Synopsis: A sweet and gently ironic story about the daughter of the village prostitute who desperately seeks an education rather than following in her mother’s footsteps. The film beautifully captures traditional Bengali life while unfolding the powerful confrontation between Natabr (Ramgopal Bajaj), a lecherous businessman with an eye for young girls, Rajani (Rituparna Sengupta), the prostitute mother who is delighted that such a powerful man would take interested in her still-virginal daughter, and Lati (Samata Das), who is appalled by these events and begs the local school teacher for help.
eyelights: its lovely mixture of drama and comedy. its interconnecting stories.
eyesores: its uncritical portrayal of prostitution.
‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’ is a 2002 award-winning Indian film based on three of director Buddhadev Dasgupta’s poems and a Prafulla Roy short story called ‘A Window to the Moon’ (or ‘The Moon in the Sky and a Window’ in the original Bengali). Set in the ’60s, it revolves around a rural Indian brothel, focusing its lens on a handful of characters in and around the brothel.
I don’t know how often I stumbled upon ‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’ during my various DVD hunts, but it was pretty often. It wasn’t an omnipresent title, but it seemed like it popped up regularly enough – enough so that I was fully aware of its existence. However, I was put off by the English translation of its title, ‘A Tale of a Naughty Girl’, which, given the context, left me feeling icky.
I eventually gave in after much consideration, swayed partly by a low price point. I was pleasantly surprised by the picture. What I enjoyed most was Dasgupta’s ability at weaving three primary stories together whilst carrying along a few secondary characters and then merging them into a primary one at the tail end. It’s been done before but I didn’t expect this whatsoever.
Nor did I expect the skill with which it was done.
At the very start, one gets the impression that Bakul is the main character of the picture. Unable to pay for her cab, she offers herself in payment to the cab driver instead. He considers it but changes his mind. Left in the desert, she meets a courtesan, Basanti, who is going to the same brothel as her. They leave together, but Bakul is made fun of by Basanti and her friend.
However, that is merely a way to introduce Ganesh, the cab driver, who becomes a recurring character. From that point it is established that he isn’t doing well at his job at all, getting jipped by clients at each turn. He even gets saddled with an aged couple who are trying to get to a hospital. He is an important part of the mild comic relief in ‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’.
(Another amusing element is a donkey that’s so intelligent that it can answer questions that people ask it, provided that they are simple choices. When asked to pick between things or people, it walks over to what it considers to be the correct answer. Naturally people are entertained by its brand of wisdom and ask the donkey all sorts of silly questions to see what its answers will be.)
The character of Ganesh is a way of introducing what would end up being the main character, Lati, the daughter of one of the sex workers, Rajani. His boss, Natabar, is a wealthy cinema owner who is in negotiations with Lati’s mother to take her daughter in as a mistress in exchange for a lifetime of luxury for the both of them. Ganesh is tasked with driving him to this rendez-vous.
When we first meet our young teenaged protagonist, she and her friend Shabu are just wandering about killing time and chasing a cat. Lati understands the value of education, knowing it can get her and her mom out of their situation. She’s very smart, but her mom won’t let her go back to school, so she asks for help from her teacher. He offers to take her to Calcutta to study with him.
But Rajani doesn’t just misunderstand the value of education, nor is she just looking out for her daughter’s welfare – she is also looking out for herself. Natabar is making all sorts of promises, including housing both of them in a comfortable dwelling outside of town. Her eyes gleam at the thought of escaping her life of exploitation. She can almost taste it, and refuses to let go.
Although it’s not especially gritty, and woefully so, ‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’ is nonetheless a condemnation of the life these women are forced to lead. Some of the young women talk about going elsewhere, about loathing being touched by men, …etc. There is also discussion around one of the them being sold off to the brothel by her husband. The injustice comes through quite clearly.
What’s interesting is that, much like the picture lacks the grimness you’d expect, it also lacks the explicitness you’d imagine given the setting. In fact, it is quite mild, all things considered: aside from some suggested sapphism, when the three young courtesans were grooming each other in a mildly sensual way, moaning, there is absolutely no sexuality on the screen – not even implied.
I was really taken aback by Dasgupta’s approach. In conventional North American motion pictures of this ilk, it goes without saying that Lati’s plight would be dealt with in a more melodramatic fashion: there would be threats, violence, abuse, …etc. And it wouldn’t be sexy, but there would be sex. After all, it sells particularly well. But Dasgupta eschews these conventions.
Instead of titillating his audience, the auteur decided to use this story to implore his audience to embrace the education of women, so that they may have a greater wealth of opportunities in life. In fact, the story is put in contrast with shots of astronauts going to the moon, indicating that education is one giant step for womankind. ‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’ is a feminist film.
I wasn’t bowled over by ‘Mondo Meyer Upakhyan’, but I thought it was very good picture. Perhaps if its subject matter were new to me, or if it had been infused with a little bit more magic, I would have been more taken with it. I suspect that some people might be more moved by it, however, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone interested in foreign films and gender politics.
Post scriptum: I should advise against getting the Alliance Films DVD release. For reasons that escape me, the picture is squeezed out of proportion, affecting its proper ratio – meaning that everything looks slightly scrunched up. A real shame, as this is a film that could have looked quite nice.
Date of viewing: July 12, 2014