Thursday, March 02, 2006

2006 SFIAAFF—Memories in the Mist

Memories in the Mist is my first Buddhadeb Dasgupta film, though this feature comes well into his career. The frequent references to his being the heir apparent of Satyajit Ray ring true, particularly his "layered portraits of Bengali society" in Kalkata/Calcutta and the humane non-judgmental treatment of his characters.

This is a story of an estranged father Ashwin (Mithun Chakraborty) and his son Sumanto (Rahul Bose) who meet in the realm of memory and fantasy to resolve their differences. Memories in the Mist makes a strong effort at posing a son's intrapsychic conflict as an imagined interpersonal dialogue with his absent father and might have succeeded more forcefully had it established its conventions clearly early on in the film. Notwithstanding, once the conventions were grasped, the story began to coalesce, swirling into form out of mist.

Similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated animated short The Moon and The Son, Memories In the Mist escapes that short's bitter rancor to achieve what one reviewer has called "a domestic ghost story." Once you realize the father is a ghost, the story takes on a complex depth belied by its leisurely surface. Raymond Carver has written of the energy left behind by the death of a loved one, what he calls "the white shadow", the presence of absence. This film falls within that domain.

A nostalgic leitmotif is established between father and son through the musical intercession of a flute player who plays a tune that both lean into on their insomniatic nights of walking. Is it that Ashwin is haunting Sumanto? Stalking him? Or that Sumanto is summoning him back from the dead, to ask advice about how to live his own life?

A devoted and beloved father to two children who are not really his own, Sumanto is nonetheless seen as a failure by society. His wife Supriya prepares to leave him for another man and a chance at career (Sameera Reddy in the first of three roles) and his boss overlooks him at promotion because Sumanto is upright and seemingly incapable of guile. His co-workers berate him for not playing the game. The Kalkata mob resent him for defending the downtrodden. Deceit and obvious cruelty baffle and agitate Sumanto. Spurned in his social life, Sumanto recedes into the fecund interiority of memory. Having lost the love of his father, he senses nothing is more important than being a father to his children.

Another of the film's conventions that confused at first and then blossomed into intriguing dimension is the casting of Sameera Reddy in three roles: Sumanto's ambitious wife, the dancer in the traveling theater troupe that tempts his father into dalliance, and the reluctant prostitute Samanto approaches for comfort. What is gained by her becoming Everywoman in Sumanto's life is balanced by the unfortunate fact that none of the three women—wife, memory, whore—expand past caricature. By contrast, Sumanto's mother Putul (Laboni Sarkar) is a fleshed-out portrait of a woman who drove her husband away from her, fracturing their family by adhering too sternly to social conceptions of marriage. Her own conversations with Ashwin's white shadow prove pensive and reconciliatory.

I adored a scene where Sumanto visits his sick mother Putul. She tells him that she has been talking to his father. That his father wants to talk to him. That his father is just outside underneath the tree. Sumanto resists the invitation to look and closes the shutters. His mother sadly protests: In your house there are plenty of windows and doors. In mine there is just one window. Why would you want to close it?

Sumanto's lack of guile adds a levity to his downtrodden portrayal. He seems genuinely surprised when, during a chance encounter in a rainstorm, he meets a newscaster who he watches on television inform him that he is fed copy and never really travels to the places he talks about or witnesses the events he reports upon. When Supriya becomes a sought-after author for travelogues to places she has only seen in videotapes, Sumanto is equally amazed.

Memories in the Mist will be screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on Saturday, March 18, 4:30 at the Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, and on Tuesday, March 21, 7:30 at the Kabuki, San Francisco. Here's the festival link:

Cameron Bailey reviews the film at its 2005 Toronto International Film Festival screening:

Archana Tamboskar reviews for the 2005 Woodstock Film Festival:

Derek Elley reviews for Variety:

Debasree Bhattacharjee's thorough and sensitive synopsis of Memories in the Mist adds local detail that heightens appreciation of the film:


Doug said...

Do you really think Canemaker's film exhibits "bitter rancor"? I thought it was a complex portrait of his father, both (understandably) angry and compassionate.

Michael Guillen said...

A complex portrait, yes, unquestionably, and as compassionate as he could allow, I suppose, but, I guess the harshness of his film is commensurate to the harshness his father exhibited raising him. I shouldn't judge, but that's really how it felt to me. I felt maybe there was some kind of closure but it didn't feel heartfelt. All that being said, I think it's probably going to win.

The same theme of a father/son breach popped up in Dasgupta's "Memories in the Mist" and there I could definitely feel the compassion, the way the son forgave the father because he fully realized he had become his father, both of them having been let down by their wives. Granted, it's like comparing apples and oranges because the dynamics between the fathers and sons were different.

Now I want to see it again!!

Doug said...

Yeah, I get the feeling that Canemaker's feelings are still a work in progress. I didn't feel tremendous closure or forgiveness at the end, but having had a distraught relationship with my own father and known many people who have had similar relationships, I guess I perceived his willingness to regard his father as a whole person to be a pretty positive and compassionate perspective. Canemaker seems beyond the stage of seeing himself as a victim, and I found that admirable and touching. I liked Canemaker's father as seen through his eyes, flaws and all.

Michael Guillen said...

There's also that problematic note that the things that injure us limn and inspire our creativities. Zindel's conceit: the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds and all that. As a survivor myself of harsh abuse, I distinctly recall the day I let go the persona of victim. You cannot heal until you do.