By Srirupa Dhar
Indian film director Kaushik Ganguly’s Bengali film, Bastu-Shaap (2016), is a psychological drama that gives us an insight into the complexities of both human minds and relationships. Role-playing is portrayed as a major component in retaining these relationships. And the politics embedded in this role-playing powerfully betrays the true human being beneath the façade. This Bengali film rises above its regional barriers enunciating the universal natures of love, loss, and loneliness within a social matrix. The film is distributed by Greentouch Entertainment and produced by Pramod Lundia and Shyam Sundar Dey.
The title of the movie literally means a cursed foundation/house (“bastu” means home/ foundation of home and “shaap” means curse). The wordplay involved here immediately draws attention to the genre of the film. It is tempting to assume that Kaushik Ganguly’s script is offering us a mystery or thriller. But the writer-director is actually dismantling the mysteries and thrills informing individual psyches and the ways they play themselves out with respect to other souls.
The story is about an acknowledged cursed house in the hills, which desperately needs help to earn peace and happiness. Arjun, the master of the household (Abir Chatterjee), is galvanized by the idea of setting things right through ‘bastu/vastu-shashtra’ (shashtra meaning knowledge in a specific area). ‘Bastu-shashtra’ is a notion similar to the Chinese philosophy of ‘feng-shui’. ‘Bastu-shashtra’ blends science and metaphysics. It relies on particular ways of designing layouts and arranging household belongings that will assure harmony in domestic life. Timir, an expert in this field (Kaushik Ganguly), and his assistant, Kushal (Parambrata Chatterjee), are invited by Arjun to do the needful. The experts are asked not to reveal their real professions to Antara, Arjun’s widowed and childless sister (Churni Ganguly) and Bonya, Arjun’s wife (Raima Sen). Role-playing in its obvious form is evident in Kushal introducing himself as Arjun’s old school friend to the women. However, Bonya could immediately see through this fake identity because she knows Kushal. She is, so far, the most subtle and consummate role-player in the game.
Bonya had given her heart to Kushal at a critical juncture when Arjun was admitted in the same hospital as Kushal’s wife was. Kushal lost his wife but Arjun narrowly escaped death after a fatal accident. That accident had killed Antara’s husband and son, leaving her with a scarred heart and an obsessed mind. She became overtly controlling about Arjun and Bonya’s 8-year-old son and their household in general.
While Bonya internally fumes at Antara’s dominance, she plays the role of a sympathetic sister-in-law, making sure that Antara takes her medications and food at the right time. Bonya is caught in this labyrinth of empathy and frustration. She realizes that she can never attain domestic happiness. She is neither able to mother Arko, her son, nor love Arjun, her cold and egotistic husband. All she can do is keep playing her roles trapped in a physically beautiful but realistically gloomy house. When she sees Kushal, she finds respite in her otherwise trapped and suffocating life. The two briefly engage in an intimate romantic moment that does not escape Arjun’s eyes. Arjun, the born soldier, always believes life to be a battle in which he is never ready to acknowledge defeat. The moment he comes to know of Bonya and Kushal, Arjun makes sure that Kushal and Timir leave right away. After all, Arjun feels that he should be pulling the strings behind the show. But Kushal is not ready to leave Bonya in the same state of affairs. He thus relieves her of Antara by luring the latter into a school teaching project far away from Bonya’s home. This will put an end to Antara’s constant meddling with Bonya’s motherhood. Moreover, Antara herself would be in the midst of many children on whom she can shower her maternal love.
The story unfolds the tensions and subtle feelings of the characters cascading beneath their strong and confident exteriors. Bonya resorts to role-playing because that is the only way in which she can find a place as a wife in society. She developed a friendship with Kushal at an emotionally vulnerable time of her life when she needed someone to express herself. Bonya could never find such a friendship in her husband. She does not love her loveless husband but acts as the perfectly complacent affluent mistress of a lavishly decorated house. She is caught in a secluded house surrounded by the mountains. The house is a figurative extension of her loneliness. Moreover, the house is run by Antara whose mind is trapped in time: the deadly moment when she lost her husband and son while Bonya still has both hers. Antara’s underlying jealousy is a natural off-shoot of her irrevocable loss. She transforms her loss into an obsessive dominance both over Arko and Bonya’s home. Arjun does not care about a romantic relationship with Bonya. Arjun is goaded by a sense of guilt for Antara’s loss because he was driving the car when the lethal accident happened. Arjun feels responsible for the tragedy and decides that Antara should live in his home. He fathoms the undercurrent of tensions between Bonya and Antara and blames the former for her lack of understanding. The ‘bastu’ thus becomes a quagmire of inner turmoil that desperately needs a refreshing outlet. And ‘bastu-shastra’ is not an answer to this entangled problem.
In the way of portraying this time-trapped existence, Kaushik Ganguly obliquely suggests the conflict between the individual and society. Bonya and Kushal can never materialize their love into a socially recognized relationship unless she transcends the borders of her marital and maternal existence. She continues to live within some social parameters and enact her roles. Antara inadvertently encroaches on to her life because she also wants to stay within social structures where a woman runs a house and mothers a child. Arjun and Bonya live in the same house with no strong mental or physical bonds between them. They do not share any internal space as husband and wife. They harbor merely a societal identity where the individual literally festers into a meaningless existence. The ending of the film probes even more the question of their marital happiness. Bonya, the perfect role-player, is unaware that Arjun has found out about her feelings for Kushal. And fortified with the knowledge of Bonya’s and Kushal’s relationship, Arjun will endeavor all the more to be the winner in this battle of role-playing. The politics informing this constant role-playing will perhaps become more edgy. Deceptions and self-deceptions will continue to be parts of Arjun’s and Bonya’s marital lives. Ironically, they are perfectly wedded only in their role-playings because that is what they have in common. Bonya is also unaware that Kushal will not come back because Arjun asks Kushal to never return to his home. Timir is the silent and nonchalant observer who is probably the only character that does not play a role in any internal sense.
Kaushik Ganguly’s Bastu-Shaap is therefore not so much about ‘bastu’ or ‘shaap’. If at all, any curse burdens this home, it is born of the energy generated by the inner lives of the people inhabiting the house. The characters perceive each other through the layer of politics that is built into their role-playing. As the audience, we see what goes behind the making of these masks and the noumenal realities of these separate entities. So, we judge less and empathize more with them because we penetrate deeply into their minds.
The aesthetics of the film lie not only in the acting, direction, and music, but also, the set design. The house in which Arjun, Bonya, and Antara live is a beautiful but very isolated place. Most of the scenes are shot inside the house where the rooms are dark. There is this sense of an enclosed space that does not permit too much light or transparency. As perceptive audiences, we feel that these details are externalizations of the inner stories of the characters, who are trying to lead peaceful lives and to conceal their feelings in the process of this frantic struggle. The outer calm of the alpine bungalow is a metaphorical statement of the surface calm of the characters in the film. Ganguly’s composed directorial acumen incorporates these spatial metaphors to resonate the idea that human amity and compatibility alone can bring shared inner spaces and consonance at home. Arjun’s and Bonya’s home cannot find true joy simply by wholesome designs, plans, and arrangements of physical space as professed by ‘bastu-shashtra’.
Bastu-shaap is a beautiful rendition of the drama that humans of all times and places experience. It is the untold story of the mind.
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Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
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