The Bengali Night (La Nuit Bengali) is based on the novel, "Bengal Nights" by theologian Mircea Eliade and is a thinly veiled document of his affair with the Bengali poetess Maitreyi Devi. As an artsy French venture, the film aspires to be a Merchant Ivory production filtered through Satyajit Ray's sensibilities. It's unfortunate then, that it is sunk by its annoyingly self-important nature, clunky screenplay and paper-thin characters.
As the film opens, we meet Allan (Hugh Grant) who has been working as an engineer in Calcutta, India for two years. When he's not busy building bridges and hospitals, he lives the life of an expatriate with his girlfriend, Guertie (Anne Brochet), and friends, Norinne (Elisabeth Perceval) and Harold (Pierre-Loup Rajot). A visit from his journalist friend, Lucien (John Hurt), prompts a house call to Allan's employer, Narendra Sen (Soumitra Chatterjee). While at the Sen Residence, Allan meets Narendra's wife, Indira (Shabana Azmi), and two daughters, Gayatri (Supriya Pathak) and Lilou (Poornima Pathwardhan). This sets the rest of the movie into motion.
Allan travels to the jungle to start a project for Narendra but falls ill and slips into and out of a coma rather abruptly. To aid with his recovery, Narendra invites Allan to stay with his family. While there Allan starts teaching Gayatri French and in return she discusses her favorite poet, Rabindranath Tagore, with him. Over the course of the next few days, they embark on a private affair. The consequences of this affair and its impact on all the characters form the rest of the narrative.
I knew I was in trouble early on when John Hurt's character appeared on screen. He was probably shooting to present Lucien as a free spirit who is high on life but after his first encounter with Gayatri, it was hard to see him as anything other than a sleazy buffoon who fetishizes Indian exoticism. The same broad characterization is seen in Anne Brochet's handling of Guertie. Guertie is instantly jealous of Gayatri before she has even met her which leads to an especially awkward encounter with her during a visit to Allan's hospital. She emotes like a mime who forgot to be silent.
The flaws in characterization extend to the central characters with devastating effect. Hugh Grant, in his first major starring role, does very little with the character of Allan. His expression alternates between tortured (presumably by love) and just plain bored. Supriya Pathak seems miscast as the 16 year old source of Allan's temptation especially since she was 27 years old at the time of filming and looked it as well. Shabana Azmi is woefully wasted in the role of Gayatri's mother. Fans of Indian cinema know that she is a fiercely intelligent actress who usually brings a great intensity to her roles. She does what she can with the role of the understanding mother who isn't quite understanding enough but it's tragic that she is given so very little to work with.
I've spoken about the flawed characterization at some length but the core issue lies in the tone and handling of the material itself. There was probably the kernel of a story about a stranger looking for love in a strange land only to face harsh reality, buried in this effort but that was before the filmmakers decided to impose an ill-fitting ponderous tone on it. Allow me to give you an example of this approach. There's a scene on the Sen's estate where Allan and Narendra are walking outside in the sun. Narendra notices Allan squinting in the sunlight and offers him sunglasses. In response, Allan says, "One shouldn't give in to one's weaknesses otherwise they end up destroying you." Besides being awkwardly foreshadowing, given the context, the line is just laugh out loud hilarious. Unfortunately the script is littered with lines like that.
I briefly mentioned the fetishization of Indian culture with regard to John Hurt's character but frankly that's a problem that plagues the entire film. It can be seen most blatantly in Gayatri's character. She is portrayed as an innocent who can't help but entice Allan with her exotic sensuality. In one scene, she explains to Allan that in India friends touch their bare feet to show affection. I grew up in India and can confirm that this statement is utterly false but casting aside the veracity of this claim, it is still pitched in the most ridiculous manner possible. The camera lingers on Gayatri as her feet touch the feet of other people around her. The latent eroticism of the scene makes it look like a deleted scene from Wild Things 7: Bengali Nights. If there are any positives to be found in the film, they lie in the cinematography of the Indian countryside. The rustic surroundings are lovingly captured with an honest eye. Since Satyajit Ray's technical crew was borrowed for the filming, perhaps we have them to thank for this.