Bengali Films -Then & Now…

PATHER PANCHALI

Richard Gere once said in an interview, ‘To me, Indian films mean Ray films…’

Well, Richard Gere might not be any great actor to be taken seriously. But then, I am sure, you don’t need anyone else to tell you about the magnificence of the man called Satyajit Ray. Filmmakers across the world including greats like Abbas Kiraostami, Martin Scorcese, Danny Boyle and even Akiro Kurosawa have heaved praises on his work. And the man deserved every bit of that adulation. Alas! My post is not about Satyajit Ray; may be in that case I would have had only positives to talk about. My post here talks about the Bengali Film Industry – of which the maestro, even if huge, only a part. Of course, Ray was not the only great filmmaker Bengal has ever produced, and people from that region have shown a penchant towards the art of filmmaking and storytelling – albeit with some major limitations of their own.

In this post, I would try to reminisce the stages of Bengali film industry, along with the filmmakers of the respective era.

Satyajit Ray – I am too much in awe of his body of work to even write a eulogy. From the outstanding Apu Trilogy to the most magnificent portrayal of illicit desire in Charulata, from detective thrillers like Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi to fantasy films like Gupi Gain Bagha Bain, from the pain of unemployed in Pratidwandi to the anguish of the successful in Nayak, from the jungle based escapade of four friends in Aranye Dinratri to the earliest traces of hyperlink films (popularized by Inarritu) in Kanchenjungha – the man was genius personified. I agree that some of his later films like Shakha Prosakha or Agantuk might not have had the same appeal (that’s when he started shooting primarily indoors post the heart attack) – but whatever he had created before is possibly worthy of much more adulation than they ever received. During my growing up years, I always used to say, ‘I would remake Pather Panchali!!!’ Coz given the condition of present prints, my children would be deprived of the beauty of it. Of course, no one should make an attempt to revive it unless he wants to stick to the original for every frame. [Given the feedback Agneepath received sometime back on this site, I wouldn’t dare in my dreams to touch Pather Panchali :-)].

Ritwik Ghatak – Another hugely celebrated director of Bengal, Ghatak primarily focused on social issues in his movies and also formed an inspirational figure for many (including directors like Adoor Gopalkrishnan and Mira Nair) as a filmmaker and teacher at FTII. Ghatak’s most acclaimed film has been ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’ – a film about the trials and tribulations of Bangladeshi refugees in Calcutta (post partition), a recurrent theme in some of Ghatak’s other works. Of course, his most successful work came in Madhumati (a film by Bimal Roy – where Ghatak wrote the screenplay). But then, my post will not include the works of Bengali filmmakers in Hindi cinema. Personally, I am not a big fan of Ghatak’s films but obviously that no way undermines his work or his impact.

Another contemporary of these maestros, though may not be of the same league, had been Mrinal Sen (incidentally one of my distant relatives). What possibly bothered me about the films of Ghatak and Sen was the strong communist thought that they reflected – anguish against the rich and strong advocacy of the rights of the poor. According to me, unlike Ray, Ghatak and Sen stuck to one genre – thereby limiting their own capabilities as filmmakers.

atithi

The fourth gem of the same time, though more on the commercial side of storytelling, was Tapan Sinha – one of my favourite directors. Sinha somehow balanced between Bengali & Hindi films – though his works in the former language proved more successful than the latter. From the thriller Jhinder Bandi, Kabuliwallah (remade into Hindi by Hemen Gupta – starring Balraj Sahani in the eponymous character) about a trader from Afghanistan and his relation with a young girl, Khudito Pashan (also known as The Hungry Stones,) about reincarnation, Atithi about a wandering boy (remade by the Barajityas as Geet Gaata Chal), Golpo Holeo Sotti (remade as Bawarchi by Hrishikesh Mukherjee), Ek Je Chhilo Desh (part science fiction, part fantasy, full entertainment), to Jotugriho – a story on marital discord (starring his beautiful actress wife Arundhuti Sinha – who also appeared in Khudito Pashan) and many more, Tapan Sinha is an amazing example as to how commercialism can be mixed with sensitive topics – a trait rare among the filmmakers of then and now.

Think of an industry that can boast of such great directors – all living at the same time, and making films that chartered international festivals and left a mark on those who watched it. The films may not have amassed the highest revenues – but their richness stemmed from the depth of the works of its filmmakers who could very well be called visionaries. It was possibly after these four people that the Bengali Film Industry started getting into a lull – decadence that saw its pit in the 1990s and early 2000s. Though Ray continued making films till 1992 (the year he died), he was definitely not at the peak of his form. Well-made movies became a rarity. Though the commercial cinema thrived in the 1970s, primarily dominated by actor Uttam Kumar, the 80s saw witnessed how an industry known for intelligent projects could gradually drown to making films purely for suburban and rural mass – neglecting intelligence, sense and aesthetics at every corner.

Possibly, the only filmmakers that came out in this zone are Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose, Aparna Sen and much later Rituporno Ghose. One of the few noted female filmmakers around the world, Aparna Sen has often showed an inclination towards making English language films. From 36 Chowringhee Lane, Mr & Mrs Iyer to recent The Japanese Wife, her films seemed to target either niche English-speaking Indian audience or, rather primarily, the overseas market. Surprising enough, Sen’s better works also came in English. A not-so-great but popular & pretty actor of her times, Aparna Sen fitted the archetype of female directors who would stick to female issues in her films – be it Paroma or Paromitar Ekdin, Sati, 15 Park Avenue or the latest Iti Mrinalini. What’s most surprising about Sen’s works is the oscillation between genius and mediocrity (if that’s not too harsh a term). Though she managed acting and directing even at a later stage (essaying prominent roles in Unishe April & Titli by Rituporno, Antaheen by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and in Paromitar Ekdin & Iti Mrinalini in her own direction), she could never achieve the league of excellence, of which she showed ample signs.

aparna sen

Buddhadeb Dasgupta, another director who won accolades across international film festivals and National Awards in India, has often been showered by praises by film connoisseurs. But the fact that the man still struggles really bad to find someone to produce his films or get them released, bears testimony to the fact how commercially unviable his works have been. Now, as an individual, I strongly believe that if a film only appeals to a small segment of pseudo intellectuals, then it’s definitely not a viable product to have been made in the first place. And the torture that I have been through in attempts to sit through his films has only reinforced that thought. Of the Buddhadeb films, the only one that I could somewhat bear was Kalpurush – and that too the father-son track between Rahul Bose and Mithun Da.

If you thought Jodha Akbar was slow, watch ‘Moner Manush’ by Goutam Ghose – it’s a lullaby. The supposedly huge film under Indo-Bangladesh production had leading actor Prosenjit Chatterjee portraying the hugely popular singer Lalan Fakir’s character. I had the opportunity to write a part of the English version of the script (I am not putting an excerpt for copyright issues). The film had a decent opening, primarily due to the hype around it. But with every character breaking into a baul song (Bengali folk) every 2 minutes, how can you expect to attract the audience in the 21st century, when films are being shortened to attract a crowd that’s always in hurry. Goutam Da is an excellent cinematographer and his screenplay is a delight to read (because of the detail crafted shots mentioned in it), but the interest level of the script or his expertise in translating them on screen, remains a question mark. Now, anyone reading till here, please note that this is absolutely my opinion and not any researched or quantitatively arguable issue.

Perhaps the only one among these filmmakers who could make a huge array of films is Rituporno Ghose. Possibly it was his PR skills or his unique personality or female centric themes mixed with certain amount of titillation, Rituporno made a lot of films that generated critical acclaim, awards and commercial viability. Though he dabbled with real story (in Dahan), mystery (Shubho Mahurat) or Tagore (plenty of them) – Ghosh made his bracket of films revolving around complicated relationships, primarily told from female perspectives and protagonists, except for two of his children films (Khela & Hirer Angti – the former bombed and the latter, also his debut, never got released) & Amitabh Bachchan starrer The Last Lear. Ghose also got a lot of non-Bengali speakers [let me tell you, in Kolkata or WB, you are either a Bengali or a Non Bengali] including Kirron Kher (Bariwali), Abhishek Bachchan – Jackie Shroff – Soha Ali Khan (Antarmahal), Nandita Das (Shubho Mahurat), Manisha Koirala (Khela) & of course Aishwarya Rai (in Chokher Bali). His only Hindi film – Raincoat starring Aishwarya & Ajay Devgan though won critical praise, did no wonders at the box office at all. Similar fate was destined to The Last Lear (starring Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Shefali Chhaya and Arjun Rampal – in his best performance till date). Pretty recently, Ghosh got caught by the acting bug and after Arekti Premer Golpo and Memories in March (neither directed by him) where he portrayed but obviously gay characters, he is supposedly making Chitrangada (a play by Tagore) with himself in the lead. What Ghose did very well, according to me, is design the art and make neat frames where the performance of his actors could come out in full splendor. Add to that, he got nationally known faces like Aishwarya Rai, Konkona Sen (in Dosar & Titli) and Bipasha Basu (Sab Charitra Kalponik) to portray the protagonist, which only generated more curiosity. But one thing must be surely credited to him – his capacity of eliciting some fine performances. If you thought all the actors mentioned above are reputed ones, check out Noukadubi to see Riya Sen. I don’t know about others, but I never expected Riya Sen to open her mouth to act. And to say, she was a surprise, would be an understatement.

However, what has plagued the Bengali film industry the most is not the fact that its art filmmakers could not make commercially viable projects. What ruined it was the huge urban – rural divide in choice of films. A host of directors made films that were only targeted at the village audience – where the script lacked originality, production values were miserable, acting was third grade even euphemistically, and no one bothered to bridge the gap. Directors like Swapan Saha, Ravi Kinnagi, Haranath Chakraborty and recently Raj Chakraborty made their careers out of remaking South Indian films – which were full of melodrama, over the top sequences and deprived the films of the classy entertainment value which many of the original films boasted of. Riingo, another director of the same league, has made slicker films inspired by Hollywood (instead of South Indian films) but the DOP in him has by far outdone the storyteller in him. He is the perfect example of “all style no substance”. Result – the entire commercial arena of Bengali films is left in shambles. And those are still ruling the roost. Yes, the songs are now shot in Europe, digital camera has been effectively and efficiently used, and you get less paid Bollywood choreographers and action directors to helm the respective departments, but they have hardly yielded satisfactory results. In fact, unlike a yesteryear Uttam Kumar, Soumitra or even a Shubhendu, there is no current actor in Bengali who can do parallel and commercial cinema with equal ease. Bumba da (Prosenjit Chatterjee) might be the only exception but then Prosenjit had his horrendous days of melodramatic films and acting. Not only has he taken a lot of time to mature, but he has now shifted from commercial zone altogether. The good thing, however, is the magnitude of transformation or maturity that he has shown in the past few years with Dosar, Autograph, 22e Srabon or Moner Manush – something that even an SRK hasn’t. I am really keen to see Prosenjit in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. As Gulshan Devaiah said, when we had met once, Bollywood has been too myopic when it comes to recognizing talents like him from regional cinema.

The condition of Bengali cinema had worsened so much to a point that urban crowd gave up all hopes from it. The only occasional respite would be Sandip Ray’s (son of Satyajit Ray) films – primarily or only the Feluda which he ‘successfully’ recreated from his father’s writings. What I would like to mention in this point is the absolutely ludicrousness in which a man like Sandip Ray can succeed – and his triumph only reflects the poor state the industry is in. I have no qualms or sense of un-diplomacy to say that Sandip Ray is a mockery of his father’s talent. His entire life has passed as a shadow to his father, and all he did well enough was to recreate the immensely popular detective character written by Satyajit Ray – Feluda. The testimony to this lies in the fact that none of his non-Feluda films worked. If Nishijapan had too many mistakes, the supposed thriller Hitlist was roflmao hilarious.

bong connection

Obviously, when I am mentioning all the above names, I am ignoring one person who had made small yet significant contribution – primarily due to the large fan base he had generated through his music. Anjan Dutt – the stylish, charismatic, singer of modern Bengali music – had a huge following with his songs, which spilled over when the man decided to start making films. Yes, he did certain ‘aantel’ (Bengali word for pseudo intellectual) films, but he never came into the reckoning for his histrionics. Having made his foray into movies with an unsuccessful Hindi debut (Bada Din – starring Shabana Azmi and model turned fashion choreographer Mark Robinson), he shifted focus to Bengal and made an impactful start with The Bong Connection – definitely Shayan Munshi’s finest performance among the handful of films he has done (actually the only other I can remember is Jhankar Beats – would have loved to see him portray himself in No One Killed Jessica). Dutt’s specialty lies in the uncomplicated storylines and evidently the music (composed mostly by his son Neel). He made a slew of films post Bong Connection which include Chalo Lets Go, Bow Barracks…, Madly Bangalee, Ranjana… and Adim Ripu (Byomkesh Bakshi). I am yet to see the last one, but going by a judgment based on the other films, what hurts me most about Dutt’s works is the lack of diligence to make his film excel. As one of my dear friends rightly said, it seems that Anjan Dutt is more concerned about wrapping up the shoot in the simplest possible fashion than taking pains to make it stand out. Even the performances in his films are at times, mediocre to say the least. The biggest example of the same lies in Madly Bangalee – the performances were so unbearable, that it was tough to bear the film beyond a point. It may sound too harsh, but none of his films (barring Bong Connection) really reflected sincere effort. For his simplistic style, Anjan Dutta misses out on the respect I could still give Buddha Da or Rituporno.

antaheen

Amidst this, came two directors in the last few years – Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Srijit Mukherjee. I know there are few other names who have made off beat different films but these two made the most impact. AD man Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (Tony) has made three films – Anuranan, Antaheen and Aparajita Tumi. His USP lies in the exotic visuals, soothing music, apt use of poetry and a very polished urban representation of relations. Antaheen is one of my most favourite films but what lies ahead to be seen. In fact, as Prosenjit rightly pointed out in an interview, Aniruddha’s style of filmmaking at times do feel like a cosmopolitan version of Rituporno’s. Bengali makers have always found relationships their strong aspect, and possibly they have made more evolved films in the same category than other regions of India but all have been in the convenient bracket of dysfunctional man-woman ties. While those trying their hand in Hindi films (like Anurag Basu or Dibakar Banerjee) have dealt with different films like Gangster, LSD or Khosla Ka Ghosla, the same has been conspicuously absent in the Bengali industry. Whether Tony can come out of the fixation of Bong filmmakers to narrate tales on complicated relations and do something refreshingly different, is a tough question. Also, belonging to a community which is known for its ample usage of humor even in conversations, the industry hasn’t produced one good comedy since a long time. Srijit Mukherjee, on the other hand, made a successful transition from theatre in Bangalore to films in Kolkata, with a commendable debut in Autograph and a superhit thriller in 22e Srabon. While his first film was a tribute to Satyajit Ray’s “Nayak”, the second was touted as a psychological thriller. And the enormous success of ’22e Srabon’ only proves that the audience is a sucker for suspense. Why else would they accept a half-hearted dishonest film like that? It had no elements of psychological thriller, had a half-baked dishonest screenplay and an important figment of Bengal’s history (‘Hungrealist Movement’) used unnecessarily and left unexploited. While Autograph was a sincere story, 22e Srabon is an indication of the greatest drawback of Bollywood – films running on brand values and marketing, rather than content. None of the above takes away anything from the fact that Aniruddha and Sirjit are the better filmmakers of Bengal today, and have kind of bridged the urban-rural divide, even if to a small margin, though they are far from the pinnacle the industry had achieved in the 60s and 70s.

What’s now left to see is whether the coming times will see any new filmmaker(s) who could render a new direction to the Bengali film industry. With Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Goutam Ghose in their autumn years, it will be even more imperative for the industry to come up with new makers who can make stuff different from the prevalent run-of-the-mill varieties. Will Srijit, Tony or anyone from the younger brigade (Mainak, Birsa) come out with stuffs that can leave a stronger mark than films made in the past decade? Here’s eagerly waiting to see…

PS: 1. If anyone thought of Q (maker of Gandu), please don’t mention his name. Gandu is not a film that can help an industry survive. It isn’t a great film either. It was really a gandu movie.
2. Nandita Das is not a Bong – she is half Gujju, half Oriya! 🙂

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12 thoughts on “Bengali Films -Then & Now…

  1. These days I am not up to date with Bong films as I used to in the past. This now has added onto my wish list of movies to watch 🙂 Thanks… I am very curious to watch Adim Ripu…

  2. I am sure there is no such detailed write up about Bengali cinema on the web and kudos to your painstaking effort about the same.

    Completely agree on some films especially 22se Srabon which was predictable for me in the first 10 mins to where the movie was heading and its a shame to be categorized as a thriller. Bengali films need to move away from the genre of relationship dramas and explore more stories.

    And yes the term Bengali & non-Bengali is only used there…Never heard it, before i came across some Bongs 🙂

  3. Ah!Souvik-this is such a well written take on the entire Bengali film industry that it almost becomes a Bengali Cinema for dummies. Here’s hoping that we get to see some really good films from Tollywood for the rest of the year. And btw I do like Prosenjit’s choice of films these days.BTW even Mithunda has successfully straddled both commercial potboilers & parallel cinema!!!

  4. Thank you so much for this. As Ajay has pointed out i don’t think there is another piece of this kind on the internet. This is such an informative and detailed piece. I have just recently decided to watch all of good regional cinema made in the whole country and this post is like ‘A Guide to Benagli Cinema’ for me. Thanks again 🙂

  5. Tell you what guys, I am still to see a compelling Bengali film in recent times, a film that shall keep me glued to the screen. Shob Choritro Kalponik came close, but that’s it. Tony and Sreejit have long to go before they can be called “good”. I still wonder, is it so tough? Making a decently “good” film?

  6. well,those who like Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s films are pseudo intellectuals in your opinion.I want to ask a question-What makes you think lovers of Buddhadeb Dasgupta are pseudo intellectuals and that you are a real intellectual person,who genuinely understands what is good cinema and what is not?

    The same way you label lovers of Bd cinema as pseudo intellectuals,the appreciators of Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s films too would label you as a pseudo intellectual.I personally don’t think that anybody has any right to call others pseudo intellectual.

  7. thank you everyone — sethu sir, rasik, indraneel and robin hood… 🙂

    i agree that making a film is not an easy task… making a good film is even tougher.. but then, it’s like saying only filmmakers can be critics or reviewers… i never said Buddha da does not make good cinema.. in fact, i was pretty vocal that what has plagued the ibengali cinema is not that the art filmmakers haven’t made commercial stuff, rather… and as i clarified, “this is absolutely my opinion and not any researched or quantitatively arguable issue”..
    Robinhood – possibly you got hurt by the term ‘pseudo-intellectual’ term… hahah… okay, those who love his film are not ‘pseudo-intellectual’ but i would say his films are… they are almost as unreal as salman khan films.. just because, there is a philosophy behind it doesn’t make the film any better (to me).. i might happen to prefer a truckload of water canisters bursting on his salman’s head while he stands firmly to his ground… than two almost naked men wrestling throughout the film… :-)))

  8. This is an old post which I just came across. Yesterday I was watching Mishwar Rawhoshyo and was looking for a review to see whether my disappointment was shared by others as well. That is how I landed on this page Souvik. I think what you have written is very good and thought provoking. However, what I would like to point out in addition to what you have already said is that good and ‘not-so-good’ movies have always been in peaceful co-existence throughout a large part of India’s film history.I have a perpetual dilemma regarding the ‘not-so-good’ movies from the likes of Haranath et al and the decadence of bengali movie industry in the 90’s and 2000. (I think, a similar transition played out in Bollywood as well during the same time…. was it a reflection of the socio-political transition that India was going through at that time? May be some food for thought). My dilemma is – was it lack of creativity / intent of some film makers that started the rot in quality of films being made at that time OR was it the dwindling audience support for such movies that is to be blamed?

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