On the surface, Ek Je Chilo Raja (There lived a King) recreates the infamous Bhawal Sanyasi case ( https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhawal_case) – presented as the story of the erstwhile lecherous prince of Bikrampur estate, Raja Mahendra Kumar Chowdhury, who was presumably long ‘dead’ drowned in the repercussions of his own affluence, with his legacy long forgotten by most of his followers; but one who returned to base after twelve long years as the wandering sanyasi and was eventually coaxed to admit his relinquished identity by his well-wishers, and charged as an imposter by his wife and her brother at the same time. What followed was a long drawn legal battle over years across multiple courts of law, that finally settled on the verdict that the sanyasi was indeed the prince. But strangely enough the man at the center of all attention could not live that reclaimed life and died immediately after which was considered as the ultimate divine punishment for the imposter by many.
Ek je chhilo Raja makes a fine film out of this premise. However beyond that, the film can actually be taken as a prop to tell a much larger story of of the life and times of its prolific filmmaker Srijit Mukherji – the filmmaker who had lost himself to his own overindulgence for long now, and the legacy of his glorious creations like Jatishwar or Chotushkone gradually forgotten under the burden of a series of mediocre films over several years now. This truly is the return of the man to the core strength of his craft – one who once knew the controlled and minimalistic language of films well, the one who could tell good stories without the crutches of over stylized tropes, and the one who could create engaging drama without going overly theatrical in delivering the pitch. Well almost!
Almost because Mukherji gets the first and second acts of the film (the sections focusing on the lavish lifestyle of the lustful prince, or the one about the wandering sadhu to rediscover his own self) almost pitch perfect, but can’t let go the lure of adding some amount of theatrics in the third act of the court case. One – it was not necessary for Mukherji to suddenly shoot the entire court proceedings and the drama around that on a grey scale. Possibly he wanted to additionally stress on the black / white / grey behavior patterns of the individuals involved in the hearing, but that premise was already well established through the high quality story he had narrated so far. More importantly, the entire track of the prosecution and defense lawyers having a past of their own somewhat intruded into the proceedings, and affected the professional gravity of the case without adding any meaningful subtext to an already complicated situation. The gender equation that the prosecution wanted to play on especially appeared as hollow feminism, as did the defense lawyer’s forced anti British stand stand out as hollow nationalism. Hope Mukherji can reign himself in from adding these extra subplots in his future ventures – forced additional seasoning often robs an otherwise near perfect dish from some of its flavors and tenderness.
Which is a slight setback for some of us, who were indeed cheering for a brilliant cinematic piece Mukherji (also the screenplay writer of the film) had pulled together for the most part of the film, including effectively keeping the final resolution about the man open ended. The first half of the film focusing on the social commentary on the life and times of the prince of Bikrampur is particularly very impressive and creates its own aura. Very detailed production and costume design impeccably create the period in all its glory, and the attention to detail is praiseworthy. The intentional slow pacing nicely sets up the mood of the times of how the then estate princes used to do nothing whiling away all the time in company of concubines and alcohol. And the terrific musical score by Indraadip Das Gupta beautifully blends in to further accentuate the grandeur of the environment. Ek je chhilo Raja easily has one of the richest and most invigorating soundtracks of bengali cinema in recent times, seamlessly integrating into the needs of the script. Add to it the perfect choice of vocal artists from Shreya Ghoshal to Sahana Bajpaie to Kaushiki Chakraborty to Arijit Singh to Kailash Kher for five completely different but equally beautiful songs and one cannot escape getting wowed. ‘Esho hey‘ is my pick of the lot and has the most impactful use in the film along with ‘Tu dikhe na‘. Sharp editing by Pronoy Dasgupta adds to the overall effectiveness; and barring some odd, overindulgent camera angles at a few places, digitally recreated fire shots, or one poor tiger graphic, this film is much better mounted and far more controlled in shot execution than most of Mukherji’s recent films too.
But above all of this, the biggest asset of the film is possibly its performances. Almost everyone delivers and leaves a memorable footprint of the character. Anjan Dutta comes up with his third remarkable performance of the year and is wonderfully in character of the sharp but empathetic defense counsel. Anirban Bhattacharya delivers yet again and keeps his emotions rightly calibrated to avoid it from becoming a caricaturish villain. Rudranil Ghosh almost gets it right other than losing control in just about one court scene. Sreenanda Shankar is effective as the seductive mistress, while newcomer Rajnandini Paul is cleverly given very little to do and luckily she doesn’t falter. The one who falters big time though and painfully sticks out as the loud, over the top, caricaturish defense counsel is the supremely talented Aparna Sen unfortunately, and I wonder why she of all was given some of the most outrageous dialogs of the film. In sharp contrast to Sen stands Jaya Ahsan, who is absolutely brilliant as the favorite sister of the prince, and totally syncs in to the character mastering the dialect and the genuine emotions of Mrinmayee with complete conviction. A brilliant act there!
But the one who practically owns the film in every frame and is sensational beyond all praises is Jisshu Sengupta in the title character. Easily the best performance of his entire career and by a distance, its impossible to think of anyone else who could have delivered Raja Mahendra Kumar Chowdhury or the sanyasi with such elan. It is a performance sans all vanity of the actor, and Jisshu gets every beat, every glance, and every expression of all the three different stages of his character arc with equal ease and conviction. His minimalism becomes his biggest strength in the film, which helps him to portray a range of emotions with perfection – whether its his voluptuous stares over a game of chess, or clinging on to the last bit of princely pride even on a death bed, or his aimless meandering as the semi naked yogi, or his righteousness to protect a woman’s honor in an open court; he aces it all and how! It will be difficult for Jisshu to surpass this performance in the future, but may be that is the benchmark he should challenge himself with!
Afterall, we don’t want to live in the past reminiscences of men who have it in them to be the Kings of their own trade. Srijit and Jisshu just need to continue channelizing their craft in the right direction with the right intent. Like they did here.
To good cinema! To the long lost king!