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Modern Masterpieces: Chheley Kaar! The National Award winner ahead of its times

10 December, 2022 17:00:11
Modern Masterpieces: Chheley Kaar! The National Award winner ahead of its times

Chheley Kaar! (1954)
Cast: Bikash Roy, Master Tilak, Chhabi Biswas, Arundhati Devi, Bhanu Banerjee, Tulsi Chakraborty, Nabadwip Haldar
Director: Chitta Basu

The most common description of Chheley Kaar! (literally, ‘whose son?’, but the exclamation mark is important) online is that it is a romantic comedy. Which is utter rubbish. This is one of those films you cannot slot – there is no genre that can describe a film about a very young orphaned boy who latches on to a complete stranger who he loudly claims is his father, and the combination of hilarity, pathos, and joy that ensues.

Yes, there is a bit of romance thrown in, purely incidentally. The focus is firmly on the adorable and bizarrely named Tomato (Tilak), and his relationship with Kunal Sen (Roy), a wealthy young playboy who suddenly finds himself saddled with a son. A son who has been carefully tutored by his dying guardian to adopt a random rich man as his father, in hopes that his future will be assured.

Starting with this slightly dodgy premise, the film goes from strength to strength as Tomato conquers a furious Kunal, and becomes involved with a whole lot of other people in the bargain – such as Kunal’s parents, his on again off again girlfriend Mili (Arundhati), and other strangers who make fleeting but impactful appearances. 

Director Chitta Basu, known for his experimental streak, stays true to form with Chheley Kaar! The storytelling and editing (Kamal Ganguly) are tight and neat, the humour and pathos restrained but unmistakable, and the performances perfectly on point. Not for nothing did the film win Basu his only National Award, for best Bengali feature film in 1954, bringing with it the President’s silver medal. 

Remember, this is a film nearing its 70th anniversary. That story and screenplay writer Jyotirmoy Roy could explore themes such as single parenthood, sexual promiscuity, and potential unwed motherhood (Mili’s declaration that Tomato was her biological son), says much about the maturity of both Bengli cinema and its audiences, neither of which appear much in evidence today. As you watch it, you begin to realise why it was remade in Hindi (Bandish, with Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari), Tamil (Yaar Paiyyan) and Malayalam (Bhagyamudra). 

Once again, Bikash Roy is true to form as a scene stealer, but he receives excellent support from Chhabi Biswas (as his father) and the absolutely gorgeous Arundhati Devi. Chheley Kaar! is also remarkable for its brilliant and memorable cameos by such doyens as Tulsi Chakraborty, whose three-minute appearance is enough to prove his calibre as an actor, Bhanu Banerjee (as Monti, Mili’s petulant suitor), and Nabadwip Haldar, the legendary comedian who modern viewers sadly know so little about.

Finally, for those wondering what the exclamation mark in the title is all about, it has to be said that it is a masterstroke. A question mark would have been more grammatical, but the film does not ask a question. It expresses ironical amazement, because by the end, everyone is claiming Tomato as theirs. Kunal’s parents think he is their grandson, Mili doesn’t want him to live with an irresponsible cad like Kunal, while Kunal himself has grown firmly attached to the little hero against all his better judgement. And all of it is based on a giant lie.

Cleverly woven into the narrative are the serious themes of class struggle, poverty, the fate of children left alone in the world, responsibility, and societal hypocrisy. But none of the messages are obvious, and the director’s touch is uniformly light. If you haven’t watched this gem yet, this year being the 6oth death anniversary of Chhabi Biswas might prove a good enough excuse. 

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