changing trends in contemporary bengali cinema

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The lights are bright, the cameras are rolling, the sound of the clapstick echoes in and around Tollygunge. Bangla cinema, it seems, is on a roll. But is quality the price of this sudden spurt of new directors, new films and new genres in the Bengali film industry? Do the films made today have the posterity value films of Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Asit Sen, Dinen Gupta, Sushil Majumdar and others demanded and got? Do the films have a shelf life reserved for the archive?


To take a few steps backwards into the past, after the Uttam Kumar – Suchitra Sen golden era and the intellectual impact of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak faded away, Bengali cinema wandered for decades in the wasteland of mediocrity. Apart from the occasional film by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Aparna Sen or Gautam Ghose, mainstream cinema in Bengal continued to produce trash. With Yatra, even Gautam Ghosh enlisted himself in the ‘trash’ category and is now into research-centric documentaries. Buddhadeb Dasgupta has three complete films, already screened and acclaimed at festivals at home and abroad, waiting for a theatrical release in his home state. Aparna Sen’s latest film, The Japanese Wife, in English, is stuck somewhere for mysterious reasons. The final comedown has come with the prolific Rituparno Ghosh. Three films of his, ready for theatrical release, are cooling their reels in some cold storage out there. One is the double-language version Sunglass, starring Konkana Sharma, Jaya Bachchan and Tota Roychoudhury with Madhavan stepping in for the Hindi version in place of Tota. The second is Khela, with Prosenjeet and Manisha Koirala. The third is his first English film The Last Lear, with Amitabh Bachchan playing his first English role. He has just completed the entire shooting for Shob Choritro Kalponik with Bipasha Basu in her first Bangla role cast opposite Prosenjeet and Jishu Sengupta.

“It saddens me that despite international acclaim, my films fail to find even a proper public release in my homeland, West Bengal. I make films that are very Indian in general and Bengali in essence. My themes deal with the universality of loneliness, alienation, and the average man’s increasing failure to communicate his innermost feelings to the fellow man. I use abstractions, ideas, my thoughts picked up at random, and position them in the way I feel suits the ideology of the film and the characters that people it. But somehow, the films seem to get trapped. Jhamu Sugandh of Mumbai produced my last two films Swapner Din and Kaalpurush. But it seems he cannot be traced now so the films remain unreleased for my own audience till date,” says Buddhadeb Dasgupta when asked what he feels to find his films unreleased.

One bright trend, in terms of commercial viability and not in terms of aesthetics of cinematic values, can be seen in the box office success of action films, mainly augured by Bollywood’s Mithun Chakraborty and taken up by Prosenjeet and Jeet. Not that the action film did not exist when Mithun was not around. But Mithun gave it the box office push Prosenjeet could not, though one can never say he did not try. Mithun has added his own stylish mannerisms when he is pushing sixty.

Most films coming out of the Haranath Chakraborty and Swapan Saha stable are big hits at the box office if not in the city, then in the suburbs and in the villages. The two have invented (imported?) a magic xerox machine, which not only xeroxes Hindi commercial films, but can also relocate them in terms of language, casting, dialogue and mise-en-scene. The machine does the same with Tamil films, Kannada films, Telugu films and Malayalam films, converting them into Bengali duplicates and triplicates. It is this up market machine, which neatly converts a creative filmmaker into a copyist, a translator, an interpreter, and perhaps, even an avid fan of dominant Hindi cinema. Along the way, he strips himself of his main job – direction.

So what happens next? A new director jumps out of the magician’s hat before you can say abracadabra. During 2007 into 2008, not a day passes when a film by a new director is not announced. In 2007-8, the only veterans whose films made it to the large screen are Haranath Chakrabarty, Swapan Saha, Raja Sen, Tarun Majumdar, Sandip Ray and Prabhat Roy. One film of Anjan Das, Jara Brishtitey Bhhijechhilo was released to critical acclaim but was a flop. The same applies to Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Kaal and Swapan Ghoshal’s Bonobhoomi. But Das is not a veteran. Raja Mukherjee (Bidhatar Lekha), Sanghamitra Choudhury (Chakra and Raatporir Roopkatha), Aniruddha Roychoudhury (Anuranan), Saugata Ray Barman (90 Hours), Jishbudeep Burman (Dahankaal), Agnidev Chatterjee (Prabhu Nasto Hoye Jaayi), Mainak Bhowmick (Aamra) and many other new names made their entry into the directorial portals of Bangla cinema.

Some directors, like Pinaki Choudhury and Anjan Dutta, came out of hibernation. Hot on the heels of the success of his two films The Bong Connection and Bow Barracks Forever, this year, Dutta has already begun to shoot his new film Let’s Go with a huge starcast comprised of young actors from television and films. New directors whose films will be released are Arjun Chakrborty, followed by Shubhrajit Mitra who is making a sort of relocated version of Tagore’s famous Shesher Kobita. Rangan Chakravarty will make his debut with a romantic comedy, Bor Aashbe Ekhuni, and noted actor Parambrato debuts with Jiyo Kaka, also a comedy. Tapas Majumdar has recently announced his first film Eka Eka while Sunit Bhattacharya has begun to shoot Smriti Medur, and debutante Arijit Biswas is shooting Kanchan Babu.

“Talent is there is every form of art but no other art demands as much of investment in terms of human and money capital like cinema does. This huge amount of investment places tremendous pressure on the director much before he even begins to shoot his film. The other pressure he must work under is the constant uncertainty and anxiety about whether the film will be a commercial success or not. Ritwik Ghatak and Rajen Tarafdar are the two classic examples whose audience has been deprived of the experience of watching their films because almost all their films were commercial failures,” laments old guard Tarun Majumdar, whose sole release in 2007, Chander Bari, is a hit. He adds that the director must think firstly about his producer’s money and secondly about the audience acceptance of his film. “West Bengal does not have a single director today who can produce his own film. Earlier, film producers who were only involved with production, had a long-sighted vision of what would be accepted or rejected by the audience and so, Bengali cinema had its footprint spread right across the span of Lahore to Burma, now known as Myanmar. RD Bansal is one example of this school who did not direct films but whose vision was different from the present crop. The scenario is dramatically different today. Producers do not have the kind of Bengali mindset they had during the 1950s, known as the golden era of Bengali cinema. Contemporary producers buy DVDs of outside films and dictate to the director which scene he should take from which film, resulting in a collage of scenes lifted from different, disjointed and distanced films,” says Majumdar. But things are changing. Among the newcomers, at least three directors have produced their own film while the others did not have to wait long for a producer.

Films rooted in literature are making a comeback, albeit in different forms. But taking the disappointing destiny of Jara Brishtitey Bhhijechhilo, Bonobhoomi, Pitribhoomiand Krishnakanter Will, the future of films based on Bengali literary works does not seem to be very bright. Of two recent films for children, Riingo’s Neel Rajar Deshe and Sandip Ray’s Kailase Kelenkari, the former has not appealed to the audience while the latter is, till date, the biggest hit this year. As far as genres go, there has been little change except for Pinaki Choudhury’s empathetic statement for senior citizens in Ballygunge Court. Saugata Ray Barman tried his hand at an action thriller but was not as successful as he could have been. Feedback on uncommon themes like love between an older married woman and a younger man (Smriti-Medur), or, on changing values among urban youth (Aamra), do not find takers even when they are well-made and slick. The culture of the telefilm may be one reason why unusual topics on the large screen have not hit the audience yet.

If new directors can enter the fray, how can new actors be left behind? Some young actors, who began a few years ago, are doing very good work today. Swastika Mukherjee is a versatile actress whose potential is yet to be tapped. Koel Mullick has her hands full with all kinds of roles in light and frothy films, suited to her screen image. Jishu Sengupta has come into his own and Tota Roychoudhury says he has six films lined up for release in 2008. Amitabh Bhattacharya’s luck seems to have turned with the publicity hype for Buddhadev Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs. Among veterans, Rituparna Sengupta has never had it so good when she was younger and more beautiful to look at, what with roles being practically written for her and around her. Among absolute freshers, the only actor one must mention is television actor Ritwik Chakrabarty who is extremely talented, has rough looks and is said to be committed. All fresh female faces such as Debashree in Prem and Sandhya Shetty in Kaal fell by the wayside.

Bengali cinema has broken out of its regional straitjacket to carve a global identity. Does this mean that Bengali cinema as a cultural perpetuator of language and literature is on its way out? Not if one takes a closer look at contemporary mainstream cinema. What do films like The Last Lear, Love Songs – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, The Japanese Wife, and Bow Barracks Forever have in common? Filmmakers whose heart and soul are rooted in Bengali cinema have directed them. Yet, these films speak in English. Part of the acting cast, such as Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta and Arjun Rampal (The Last Lear) Jaya Bachchan and Om Puri (Love Songs), Rahul Bose (Anuranan, The Japanese Wife, Kaalpurush) has been sourced from Bollywood. There is international outsourcing too. Aparna Sen chose a Japanese actress for the title role in her new film. Saregama, the music house that has stepped into film production, is producing Aparna Sen’s film. NRI Raj Basu has invested in Piyalir Password, shot entirely in the US. Films are being shot across the world from London through Tokyo to the US and Darjeeling, the Sunderbans and the streets and bylanes of Kolkata. We now have films in Banglish, dialogue and urban culture making for a happy blend of Bangla and English

Music in Bengali cinema has transcended the regional to step into global and rich fusion music. With the copyright on Tagore having gone for good, music directors are generously dipping into Tagore songs for their film projects with excellent results. Anjan Dutta on the other hand, has brought in band music, old English songs and fusion music in a big way in Bong Connection and Bow Barracks Forever. Bengali cinema today also prides itself in having some of the best cinematographers in the country. Abhik Mukherjee is now directing his first feature film in Hindi. But his place has been taken by able successors like Riingo who cinematographs his own films and Soumik Haldar who has cinematographed Tolly Lights, Lovesongs, Shob Choritro Kalponik and Bor Ashbe Ekhuni.

“Change is inevitable because time changes the perspective of looking at films – present or past – in terms of subject, speed, theme, money spent, etc. etc. So, making absolute comments about extreme polarities in the quality of cinema is something I do not quite agree with,” says Ansu Sur, ex-Director, Nandan. He adds that for the director, the film is his bread and butter. He will fail to get another producer for his second film if his first one is a flop. So, he cannot ignore the logistics of current market trends and audience tastes when he decides to direct a film. Video parlours had earlier narrowed down the market for exhibition of films. Channels sprouting up everyday are doing it now. An exhibitor who own five halls and earns a 10% commission is also the distributor so the producer hardly gets his money back. Though the state government offers a 4% subsidy to exhibitors for renovating their theatres, this has not happened to the extent it should have. The market for Bengali films in West Bengal is not very healthy. So someone banks on an item number by Yana Gupta and Ashok Viswanathan ropes in Jayapradha to play the lead role in his under-production film. Exhibitors are afraid of putting in more money in renovating theatres because they have no idea of whether the film will get back the money. “The reduction in entertainment tax by the state government which brought about a cut in the gate rates has not widened the market for Bengali films either. Red-tapism imposed by the KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) has made it almost impossible for old theatres to modernize and upgrade their exhibition outlets by converting them into multiplexes with seats of 200 to 300,” Sur sums up.

Bengali cinema today, is no longer the cinema of mystification duplicated several times over. Nor is it surplus value cinema, which underestimates the intelligence of its audience and overestimates its gullibility. It could be termed a cinema that is slowly but surely evolving a pan-Indian identity, if one widens the scope of the term ‘pan-Indian.’ It is a cinema that has finally come into its own, stripping itself of its moral dependence on Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Satyajit Ray.

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