Set to further his reputation as Bengali cinema’s enfant terrible, Kaushik Mukherjee aka Q’s follow up to Gandu is an abstract fantasy based on Rabindranath Tagore’s story of the same name. Anyone expecting a classical rendering of Tagore will be in for a surprise – this is a radical rendering of the source text, one that has scant regard for drama, preferring to concentrate on freewheeling, imaginative visuals.
Chock-full of memorable set pieces, visual motifs and haunting sequences, it’s cinema as sensory experience; a heady rush of split-screen, stop-start sequences where historical flashbacks come in colour and the present-day appears as bleak monochrome. It’s frequently eye-catching and will stick in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
Boasting modern interpretations of Tagore’s songs by Susheela Rahman and Asian Dub Foundation that make this often resemble a series of art-school music videos, Tasher Desh does achieve its aim of bringing Tagore into the sensory-overloaded present. But it’s also here that the ambitious sweep of Q’s vision starts to get a little overstuffed. As he switches between monochromatic bleakness, epic fantasy flashbacks and blandly gorgeous sun-kissed sea-and-sand sequences with gay embraces and lesbian kisses sure to bother Indian censors, the radical shifts in tone create a mood of exhilarating, unsettling chaos, but you’re never sure if there’s any real point to it all or if Q is just showing off. But maybe that’s enough. “How can anyone tolerate this?” asks one character before another replies: “we are spoon fed all the time”.
With little narrative, the characters debate fatalism, psychic imprisonment and personal freedoms, speaking in stagey dialogue more interested in philosophical enquiry than emotional arcs. When one of the leads wishes he could have the life of a farmer, his friend fires back: “you should ask him what he thinks of you”. The exchanges give Tasher Desh an attractive intellectual rigor, though the heavy formalism can make it one to admire rather than love.
A jarring antidote to Bollywood, Tasher Desh gleefully twists masala structure to fit its own cerebral, self-indulgent needs. When its characters explain their belief in not being stuck in the past, it seems as much a comment on cinema as much as their own lives. A film of extremes, Tasher Desh will be enjoyably perverse for some, maddeningly irritating for the rest. An assault of surreal, seemingly disconnected images, it’s as impenetrable as it is audacious. Juvenile, wise, confrontational, it seems like a riff on a new Indian aesthetic.