September 27, 2013
Ashish R. Shukla
Chandan Roy Sanyal, Elena Kazan, Mayank Kumar, Arfi Lamba, Sonia Bindra
Hindi, English, a bit of Czech and Russian
I watched Prague for the second time this week to refresh my memory of the film for this review; the first time was at the Cinefan film festival in Delhi in 2012. That I could enjoy it again despite knowing the climax is a mark of how cleverly director Ashish R. Shukla has stitched together this psychological thriller about a mentally troubled young man.
Through a narrative travelling between Europe in the present and India in flashback, we see what brought this 'normal'-looking chap to this pass. Chandan is/was an architecture student, too shy to approach the girl he liked. Shubhangi is/was that girl. Arfi is/was his friend. Gulshan is/was his often crude, obnoxious yet well-meaning classmate. Chandan and Gulshan bag a trip to Prague to do their thesis. Once there, they meet a pretty local girl, the dancer Elena.
Guilt+jealousy is a combustible combination. I won’t reveal the cause of Chandan’s guilt here. What I can tell you is that his insecurities seem to stem from an underlying conviction that he’s not good enough – for Shubhangi or Elena. When did he metamorphose from the cocksure fellow cruelly indifferent to Arfi’s cries to an under-confident youngster? Has his over-active imagination been triggered by the green-eyed monster, or by his psychological frailty brought on by guilt, or perhaps even by substance abuse? What came first? We must find out.
The fulcrum of Prague is theatre and film actor Chandan Roy Sanyal whose calling card with Bollywood audiences so far has been the supporting role of Mikhail in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey in 2009. Between then and now, he has made several appearances in Hindi, English and Bengali films, some that have effectively tapped his tremendous talent (F.A.L.T.U., D-Day) and others that have terribly shortchanged him (Hema Malini’s Tell Me O Kkhuda). It’s a joy then to see him play the lead in Prague, delivering a performance that’s only possible when a man invests his entire body, mind and soul in a complex, demanding role. India has woken up to the remarkable Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the past couple of years. Hopefully soon, the spotlight will fall on an equally deserving talent going by the name Chandan Roy Sanyal.
His co-stars have all been well-chosen. Elena Kazan was seen earlier this month playing Randeep Hooda’s alcoholic girlfriend in John Day. In Prague she’s a woman desperate to help Chandan although his inordinate curiosity about her past loves leads her to tell him with disgust that he’s “a typical Indian man”. The German-Russian actress’ proficiency with Indian languages is charming, her on-screen journey from carefree soul to heart-broken lover seems effortless. Arfi Lamba as Arfi and Mayank Kumar as Gulshan are equally natural performers.
The other star of this film is its music featuring old and original compositions in Hindi, English, Bengali and Czech, some in their entirety, some in snatches. The standout elements are the haunting Czech number Kap kap kap which the subtitles tell me translates into “Drip drip drip”; and that scene in which Gulshan starts singing Meri bheegi bheegi si palkon pe rah gaye from the 1970s Hindi film Anamika at which point Chandan cuts in with the original Bengali song from which it took its tune, Mone pore Ruby Ray. Lovely! The soundtrack, Elena’s stage performance, the streets of Prague, its history and landmarks, the snappy editing and Udaysingh Mohite’s disturbingly intimate camerawork come together to build up the ever-on-the-edge, ever suspicious, never-completely-happy mood of Prague and its protagonist.
The film’s screenplay (credited to Sumit Saxena, Ashish R. Shukla, Akshendra Mishra, Vijay Verma and producer Rohit Khaitan) is complex but never convoluted. The one sore point for me is the writing of the character Shubhangi, which has touches of that cliched women-get-into-relationships-to-take-advantage-of-gullible-men trope that some gentlemen propagate. This is not a thought emerging from Chandan’s imagination but hinted at by the tone of a couple of scenes. In retrospect that puts a whole new colour on the use of the song from Anamika in which you might recall that the lyrics at one point went thus: “Aag se naata, naari se rishta / Kahe mann samajh na paaya.” Perhaps this was unintentional, but it’s an issue worth raising. As it happens, some of Shubhangi’s English dialogues sound slightly stilted, which is surprising considering that all the other lines in the film flow naturally.
I’m not sure I agree with the choice of title for the film, but the choice of foreign location is apt. Unlike Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’s tourist-brochure-like tribute to Spain, Prague is not used in this film merely for its beauty. Chandan doesn’t go abroad simply to illustrate how hard it had become for him to escape his demons. There’s that point too, no doubt, but Prague in particular becomes a metaphor for the game of self-deception his mind is playing with itself, as Elena explains to him that locals took advantage of the Nazi-run concentration camps in Europe for Jews, using them as a cover to run similar camps to finish off gypsies during World War II, later blaming this travesty on the Nazis. For art, architecture and history buffs, there are moments like this scattered throughout Prague. In fact, one of the film’s nicest scenes has Elena and Chandan before the city’s statue of The Cloak of Conscience, trying to decipher it.
Prague is a thoroughly engaging, highly engrossing film. It demands every ounce of the viewer’s attention, but in the end it’s an intriguing, rewarding experience.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
1 hours 49 minutes
Photograph courtesy: Team Prague