An artist’s enthusiasm for large-breasted women lands him in a mess of trouble in Bengali writer-helmer Kaushik Ganguly’s promising but ultimately disappointing second film, “Empty Canvas.” Mid-April opening in Kolkata and environs has generated much “Oprah”-style talk in the local media about the pic’s central character, who appears to be a thoughtful, modern fellow until he spurns his wife on their honeymoon when he discovers that she’s flat-chested. Notoriety alas, may not be enough to win the attention of the Hindi-dominant NRI crowd abroad.
Not really sensational or taboo-breaking, this thoughtful, gradually paced drama is clearly made by a serious filmmaker who prefers long theatrical arcs. Twenty-minute-long opening sequence has painter-sculptor Soumitra (Koushik Sen, from Mrinal Sen’s most recent pic, “Aamaar Bhuban”) taking artist pals to tour the ancient site of Khajuraho, where Kama Sutraesque reliefs on the temples there fill the guys with the notion that any truly attractive woman must be big-breasted, though not fat.
Ganguly patiently establishes the major themes and characters, involving Soumitra, his colleague Arijit (Tota Raychaudhuri) and pretty Tista (Churni Ganguly), whom Arijit knew at university and who’s now single and strongly protected by her wealthy family. Tista’s appearance at the ancient site hits Soumitra like a miracle, but a subsequent gathering at her father’s nearby bungalow reveals he’s out of his class.
In a stilted piece of foreshadowing, Soumitra confesses in his studio that the idealized women he paints set him up for disappointment with the real thing — yet, from physical appearances, Tista is his ideal match. Her determination and ardor grow stronger in a confrontation with her parents, who order her to break things off with Soumitra. In a socially daring move for a woman from the upper classes, Tista weds Soumitra with virtually none of her relatives present, and even Arijit feels ashamed at the modest nuptials arranged by his friend.
“Empty Canvas” will be read in more open-minded circles as a parable on the wisdom of engaged couples in failing to sample the bedroom before tying the knot, since Soumitra is stunned when he finally sees (in chaste visuals) that Tista’s chest isn’t as advertised. His disgust triggers her astonished alienation, combined with amazement that a supposedly cosmopolitan man could hold such immature attitudes.
The failing of “Empty Canvas” is that the full dimensions of the emotional aftermath are never fully realized, compromising both story and character. Soumitra may as well be clay himself, unable to perceive Tista’s sense of rejection, while Tista becomes little more than a symbol for women’s grievances.
As actors, Sen and Churni Ganguly (the helmer’s wife) appear willing for a knockdown, drag-out fight, but they’re denied by a script that loses confidence in its own possibilities.
After the fascinating opener at the Khajuraho temples, the film similarly stops short of visually developing its sexual and emotional themes, which would have perhaps offered a window on the director’s (male) perspective. Adinath Das’ lensing becomes harsh in interiors, and turns richer outdoors, but Chiradeep Dasgupta’s music is beautiful throughout.
Bengali title, taken from poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, loses its wordplay in the inexact English translation.