[This review has no spoilers. My longer Bengali review with spoilers here.]
Which is the scariest real or fictional creature ever? Dracula? Frankenstein's monster? Spiders? King Kong? Ghosts from innumerable horror movies? Septopus? Dementor? Velociraptor? The answers will, of course, be as diverse as people are, since what scares one could seem comical to another. That is the point where most horror movies fail - as soon as they show the cause of fear, a lot of their viewers simply stop being scared anymore. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was no doubt aware of this problem when he was writing Chander Pahar, and so he decided to never expose Bunyip, the mythical beast that guards the diamond mines in his story. In my opinion this is where the story succeeds as a spine chilling adventure. Shankar, a youth from a remote Bengal village explores Africa with seasoned adventurer Diego Alvarez, and along with man-eating lions and black mambas and herds of elephants, he also runs into the mythical Bunyip lurking in the Mountains of the Moon. Who or what is the Bunyip? The tribal people say he is an evil spirit who guards the diamond mines. Diego Alvarez says it is an animal that killed his friend. Shankar never sees the Bunyip, but he sees what it can do, and he sees the fear in fearless Diego Alvarez's eyes when the Bunyip is mentioned. By the magic of his pen, Bibhutibhushan instills that same fear in the readers' hearts. While reading the novel we turn pages tense with anticipation. What will Shankar see next? What will the Bunyip do?
This is also where the movie has its greatest failure. By showing the Bunyip as a mere mortal animal, it totally destroys that supernatural aura surrounding the beast. Whether the shown creature is scary or not is a different question altogether, but it wasn't necessary to show it at all. It really beats me why director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee could not understand this simple thing, whereas everyone I know seems to find this same flaw with the movie.
But the Bunyip aside, the movie is a very brave effort to bring Bengali cinema up to the international standard. Yes, most of the special effects were ridiculous, but the movie was made with a meager budget of Rs. 15 crore. Accepted, there were plot holes and inconsistencies, but it's a movie after all, and what movie doesn't have them? On the other hand, there were stunning visuals of Africa, an international cast and live African animals - something unthinkable for a Bengali movie. Most people including me were skeptical about the acting abilities of Dev Adhikari, the actor playing the main protagonist Shankar, but I am happy to say Dev was reasonably good in the role. Besides, the director knew of Dev's weakness in delivering Bengali dialogues and used voice overs in a lot of places. Gerard Rudolf is even better in the role of Diego Alvarez, and the way he handled Portuguese, English and Bengali dialogues is commendable.
When Bibhutibhushan wrote the book, research was difficult. He must have had to work really hard to get most of the facts right. However, the director's work was not easy either, since the viewer of today is raised on Discovery and National Geographic Channel documentaries on Africa. He had to shoot on location, show the real thing, or he would be caught cheating. He got that mostly right barring a few exceptions. The first lion sequence, the cave and the Kalahari have been shown particularly well. The scenes in Salisbury of 1911 are believable, though obviously the city was not shown on a grand scale. One particular omission that pained me was the absence of any mention of the strange baobab tree, something that immensely fascinated the Shankar of the novel. Also, due to a mix-up in the names of the mountain ranges in the original book, the film mostly shows the Richtersveld mountains which hardly have any forest cover. The real Mountains of the Moon would have been the Rwenzori range which has dense tropical rain forests just like in the book.
But in spite of its many flaws, the best part of watching Chander Pahar was the fact that I watched the movie in a theatre sitting in the US. Nobody can remember the last time a Bengali movie released here. Although the number of people watching the movie (9) was not encouraging, I hope Chander Pahar will make more producers and directors take up big budget productions like this and release them in the US. This was one of the very first novels that I ever read. I really wish to see more of my childhood favourites come to life on the big screen.