Film Review: Two Friends – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director:  Prasun Chatterjee

One of the most impressive aspects of this year’s BFI London Film Festival has been the quality of the acting by children. Mexico’s Prayers For The Stolen and Denmark’s As In Heaven both feature an extremely strong ensemble of preteen and teen actors while Janaina Halloy’s performance is the best part about Fabrice du Weiz’s otherwise lacklustre Inexorable. Continuing the trend, the two young non-professional actors in Two Friends give delicate and spellbinding performances in a story about childhood tragedy.

Palash and Safi are best friends about eight or nine-years-old. They call each other dostojee, a Bengali word meaning special friend and which is the film’s original title.  Set in the early 1990s, the two friends spend all their time together and have no sense that they are living in an increasingly divided region of India.

Palash’s family is Hindu but the area in which they reside has a Muslim majority, and tensions have grown since a mosque was demolished by a Hindu mob. Palash’s mother expresses her wish to move away. Safi’s family is Muslim, although we see little of their religious life in the film except when it’s Eid and when Safi offers Palash and his sister some ceremonial cake. To the boys, their religious differences are slight and of no consequence. Instead, it’s their parents who reveal the anxieties, with Safi’s father telling his son not to play with Palash anymore, an order that Safi refuses to follow.

What perhaps is most startling about Prasun Chatterjee’s debut feature is that the religious differences aren’t the real focus of the film after all. A catastrophe in the film’s second half redirects the film’s narrative but interestingly the film’s timbre remains the same. Everything is held at a distance and characters often stand expressionless against the flat landscape. With no music apart from the tuneful prayers of a muezzin, Two Friends is austere and detached.

Their isolation is underlined by the distance that the two boys – friends in real life – have to travel to school. A network of trucks and pony-drawn carts acting as buses ferry the boys, clutching their regulation silver briefcases, to and from school where their teacher presides in a neck-brace. At home, the boy’s parents appear distant figures; Safi’s father is always folding the linen that his family weave while Palash’s mother is always preparing food. The private tutor who comes to teach the boys in the evenings appears to be the only adult concerned for the boys’ welfare.

As Palash, Asik Shaikh is shy and obedient, full of guilt when he accidentally breaks his friend’s kite. In contrast, Arif Shaikh as Safi is cheeky and more likely to break the rules set by his parents, and hardly ever seems to do his homework. Together the two boys form a convincing alliance on the screen, helped no doubt by the fact that in real life Asik needed a lot of persuasion to agree to be in the film while Arif, full of confidence, demanded that he be one of the stars.  Keeping hold of their off-screen personalities ensures that this striking film feels authentic.

Two Friends was screened as part of the London Film Festival.

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