Kaalbela is noted writer Samaresh Majumdar's second book of a famous trilogy which has an epic-like quality. The three novels are Uttaradhikar, Kaalbela and Kaalpurush.
Award-winning filmmaker Goutam Ghose has chosen Kaalbela, the cult-status novel of the trilogy, for celluloid adaptation. It also marks his return to form after the disastrous Yatra.
The story traces the journey of a young boy growing up in north Bengal who comes to Kolkata and gets involved in student politics of CPI (M), and subsequently in the Naxalite movement which later leads to his disillusionment. Ghose has made structural changes in the narrative style from literature to film, but has remained within the framework of the life, love and political philosophy of the protagonist, Animesh Mitra.
The film opens in the present with Animesh (Parambrato Chatterjee)'s voice-over talking about the unusual love story between Madhurilata and himself. The narrative moves back to Jalpaiguri with Animesh preparing to leave for Kolkata much against the wishes of his father and affectionate stepmother. The next flashback shows Animesh caught in a counter-attack between the police and student political activists. He is shot in the leg and wakes up to find himself shackled to a hospital bed.
The film keeps moving between the past and the present, using the banks of the river as a metaphor of life perhaps, flowing on oblivious to the turbulence among people's lives. It also symbolises the eternity of Madhurilata's unconditional love for him, despite his distancing himself from her, drawn as he is to his shifting political loyalties and leaders.
Characters walk in and out of his life, some offering solid support such as his poet-roommate, his parents, and Madhurilata, while others, like his political mentors, add more restlessness to his restive soul. Madhurilata's rebellion, the film insists, is stronger and bolder but quieter than Animesh's and he admits it in the end as she tends to her crippled partner — marriage is not mentioned, and takes care of their little son, Arko. A young woman's individual struggle to stick to her principles, in life or in love, is no less rebellious than a young man's involvement in collective revolution that is soaked in blood, it seems to say.
The cinematography is brilliant and so is the dialogue. "a lata (creeper) always wraps itself around you, doesn't it?" asks Madhurilata (Paoli Dam) Animesh once. The strains of carefully chosen Tagore songs sung by Paoli herself without orchestral support are not only memorable and lyrical but also enrich the texture of the film. Ghose is music-director too and his music is melodious and moving. The cast lends him brilliant support and the characterisations come across lucidly.
So, what's wrong? Kaalbela is a good film but on the whole, it lacks power. Its cinematic props are excellent — good music, good sound effects, good production design, intelligent dialogue, good acting, but the ability to bring out the core message of the film —of the endurance of the human spirit, is lacking. The other lapses are - a somewhat loose script that is too verbose in the first half; overlong footage, and some logical lapses such as the revolutionary leader Sunil-da sporting streaked hair in the 1970s!