For, the 19th century baul - as the wandering minstrels are known - took the issues of religious, social, political and economic divide by the scruff of the neck and initiated a bid to toss them bodily out of an increasingly disruptive society. Today, no one in his right mind would deny the value of a philosophy - articulated through a body of songs, only a small part of which is now extant - that places humanity over class and religion.
Goutam Ghoses film, based on Sunil Gangulys 2009 novel of the same name, attempts to capture a slice of Lalans life and his teachings. It does a good job by throwing light upon an unlettered man who stands tall among 19th century philosophers of Bengal and whose unselfconscious doctrines influenced intellectual stalwarts such as Rabindranath Tagore.
The search for a soul man, which in Lalans words is much greater than the pursuit of god, continues to baffle even after watching the film. But it is as though the first glimmerings of a subliminal perception have begun to make themselves felt. It is as if a little window has opened just a crack to let in a sliver of light to shine on a life beyond that of the material realism.
But in "Moner Manush", the twin doctrines of tolerance and humanity are boldly underlined. Equally bold is the suggestion of the sexual permissiveness in Lalans akhara where a woman is as important as a man and sexual desires of both are as important a fact of life as any other. If that isnt modern and relevant today, then what is?
Prosenjit is a fine Lalan, given that he has no references, and practically no documentation, beyond some popular songs. His role spans nearly five decades of Lalans life, requiring him to work extensively on his voice and manners. He speaks a quaint Bangladeshi dialect and lip syncs his songs with aplomb.
The supporting cast is competent, to say the least. Paoli Dam as Kamli, a baulani (female baul) in Lalans akhara, impresses. Priyangshu Chatterjee, as an aristocratic, gentle and scholarly Jyotirindranath Tagore, does justice to his role. Latif Shah and Khuda Bakshs singing of Lalans songs is pivotal to the film. But sadly, their voices dont match with Prosenjits and the inconsistency is somewhat jarring. Farida Parveens one song is soulful and unselfconscious.
"Moner Manush" is nothing without its gently lyrical cinematography. Ghose lovingly wields the camera, caressing the gorgeous landscapes of Bangladesh and West Bengal where the film has been shot, training his lens on the river to capture the thousand splinters into which the moon is broken in its reflection. And Samir Chandas set design is mind-blowing too, creating a time and a mood which, for many, will remain as references to a period and a philosophy.