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Robibaar, Review: Sad, sombre, somnolent, sepulchral Sunday

It is a Sunday. Not an ordinary Sunday, an eventful Sunday. For the female protagonist, it begins like any ordinary Sunday, a deceptively ordinary Sunday. Except for a strange dream that wakes her up, everything else seems like every Sunday. Till she goes to the neighbourhood café, for her routine breakfast. For the male protagonist, this Sunday could be the most important day in fifteen years, and it all begins when he walks into the café, and sees her. It is a co-incidence, no ordinary co-incidence, one that may save his life. And it could happen only on a Robibaar, a Sunday.

Writer-director Atanu Ghosh (Angshumaner Chhobi, Rupkatha Noy, Mayurakshi) gets into great detail to establish a Sunday morning milieu for Sayoni Sen. She works as a Law Officer in a corporate office and lives alone. That Sunday, she has a strange dream in which she sees herself picking-up letters that are strewn across her lawn. After she awakens, she takes a look at the newspaper, makes herself a cup of tea, stands at the balcony and sees a neighbour below come out of the building, carrying a shopping bag, notice that he has forgotten his wallet, and go back to get it. Going out herself, she meets the man’s wife and daughter, and hears the wife chide her child for forgetting her school bag. She also laments that her husband had forgotten her wallet, and says, pointedly, that Sayoni is lucky not to have these (family) problems.

Sayoni finds her little café not yet ready to serve her, and the waiter asks her to come back after five minutes. She whiles away her time, strolling around, and returns. They are almost ready. She takes a seat. Then he appears. He, Aseemabh, recognises her, and almost drags her out, taking her handbag with him. He happened to have his account in a nearby bank, though what brought him there on a Sunday was the news that an old man had had a fall, and he wanted to look-him up. Aseemabh insists that Sunday is no day for having one’s breakfast out, and wants to take Sayoni to his home. All this was the preamble. The tale begins in earnest once Sayoni follows him out, seems reluctant to accompany him, and demands that he return her handbag. But she does join him, and so begins a journey down memory lane.

You would hardly imagine what follows. Ghosh unravels their relationship in bits and parts, yet there is not a single flashback. You are sure she will leave him and go-off any time, once, twice, thrice, four times….yet she only returns, every time. He is a criminal, a slick and suave one, who speaks softly and in short sentences, and is raising an orphan, till you find him losing his temper and smashing a huge mirror. In another scene, his passion seems to be getting the better of him, only to find himself being pushed away by Sayoni. Her time with him is interrupted by four phone calls: one from her parents, two from her publisher and one from a junior colleague. The couple also share some quality time with the little boy. Two other interruptions dot the Sunday—a visit from the police and another from a contract killer, both looking for Aseemabh, both not unexpected.

Robibaar (On a Sunday) is full of surprises. Just when you begin to feel that the Sunday ambience, with the FM radio’s RJ banter, Ustaad Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod, and a Sunday song, are trifles that are only dragging the film along, Ghosh lets these inconsequential developments linger even longer, right up to the café, from where we are drawn into the game. Likewise, when the narrative appears to move at a pace only designed to reveal the back-story, in fits and starts, he brings in elements like the orphan, the police, the contract killer, the publisher and the parents to shake you up. By itself, the story lets you be privy to a couple who meet after fifteen years and talk about their days together, in an almost detached manner. Look for sub-texts, and you will be pleasantly surprised to find so many.

The man who fell and injured himself had a daughter named Mithu, who disappeared during a mountaineering expedition. Before she disappeared, she sent her parents a cassette, which has now stuck in the player. Aseemabh manages to open the player and extract the cassette, which all then listen to. In the recording, Mithu talks about Sabina Haider joining them, Sabina, who lost one leg and yet managed to scale some of the highest peaks in the world. Now, the couple live by themselves and are unable to overcome their grief. The criminal Aseemabh is instrumental in bringing them some happiness. He is also a father-figure to the orphan, and, towards the end, about to prove of great help to Sayoni, despite approaching his own end. Does any of this redeem his criminal past?

Both Sayoni and Aseemabh are terribly lonely, as are Sayoni’s parents. Parallel to the world of Aseemabh and Sayoni, two other worlds are in revelry mode. Her publisher Manisha is having a party, while her office colleague is entertaining family guests at a bar. A contract killer embarks on his mission by first seeking the blessings of a priest, who chants mantras and applies colour on his pouch, containing his fat fee and a gun, then visiting his kept woman, who is terrorised by the tell-tale sight of the pouch. From that low-life encounter to corporate intrigue, there are layers upon layers. As the on-screen incidents unpeel these layers, you might realise that the performances have slipped by almost un-noticed.

Bengal’s superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee, with the right kind of wig, underplays Aseemabh to the hilt. Director Ghosh restricts his dialogue to bare essential, and he often speaks with his silences, and away looks. Jaya Ahsan (veteran BanglaDeshi and Indian film star) as Sayoni, the superciliously detached but internally confused one, is fine too, but a shade put-on by comparison with her first-time co-star. Her caustic one-liners are not entirely natural and her motivations for continuing the charade and returning every time, after leaving in a huff, remain unclear. Though the idea of striking a deal and getting Aseemabh to confess for a chapter in her forthcoming book on fraudsters is brought in, it comes in rather late. As the orphan, Srijato Bandopadhyay puts in a slick sleuth act, trained by his mentor and master. He is both a pre-teens boy next-door, playful and fond of watching football on TV, while also possessing an intellect beyond his years. Rest of the credited, competent cast could not be identified.

Two hours of the film’s duration roll by at a leisurely pace. We see characters walking, travelling and driving as if in no hurry. The only time we get a sense of urgency is when Aseemabh races a police motor-cycle with his car, only to humour the boy. The entire track with Latkai, the supari (contract) killer is a patch that the film could have done without. So many things coming together on a Sunday, both planned and unexpected, is too much of a co-incidence.

Appu Prabhakar’s photography is of the hand-held kind, often jerky, but always intimate and probing. Some frames stand out, like the mid-close of Sayoni and the boy approaching from her back, in the emptiness of the frame, to the right of her shoulder. And the tip-toeing through the ‘tulips’ (read letters that Aseemabh wrote to Sayoni but never posted) scattered on the floor is a touché moment that lingers long after she has collected them (off-screen) and put them in her cupboard back home, much later.

Art direction by Gautam Basu brings out the contrasting life-styles of the various economic sections of society quite well. Sujay Datta Ray edits the film in keeping with the somnolent Sunday mode. Lyrics, music and background score by Debojyoti Misra are notable features of the film, though used sparingly. All three forms, Indian classical instrumental (Ustaad Ali Akbar Khan), jazz (sax, trumpet and drums) and Bengali male vocals, are effective. The saxophone signature for Prosenjit is overdone.

Robibaar is the opposite of Sunday feel-good fare, and the best colour most of its characters possess is grey. Black is under-stated, while white is all but absent. The plight of most of the film’s dramatis personae will leave you restless and disturbed. You might need to see it twice, to catch all the nuances, to let it truly sink in. And then you might feel even more restless and disturbed.

Rating: ***