A strangely engaging film, Manohar & I is difficult to classify. Is it an abstract art film about loneliness, a mystery or a form of romance? Certainly it is not a conventional popular genre film. Instead it offers a very slow-paced narrative set mainly on the streets of central Kolkata and two homes in villages outside the city. Most of the film was shot on an iPhone and processed in black & white in a widescreen ratio of approx. 2:1. It has a running time of nearly 2 hours so patience is needed.
The film is book-ended by an image of stars in the night sky. A dialogue between an unseen child and father reveals to us that every person has a star that represents their loneliness. The ‘I’ of the title is a youngish woman working in an office in central Kolkata. We first meet her watching vultures circling high in the sky above a Kolkata street. She discusses the vultures with an older man who we will soon learn is called Manohar. What kind of couple are they? They aren’t related and the questions exchanged between between them suggests they do not yet know each other well. Eventually we realise that they meet simply because they are going home from work and travelling in more or less the same direction to catch their trains taking them back to homes outside the the city. We see them make several such journeys, often walking together and once taking a tram. We will follow both of them home. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative except to note that the woman has an older sister who seemingly never leaves the house and mostly watches TV with the sound turned low, though we can hear that it often seems to be a natural history programme with an English language commentary – we never actually see what is on the screen. We also follow Manohar home but his living arrangements are much less clear.
I was reminded of two other Indian ‘independent’ films while watching this one. 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981) was the first film directed by the renowned Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen. The link here is the loneliness of the central character and the setting which is in the centre of Calcutta around Chowringhee and the Anglican cathedral. I didn’t recognise any of the street settings of Manohar & I but it is very much a film about Kolkata and does feature some of the older buildings of the city. The other film I was reminded of was The Lunchbox (India 2013). In this case the links are to the presentation of an odd romance which involves lonely characters and the important plot point that sees the male character discussing his intention to retire from his Mumbai job and move to a smaller resort town. Manohar talks about his own imminent retirement to what he refers to as his ancestral home in Giridih, a small mountain city in Jharkhand, the state carved out of Bihar in 2000. Giridh has a history of both industry (coal mining) and tourism, especially for the middle classes of Calcutta. Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali filmmaker, spent time in Giridih as a child. Both these films are aesthetically quite different to Manohar & I but there is something about the lives of ordinary people who work in the big city which is common across all three titles.
I’ve never shot any footage with an iPhone so I’m hesitant to comment on how the look of the film was created. I assume that for the static shots, often held in long shot for long takes, the director Amitabha Chaterji and Madhura Palit, both credited for photography though she shot most of it, used a tripod. The images are often in strongly contrasted black & white. The footage was processed from colour but many sequences are at night (it is supposed to be winter in the city) and in the Kolkata streets the bright lights of street vendors help to create the contrast with dark shadows. The pace is slow and this is emphasised on a couple of occasions when a transition leads to a seemingly blank black screen held for what seems like a long time until details of a room slowly begin to emerge, much in the way that the human eye gradually adjusts to a dark room. There is a long sequence in which the couple talk on a tram ride and we see the crowds on the evening streets in the background. I think there are two extremes for presentation of dialogue in a film, both of which can signify the reality of everyday speech. One technique is rapid fire with lines from different characters ‘overlapping’ as in Hawks’ His Girl Friday (US 1940). The opposite as used in Manohar & I is speech in short sentences or phrases, broken up with long gaps and that’s what works here.
Mahonar & I is a film about lonely people in a big city and in that sense it is universal, but if you have any sense of Kolkata as a city then this is also a very personal film about India’s once premier city under the British Raj which has since lost ground to New Delhi and Mumbai. Much of the old central area still has tree-lined streets of Victorian and early 20th century houses and it’s interesting that a scene towards the end of the film sees the younger sister going up to the roof of her office building and seeing a huge crane on a building site where a high-rise block is shooting up not far away. Somehow we know this view signals a change in the narrative. Kolkata is also a city of railways and both central characters use the local commuter network to get to and from their work.
Omar Ahmed chose this film as one of ’10 great films set in Kolkota’ that he sets out on the British Film Institute website – well worth a read. He also includes 36 Chowringhee Lane. Manohar & I has been quite a successful ‘festival film’ both inside and outside India. It is currently available on MUBI in the UK. Manohar & I actually had its UK première at HOME in Manchester as part of the October 2021 ‘Not Just Bollywood’ Festival and you can read an interview with the director Amitabha Chaterji on the HOME website by Dr Sanghita Sen. The director tells us that he was originally an engineer and had his own business in software development. He wasn’t particularly interested in filmmaking until a friend took him to an Ingmar Bergman retrospective at Nandan, the state film centre in Kolkata. His viewing of Wild Strawberries (Sweden 1957) bowled him over and he began to watch a much wider selection of films. Kolkata has always been a city with an intense involvement in film culture and he gradually moved into filmmaking, determined to keep close personal control over what he made. This is his first film and despite the difficulties he faced in distributing the film because of the pandemic, he has been able to start making his second feature.
Manohar is the only named character among the principals. He’s played by Shyamal Chakraborty. The younger sister is played by Monalisa Chatterjee and the older sister by Senjuti Roy Mukherjee. These are the only credited actors. I did enjoy the experience of watching the film, partly because of my interest in Bengali film culture. I’ll certainly look out for future films by this director.