A Bengali film that has won awards at international film festivals? Pseudo-intellectual alert! Right? Wrong. Yes, Labour of Love has a Bengali title (Asha Jaoar Majhe); yes, it is based in Calcutta; yes, the actors are Bengali; and yes, it uses a few old Bengali songs in the background. Even then, can you really classify a film into any one language when it has no dialogues?
And as for the pseudo-intellectualism, no, you’d be hard pressed to find any of it in this strange and beautiful film. The premise: In a city where recession and unemployment has reached alarming levels, a woman and a man – a wife and a husband – spend a typical day with clockwork precision. Their work hours are such that they get only a few minutes in a day to spend with each other – to even be in the same place.
As usual, instead of a structured review, I want to write about the things that struck me.
1. The story kept reminding me of ‘The Gift of the Magi’. Young couple? Check. Straightened means? Check. Working for each other? Check. In love? Check. Oh. And. It reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu.
2. The complete lack of self-pity or sentimentalism shown by either of the characters.
3. This, for some reason, seemed very wonderful to me: there are a couple of scenes where the husband takes a shower and washes clothes. But when the wife comes home, the camera does not follow the lady into the bathroom. Yes, this is a big deal! How many directors, I wonder, could have resisted showing at least one shot of the woman taking a shower, even if they restricted the skin show to her bare shoulders or back? Well done for steering so clear of voyeurism. It was quite gentlemanly, I thought.
4. They have one mobile phone in the house (the back is missing), and they use it as an alarm clock. Fine. The first time, when the husband woke up to it, I wondered vaguely why the tone sounded like a ringtone rather than an alarm tone. The next time, when it woke up the wife, we see that the husband was calling her from his workplace so that the ring would wake her up. Now I get it. In that case, she must have been calling him from her office for the same purpose. And to think they never pick up that wake-up call, not even to say ‘Yes, I’m up’, but simply ‘reject’ it. And they do it with a matter-of-factness that almost hides how sweet and warm the simple habit is.
5. Look at the smiles when they finally get to see each other. She has showered and eaten and is performing her little puja before leaving for work. He has just come home from his work. He enters the room, she turns around, and they smile at each other. Not politely, because the gladness is genuine. Not too eagerly, for, after all, this happens every day. But how simple and how real the smiles. And of course, the moment they are in the same room, the place becomes a place of dreams – inside a wood in a misty dawn (see image). Oh, it may be predictable or sentimental, that trope, but I loved it. And the great moment of their romance is sitting on the bed (Thank you, for once again showing wonderful restraint and sensibility. Couples need not jump into the bed.) beside each other. And then she has to go, and they perform one tiny, ridiculously simple act of intimacy: he fastens her brooch for her. End of togetherness, back to the daily clockwork grind.
6. The use of music. Wow. The shehnai, the songs, especially Tumi Je Amar.
7. The cats. There are two of them.
8. Standard reviews will tell you that the sound and the cinematography are also remarkable.
9. I was wondering which one is true: A.that this is such a film which does not really require actors and could have been pulled off by non(professional)-actors as well, and so it is difficult to judge the acting, or B.that the acting was so superior that it never felt like acting? Of course, the actor has always been very good, and the actress, who is comparatively new, caught my fancy. Turns out, even in the TV serial where she works, she looks dignifiedly pretty and non-affected. Please stay that way!