Prominent Bengali auteur Buddhadeb Dasgupta has come up with an intriguing, but pretty alienating item with “The Wrestlers,” a highly stylized affair that explores the effects of Hindu fundamentalism on people who live in a peaceful Bengali backwater. Dasgupta’s handling of the challenging material doesn’t make it easy on audiences, especially western audiences, indicating limited fest exposure for this offbeater.
The eponymous wrestlers are beefy Nemai (Tapas Pal) and Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty) who work, if that’s not too generous a description of what they do, at a remote railway crossing. Firm friends, they spend their off-duty hours wrestling, but the fighting becomes more intense after Balaram marries Uttara (Jaya Seal) and jealousy enters the relationship.
Meanwhile, a Protestant preacher (R.I. Asad) and Matthew (Saurav Das), the orphan boy he adopted, minister to local Christians and feed the poor and elderly while a busload of dwarves from a nearby village, led by a man in a railway guard’s uniform (Tapas Adhikari), regularly visit the area, as does a troupe of traditional masked singers.
New arrivals are a trio of Hindu militants out to cause trouble. They burn down the church and kill the padre and, when Uttara and the little railway guard try to intervene, turn on them with dramatic results.
During all this mayhem, Nemai and Balaram just keep on wrestling. Dasgupta’s anger at the fundamentalism that is provoking violence in parts of India comes through strongly, though he mainly concentrates on the victims, the innocents who pay the price. These people, like the four elderly men the padre feeds, are totally naive when it comes to their place in the world; Balaram and Uttara are photographed against backdrops of London scenes, while the four old codgers talk about going to America, without having the slightest clue where it is.
Dasgupta has framed this simple story in an extremely beautiful package, that was mostly filmed at dawn or sunset, resulting in scene after scene of magic hour imagery.
Far less attractive, for western ears anyway, is the soundtrack, that is patently manufactured, with highly unconvincing grunts and groans for the wrestling scenes, and equally unreal cries and other sounds of distress in the latter stages; the soundtrack is a serious liability to an otherwise interesting, but not always accessible, pic.