Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Time for a review - The Bengali Night or La Nuit Bengali (1988)

It's a film I have seen twice, and the second time I was no less shocked than the first at the fate of the protagonist and more so his erstwhile fiancée.

This is supposedly based on an autobiography that was named Bengali Nights. I say 'supposedly' because not only have some details been changed (like the nationality of the main character Alain as well as the name of his promised Gayatri) but also because it is debatable whether the autobiography is really correct at all.

You see, the biographical novel by the Frenchman Mircea Eliade (rather than British as the film implies) tries to recount the love story of a young Alain (Mircea himself) and Maitreyi Devi (in the film renamed Gayatri to avoid further problems in a nightmare legal battle that ensued when the filming started in Calcutta). Mircea suggests in the book that a passionate love affair happened between himself and his Indian employer's daughter. Meanwhile Maitreyi retaliates in her answering novel It Does Not Die, which gives her own version of what she believes has been turned into a fantastical and semi-fictional story in Eliade's book.

The film's outline, in concise form but with SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH, would be something of this sort: British engineer Alain (played by Hugh Grant) moves to India on a voyage of self-discovery and falls for his boss's daughter Gayatri (Supriya Pathak), who returns his affections. Whilst she knows that her family would never approve of the match, she falls hard for Alain and slowly gives in to his courtship. Their intents are honourable, wanting to get married, and yet it is not easy to tell this to Gayatri's parents. With her father taken ill and her younger sister giving her away to their mother, the young couple's secret love is so no longer. In a scene pretty difficult to understand but which seemed to me to have much to do with the Hindu religion, Gayatri's mother seems to be punishing the young woman for what she believes are indiscretions. The news of the match reaches also the father's ears (probably through the mother) and he who had previously treated Alain with much affection and as though he were his own son, turns against the young lad, throwing him out of his house, where Alain has been living for a while. In an ending that I would class as worse than that of Romeo and Juliet (for after all they did both die in the end and so avoided the pain of not being together anymore), Alain is heartbroken at having been made to move away and never contact his beloved Gayatri again. He also receives that final twist of a dagger in his already wounded heart by Gayatri's cousin, who looks him up purposely to divulge that after Alain moved away, Gayatri got nothing but physical abuse from her family and that her already troubled little sister, having witnessed the cruelties of her family towards Gayatri, killed herself.

Whether a passionate affair took place or not and regardless of what nationality Alain should have been, the truth at the core of this story remains very simply the same - the interracial romance could never have gone on as long as the lovers lived in India. Harsh as it sounds, it is Gayatri/Maitreyi's family that not only pulls the two apart but is also responsible for the young people's ruin, if the film is correct in its ending.

I must confess I have not read either of the two corresponding books, which were ultimately released by the University of Chicago Press as companion volumes in 1994a few years after The Bengali Night was filmed. The reason it took so long for the books to be thus published was Maitreyi's request to Mircea that he do not publish an English version of his book (originally in Romanian) till after her death. In fact this very promise is what caused such trouble for the French production team when they started filming in India. With Mircea dead and his wife giving her consent for the film to happen, Maitreyi felt this was in breach of his promise to her, seeing as the film was going to be translated to English, just like the book she'd pleaded should not appear before her death. But this was not all, Maitreyi took the production team to court for 'insulting Hinduism' and 'being pornographic'. Not only so, producer Philippe Diaz promised the film would not get released in India unless he had the government's blessing and ultimately The Bengali Night was only shown in India once - at the Indian Film Festival of 1989.

NB - whilst most of this feature is in my own wording, I did read through and even copy a couple of phrases off the following article:

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