Kolkatar King

Disturbing reflections

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Anirban Bhattacharya (centre) as King.

Sohini Sarkar as Keya.

The director Judhajit Sarkar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

“Kolkatar King” holds a mirror up to a society which has gone morally bankrupt, where agencies of the state are co-opted to maintain the status quo.

KOLKATAR KING, directed by Judhajit Sarkar, is an unusual Bengali film. It is inspired by Bertold Brecht’s immortal play The Threepenny Opera. It is a sharp, if cynical, take on the inevitable compact between organised crime and the polity, and the co-option of agencies of the state such as the police and the city administration to maintain the status quo. Brecht’s play was written in 1928, during the Weimar Republic’s rule in Germany, five years before the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler stormed to power in an economically crippled, utterly demoralised country. Brecht used John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) as a structural model to depict with ruthless precision the moral decay that was destroying German society, where the line dividing right from wrong had been blurred to the point of invisibility.

Sarkar uses The Threepenny Opera as a guideline to show the collapse of moral values in Bengali society and, by implication, Indian society today, and the victory of evil over good in the city of Kolkata. It tells the story of Krishnakanta, aka King, and his seemingly unstoppable rise in the world of crime. In a faux coda, where his death is examined in a “sympathetic” light by equally criminal-minded people representing the law and the so-called civilised society, their shameless hypocrisy is presented with sardonic humour. It is revealed that Krishnakanta was orphaned as a small child and grew up in an orphanage. He was entirely a self-made man, one former detractor observes; a second refers to him as a genius; a third says he would have made a terrific police officer, while another declares that King would have become a big name in international business. After this, another deceptive coda is added on, but of that later.

The film begins traditionally enough. Bikram Sen (Rajatava Dutta), the head of a successful, expensive business school that simultaneously mocks and applauds the aspirations of its mainly middle-class students, has a secret meeting with a top officer of the Kolkata Police, Rudra Prasad (Chandan Sen). They decide after some moments of disagreement to eliminate King, who has become a law unto himself and a challenge to their positions of authority in the social hierarchy and the state. The real reason for their decision becomes apparent as the film unravels. From then on, the narrative moves at a fast pace, touching several signposts in quick succession. It is certainly not the usual linear thriller, with every detail neatly in place. However, it is also not like the piecing together of a jigsaw puzzle either. The revelations about King’s world come in a cluster of clearly expressed details.

Sarkar’s aesthetic foundation is the classic comic book, on which he builds his film’s narrative, which, in turn, owes a great deal to the techniques employed in the making of advertising shorts and music videos. The structuring is elliptical but well thought out. The director offers simultaneous views of the irreversible moral decay of a city and its citizens. Modern Bengali pop songs, heavily influenced by the structures of instrumentation and vocals of Western popular music from the fairly recent past, often act as a parallel comment on scenes and in the film as a whole. This is a Brechtian device. In The Threepenny Opera, the song “Mack the Knife”, so expressively sung by Lotte Lenya, and set to tune by her husband Kurt Weill, is about the eponymous character in the play, and the novel that preceded it. Mack the Knife knows how to get his way in a cruel, heartless society that is rapidly falling apart. In such societies, organised crime and a lack of political will coexist in an unspoken bond.

Krishnakanta, presumably the most powerful criminal in the city, and, naturally, very well connected politically and socially can commit any kind of crime with impunity because he has the protection of the State government, particularly, the police. It is revealed soon enough in the film that the top cop investigating King has a daughter who claims to have secretly married the underworld don and is pregnant by him.

The girl’s father, exercising on a treadmill in the shadowy, soft daylight in his room, is for a moment fazed on learning of her misadventures. He recovers quickly; on learning about his daughter’s pregnancy, he suggests an abortion because he is in line for a big promotion and other official honours. His daughter is not perturbed in the least. The utterly callous tone of the narrative is set and, in the course of its unravelling, maintained.

In another pertinent episode, the owner of the questionable but apparently pucca business school, hoodwinks current and aspiring students by promising them placements with major Indian and multinational companies while divesting them of large sums of their parents’ hard-earned money. The school is run by him along with his easily browbeaten wife, played by Anindita Kapileshwari, and his bright and efficient daughter, Keya (Sohini Sarkar). It is apparent from the beginning that she is her father’s right hand. He consults her first in every crisis.

There is the buxom and seductive Priya (Kamalini Bhattacharya), a bar singer, who is in a lustful relationship with King. She mutters asides, accusing King of the brutal murder of her caring brother who paid for her (somewhat sketchy) musical education by starving himself. It is Priya who readily gives into King’s insatiable appetite for sex; it is she who informs on him as he lies beside her in deep sleep. He is suddenly awakened by an animal instinct for survival, runs from her flat, gun in hand. The chase that follows is an expertly staged mixture of comic book shorthand and exuberant pop music video. The viewer is drawn into this game of the hunter being chased by the law, but not for reasons of justice. The senior police officer and the business school head have their own reasons for wanting King dead.

King is traced to a lonely hideout and is shot dead in cold blood by his first father-in-law; he does the job himself, perhaps to prevent print and TV journalists from getting to know the facts and starting a scandal. He is “pressured” into the deed by the business school owner, whose daughter Keya has become King’s mistress, and then his second “wife”. Keya first meets King in the seedy nightclub where Priya belts out her songs. Keya uses all her charm to seduce a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) official, played by Subhasish Mukhopadhyay with comic-strip relish. The upright bachelor, investigating her racketeer father, succumbs to her charms after an unequal struggle with his conscience. However, Keya falls for King, who is sitting at a nearby table. She is completely taken in by his charismatic presence. Soon enough, he overwhelms her on the rooftop of a high-rise, from where he makes a sweeping gesture with his arm, indicating the vast maidan, and says that all that shall be his. In this small but telling detail, the director suggests that anything is possible in a fast-crumbling society that has been taken over by criminals on either side of the legal divide. She marries King in a bizarre ceremony, staged in an imposing late 18th-century mansion that could do with a coat of paint. She falls in line easily and brings all her managerial skills into play to run the various lucrative rackets that King has set up, after he becomes a fugitive.

Exceptionally powerful criminals like King can claim almost unlimited immunity from an incorrigibly corrupt political system as long as they are a part of it. But the moment they try to strike out independently, the state is obliged to kill them swiftly.

King has a huge following among the youth and the underprivileged, as the “wish-fulfilling” second coda implies. He comes back from the dead to oblige an adoring public. It is announced over King TV that he has decided to contest Lok Sabha elections. This is followed by shots of him riding triumphant in a flower-laden vehicle through crowded streets acknowledging the applause of his teeming fans. Then the final image of the film appears, making a grim prophesy, but that must not be revealed; for it may spoil it for those who have not seen Kolkatar King yet.

Judhajit Sarkar wanted to make the film in black and white, but it was not practical to do so. He decided to drain the colours digitally and insert various shades of pale greys. There are places where the frame has a single colour, red for instance, to make an aesthetic point, perhaps subliminally. Unlike his first film, Khashi Katha, which was shot on film (Fuji Colour), this one is shot in a high-end digital format, using an Arri Alexa camera. This allows the use of special effects with considerably more ease than film, and at a lower cost. Kolkatar King’s visual style includes special effects as an integral part of the narrative.

Significance of sound

Sound plays a significant role in the storytelling. Apart from the songs, a rap song composed by Vikramjit “Tuki” Banerjee and sung by “Q”, is used to comment on the rapidly unfolding story. The film has a young, snappy look and appears to have been made for the young.

Surjodeep Ghosh, who photographed Khashi Katha on film, does a fine job here, with images that retain their clarity and power of expression even in shadowy frames that are essential to the grammar and syntax of Kolkatar King. Argho Ghosh’s well-paced editing brings home the pessimistic message of the director, who seems to say that we live in a society controlled by thugs, whose morality, or rather the lack of it, has seeped into our consciousness.

In a film strewn with fine actors, Anirban Bhattacharya, as King, stands out. He has a magnetic presence. He is an excellent actor in Bengali theatre and has made a mark with his new play Chou Raasta, which is culled from four short stories by masters, including one by Ritwik Ghatak.

Judhajit Sarkar has always been a keen student of cinema, and he is now an astute practitioner of his craft. He knows that when a society goes awry, becomes morally bankrupt and passes into the hands of ruthless thugs, it is the film-makers who must hold a mirror to society. He has done just that.

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