In the three short stories, Suman dovetails the first into the third one while the second one - Amar Kono Bhoy Nei To? (I don't have anything to fear, do I?) stands independent of the rest though we are introduced to Biren in the first story itself. Mahanagar@Kolkata is more character-driven than place-driven. But the title suggests differently. As events turn out in the lives of the disparate characters drawn out of Nabarun Bhattacharya and Suman's colourful palette, the film could have been Mahanagar@Mumbai or Mahanagar@Chennai or something similar. The underbelly of any metro city in India today is fraught with the uncertainty and the fear of death lurking in every corner, a democratic fear that crosses boundaries of social class, caste, age, mindset and sex. The ethnic and cultural difference lies in the language and in the sometimes subtle, sometimes bold layers of incidents surrounding the characters. One example is Kamalini, the disco-hopping, close-dancing, egg-frame spectacle-wearing friend of Rohit who spouts Marx and Tolstoy and the four theories of suicide till boyfriend Rohit is about to puke in disgust! The other is Rupam Islam's musical score and the lyrics that spell out the contemporary Bengali mindset in so many words and tunes.
A mafia don hiding in a terrible public hospital ward, gets a snobbish, high-society, US- returned, MBA partner in the next bed. The don has a hurried session with a harried prostitute brought to him clandestinely by a henchman while at that very moment, the young man in the next bed, perhaps an attempted suicide, is gasping for breath through the oxygen mask clamped to his mouth. The twist in the tale happens when his henchman, while taking the girl away, rings the nurse's bell in the young man's bed because "he is not looking too good." This is quintessentially Kolkata, or Mumbai, or Delhi. Jagannath, an ordinary man, strikes a strange bond with Manmatha, from the elite class, in the waiting room for the patients' families. They share the shocking experience of witnessing a man being killed in the hospital compound and all Jagannath says is "look away and pretend it never happened." Jagannath is afraid of the dark. He sees the shadowy figure of a woman in a white sari walking the hospital corridors. Is she an illusion? Or is she for real? In Ek Tukro Nyloner Dori (A Piece of Nylon Rope), Jagannath clutches on to a piece of tell-tale nylon rope as his escape from fear. But this does not save his son's life. Manmatha, who does not believe in the nylon rope theory, sees his suicidal, depression-hung nephew Rohit back home.
The elderly Biren, thrown out along with his tea shop from the government office, lives in a slum with his wayward son and short-sighted wife who keeps pouring over her sewing machine. He is terrorized by a bomb blast in a building under construction. He picks up leftovers for free from the corner tea-stall, from the vegetable vendor, the fish-stall only to punctuate each visit with the question, "I have nothing to fear, do I?" till a young Selim puts a gun to his head and forces him to pull the trigger. He thinks the magazine is empty. It is not. Biren's naive fear turns into the real, sudden and tragic death. 'Death is a joke,'screams the script, eloquent in the sound of the gunshot. Selim tags his plea for mercy with the same question, "I have nothing to fear, do I?"¯ This is a truly brilliant second story that somehow dwarfs the first and the third in terms of the mind-blowing performance of Arun Mukhopadhyay as Biren, in terms of the production design that uncovers the underbelly of a Kolkata slum that in some way, realises the title of the film and in terms of the camera as it follows Biren's aimless, fear-filled wanderings across the lanes and bylanes of his neighbourhood.
In the third story, Angshik Chandragrahan (Partial Lunar Eclipse), we meet Rohit. But it is only towards the film's closure that we realize he is none other than the suicidal US-returned MBA who was gasping in his bed in the first story. He is in a state of flux, halfway through his undefined relationship with the beautiful Kamalini whose intellectual snobbery he hates, estranged from his wife, the hauntingly beautiful Rongili very strong despite her fragile looks and demeanor. He is fond of the little boy's toys that fall across his small terrace-flat, yet, is disgusted when Rongili tells him she is pregnant. His confusion is enough for the proud Rongili to abort the unborn child. "One of the two of us must die," she keeps saying to herself, to him, writing it somewhere, till the nearly-crazy Rohit watches in a hallucinatory trance on the night of a partial lunar eclipse, Rongili consigned to the flames after a series of elaborate and cruel rituals in preparation of Sati. Her red sari floats across the funeral pyre, across the burning ghat, to try and find a landing somewhere in the multi-storied block of flats where she began her loveless life with Rohit. The Sati scene is visually rich and beautiful but does not relate to Rohit's character, a modern-day, upstart who has hardly had any experience of Sati except from books and hearsay. Rituparna looks beautiful as Rongili especially in the carefully choreographed dream scene where the other women's faces are painted in silver, perhaps to heighten the illusion. With minimum dialogue, made up of a collage of shots such as mechanically putting the dinner in the micro to heat it up, taking it out when the bell rings and as she reads Rohit's cowardly reaction to the news of her pregnancy, her red handprint imprinted on his bare back, her weary leaning of her head on the door-jamb of the hospital entrance where her husband is gasping for life, is brilliant. She says very little allowing her face, her eyes, her body, her dramatically multi-layered make-up and costume to do the rest. Chandan Roy Sanyal tries to give of his best as Rohit. But his looks and persona do not match the character he portrays. He looks and acts more like a strapping young man on-the-go depressed and suicidal because his love life, within marriage and out of it, has gone awry.
Sreelekha Mitra as Kamalini is as good as Rituparna. She offers the sole point of relief in an otherwise sombre and sad film. Anjan Dutta and Biplab Chatterjee are natural. The cinematography and production design, especially in the darkly lit scenes in the hospital, in the skyscraper neighbourhood Rohit lives with his remote control kept in silent mode, are very good. The editorial 'bridges' for the songs on the soundtrack of speeding cars across highways are too disparate and divisive. These could belong to any highway or main road of any Indian metro today. It has nothing specifically 'Kolkata' about it. The unusual use of the flashback for the first and third stories would be very confusing for the lay audience. On the other hand, it adds to the surreal element and the suspense of the film's mood. The Sati sequence furthers the incredibility of some elements in the film. But whoever said Suman wanted to be credible?
Mahanagar@Kolkata is Suman Mukhopadhyay's most niche-audience film to date. Is that good, or bad? Let the audience decide.