The thing about building a house of cards — indeed, a country of cards — is that its very existence is rooted in caprice. With Tasher Desh, radical filmmaker Q takes on Rabindranath Tagore’s play and interprets a familiar text with much vim and great style, and yet the fact that the end results are uneven — and uneven they certainly are — seems as much an inevitability as a matter of choice. Discordance was always, well, on the cards. And nitpicking about consistency feels as relevant here as wondering, during construction, why an eight of spades is propping up a jack of diamonds, or why some of us save picture cards for the peak, for the house’s spire.
This is a bizarre film, one that unapologetically meanders through most of its first hour, giving us a hint of its characters while soaking us in a psychedelic cauldron of ennui. It’s the same one Q’s protagonists sip from. On one hand is a bespectacled Writer who wants to mount a production of Tasher Desh, but is overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the world around him. He escapes into the pages, where we meet the play’s hero, a restless Prince weary of his luxurious cage. And as the story flip-flops between these two, the teller and the doer, the film’s visuals take over our heads as if Q were playing with the Luduvico Technique without warning. The surreal, madcap imagery is captivating, and many an image remains lodged in my head. Even a few that I found tiresome at the time.
A primary reason for the tenacity of these strong, strange images — an Oracle with David Bowie cheekbones, a toddler prince with a sword larger than himself, clockwork squirrels going around in circles — is how violently they’re juxtaposed, not just against each other in immediate contrast, but along with the music. The soundtrack takes the songs from Tagore’s original musical and keeps the lyrics the same, and while the music is edgy and eclectic and defiantly modern, it is the classic lyrical heft that propels the film’s narrative. The filmmakers have done an artful job of subtitling these words, often sacrificing literality for inferred meaning, which helps greatly in grasping the film. This happens with dialogue too, when characters repeat the same lines and words over and over but the subtitles ascribe different meanings, or emphasise different parts of the translated line. The word “Nirbashan,” for example, is translated as both “Banish” and “Punish.”
The first time we meet the Prince, he’s keeping up a metronomically precise ping-pong rally, his rhythm as unswerving as a stenographer’s typewriter. His urge to leave home is fierce. His friend, the son of a merchant, is naturally pragmatic, advocating the plush creature comforts around them instead of flying off pointlessly into the great unknown. At an impasse, the boys tap into the aforementioned Aladdin Sane oracle for wisdom and she helps them discover their truest desires. “I want to want,” the Prince scrawls on a mirror with lipstick, and his mother finally lets him out. He and his wash up onto an island and here’s when things go (gloriously) insane.
Clearly influenced by Lewis Carroll, Tagore conjured up a fascistic nation of people dressing up as playing cards, giving his musical its name. Q revels in this opportunity for structured mayhem, and his uniformed card soldiers (who come this close to actual goose-stepping) are a work of art, with their faces painted white and a tiny logo, of the suit they belong to, on their lips. The effect is striking — more Terry Gilliam than Tim Burton, thankfully — and with this highly theatrical approach, the film takes on a comic-book appearance. The colours pop, the subtitles are more stylised, and the cards yell out Bengali chopped into staccato syllables. “Progress?” is translated as “égobo?” but screamed “É!”, “Go!” and “Bo!” and the effect is decidedly more Samurai than Sealdah. The Prince and his friend, cornered by gun-toting cards for having the temerity to laugh, come up with a delicious origin story and begin to sow seeds of revolution by appealing to the card-women.
Good move, that. Suggestions of liberty from the outsiders intrigue the women in the ranks, and soon there is a full-blown sexual revolution. And here it is that the film becomes a highly erotic one, throbbing with abstract yet earthy sensuality. The play’s heroine and chief dissenter Horotoni rips up playing cards and walks around them, reducing them to mere scraps, like a currency too foreign to matter. Meanwhile, over on the other side of reality, the Writer too is grappling with matters of sexual urgency.
“If it’s a riot you want…,” promises a queen ominously, her Bangla obfuscated and rendered exotic by a strange accent. There is a mighty mish-mash of tongues and nationalities amid the cards, hidden by white paint. It is a clever trick, in a film where the cast is mostly impressive. Rii Sen is a striking heroine, Tillotamma Shome is evocative as the Prince’s mother, and all the cards get it very right indeed. Anubrata Basu (the hero of Q’s last film, Gandu) is well-suited to the part of the friend, even pulling off a Che Guevara look quite deftly in one scene, and Soumyak Kanti De Biswas is highly compelling as the Prince, especially when he looks fourth-wall-searingly through the camera.
Tagore’s 1932 play is a remarkably progressive one, and Q’s adaptation starts off slow and visceral and then — after they land on the island halfway through the film — changes gears to become a racy, lucid, sexy adventure. This gamble doesn’t entirely pay off — the first half has several boring stretches; the film exasperatingly ends just when it hits its most enjoyable stride — but the film is staggeringly original, and far too much of it stays back in the head. To haunt and to enchant.
The music plays a huge part, and the critical decision to use Tagore’s original songs — with Q singing on many of the tracks — is one that makes this effort magical, even when it misfires. But who’s to say any of the misfires were unintentional? Tasher Desh is more experience than film, more blank verse than story, and more poetry than anything else. Q for Qobiguru, then?
Rating: 3.5 stars
First published Rediff, August 23, 2013