Starring: Anil Kapoor, Rani Mukherjee, Manisha Koirala, Sayaji Shinde, Saurabh Shukla, and Satish Kaushik
Music: Viju Shah & Anand Raaj Anand
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar & Mehboob
Screenplay: Sudhir Mishra, Saurabh Shukla & Ruchi Narain
Cinematography: Ravi Chandran
Producer: Ashwini Dutt
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Calcutta Mail has been described as a “suspense thriller”, though, as shall be seen, it has no element of “suspense”. Avinash (Anil Kapoor), newly arrived in Calcutta, is in search of someone. He procures lodgings in a Calcutta chawl and is befriended by Bulbul (Rani Mukherjee). Among his only contacts in the city is a bar owner and pimp, Ghatak (Saurabh Shukla), who true to his type knows no loyalties and recognizes only monetary forms of exchange.
Avinash’s quarry is Lakhan Yadav, a hired murderer who works for powerful feudal politician-landlord by the name of Sujan Singh (Satish Kaushik). As he hunts for Lakhan, Avinash in turn becomes hunted, and in that Calcutta chawl he is stabbed by Lakhan, only to stage a miraculous recovery. Nursed by Bulbul, Avinash slowly regains his strength; in an extended flashback, we are brought to an awareness of how Avinash came landed up in Calcutta. Many years ago, while traveling on a train, Avinash unwittingly found himself assisting a woman in distress. This woman, Sanjana (Manish Koirala), is being hunted by Lakhan and his men; she moves from carriage to carriage, and is given shelter in a carriage occupied by Muslim families. The Muslim men express outrage when Lakhan and his men barge into their compartment; the privacy of their women has been invaded. But though the Muslim men are willing to shelter a Hindu woman, women’s solidarity extends only so far. Sanjana, disguised as a veiled Muslim woman, is betrayed by one of the women. Sanjana now appears trapped; nonetheless, she and Avinash are able to make good their escape. The narrative structures of the Indian epics and the Kathasaritsagara — the tale within the tale, for example — are brought to the fore: here Sanjana must now recount how things came to this pass. As the educated, graceful, and sensitive daughter of Sujan Singh, Sanjana finds it difficult to accept that her father, the epitome of Hindu patriarchy, is willing to gift her in marriage to a thug like Lakhan. When Lakhan unblinkingly shoots a woman who had the effrontery to protest at Lakhan’s highhandedness at a club, Sanjana flees her father’s home. In running away, she has ruined her father’s prestige. Nothing is more intolerable to the patriarchal Hindu male than the loss of izzat (prestige, respect, honor).
Sanjana and Avinash get married; in time, and what else could transpire in the Hindi film, they have a son (Ishu). Ensconced in Avinash’s village, the threesome live an idyllic life. A number of years elapse. But all good things must come to an end. Sujan Singh’s men track down Sanjana, and her father comes to fetch her home; but she will have none of it. Sujan Singh and his men withdraw, but one knows that they will return. Sanjana persuades Avinash that they must flee the village; and but before they can do so, Ishu is abducted. Sanjana’s body lies in a pool of blood. There are reports of Sujan Singh’s estrangement from Lakhan, his realization that Lakhan, his paltu koota, can no longer be controlled. So did Lakhan shoot dead Sanjana, or was he acting, as he once did, at the behest of Sujan Singh? Avinash is framed for the murder of his own wife; at Sujan Singh’s bidding, the police prepare to finish him off in an “encounter killing”. But this being India, and the domain of the Hindi film, one can never be certain that those who are bribed will do the bidding of their masters. As Avinash is led into the forest, his uncle, himself in the police force, is able to get him free. Ishu, Avinash has been told, has been taken to Calcutta; and so there Avinash must go.
In the last analysis, the Hindi film cannot countenance anything except the predictable ending. The feud between Sujan Singh and Lakhan leaves both dead. In death, as in life, goons find each other. Ishu is recovered; and once again there will be a threesome of Avinash, Bulbul, and Ishu. So where is the “suspense”? Can one doubt that Ishu and Avinash will not be reunited? Some viewers might well claim that the suspense resides, for example, in the fact that the identity of Sanjana’s killers is not known until the very end. As the plot moves to its dénouement, Avinash is brought before Sujan Singh, who makes a show of being grievously wounded by his daughter’s killing and his grandson’s abduction. Though Avinash doubts him, Sujan Singh appears to be able to persuade him that, as a father, he could never have been implicated in his own daughter’s murder. Those filial bonds are not negotiable. All the mayhem, Sujan Singh alleges, occurred at Lakhan’s instigation. Tears nearly flow from Sujan’s eyes; Avinash, and the viewers, must feel that even a thuggish father cannot orchestrate his daughter’s death. However, as I would submit, the Hindi film draws a distinction between two highly authoritarian type of patriarchal figures. One type is ably represented by Amrish Puri as the father in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. Though these father figures are of stern disposition, and firmly believe that they are best positioned to make decisions on behalf of their children, their misery and boiling rage at the “rebellion” staged by their children never extends so far as to enable them to jeopardize the lives of their children. Whatever the oppressiveness of certain cultural traditions, tradition also imposes limits which are widely recognized. The second type of authoritarian patriarchy is symbolized by Sujan Singh. When, upon being introduced to him, the viewer is told that Sujan Singh hired Lakhan to commit 99 of the 100 murders he had planned, the viewer must perforce recognize that Sujan cannot be recuperated: he is a figure who has placed himself beyond the pale. Sujan recognizes no limits, and is the more ferocious, more adroit, counterpart of the pimp Ghatak. In every respect, he is perfectly capable of engineering his own daughter’s death.
The strengths of Calcutta Mail do not, however, reside in its plot, not that the film is not engaging. In its own way, Calcutta Mail lovingly evokes Calcutta; this, too, is a city film. The attempted abduction of Sanjana from the train, the hunt through the train’s corridors and compartments, evokes similar scenes from many other films, especially in the film noir genre; this long scene has its counterpart, as well, in the longish train-chase as Avinash runs after Lakhan. The director weaves his way in and out of Calcutta crowds, the metro, the trams, the railway platforms. The festivities of Durga Puja are juxtaposed with the grim determination with which Avinash single-mindedly remains in pursuit of Lakhan Yadav. Durga watches over the fate of Ishu, one can be sure.
Copyright: Vinay Lal, 3 November 2003