Autograph -- Film Review

Bengali art cinema pays homage to its immortals in an ambitious directing debut.

ABU DHABI — An off-beat niche item featuring top Tollywood star Prosenjit Chatterjee, "Autograph" is a off-and-on engrossing movie about making a movie and the high cost of making it in the film biz, marred by an overly complex screenplay and a running time that exceeds two hours. Still, first time writer-director Srijit Mukherji’s obvious love of cinema redeems at least part of the scripting problems; many viewers will find this an appealing intro to Bengali art films and Chatterjee’s warm, charismatic persona.

Beyond an enthusiastic critical reception at home and in the Indian diaspora, its subject should locate some off-shore festival dates. Paying its respects to two immortals of Bengali cinema, Satyajit Ray and Uttam Kumar, the film includes a cameo by the late, great actor-director Dilip Roy, who died Sept. 2.

Shubho (Indraneel Sengupta), an untried young film director bent on breaking into the movie industry without compromising his artistic vision, has the good fortune of signing a deal memo with superstar Arun Chatterjee (Prosenjit Chatterjee), who badly needs a critical hit. The film is to be a remake of Ray’s 1966 Nayak starring Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore, about a famous movie star who, in a drunken outpouring, confesses a lifetime of personal misdeeds to a woman journalist.

Shubho decides to cast his live-in girlfriend Srinandita (the sparkling Nandana Sen), a stage actress, as the female lead and the shooting begins, with the vain, jaded Arun as both producer and star. Shubho’s own ego and ambitions soon swell to monstrous proportions and his relationship with the good Srinandita goes from giggling pillow fights to cold-blooded betrayal of the nastiest sort. Meanwhile, off-screen, Arun’s respect for Srinandita’s innocence and integrity blossoms into deeper feelings, and in a drunken moment of trust when they are alone together, he confesses the most damning moments of his personal life to her.

This is quite a narrative handful for a first-time director, and the fact that about half of it works is an achievement. Chatterjee’s charming heel Arun performs a lot of magic here, and it is his ability to convey the anxieties of a star fighting to stay on top while his image crumbles that grounds the film.

Sung off-key is the over-idyllic portrait of Srinandita and Shubho’s life together before filming begins -- and the dose gets doubled with the obligatory song and dance numbers -- in scenes that come off as irritatingly smarmy and affected, seemingly aimed at pulling in mainstream Indian audiences with visions of a modern, unwed relationship. Also begging to be shot down are Arun’s recurrent nightmares, which can’t hold a candle to the dream sequence in Nayak that they parrot.

On the plus side, Mukherji gets the ending just right, a bittersweet door that closes on the characters, leaving a taste of genuine poignancy as the curtain drops.

Production companies: Shree Venkatesh Films, Cinergy Pictures          
Cast: Prosenjit Chatterjee, Nandana Sen, Indranil Sengupta, Rudra Prasad Sengupta, Piyush Ganguly
Director /screenwriter: Srijit Mukherji
Producers: Shrikant Mohta, Mahendra Soni, Madhu Mantena Varma
Director of photography: Soumik Haldar
Production designer: Gautam Basu
Music: Debojyoti Mishra
Editor: Bodhaditya Banerjee
Sales Agent: Shree Venkatesh Films
Unrated, 128 minutes