Cast- Prosenjit, Dev, Parambrata, Jisshu, Ankush, Rahul, Koushik Sen, Nusrat, Paoli, Kanchan, June Maliah, Kyra Dutt
Director- Srijit Mukherji
After the very first action sequence it becomes clear what pitch this film is going to have. That, no, this is not going to be Bengali cinema’s answer to Satya or Company. It’s an unabashed mainstream attempt of the director known for his brand of sensible cinema with the support of two famous Shakespearean plays providing the lifeline missing in today’s Bengali mainstream cinema- content.
There isn’t much to say about the story as the film is an ambitious joint adaptation of Julius Caeser and Anthony and Cleopatra which have some common characters, the same backdrop and the latter follows the former chronologically. The world of dock mafia in Kolkata forms the backdrop in this tale of power, greed, friendship, love, betrayal and revenge. Zulfiqar (Prosenjit, based on Caeser) is the leading man in the umbrella crime racket known as Syndicate which operates on the collective decision of its members. The members are varied in nature, for example, there is a promoter- Kashinath Kundu (Jisshu, based on Cassius), the son of the local councillor and two government officers (Sujan Mukherjee and Srijato, the poet). Syndicate is the representation of the senate in Julius Caeser. It runs on a common principle- no one member can become exceptionally powerful or popular with the people, in other words, bigger than the syndicate. When that happens, he is eliminated.
The first half (and the beginning of the second half) of the film is based on Julius Caeser, essaying Zulfiqar Ahmed's rise in mass popularity in the area and a parallel fall from grace in his best friend's mind as he got addicted to grabbing the credits of group accomplishments himself, which eventually leads to his end, and the second half is Anthony and Cleopatra which traces Zulfiqar’s nephew Akhtar's (Ankush, based on Octavius) joining the business and taking over complete control of it. It's an exceptionally intriguing story indeed.There’s a gap of twenty years between the timelines of the plays which has deliberately been erased here.
The prominent members of Zulfiqar’s own gang are his closest friend Basheer Khan (Koushik Sen, based on Brutus), Tony Braganza (Parambrata, one half of Mark Anthony) and Markaz Ali- the brawn of the gang (Dev, the other half). Markaz and Tony are best friends forever to the point of being “brothers not from the same mother”, as Tony puts it. Markaz is dumb, so Tony puts words to his expressions to others.
Srijit has given the film a realistic backdrop (the dock area- Kidderpore and Metiabruz) that has largely been ignored in Bengali cinema, thus giving the story a fresh look and feel which is one of its strong points. It’s the old Kolkata that we not only don’t get to see on the big screen but also know very little about. The action sequences are smarter, at par with national standards and much more realistic than average Bangla mainstream cinema not only for the action direction but also for the way they are shot. The drone shots need a mention.
However, there are certain noticeable excesses for the temptation to play to the gallery in certain sequences. The blast in the ship after the successful counter operation by Zulfiqar’s gang following his kidnapping and the kickboxing match featuring Markaz and a foreign opponent (the WWF type) are instances. There is lack of detailing in the action sequences too- Thunderous punches landed in the kick-boxing bout failing to cause visible injury to the face, no blood squirting even when someone is forcefully hit by sharp weapons, while an exception is- Rabindranath's framed photo is coloured with blood spray when bullets are fired into one's head point blank, just for the visual effect. There’s a chase by toughs with firearms without a single gunshot fired!! It’s obvious that Srijit wanted to reach out to a much larger audience with this film, including a big new audience who would watch the film not for Shakespeare, or to catch a Srijit Mukherji film for the first time but for the sheer star power and a new story. Such excesses should be lapped up by it and such lack of detailing overlooked.
The first thing to strike me was- Why is Koushik talking in a fake voice? Well, apparently to bring a certain gravity to the persona of Basheer, but that doesn’t work as his modulation works mostly at a higher pitch as we see it through the film. A measured modulation would’ve worked well, like it has worked for Jisshu.
The language is a bit of a mess here. Because of the setting, the script demanded a lot more Hindi. But characters whose mother language is not Bengali are seen speaking in the language when conversing among themselves. The oddest was Pariza, Basheer’s wife (June, based on Portia) talking to him in chaste Bengali. Hindi and Bengali frequently alternate in the dialogue, taking away the essence of the setting. And Tony talks in and toggles three languages- English (his mother language), Hindi and Bengali with almost equal ease! He delivers a speech to the localites at Zulfiqar’s funeral in a weird hotchpotch of all the three languages.
The first half is better than the second and has more drama. The director has skillfully blended high-octane thrill with drama while bringing out one of the disturbing trends of the city youth these days- bike racing in the night.
I just wish the director kept some screen time establishing the aura and leadership of Zulfiqar and not depended on the elaborate narration of inspector Laltu Das (Rahul, based on Lepidus) in the beginning of the film as he was handing over charge to his successor. The director has premeditatedly played to the gallery in Zulfiqar’s assassination scene as Prosenjit does an Amitabh Bachchan (a la Coolie or Agneepath) taking bullet after bullet from the syndicate members yet refusing to collapse. He falls on his knees once but, no, stands up again before Basheer fires the last bullet! If gunshot has to replace stab (as in the play), the scene called for a different composition.
The revenge of the death by Akhtar (Ankush), the foreign-educated, calm, young nephew of Zulfiqar up to his taking complete control of the crime kingdom by eliminating challengers step by step forms the second half. The drama gets a bit weak in this part. Akhtar’s moves hardly face challenges, as if he has become a master strategist in just a few days.
In performances, Koushik and Jisshu stand tall in the ensemble cast. I assume the fake voice of Koushik was a director’s call, but otherwise he competently brings out the strong character of Basheer who is able to win audience empathy despite eliminating his best friend by falling in the trap devised by the power-greedy Kashinath. He has worked on his body for the first time in his film career and looks fit for all the high-voltage action.
Jisshu has essayed an uncouth, pan-chewing, scheming, delightfully sinister Kashinath Kundu with a pockmarked face flawlessly. We rarely get to see understated villains in Bengali cinema. Thanks to Srijit for consistently offering the right roles to this highly talented actor who didn’t get a fair deal for the most part of his career.
The next to mention is Dev, who surprised with his silent portrayal of Markaz. It was indeed a masterstroke of Srijit to take away Dev’s voice (which could have backfired too) as the actor had to focus on physical acting. Dev has learnt sign language, not used some of his stock expressions and made use of his eyes, which put together have worked wonders. To me, after Bunohansh, this is the next milestone of his acting career. The deep hurt in his eyes after he discovered the betrayal of his lover (Rani, played by Nusrat, based on Cleopatra) is one of the defining moments of the film.
Prosenjit is apt as Caeser but for the way the character is written, it doesn’t offer remarkable scope for him to emote. It’s his charisma and screen presence that the director has chosen to use in this film. The characterization of Tony is a disappointment and I found Parambrata miscast in the role. He was obviously chosen for the cerebrality of the character and his English-speaking skill which is rare in Tollygunge, but I didn’t find a single scene where Tony’s strategizing power is established. He never seemed the brain of the crime syndicate which he was supposedly, as articulated in one of the pre-release interviews. This is one of Srijit’s major weaknesses in the film. On the acting part, a criminal in that kind of a setting, no matter how intelligent he is, should not sound as cultivated as a young lecturer. The weird wig didn’t help as the face and the eyes weren’t supporting it. And it’s high time Param gets rid of certain expressions, like his typical eye movement, as they suit a college boy more and not a crime mastermind. Just to mention, I have appreciated Param in two diametrically different characters earlier this year in Kaushik Ganguly’s Bastushaap and Cinemawala and it’s understandable that the diector was responsible for smoothening out these rough edges.
The role of Akhtar was too heavy for Ankush’s well-built shoulders and the director has not been able to groom him as much as needed for this key character who leads the second half. I understand his limitations as an actor, but his efforts to rise to the career-defining role was lacking. Also, the director apparently put in more effort on getting the transformation of his look from the suave, Bangla band-loving youngster to a cold-blooded strategeist right than on being ruthlessly demanding of his actor’s emoting skill (which he is famous for).
Nusrat is glamorous and sensuous without doubt, but Rani lacked the killer charm and enigma of Cleopatra, the traits she is famous for. Zulfiqar’s wife Karishma’s character also lacked depth (Paoli, based on Calphurnia) as she is mostly found drugging, smoking or hallucinating. Srijit probably balanced out by paying disproportionate attention on the male characters after his women-centric Rajkahini last year.
This is indeed the most versatile score of Anupam and his lyrics touch the soul. All the songs are good and some stay in the mind like the romantic Katakuti khela (by Shaan and Shreya), Amader ghawrbari (by Anupam) and Ayak purono masjide (by Nachiketa) but the former looks forced in the flow and I so wish the last one was used in the first half to build the character of the area which remained stereotypical throughout the film. Soumik’s camera brings out with the dark and shady world competently (the action scenes are already mentioned).
Overall, Zulfiqar is a strong mainstream product which is better not seen as an ambitious double adaptation of Shakespeare. You shall probably enjoy it better if you don’t have expectations as you go to the theatre.
#Zulfiqar #BanglaCinema #SrijitMukherji #Dev #Shakespeare #JuliusCaeser #AnthonyandCleopatra #BengaliCinema
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