Sunday, December 29, 2013

Shabdo (2013)

What happens when a sound design artist gets so obsessed with sound that he fails to even notice the spoken word? Kaushik Ganguly, in his spectacular psychological drama centering around a foley artist's obsession with his job, tries to focus on the gravity of such a dire situation.

Tarak (Ritwick Chakraborty) is a master sound design expert, a foley artist contributing with the best of his ideas to cinema with his ingenious methods of sound recording for various ambient sounds. His colleagues and others testify to his work. All is well on the professional front, but what is it doing to his personal life? Tarak, unbeknownst to himself is losing it. He is losing his concentration power and perhaps his touch with reality. But is he really? Well it is all relative!

His attentiveness is failing him, especially when it comes to the human voice but he is all ears to the background sound! So when his wife is clearing the mess created by some spilled pieces on the floor with a broom, and giving him a verbal dosage about how clumsy he is being, he is more focussed on the sound of the broom swishing the floor and the china clay pieces tinkling against it! His braincells are already working toward giving that awesome sound some shape in the sound studio on his next assignment.

The dedication and passion to his work are nothing short of commendable but the problem begins when Tarak starts drifting away and his mind ceases to focus on anything anyone has to say to him. What's worse is how it takes a toll on his married life. His poor wife, Ratna (Raima Sen, reduced to a mere spousal role), who is a simple, homely girl, with no idea about what her husband's job entails or how difficult it really is, fails to connect with his passion. She just tries to get past his nonstop ramblings about sound. It occupies every single moment they ever get to share together. Needless to say, it makes her a second priority in Tarak's life.

Dr Swati (Churni Ganguly) under the guidance from her wise old professor Dr. Sen (Victor Banerjee) has taken up the challenging task of first recognizing the problem and attacking it to rid Tarak and his family of it. His obsession has indeed been deemed to be a psychological illness. Sure, we have all seen films that deal with talented individuals suffering from mental illnesses and hallucinations while their loved ones go through hell as they try to maintain sanity and give their eye-teeth to get the patient some help. But these films mostly focussed on Schizophrenia ("A Beautiful Mind", Marathi film "Devraai", to name a few). Ganguly however, tackles a different beast altogether, by bringing forth a situation in which a man's passion and profession form a lethal combination that threatens to take over his life!

Ganguly's script is minimalist and to the point, yet quite potent. Tarak's and his well-wishers' predicament may sound simple but it is not. The man is actually slipping. Even on a vacation meant to take his mind off his job, all he ever does, is think about sound! After a nice drinking session he makes a point or two that silences his meek wife. It silences us audiences too, as his critics. "A poet thinks about poetry; a singer sings about tunes. When I, a sound artist, thinks about sound, I'm mentally ill??" A very astute point that! 

The viewer, especially a cinephile, is more than convinced that Tarak has a point as he bolsters this theory with the importance of sound in cinema. But do the people around him understand that; those not really well versed with the art he is into? Come to think of it, this is a familiar scenario when it comes to a painter for example. His art is abstract, the individuals who do not have an eye (in Tarak's case, an ear!) for his art, do not understand that. He sees beauty in ordinary, passable sights. But does the eye of a non-artist see it that way? Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder. In Tarak's strange case, it is in the ear of the listener! This facet is further accentuated in a tirade launched by Dr Swati (albeit somewhat unconvincing and forced) on the inherent subjectivity of society in perceiving what is normal and what is not.

It doesn't come as a surprise then, that things take a dramatic turn when Dr. Swati takes up the challenge to cure Tarak but gets emotionally involved and disillusioned about the whole thing. This is when Dr. Sen steps in, but the battle is almost won. Ganguly keeps it simple and focussed in a theme so rich, the film engages the viewer with a spellbinding narrative. A lot of emphasis is given to the importance of sound design in film, a very important technical aspect often overlooked, especially in Indian cinema. It is no wonder then, that Tarak knows just as we all do, that he may not be known by name, but his work is surely admired all over the globe by those who would want to pay attention.

With brilliant audiovisual techniques and some expertly written scenes, Ganguly depicts the loneliness of Tarak in a way anyone can relate to. When tea is being poured in a cup he cares a damn about what the guy sitting across the table is saying. He would rather listen to the sound of the pouring. While traveling in a train, the sound of stainless steel cutlery emanating from fellow passengers' lunch boxes seems shrill to his ears and voices almost drowned in it. He drifts away, wanders, in search of sound; follows a drunk in the dead of night, trying to imitate the sound of his awkward gait owing to lack of balance. Even when asked to rest and suspended temporarily from his job, he is more concerned about how he bungled up an important sound, that of a filled cup being placed on a table in place of an empty cup and how it is a big disgrace to his meticulousness!

The attention to detail is simply applause-worthy here, a rarity in most modern Indian cinema and Ganguly achieves it like a true whiz. Complementing him in a fitting manner are Sirsha Ray in the cinematography department and the sound department crew, Dipankar Chaki, Anirban Sengupta and Foley artist Gaya Dhar Nayak who work wonders with sound, that is the very essence of the film. Together they create a dreamlike atmosphere, complete with a stupendous dream sequence that reminds one of the heydays of David Lynch.

A few sections do let down, like Dr. Swati's sudden emotional outburst regarding Tarak's condition, after an experience at a dinner party, is a tad unconvincing and perhaps unnecessary. Victor Banerjee's Dr. Sen is given some silly and repetitive lines, specifically his harping on how he is the best! And then there's Srijit Mukherji who is annoyingly wooden as Tarak's boss and friend. But in the end accolades must be reserved for Ritwick Chakraborty's convincing lead performance. His facial expressions actually echo his aural senses and that speaks volumes of his talent as an actor! Writer/Director Kaushik Ganguly who also appears in a brief but important cameo has delivered a solid film that deservedly won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali. Do not miss it!

Score: 8/10

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