The past Durga Puja witnessed the release of a cluster of Bengali films that were mostly forgettable. “Dasham Avatar,” “Raktabij,” and “Bagha Jatin” turned out to be nightmares for sensitive viewers. While the former two dangerously lacked content and filmmaking craft, the last one was a literal flirtation with the life of Jyotindranath Mukherjee, a pioneer of Bengalis’ armed struggle for revolution against the British Raj. Even the local media remained non-committal about these pertinent issues. It’s a pity!
What ails contemporary Bengali cinema?
The simple answer lies in a tremendous dearth of talent both behind and in front of the movie camera. Four decades ago, Satyajit Ray, in an interview with a national weekly, stated that Bengali cinema was running out of talent compared to its Hindi counterpart. This statement is proving truer day by day. Not that Bollywood is still in its golden period. However, overall production, technical values, star presence, attraction, and even some amount of content in films like “Mission Ranigunj” place Hindi cinema way ahead of its Bengali cinematic brethren.
The only recent film to have left a mark is Kaushik Ganguly’s “Palan,” a sequel to Mrinal Sen’s classic “Kharij.” “Palan” is nowhere near the original, yet an aptly written script following the language of cinema and memorable performances by Mamata Shankar and Anjan Dutta make “Palan” worth viewing. The other two actors in it, Jishu Sen Gupta and Paoli Dam, are damp squibs.
The present-day directors—Kaushik Ganguly, Srijit Mukherjee, Nandita Roy, Shiboprosad Mukherjee, or even Suman Ghosh—are educated filmmakers. So are actors like Prosenjit Chatterjee, Rituparna Sengupta, Abir, and Saswata Chatterjee. However, none of them possesses the charisma of even an average director or actor of their predecessors from the golden age of Bengali cinema from the 1950s to the 1970s. No one has been able to substitute Pramathesh Barua, Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, Suchitra Sen, or Sabitri Chatterjee. No director has the ability to come anywhere near the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Ajay Kar, or Bijay Bose.
Classified in three categories
Earlier, Bengali cinema was classified into three categories: art, middle, and mainstream. The Rays, Ghataks, and Sens pursued parallel films, while Tapan Sinha, Asit Sen, Pijush Bose were makers of middle cinema, and Agradut, Agragami, Salil Dutta, Swadesh Sarkar, among others, were commercial directors. Even the most average film then had a minimum standard; many were made on literary themes and were rooted in reality and aesthetics.
It is common sense that Bengali cinema lacks the huge budget of Hindi or Southern films. The entire Bengali film industry is unorganized and lacks unity, while the monopoly of one production house, Sri Venkatesh Films, rules the roost. There are other producers scattered without solid financial backing. The present filmmakers are afraid to experiment with different forms of cinema due to pressure from the box office.
A viewing of “Ami Se O Sakha,” a super hit from the mid-70s, proves it is not a classic like “Devi,” “Jatugriha,” or “Arogya Niketan.” Yet, the taut script and direction by Mangal Chakraborty, subtle performances by Uttam Kumar, Kaberi Bose, and Anil Chatterjee make it far more memorable than any of the present-day films. There are many such examples proving the truth that present Bengali cinema is not worth watching.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee, while editing Rajen Tarafdar’s “Ganga,” discovered that a good story was shot in a confused manner. He took a personal interest and, with efficient editing skills, gave “Ganga” a brilliant story form. Naushad always felt that it was impossible to compose tunes in Hindi like the ones Sudhin Das Gupta composed in Bengali. Tanuja, Ashok Kumar, and Dilip Kumar have many times confessed that their performances in “Deya Neya,” “Hate Bajare,” and “Sagina Mahato” were way ahead of many of their Hindi films.
Duty of directors to keep on experimenting
To revive its lost glory, Bengali filmmakers should continuously scout for talent. Additionally, many producers should receive ample money to invest in good cinema. Giving priority to content over box office ingredients and avoiding cinematic gimmickry should be an average filmmaker’s motto. Special attention should be given to film music. The condition of today’s modern or cinema-based songs is pathetic. Above all, commitment to cinema and making viewers, as well as critics, aware of cinematic language is a must.
Film academician Sanjay Mukhopadhyay says, “True, Bengali cinema has lost its glory of yore. The present-day films lack content, proper cinematic values and not a single actor can keep a mark in the minds of viewers.” However, Sandip Ray is more optimistic, “No doubt we do not have Chabi Biswas, Tulsi Chakraborty or Madhabi Mukherjee among today’s performers. Yet it is the duty of us directors to keep on experimenting and extracting the best from present actors, technicians and music directors.”