemble cast, Dev, Prosenjit, big budgets, primetime shows… It’s time he got beyond these traps and went back to telling real stories like he can.