Monday, May 18, 2020

Notes on Robibaar (On a Sunday), by Atanu Ghosh, India: 2019



"We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see. "

(Michelangelo Antonioni)



At the beginning the law officer Sayani has a heavy nightmare. She wakes up on a Sunday morning. For now she does what we usually do if no work and no schedule are forcing us: she phones with relatives or friends. In a coffeeshop she meets by accident her former lover Asimabha from whom she separated 15 years ago. The film opens with a situation, this unexpected meeting with her former boyfriend. Out of this situation, the film´s narration develops from this and what it evokes in the protagonists. The film offers hints about their past rather than revealing it. And especially these hints give an idea about the complexity of a human life which is not built of one story but a network of numberless stories. Half voluntary and half reluctant, Sayani follows her former lover on a strange sunday journey through places which had once a meaning for both of them but as well through their past. Cinema can always reveal two things at the same time, a journey to concrete datable places but at the same time it can give hints about the inner life of its protagonists.

At the beginning Sayani/Jaya Ahsan and Asimabha/Prosenjit Chatterjee occur to me as actors who never have met before and who just began to work together like on a first rehearsal for a film. The hints about her past as a couple remain fragmental. It is rather our imagination which is animated than our little knowledge about their story.
The places, buildings, streets they walk through are real places and its presence seems totally independent from the films subtle fiction or its narrative strategies. Strangely I remembered (despite the film´s soberness) Alain Resnais´ L´Année dernière à Marienbad. But contrary to Resnais´ film which takes place in surreal designed sets while Robibaar takes literally place in the streets of contemporary Kolkata. The fiction and the real environment exists equally side by side. As the environment´s presence looks at the first sight like in a documentary, the things and places are suddenly loaded up with meaning only the two protagonists can fully understand, no memories but hints to memories: an old Sitar, a locker, a box and a key. They suddenly evoke for a moment traces of pain, lostness. When we are still seeing this places and streets of modern Kolkata, the protagonists dive from time to time into their own past, their memories invisible for us. Suddenly Asimabha is humming a melody unknown to us but related to his past with Sayani.

The hints given to us by Atanu Ghosh are not not enough to reveal the complete story of this couple but they create a strange fascinating suspense.
The film evokes questions rather than answers. Was Asimabha a fraudster involved in crimes? Or did Sayani really had an abortion and the child was from him? The old Sitar or the collection of love letters at all seem like keys to their story and we feel a bit like the reporter in Orson Welles´ Citizen Kane who is trying to find the meaning of Kane´s last word “Rosebud”.

Many scenes of this film take places on highways seen from the front shield of a car. Streets and highways are some of the most anonymous places one can imagine in a film. It is only the film´s fiction which avoids the protagonists totally disappearance into this world they are originated from.

The wonderful jazz music, this unique utopian coexistence of individual freedom and collective musical achievement seems sometimes corresponding with a more lively past this former couple once had with each other, in other moments it seems rather like an engrossing part of the soundtrack.
Two other stories are indicated: a boy from the streets who is a brilliant flute player with whom Asimabha spends some time (like with a son he never had and probably will never have) and a strange mobster-like chracter who keeps his wife like a prisoner. They appear as connections to Asimabha´s life and disappear again in anonymity.
Sayani is always ready to finish this accidental sunday journey. It seems like her intellect has already completed this chapter of her life but her heart is still magnetized by this unhealthy relationship.

There is one scene which tells very precisely about this longing for closeness and the insight of alienation from the person she once loved. It is the only intimate scene in this film towards the end. They hug and kiss but suddenly Sayani frees herself and says: “And now, rape?” Very fast, their bodies separate from each other. The last echo of their relationship trails off and this moment appears as the death of a relationship.

As many emotions in Robibaar seem to be suppressed, the emotional impact of a finished love story remains offscreen. The experience of this film is split into two different films, the one we just saw and the other which will be re-edited in our memory and filled with the emotions which the real film did not show but evoked.
Like Atanu Ghosh´s previous film Mayurakshi, Robibaar is as well a very sober film anywhere between the urban landscapes and lost souls in the films by Michelangelo Antonioni or Edward Yang in its evocation of alienation and lostness in our modern civilization.
But sometimes it is especially the lack of drama and staged emotions which lets a films appear in retrospect as a deeply sad experiences. And sometimes it is an echo of a film which leaves us with a bitter aftertaste of lostness and alienation which remains unforgettable.

Rüdiger Tomczak