Dir: Buddhadeb Dasgupta. India. 2000. 102 mins.
Prod co: Buddhadeb Dasgupta Productions. Int'l sales: Buddhadeb Dasgupta Productions, tel: (91) 33 4735545. Prod: Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Scr: Buddhadeb Dasgupta. DoP: Asim Bose. Prod des: Ashok Bose. Editor: Raviranjan Maitra. Music: Biswadeb Dasgupta. Main cast: Jaya Seal, Tapas Pal, Shankar Chakraborty, R.I.Asad, Tapas Adhikari, Saurav Das.
India has a low profile at the big festivals these days, but every now and again something comes along to show that there is (a little) more than Bollywood out there. Experienced director Dasgupta - a frequent festival guest - also produced and scripted this slight but good-looking fable of the loss of innocence in a world of religious intolerance.
In a part of rural Bengal that looks more like Scotland - with fine golfing potential - the wide open vistas are traversed by bicycles and the occasional train. Delhi is described as "another planet", and the one phone in the district is kapput. Two crossing guards, Nemai (Tapas Pal) and Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty), live together, eat together and wrestle together. The local Christian priest doubles up as a doctor and a feeder of the destitute, but despite (or perhaps because of) his good works, he is the focus of growing Hindu resentment.
Two catalysts ignite a slow-moving plot: the marriage of Balaram to pretty Uttara, played by Jaya Seal, whose arrival drives a wedge between the two crossing guards and exposes their undeclared homo-erotic urges; and the increasingly nasty threats of a bunch of knife-wielding Hindu extremists, which finally erupt into violence.
The director and DoP are rather too fond of symbolic tableaux: a procession of midget workers tramp down a muddy slope; the wrestlers work out on a scenic plateau, especially when the sunset is just right; masked dancers swing into the frame repeatedly, to no obvious purpose. These mannerisms tend to undermine the drama; but outrageous stylisation is a respected Indian tradition (just look at most Bollywood musicals), and if you can take the Pasolini-esque photographic set-ups, this is a refreshing, occasionally even moving film. Internationally, it will not be another Salaam Bombay, but may stir some fringe interest in Europe.