Film Review: Abhinandan Banerjee’s Manik Babur Megh: Winner of the Chidananda Dasgupta Centenary Award for the Best Debut Feature Film
Shoma A. Chatterji offers some insightful commentary on the new Bengali film, "ManiK Babur Megh". 'Manik Babu is born out of my existence, philosophy and wishful parallel realities that do not allow my brain rest ever"' as stated by the filmmaker Abhinandan Banerjee.
Manik Babur Megh is a strange name for a film. It bagged the Chidananda Dasgupta Award of Rs.1 lakh and a citation for a feature film by a debut director for the 2nd year of the Chidananda Dasgupta Centenary Awards last week. Actor Chandan Sen who portrayed the title role bagged the Best Actor Award at the 19th IFF Pacific Meridian Film Festival.
The title translates as “The Cloud and the Man.” Stranger is the film itself. It is one of the most beautiful debut films I have seen in a long time. It is about Manik Babu, a middle-aged man who makes friends with a cloud which he feels, keeps following him. In the beginning, he is terrified but with time, he feels a strange bonding with the same cloud which strips him of his utter isolation, his loneliness and his alienation from the world around him.
Film Poster: Manik Babur Megh
The 27-year-old debutant director Abhinandan Banerjee says, “Manik Babu is born out of my existence, philosophy and wishful parallel realities that do not allow my brain to rest ever. Manik Babu can be interpreted as a manifestation of the collective consciousness of people suffering from loneliness in their own individual ways. From a random madman on the streets, to a lonely old lady in her lonesome apartment, to a filthy rich businessman who is actually a loner, to a daily office going family man, there is a Manik Babu in everyone who suffers from loneliness. Quietly.”
In 2018, in collaboration with Radio Mirchi, Abhinandan’s company Asterisc produced Bengal’s first motion comic short for children based on Satyajit Ray’s cult short story ‘Banku Babur Bandhu’. It is the only official adaptation of possibly the most controversial and aspirational story by Ray. The motion comic was released on Ray’s birthday as a small homage to the maestro and was directed and edited by Abhinandan. Though the project was a very small-scale production, it is still considered as cult content in its genre and carries a 9/10 IMDB rating. His stories have been made into shorts, feature films & platform originals. To name a few, Annapurna Basu’s Zee5 Original’ Saat No. Shanatan Sanyal’ (2019), Rajdeep Ghosh’s ‘Shubho Sharodiya’ (TV Movie 2018) would top the list as the most popular ones. Apart from writing multiple series and feature projects, Abhinandan is presently working on his next features, upcoming books & graphic novels, and a new game for children.
Manik Babur Megh had its world premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival where it opened the First Feature competition in Nov 2021. The Indian Premiere was at IFFI, Goa while our North American Premiere took place at the recently concluded Santa Barbara IFF. The film finds place in the coveted list of Fipresci India's Top 10 Films of 2021 and has recently won the NETPAC award for the Best Asian Film at the Kolkata International Film Festival, 2022.
Chandan Sen, the veteran actor of the stage, television and cinema, plays the title role of Manik Babu. He lives alone with his paralytic father who is suffering from Alzheimers and can recognize his son alright, but has lost his sense of time. Manik Babu takes very good care of him and then sets off for work. His father’s death brings his life into complete stasis and he has no clue what to do with it. Add to this, the fear of being thrown out of his terrible rental flat by the landlord’s quarrelsome and loud wife. But he loves to tend to his terrace garden where he begins to spend his nights on a mattress looking at the floating cloud in the sky and smiling to himself. There is a silent communication between him and the cloud and the audience too, begin to feel it after a while.
Asked how the story came to be written for the film, Abhinandan says, “The idea came to me first and not the story. The core of the idea was born out of my experience and interpretations of loneliness. I believe that loneliness has become a silent pandemic now. From macro to micro, in all possible lensing, it is visible these days, especially in the age of maddening connectivity and communication all around. The more people are trying to find the comfort of belongingness inside the virtual world and other external mediums, at core- they are slowly and steadily becoming lonely. In the film, the protagonist Manik Babu is born out of the very philosophical origin of loneliness whereas the cloud comes as a natural harbinger or an immortal liberator to enlighten him, from his mortal sufferings.”
He goes on to add, “I am a misfit, asocial person myself. I have always thrived for my own parallel reality amidst the reality where I comfortably live in as I personally find it hard to fit into the real world. I, on behalf of my inner child, always wished to be free from mortal society. I think, the idea of the film grew in me naturally as a modern-day fairy-tale to fulfil that ethereal wish to be liberated from all the chaos of mortal anxiety, existential crisis or the taste of personal loneliness. For me, the film is a manifestation of all the wishes to go free, beyond the chaos of society and survival agony.”
The film itself however, is simpler and more straightforward than his cryptic explanations and this is precisely why the entire audience at Nandan where it was screened during the 27th KIFF, there was pin-drop silence from beginning to end. The film hardly has a story to narrate. It revolves around just a single character who hardly has the hero-like qualities one expects from any film. He walks, looks and behaves like a man much older than his age. He hardly speaks and when he does, it is mostly in monosyllables. He spends his time by winding the alarm on his old timepiece, occasionally has tea in an earthen cup in the tea-shop below run by a woman whose husband runs a small shop selling all and sundry from lottery tickets to small snack packets for children. He is Manik Babu’s only friend but the latter hardly reciprocates his friendliness. He seems fond also of the strays he feeds, the spider, the ants and the house lizard.
The film shot in Black-and-White brings out in relief the loneliness of Manik Babu as well as his ‘friendship’ with his only friend, a cloud. “The name of the film came very naturally to me. The name came on top of my mind, I believed in my subconscious ideation and went ahead with it,” he says.
The role of Manik Babu has been portrayed by the very talented Chandan Sen in perhaps, the most outstanding role of his career. Responding to what made him fix Chandan Sen to play the title role, Abhinandan says, “I was looking for someone who could merge with the character. Manik Babu demanded more than performance. The character needed resonance from the artiste who will play him. I found that tuning in Chandan-da(Sen) as human and artiste both.” Abhinandan’s choice finds more than justification in the way Chandan Sen plays out Manik Babu who is not much bothered even when the meat seller in the market cheats him out of his entire savings he had taken to pay for his shift to a new flat with a terrace included. Chandan Sen is basically known for his contribution to Bengali theatre for decades together and then, his portrayals in Bengali cinema and television. He is a great actor who can deal with any and every role as a challenge unto itself.
The film is often dotted with extremely top angle shots of Manik Babu on the streets walking slowly towards the market or towards his place of work. It later dawns on us that it is the cloud that is following Manik Babu but not really stalking him. “The cloud was created by CGI, all thanks to the genius team led by Krishnendu (Rana) Roy of Infinity Post (Mumbai). They have done a great job!” informs Abhinandan.
The cinematography, the production design and the low-key sound design invests the film with an aesthetic richness and an emotional mood that raises the entire film to the next level of cinematic beauty. In fact, the house in which Manik Babu lives is so alive and throbbing with the look, the sounds, and the furniture that hark back to a Kolkata we are not very familiar with, slowly fleshes out as a “character” in the film.
Abhinandan says, “For a film like Manik Babur Megh, it is very important to enter the realm of the protagonist’s mind space. Otherwise, the resonance of cinematic momentum will be broken in a jiffy. And the journey of the character becomes pointless. Hence, in my film, everything around Manikbabu, which made him who he is, stand as the contextual foundation on which the journey of the film is designed. Hence, the abode of Manik Babu was so important for the character and the film both. Without a proper architecture or the space, how can such a human character bloom? Hence, a dilapidated Manik Babu needed a dilapidated structure as his abode.”
Though this film belongs to a very different time-space-director-story paradigm, it sometimes brings back a few snatches from Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik which unfolds the story of a driver and his love for his terribly bedraggled jalopy and sometimes, the film gives the feeling of the jalopy’s ability to communicate with its owner! The entire film was shot in Kolkata. Mostly north though. Maniktala, Kumortuli Ghat, Dharmatala, Hajra, Kidderpore area etc.
Manik Babur Megh has been produced by Buddy and Monalisa Mukherji under their banner Little Lamb Films. They are filmmakers themselves and also take up projects of other people’s works. According to Mukherji, “the film unfolds is the most unique love story the world has ever seen. The story of a cloud and a man. The surreal romance brings out a new Manik in him and propels him into a roller coaster journey of faith, betrayal, belief and warmth.”
About the author: Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is an Indian film scholar and author based in Kolkata.