I watched Calcutta Mail on Jaman (Jaman.com) because of Sudhir Mishra and the good memories I had of Dharavi, Main zinda hoon and Chameli. All three movies are urban movies, and deal with the impact that cities have on the individual, or perhaps rather on the consequences on the individual of the urban dimension within him. What sort of individual is the Indian urbanite, asks Sudhir Mishra; what does the fact of having an urban environment, urban pressure, urban possibilities mean, in terms of living together today in India? Well, Calcutta mail also deals with urban matters, and in fact describes the life of an ordinary man who was going to the metropolis for a job, and who gets involved in a drama that in itself is linked to urban realities, and involves him in the human drama of today’s world.
Here are some elements of the story: Anil Kapoor is Avinash, a middle-aged southerner who on the train meets Sanjana (Manisha Koirala), fleeing a marriage arrangement made for her by her politically very influent father Sujan Singh (played by Satish Kaushik) to one of his henchmen, Lakhan (Sayaji Shinde).
That Lakhan is a very frightening thug who looks embarrassingly ruthless even for the foxy Sujan. No wonder Sanjana doesn’t like the sight of him. She’s helped out of his claws by Avinash, and they fall in love, start a family, have a son and live for a few years in the country. But Sujan finds her, and his revenge will be terrible (end of spoilers to preserve the interest of the story).
In fact the film starts with Avinash meeting a young woman who goes by the name of Bulbul (Rani Mukherjee). They share the Calcutta chawl flat where he settles in order to look for his boy, abducted by Lakhan and his gang. She has her own story too, of course, and we slowly get involved in their worlds, and discover what both of them are up to. We follow Avinash as he traces the conman and his gang in the Calcutta underworld, and we also learn that Bulbul is in fact Reema, an educated upper middle-class girl who’s living in a popular quarter for a literary experiment!
The first thing that is noteworthy in Calcutta Mail is the way the city is filmed, the way it is placed around the story, with its bridges, its streets, its population, its lights – day and night – obviously Sudhir Mishra understands cities. He knows that’s where our humanity is most at risk, and also most creative. The urban crucible is the one that can invent the most extraordinary stories. I’m not sure he tries to individualise each of the cities where he places theses stories. But certainly the urban reality brings out his creativity. He knows how long a street scene should last for the eyes to explore it, and what perspective gives a pleasant evocation to the spectator. There is sufficient bustle and life around to plunge the events in a reality that gives the film its authenticity. Demonstrations, commercial activity, varied traffic, children at play, etc. all contribute to this evocation: the city is a giant heart, where the blood of civilization ebbs and flows.
In spite of what one contributor at IMDb writes (“Anil Kapoor seems to be getting too old to act in lead roles”), I think this is the best role I’ve seen him in so far. I found him concentrated, vibrant with energy, and focussed on his character. I can feel the director behind him, but nevertheless he definitely deserves praise. I remember him in Taal, where he played that ludicrous DJ who steals the show away from lukewarm Akshaye, and in some of Satish Kaushik’s films where he was less convincing. Next to him, there’s this devil of an actor, aforementioned Satish Kaushik, who’s real fine, and together with Sayaji Shinde, they form a great evil pair. Kaushik’s ominous gesture of slowly taking off his glasses when in trouble is one of the best tricks in the film. We can then see his little eyes in all their intensity, and the fact that he plays the villain so well here, when he’s so often cast as a buffoon underlines his talent.
The women are less centre stage, especially Manisha Koirala, a little underused. Pity, because her role wasn’t too far from that in Dil se, and Sudhir Mishra could have given her more to chew on.
But we have a great comedy-oriented first part with queen Rani, perhaps even too much. If you’re a fan like me, you’ll enjoy her pranks tremendously, but I can understand that sometimes, it’s nearly a commercial pretext. And then there’s the writer sub-plot (Reema is writing a novel in that Calcutta flat, and slowly merging Avinash in it), which doesn’t really add much to the film in terms of meaning. Because of such additions (and here I include the songs, that are nice, but really too KKHH-like for the film’s own good. I mean, the first one is actually shot in Salzburg!!), Calcutta mail’s overall effect is overshadowed by its commercial dimension. I was going to say, its Hollywoodian dimension. You know, that family-thriller type of film, where the emotionality of family ties are used to bring intensity to a political or social story.
Be that as it may, the film’s purpose is still saved for me because of Mishra’s exploration of the power of urban forces on individuals. If individuals have the proper protections (Reema’s bourgeois household and money), they can evade the violence and the pressure of the city. They can even pretend this violence doesn’t exist for them. They will always have something to fall back on (that’s why it would have made more social sense to condemn Reema’s experiment, instead of Bollywoodising it). But for the lower middle-classes to which Avinash belongs, there normally are no such protections. He has to fight with all his might if he wants to get his rights. And yet the film is not as socially or politically pure as it could have been (see Dharavi, or Main zinda hoon for that). Avinash manages to escape and beat the underworld in a far too unrealistic way! Still, he beats it a cost and this cost, together with Anil Kapoor’s energy and commitment create enough coherence for Mishra’s aficionado to feel grateful.
(Above is a very creative scene: while in hiding in Calcutta, Sujan's conman is taking a dance lesson! Will such civilising efforts elevate him away from savagery?)
And below is a picture of Rani Mukherjee taken as a subject for M. Mishra's camera.