Judge Ben Saylor did not go gently into this Bengali Night.
4 Bengalis and an Englishman this ain't.
Post-World War II India. Culture clash between East and West. A doomed romance. Sounds halfway decent, right?
Unfortunately, the film in question, The Bengali Night, is anything but. In this 1988 work, Hugh Grant (About a Boy) stars as Allan, an engineer who comes to India to build roads and bridges. When he falls ill, he recuperates in the home of his employer, Narendra Sen (Soumitra Chatterjee). While there, he takes a fancy to Sen's teenaged daughter, Gayatri (Supriya Pathak), who reciprocates his feelings. To put it mildly, Gayatri's family is not thrilled about her choice of beau.
That certainly reads like a straightforward plot, but its execution is not. The pacing and editing of The Bengali Night are choppy and confusing; scenes end abruptly, and there's a sense that material is missing from the film. (Posters on IMDb forums indicate that the film is nearly 2 and a half hours; what I watched ran about 108 minutes with credits.) The development of Allan and Gayatri's romance is handled very poorly; there's no fire or passion, or even logic, in the scenes between the two characters. Worse, director and co-writer Nicolas Klotz's (working with Jean-Claude Carrière from a novel by Mircea Eliade) excessively languid pacing means that it takes more than half the movie for Allan and Gayatri to get together. Before this, valuable narrative time is wasted on several characters whose significance to the plot I was never able to parse (more on this later), one of which is a journalist named Lucien Metz (John Hurt in a bizarre extended cameo).
Once Allan and Gayatri are discovered, however, this up-to-this-point slow film suddenly hurtles along at lightning speed. Allan is thrown out of the house, and we learn from a peripheral character about the various fates of Gayatri and her family. Allan is reunited with some of the mysterious characters from the beginning of the film, and strolls off down the street, kicking a tin can. The end.
Even with The Bengali Night's considerable problems, I would have been able to overlook a lot given the film's exotic setting. Unfortunately, most of the film takes place at the Sen home, which means that not only is the film visually uninteresting, but it also feels stagy. Brij Narayan's music helps build atmosphere to a degree, but it's not enough.
With narrative problems like the ones found in The Bengali Night, it's much harder for the actors to make an impression. Grant makes an effort, but his character is poorly written. One moment he's a romantic, the next a snob, another a nervous schoolboy. The same goes for Pathak's Gayatri, who is alternately shy and outspoken. If coherent character arcs had been constructed for Allan and Gayatri, these shifts would make much more sense, but that's just not the case here. The rest of the actors fare better, especially Chatterjee as Mr. Sen and Shabana Azmi as his wife.
In all fairness, my uncertainty about certain elements of The Bengali Night isn't just due to deficiencies in the film's script and editing. Cinema Libre's DVD really doesn't help matters, with a truly awful transfer. The image is soft and blurry, with instances of print damage throughout. The sound is bad as well; I toggled between the film's 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby mixes, but I still had trouble making out significant amounts of dialogue that may have helped clarify what was going on in the film. For extras, Cinema Libre has included a photo gallery and a 25-minute interview with Philippe Diaz, who produced the film. The interview is somewhat interesting but is hard to understand due to Diaz's accent. (No subtitles here, either.)
If you want to know what Hugh Grant was up to during his pre-neurotic-fop years, The Bengali Night is for you. For anyone else, stay far away from this film, or at least this particular DVD of the film.
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Studio: Cinema Libre
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