Cast: Adil Hussain, Amrita Chattopadhyay, Nandita Das, Imaad Shah, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah
Director: Ranjan Palit
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
In A Knock on the Door, his second narrative feature as director, cinematographer-filmmaker Ranjan Palit juxtaposes the abject with the absurd in a portrayal of the plight of a Kolkata couple subjected to political repression.
The film goes for the jugular but does so not with gnashed teeth but with a pained smirk on the face. Combining bemusement with belligerence, it takes aim at and lands stinging punches on the abuse of power by forces that dread debate, dissent and democracy.
The English-Bangla-Hindi film, which Palit wrote with Ritwik Sinha and shot in Kolkata, is a psycho-political drama that darts between the polemical and the spoofy, the surreal and the stark, the hard-hitting and the quizzical without ever going off-balance.
A Knock on the Door draws its strength from the writing as well as stupendous performances from Adil Hussain and Amrita Chattopadhyay (both of whom had substantial roles in Palit’s first film, Lord of the Orphans, an inimitably structured history of the director’s family).
Besides Nandita Das and Imaad Shah in key and impactful supporting roles, the cast includes Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah in significant cameos. Among other things, the two seasoned actors deliver Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” soliloquy in a manner that is as much theatre of the absurd as it is Shakespeare. The resultant dissonance aptly sums up the Sisyphean struggles of the tormented protagonists.
The plot of A Knock on the Door is, however, firmly rooted in reality. It incorporates the aftermath of the recent Covid-19 pandemic and the continued harassment of unyielding activists and academics who dare to defy an ideology being sought to be rammed down the throats of people.
A Knock on the Door premiered on Monday at the 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam (January 25-February 5, 2023) as part of a special 19-film package titled Focus: The Shape of Things to Come?, a curation aimed at understanding what the future holds for the world’s largest democracy.
The film centres on a late-night raid on the home of Professor Hari Chowdhury (Adil Hussain) and his one-time student and now wife Ramona Bose (Amrita Chattopadhyay), also a college lecturer. The principal target of the invasion is the former because of his political and social beliefs.
What Hari reads and writes, the books he has in his collection, the ideas he propagates, and the protest meetings he leads put him in the line of fire of the establishment. The raid leaves scars on both Hari and Ramona, who stands by her husband like a rock. But panic and paranoia begin to get the better of them.
When the film opens, the pandemic has just ended and Hari is cooking a lamb curry to celebrate the third anniversary of his and Ramona’s marriage. A power outage scuttles the quiet dinner. Worse follows. Five people with weird three-faced masks barge into the house and take away Hari’s laptop, hard drive and other stuff. Among other things, the raiding party wants to know what meat the couple is about to eat.
Lord of the Orphans was defiantly form-breaking and marked by a staggeringly inventive visual design. A Knock on the Door resorts to more conventional methods to portray the plight of a rebel haunted by the repercussions of his resistance. It has elements of a dark thriller, but it is anything but a genre film.
It is accessible and has suspense and intrigue, but the director-cinematographer stirs the pot with vigour and transcends the limits of form. Provocative and playful in equal parts, A Knock on the Door pushes the boundaries of the political film, too.
The film moves between the personal and the public, the psychological and the physical and the nightmarish and the tangible to depict the deleterious effect surveillance has on the human psyche.
Official power is vested in the police department and the dean of Prof. Hari Chowdhury’s university. A deputy commissioner of police played by film conservationist and filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and the officer-in-charge of a police station, a role essayed by actor-director Ashoke Viswanathan do nothing to ease matters for the tyrannised.
Naseeruddin Shah dons the garb of the university dean who misses no opportunity to chastise Hari for his refusal to fall in line. He appropriates Bob Dylan to warn Hari of troubles up ahead. “There is a battle outside and it is ragin’,” he says. The irony isn’t lost on Hari because he knows “it is like the Emergency all over again”.
Many such moments highlight the disconnect between the two married professors and Aman (Imaad Shah), a student writing a thesis under Hari’s guidance, and the world around them that is swarming with pliable men and women out to prove that Ramona and Hari are going insane.
One person in their circle who Ramona and Hari have no reason to suspect (although there is palpable tension between her and the former at an emotional level) is Reena (Nandita Das), Hari’s lawyer and ex (it isn’t specified if she was a girlfriend or a wife).
Also on their side, at least on the face of it, is a psychiatrist (Anupriya Goenka), who seeks to soothe the nerves of her client. In an environment where truth and trust are at a premium, Ramona and Hari are, however, never rid of their reservations and trepidations.
A local politician contemptuous of the likes of Hari, an ice-cream vendor who also sells mask, a drunk caretaker whose memory is hard to rely on, a fishmonger’s assistant who is too inquisitive for comfort, a biker who seems to be on Ramona’s trail and law-enforcers who do everything other than what they are supposed to exacerbate matters for the victimised couple.
Palit’s camera captures the characters and the settings in relationship, and in opposition, with each other. It also rustles up a veritable dance of light and shade, choreographed with an eye on reflecting the tension and trauma of two people holed up in their homes.
The eclectic soundtrack (the background score is by filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee) is studded with mostly diegetic numbers and singing voices. They range from Goodnight Irene, an aria from a Handel opera and a Goalpara medley (sung by Adil Hussain) to a tribal protest song (Gaon chorab nahi jungle chorab nahi) and a Baul composition sung on-screen by Kanai Das Baul.
A gut-punch of a film driven by courage and clarity, A Knock on the Door is made all the more potent by its fine synthesis of heart and craft. An absolute triumph.
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