Bengali cinema coming of age

Bengali cinema coming of age

April 4, 2014

"I feel the golden period of Bengali films has returned. The audiences are participating in the theatres again. Directors have begun thinking differently and producers are putting in money. And, movies, even of a different genre, are seeing a long run in the theatres. Together with song-and-dance films, we are seeing a spate of serious, thought-provoking films... Bengali films are being shown in the US, Europe and the Middle East, amongst a few regions..."

So feels four-time National Award-winning director and storywriter, of films like Antaheen, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. And he is definitely on the right track. People will always remember the 1950s and ‘60s as the golden age of Bengali cinema. Good stories, brilliant actors, directors, music directors, etc. made a visit to a theatre a most sought-after outing. Fridays were always looked forward to. The good literature- and good cinema-loving Bengali public was having a great time. And many of these people were doing brilliant work in the Hindi film industry too.

Radhika Apte and Rahul Bose played stellar roles in Antaheen

According to the general view, the rot started in the early 1980s, when the potboiler took the front seat in terms of preference. The advent of television in the urban drawing rooms of Bengal proved a death-knell for good cinema. Also came a general dearth of good actors, good director and good stories. Producers and directors increasingly only looked to the rural audience for their audiences. Ordinary son-and-dance routines came to be identified with popular Bengali cinema. The greatest common denominator came to dictate what to be put up on the big screen. It was for the most part a far cry from the brilliance of the earlier decades.

Rituparno Ghosh

In 1994 came Unishe April, directed by a young director named Rituparno Ghosh. The film paved the way for the return of good, content-driven cinema. There is no doubt that Ghosh marked the beginning of a renaissance in Bengali cinema. At the time when Ghosh chose to become a film-maker, Tollywood, as the Bengali film industry is popularly known, was in disarray both in terms of earnings as well as the quality of film-making. Ghosh was a powerful storyteller with a sensitive understanding of the emotional tangles that mark human relationships. At his best, Ghosh's writing is subtle but eloquent. His characters speak volumes without saying a word, using their body language and nuances, communicating as we tend to in real life. Films like Chokher Bali, Dosar, Shubha Mahurat and Abohaman showcased Ghosh's gift for storytelling and won awards and critical praise. It is also largely thanks to his films that the careers of actors like Prosenjit Chatterjee got a new lease of life.

A scene from Unishe April

It was from the first decade of the 21st century that things really started looking up in general. For one, producers poured in money to ramp up the production values of commercial Bengali films. Glitz and glamour became de rigueur in popular cinema. But importantly, and this is why things have started looking up, it was not just these types of films that producers and others became interested in. Films with good content, acted in by good actors, marked the revival of Bengali cinema. Unlike earlier times, the line between art or parallel and commercial films became blurred. People now became willing to fill up theatre seats in support of content-driven cinema. Of course, the standard of music has also gone up by leaps and bounds.

There is a whole breed of new film-makers today which is experimenting with new subjects, treatment and casting. Films like Bhooter Bhabishwat, Ami Aar Amar Girlfriends and Maach Mishti & More are a result of this trend.

Srikit Mukherji

The themes are often whacky. For instance, director Anik Dutta's debut film, Bhooter Bhabishwat, is a satire about a gang of ghosts living in an old palatial mansion of North Kolkata soon to be broken down for a luxury mall. It is the story of how they confront the situation. The film, which had a record run at the box office and hogged the editorial pages for days, has recently been remade into a Hindi film. A significant reversal of trends, for sure; and something which often happened back in the ‘50s, the ‘60s and even the ‘70s.

Dutta, who comes from an advertising background, says that a great deal of the film's success was through word-of-mouth. "As a director, I tried to be true to myself and made sure that I enjoyed the script. I was humbled when audience across the spectrum appreciated my film," he says.

A poster of Bhooter Bhabishwat, a modern classic

The Tollygunge cine industry was once the hub of both commercial and art films. Names like Asit Sen and Ajay Kar gave blockbuster commercial hits like Deep Jwele Jai, Uttar Falguni, Harano Sur and Saat Paake Bandha with actors like Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Soumitra Chatterjee as the protagonists, dealing with the concerns of society.

Uttam, Suchitra, Soumitra

On the other hand, film-makers like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak tried to break the monotony with parallel cinema that had a distinct storyline and narrative. One of Ghatak's earliest films, Ajantrik (1958), was a comic fiction about an inanimate object, a motor car, as a character in the story. Though not a commercial success - and Ghatak was not known for delivering box office hits - his later films, Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961), and Subarnarekha (1965) dealt with serious subjects such as the condition of Partition refugees. Pather Panchali (1955), by Ghatak's contemporary Ray, was based on a classic novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and was critically acclaimed. Mrinal Sen, the other maestro in the troika, gave films like Kharij and Akaler Sandhane, which became landmarks in parallel cinema.

Ray, Ghatak, Sen (left to right)

Now there is an appetite for every type of cinema, and it is no small appetite. A comedy like Aniket Chattopadhyay’s Bye Bye Bangkok, a serious film like Gautam Ghosh's Moner Manush, debutant director Srijit Mukherji's Autograph, adventure films like Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s Chander Pahar, starring current Tollywood heart-throb Dev, and Srijit Mukherji’s Kakababu story, Mishawr Rawhoshyo, have all notched up at least a 100 days.

Mishawr Rawhoshyo was a blockbuster

Chander Pahar has also done what no Bengali film had dared to do: invest Rs 15 crore, the highest ever. The grand adventure was shot for 45 days in South Africa. The number might seem small when compared to the high-spending Hindi and southern films, but it has definitely given a huge leg-up to Tollywood. According to film critic and trade analyst Taran Adarsh, the non-Bengali audience also received the film positively. “This is a stepping stone for Bengali films and opens a new horizon for these. I was impressed when I first saw the trailer. The audience reception shows such films have a market outside the state,” he said.

The new golden age

According to one of the best of the new breed of directors, Srijit Mukherji, “A slew of young directors, actors, writers, musicians and technicians have contributed to this revival. Given our resources and the fact that we have only a fraction of what many other film industries possess, the sheer diversity of Bengali movies needs to be saluted. Not to mention that Bengali films are garnering both box-office as well as acclaim with unerring regularity."

Septuagenarian actor Soumitra Chatterjee, the protagonist of several of Ray's movies, welcomes this change in Bengali cinema. "The industry has recovered from the vicious pattern of blindly aping South Indian films. Now we are looking at new subjects.”

What was initially considered just a trend is no longer so; good cinema is here to stay. By a general consensus, both of those related to the film industry and of the viewing public, the prognosis is a return to the times of good cinema – in terms of content, acting, directing, music, technicalities, and everything else. It is not just a trend, but a new age.

Dev in the lead role as Shankar in Chander Pahar

Written by Anushtup Haldar for

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Comments (2)
Anubrata Reply
April 08, 2014
Rituparno's contribution to the revival of good Bengali films is immense. it's so sad that he had to leave us so early, when he was at his peak.
Prantik Reply
April 08, 2014
Some of the films nowadays are really good, and hope the number increases in the future.
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