Srijit Mukherjee’s new venture "Hemlock Society" is philanthropy in form of a film; Mukherjee revives the archetypal figure of the Do-gooder bearing the suggestive name Ananda Kar, which literally translates into “be happy”. Interestingly, the name “Hemlock Society” contains a pun as in the name Ananda Kar: hemlock is that archetypal venom which seems to have been injected in our veins. We are all residents of a society drinking on hemlock every day. The film lays threadbare in gruesome detail the existential agony of such a world, and then, reclaims it from the same. This is the predominant theme of Hemlock Society, and interestingly, it is perfectly compatible with the form it resorts to.
The Theatre of the Absurd, as Martin Esslin termed it, originated from a profound existential prolegomena made current by the writings of Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and others. Samuel Becket’s path-breaking "Waiting for Godot" is perhaps, till date, the best example of absurd drama ever produced. It’s often said that the feeling of absurdity or the feeling of being trapped in a bottomless abyss of nothingness in a godless world was so excruciatingly exuded by the play, that it had received remarkable popularity amongst prisoners in France. In other words, the play generates a terrible feeling of meaninglessness, of being caught in a limbo, best underscored by the stage-direction at the end of each act: “They do not move.”
Addressing this meaninglessness as it were, Hemlock Society creates an “absurd” ambience, by housing the absurd school that trains in committing suicide in a film city. The set augments the absurdity of the whole affair with amazing intensity: a huge hall displaying on its impeccably white walls portraits of renowned personalities (such as Virginia Woolf, Freud, Guru Dutt and others) who had committed suicide; a café with scribbling on the blue-black walls (messages of death in general); classrooms with garishly colored walls; and the mythical aide of Yama, Chitragupta, endlessly taking notes. And like all absurd plays, the film never ceases to be humorous, underlining the very comic discomfiture of existence itself. Laughter which seems to have deserted the city, smarting under the pain of everydayness, is to be reclaimed. Laughing at life and in turn laughing at oneself is perhaps the basic mantra of carrying on!
A completely broken and suicidal Meghna Sarkar (Koel) is "rescued" by Ananda Kar (Parambrata) and is got admitted to a crash course on committing suicide, under the pretext that untrained attempts at committing suicide may be more disastrous than the suicide itself. The rest of the film is Meghna’s journey through the fantastically fearful Valley of Death, as it were, whereby she comes to understand the value of carrying on with life. This journey which takes her through several encounters with men and women on the verge of committing suicide, at one level unravels the immeasurable agony of life, and at another level reflects on the possibility of overcoming it. Her encounters with an escort (Priyanka), gradually losing her vision, and a successful singer (Shilajeet) wishing to end his life at the prime if his career, in order not to suffer the pain of witnessing a dénouement, are perhaps the most psychologically intriguing scenes of the film. High on melodrama, each of these scenes may invite frowns from critics. But, I feel Mukherjee deliberately keeps the film melodramatic and even sentimental, and never once tries to downplay it, in the tradition of quintessential Indian popular cinema. This is evidenced by the subtexts of various Bollywood films that have been constantly used in the film: from "Anand" to "Kal Ho Na Ho". That way, the location of Hemlock Society in a film city is also justified. At a philosophical level, the film plays up the illusions created by cinema and extends it to real life to give it a happy ending as it were.
The cast consists of some of the brilliant actors of the Bengali film industry. Parambrata’s controlled acting and comic timing are marvelous. Koel is a tad forced, although she looks her best. I guess the most unexpected but show-stealing performance comes from Priyanka in that one scene. Please note how she enacts with her eyes gradually going blind.
A small note on the dialogues: A distraught Dipankar De spots his daughter’s ex-boyfriend romancing another girl and intrudes into the scene. He apologizes to the girl thus: “Amar ei bhabe tomader modhye dhuke porata, tomader bhashaye, ekebarei cool noy…kintu ma, amar emon proticool obostha…” A panting Meghna asks for water when Parambrata offering her a bottle says: “Ei je! Megh-na chaitei jal!”
Overall an entertaining watch, the film never pretends to be intellectual. It demands of you a frame of mind which can adjust to a willing suspension of disbelief coupled with intense melodrama.