27 June 2020 – Imagine this scenario: A son rushes to his home in Kolkata from the US to meet his dying mother, but misses her. After the period of mourning, he is about to head back when his father has a cerebral attack and goes into coma. He is hospitalized at first, but then brought home, as it is uncertain exactly how long it would take him (days/ weeks?) to regain consciousness, if at all. What does the son do? You need to watch Indrasis Acharya’s award-winning film ‘Pupa’ to find out!
The son in the film is a young man, Subhro (Rahul Banerjee, probably in his career best), with a flourishing career in the US. His girlfriend, too, is all set to join him there (he is actually waiting for her to come and choose their apartment) with a job offer of her own. But going back to his life in the US would mean abandoning his comatose father to the care of unreliable nurses (working 12 hour shifts) and a ‘boundule’ bachelor uncle, his ‘Kaku’, Rajat Chatterjee (Kamaleswar Mukherjee in one of his finest performances), who is hardly ever present in their huge house – trekking with a group of friends one month, travelling abroad to attend a Conference on another, or else studying faces, cooped up in his room, if he does happen to be at home. There is the married elder sister, Mou (Sudiptaa Chakraborty, effortless as ever), of course, but she finds it hard enough to drop by at her father’s every day, with a school-going kid, husband and mother-in-law to take care of in her other/ own home; sustained care-giving, or rather, supervising the paid care-givers round-the-clock, is thus not possible for her.
Both Subhro and Mou test their limits for months, but can’t beyond a point. The sister is the first to capitulate: she had already earned the ire of her doctor husband for their daughter’s lessened marks in class tests, owing to her negligence; but when he decides, with resolute conviction, that the child must not visit the depressing atmosphere of her natal home (although the child herself can barely stay without the mother and her presence livens up the sad household), she is left with no option but to stop her daily visits as well. Subhro, the bachelor brother, has no such socially acceptable escape route: he is racked between his genuine desire to fulfil his filial responsibility and the spectre of losing all that he has (his job, his girlfriend, a future in the US). He almost loses his mind in the process… until his uncle clears the way for him…!
Kaku is the emotional center of the film, which explores Subhro’s dilemma through the prism of this very special uncle-nephew bond – a bond that is fêted in our culture, always hovering somewhere between friendship and filial love. Feluda-Topshe, Kakababu-Shontu – the famed uncle-nephew duos of Bengali popular literature – always set off on adventures together, giving their avid readers high adrenaline, action-packed stories that become an integral part of their adolescence. In real life, however, the adventures are less mesmerizing; they are more journeys of the soul that a beloved uncle can help navigate, even in adult life. Like the one in ‘Pupa’. Kaku is the very embodiment of the cliché, “friend, philosopher, guide”; only, he is a philosopher with a difference – being both a stoic and an epicure. “If one is strong, one can live even with plants”, he tells his nephew once, when the latter agonizes about his father’s loneliness (just before his cerebral attack) – indicating that Subhro’s mother’s beloved house-plants could well be his father’s companions in widowhood. “Don’t mourn me when I die”, he says another time, “just open a bottle of scotch and listen to Beethoven”, which irritates his nephew no end.
Incidentally, all the trailer-worthy dialogues in the film are his, none more so than where he says: “Every relationship is a fine balance between investment and emotion”. He wants his nephew to achieve that balance. The latter is however unable to, for unlike his uncle, he is built entirely in the traditional mold. Kaku’s mentoring had clearly failed, Kaku regrets, in the face of Subhro’s parents’ sentimental middle-class conditioning. Subhro is furious hearing that, and has a massive showdown with his uncle, where the latter’s pragmatism is pitted against his self-sacrifice. Kaku however terms that as “self-destruction”, adding, “Self-destruction is brutality. If you lose this opportunity today, you will curse your father and he doesn’t deserve that.” His final argument is not an argument at all, it is a simple reckoning of the reality staring Shubro in the face, whether he wants to face it or not: “You have a bright future ahead of you. Life is calling you… and your father has already heard the call of infinity”. It is clearly a choice between life and death.
At the end of the film, it may thus be safely assumed that Subhro could metamorphose into the new being that the film’s title suggests. It’s common to hear people say that a part of themselves died with a parent; ‘Pupa’ demonstrates the other truth – that, it can be liberating, too. In fact, one can truly come into one’s own only then.
Subhro’s dilemma was resolved by his uncle; and though this film is a about the conflict between personal desire and filial duty, we hardly get to see the filial relationship between Subhro and his father – even in flashbacks. That’s because their relationship is not the point of the film – the moral duty such a relationship entails, is. The film dissects the social and personal ramifications of that duty.
I watched ‘Pupa’ on Addatimes the very day I heard its director speak in a webinar organized by our Department at THC, enthusiastically helmed by Asijit Datta. While watching, I couldn’t help comparing it with Atanu Ghosh’s ‘Mayurakshi’ (2017) , which has a somewhat similar storyline – a (middle-aged) son (who lives and works in Chicago) visiting his father in Kolkata, the visit prompted not by a death news, but a critical heath condition (the onset of dementia) in his octogenarian parent.
Soumitra Chatterjee & Prasenjit were both memorable as the father-son duo in the film, one slowly losing his mind to dementia, the other utterly lost in the peculiar complications of his life. Returning to his father is not even an option for Aryanil: he is twice divorced and has to maintain multiple households – his own in Chicago, his father’s in Kolkata, his second wife’s, in addition to the education of his son (from his first wife). He finds temporary solace while in Kolkata in the company of his best friend, Shahana (Indrani Halder, one of the delights of the film), but in general, is weighed down by life. His bond with his father is however special – it’s both tender and affectionate, and not without humor. Most importantly, there’s mutual understanding between them. He is extremely patient with his father’s wandering mind; and the ageing/ ailing man takes no time to gauge the sorrow of his son’s lonely life. Dabbling with water-colors, he draws his son a window where he can sit when he is not feeling well! The son, in turn, while returning to Chicago, and leaving his father in the able hands of the efficient stay-at-home nurse (Sudiptaa Chakraborty) gives a false promise to the aged man – of taking him the next time – but breaks down in the airport. Nothing changes in their situation – apart from a renewed awareness that it can’t change.
Incidentally, in an interview of his, Acharya himself mentioned ‘Mayurakshi’ as one of the best recent films he has seen. It may be noted that both the directors were, to some extent, drawing from their personal experience in these films – Acharya had returned to India in 2009 when his mother was diagnosed with cancer; Ghosh admitted in an interview that Sushovan, Aryanil’s father in ‘Mayurakshi’, was inspired by his own. There are, in fact, two other recent films that also center on the filial bond – Pratim D. Gupta’s ‘Maccher Jhol’ (2017) & Parambrata Chatterjee’s ‘Shonar Pahar’ (2018) – but they are mother-son reconciliation stories.
I’m making these comparisons solely on the basis of theme and not styles of filmmaking (Gupta & Chatterjee’s films are more mainstream, though both, in their own ways, are arresting in their storytelling). Each of them deserves separate analysis. I chose to focus on ‘Pupa’ because it’s the one that I saw last and because it has had the greatest impact on me. The point to note, however, is that a wide range of Bengali filmmakers have chosen to focus on the filial bond (albeit, between a son and his parent) in the last few years. In three of them, the son lives abroad, comes home on an emergency and has to face a moral dilemma (either overt or subdued); more importantly, he is forced to measure his life in terms of his parent’s (imminent/ approaching/ possible) death, and balance out the apportioning of guilt, love, and responsibility in his relationship with his parent.
I have known too many people living through various versions of this story in the last decade. It is, I will venture to add, one of the primary narratives of our time – this particular iteration of the filial bond, brought about by the forces of globalization. And it plays out particularly poignantly in a city like Kolkata, which can be said to be a huge ‘Old Age Home’.
The pandemic has however changed (irrevocably?) both the practice and vocabulary of mourning, as it has the nature of relationships. Not being able to bid farewell to a parent when he/she breathes her last is now the new normal, as are rituals conducted over Zoom across cities/ countries/ continents. The conflict between desire and duty has been bulldozed over in a desperate bid for survival. Whether we metamorphose into a new being through this experience or not, only time can tell….