Director: Anirban Datta
Writer: Swastika Ganguly
Cast: Swastika Ganguly & Bikram Banerjee
Running time: 14mins
Male violence against women, as an intrinsic part of a socially formed male drive to subjugate, territorialise and commodify women physically and psychically, is one of the great problems of humanity across the globe. It is arguably the key obstacle to building a truly progressive society. As such, this is a subject that indy filmmakers will be inevitably drawn to. But it also means that it is too important an issue to tackle without consistency and due care.
The relevant questions I have to ask myself as a critic in this case are: is Abhinetri – The Actress worth anything as a piece of cinema; and will it contribute in some way to a greater understanding of violence against women? The answers are that the movie works in parts and shows a good deal of technical skill for a director near the beginning of their career but that it fails to give us a considered, explanatory picture of domestic violence.
Illustrating this, at the beginning, the filmmakers inform us that the movie is an ode to all the strong women across the globe who have survived domestic abuse / domestic violence. All fine and good, but this kind of phrasing arguably undermines the complexity of a horrible issue. Are the ‘strong’ women who do not survive, or perhaps ‘less strong’ women who – due to their socio-economic circumstances – stay and endure so many horrors to stay alive, somehow less worthy of our attention and celebration?
The plot centres on the Actor and the Actress – a married couple based in Kolkata, India. The narrative drive comes from Swastika Ganguly who wrote the screenplay based on one of her own short stories – and she takes the co-lead as the eponymous Actress alongside Bikram Banerjee as the Actor.
The Actor is portrayed as the doyen of West Bengal theatre, revered and respected. The Actress is very much the junior partner professionally – trying to build her own theatrical career. Quite near to the start of the movie, the Actor and the Actress are rehearsing a scene in a play by the renowned Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. Bang – the Actor suffers a heart attack and drops down dead on stage. For UK readers – think Benedict Cumberbatch actually dying on stage at Stratford – a big deal.
Sadly, when the Actor dies rehearsing the Tagore play, we are not given a translation of the lines spoken by the Actor and the Actress on stage, so we miss any possible foreboding or irony that the lines might have contained. Instead, director Anirban Datta swiftly launches into local TV news coverage of the death with talking heads from the Bengali media paying tribute to the ‘Great Man’.
Amid this outpouring, an all-too-familiar truth is revealed to us. We are shown a series of flashbacks detailing the marital relationship and pretty gruesome viewing they prove to be – rebarbative non-consensual sex scenes and in the midst of an argument the Actor punches the Actress in the face. Behind the apparent greatness of the Actor, a story emerges of an insecure man belittling, bullying, and controlling the woman in a relationship.
The flashbacks are extremely well achieved – Banerjee and Ganguly put in extremely strong performances. Banerjee in particular does loathsome male entitlement frighteningly well. Taken together with the fictional news footage, I felt that the movie might develop into something impactful. The bigger problem I had with it came with the footage which is interspersed with the flashbacks – and dominates the last half of the film. It is tonally at odds with the horrific realism of everything else.
On the technical side of the production, the movie is very much Anirban Datta’s – he was director, cinematographer, and editor. Here, his cinematography gives us a whole series of shots of Ganguly which his editing causes to emulate the style of an upmarket tourism advertisement video. The Actress appears in a selection of outfits and with different designer sunglasses on a boat, or a deserted paradise beach, or on the walkway of what appears to be a luxury yacht marina, constantly gazing pensively out to sea.
What was particularly disconcerting about these scenes is that apart from a glimpse of some tiny figures far in the distance on the beach, we see other no other human beings apart from the Actress. It all appeared so weirdly solipsistic that Ganguly could have been some vacuous soft rock star, preserved in cobwebbed MTV archive footage from the land time forgot. During the longueurs, my mind started to wander to speculate how they managed to film Ganguly in splendid isolation in one of the most crowded cities on earth – later I noted the country of origin as being New Zealand so possibly what we were seeing was an ersatz Bengal.
To accompany the Actress’s relentless interrogation of the sea view, the soundtrack uses what I take to be Bengali folk music – it is entrancing – beautiful cadences and, to me, strange rhythmic changes with beguiling vocals – some of which are sung by Ganguly. It might be the case that the lyrical content is a little lost in translation; but the words seem to reflect the Actress’s interior monologue. And it’s whimsical fairy speak. With the audience having been graphically shown the Actress’s experience of abuse and is rooting for her, we are asked to believe in a thought process that would come up with the declaration Oh boatman, my life is like this ocean – vast and endless.
The other issue with the way things unfolds, is that the footage poses questions about the Actress’s apparently deep mourning for an abusive partner. The narrative had constructed such a devastating picture of the Actor as a total scumbag. It is hard to understand why her reaction, as a strong woman, would not have been one of celebration for a blessed release from continual oppression. Of course, everyone processes trauma and grief differently. It would be wrong to gloss over the complexity of a survivor’s feelings towards their abuser, or simply assert that the end of the abuser’s life would grant them guaranteed and immediate closure – especially when their ghost looms so large in the public’s outpouring of love and respect for them. But if these feelings are to be represented, they need to be more fully explored.
To imagine the real-world reception of Abhinetri – The Actress as it is, without exploring this further, I thought about the filmmakers’ possible target audience. Imagine, for example, a physically abused wife, imprisoned in her in-laws’ house in a dirt-poor rural village in West Bengal. I wondered what this woman might make of this Ode to Strong Women, with its storyline of a middle-class woman having been freed by the accident of the husband’s death, only to mourn her fate surrounded by the continued comforts of a middle-class lifestyle. Somehow, I find it hard to believe the reaction would be – Solidarity sister!
There might also be something worth illustrating about the public’s unwillingness to ask moral questions of men whose talents they admire. This is something a real-life high-profile domestic abuse case has grotesquely illustrated in recent months…
Despite these short-comings, there are still many things to admire about Abhinetri – The Actress. As mentioned, Ganguly and Banerjee produce some powerful moments in their depictions of the lead characters. And, whatever I thought of the ‘tourist footage’, much of the camera work, music, and editing is first class. I admittedly enjoyed the post-modern impishness from Datta when he included himself as one of the talking heads commenting on the Actor’s tragic demise. Shots are also rich with subtext – and one nice touch worth mentioning sees Banerjee’s Reichian Little Man character reading in bed one of the Ur-texts of machismo – a Lee Child novel.
The sardonic muse of 20th century New York, the late Lou Reed, once told us I don’t like messages or something meant to say. And I wish people like that would just go away. Like Mr Reed, I am always somewhat wary of artwork that announces itself as having a social or political statement as the core reason for its creation. Abhinetri – The Actress’ opening promise of an ‘ode’ to ‘all strong women who have survived domestic abuse’ subsequently saw my spirits take a bit of a dive, then. It is not so much that films shouldn’t tackle these topics, but that they need to be careful – and less didactic – when they engage with them. I am sure on the basis of this film that Datta and the team do have the ability to progress in indy cinema. But, my advice for the future would be to be more modest in their aspirations, try not to wear your heart on your sleeve to the extent you have in this movie, and produce a body of work that speaks for itself. The impact that their films will have on the world outside cinema will follow naturally from that.