There’s a scene at the beginning of Bela Sheshe where Aarti (Swatilekha Sengupta) goes up to the terrace of her house, her grandson either running around to be caught or tugging at her pallu for attention, to devote her afternoon to the ritual of preserving stuff.
After sunning old books that belong to her husband of 49 years, she places a stem of neem leaves in each one of them; pours sarson tel in large achaar jars and shakes its contents.
Her husband, Biswanath Majumdar (Soumitra Chatterjee), who owns a book shop now mostly run by his son, is the sort of man who will tell a customer since when the book he’s after has been out of print and that he probably has a copy somewhere he could lend him.
This is a metaphor for their attitude towards their relationship.
Mr and Mrs Majumdar live in a large house that’s a full and busy sansaar where each individual is either overwhelmed or simmering. There’s their son and daughter-in-law (Shankar and Indrani) and the grandchildren, and then the large, extended family that arrives for pujas. This is occasion for the directors to treat us to the sounds and sights of a Bengali household. There’s food, starched sarees,alta and lyrical Bengali as spoken by the bhadralok.
The family is summoned by Baba on Dashami. He’s probably going to read out his will, they all think and banter.
Biswanath announces that he has decided to divorce Aarti. He’s already filed the petition in court, will leave the house and all his money to her and will not give any explanation for his decision. To anyone.
His daughter (Rituparna Sengupta) screams at him, articulating all that we are thinking and more. That she herself has been cheating on her musician husband adds an interesting tinge to her sermonising.
His son weeps on his shoulder in the book shop, telling him that his Baba was once his hero.
Everybody is wondering why. Is it just monotony? Is there someone else?
Court date is set and the whole family troops along. The judge listens to both and then asks them to spend 15 days together, alone, and come back if they still want a divorce after that.
Aarti announces that she won’t go anywhere without her grandchildren.
So all go to Santiniketan, with Aarti and Biswanath staying at their own house and the rest of the clan checking into the house next door.
During the day they all get together and play games, eat, chat. At night they retire to their separate dwellings, as per court orders.
In the house next to Ma and Baba’s, after some shrill voices of the conscience are raised about intrusion and privacy, all go quiet when their TV screen comes alive — Aarti and Biswanath, before turning off the lights of their bedroom, are talking about their life, expectations, marriage, relationship.
As they talk, every night, the relationships of their sons and daughters who are listening, watching, begin to unravel.
But we are drawn to Aarti and Biswanath’s conversations where small resentments, almost silly expectations, are finally communicated. It’s in their bedroom that the soul of the film resides.
Biswanath expresses his angst. His life, their relationship, he says, has been reduced to a series of abhyas, habits. He sought romance, company, but didn’t get any. He still yearns for her touch, he tells Aarti.
She tells him how, in the mundane routine of daily life, of his wet towels and smelly bathrooms, of how in a household clamouring for her attention all the time, she created her small, secret rituals of “sparsh” — she found and expressed love in the daily rhythm of life, she touched and took care of him everyday.
In the glow of her almost spiritual connect with him and her very small desires, his yearning for dramatic expressions of love and intellectual pursuits seem banal.
These intense conversations are brought to life and made deeply moving by the two very accomplished actors they are entrusted to.
Swatilekha Sengupta, a well-known theatre actress, works with stillness that’s both demanding and dramatic; Soumitra Chatterjee is animated, but minutely. This is not Mr Chatterjee’s best performance by any measure. But then, he’s the sort of actor whose performances can’t be rated with superlatives for there are just small shifts in his expression. His style is not so much restraint as a kind of humble surrender to the written character he’s playing, rather than the egoistic attempt to conquer. Watching him act is meditative.
Bela Sheshe has at its centre an interesting concept, but surrounding it are the same old clichéd characters, scenes and issues — a wayward husband, a cuckold husband, a relationship that’s fallen into the sex-and-sleep routine… Stilted scenes and conversations are made worse by very bad acting, especially by Sujoy Prasad Chatterjee.
Apart from the lead pair only three actors stand out. Rituparna Sengupta is competent, if at times overzealous. Kharaj Mukhopadhyay and Aparajita Auddy, who provide the much needed comic relief, are entertaining.