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The evolution of Bengali cinema – II

The ‘offbeat’ genre which Ray, Ghatak and Sen pioneered and nourished has not wilted or withered in the last quarter-century, for over 300 feature films have been made in that category since 1992

Bibekananda Ray | Kolkata |

A new trend of adventure and treasure hunt movies appears to be on the anvil in Bengali cinema. In November 2017, two super-hit adventure movies created a sensation — Amazon Abhijaan by Kamaleswar Mukherjee and Yeti Abhijaan by Srijit Mukherjee. The first was inspired by the success of Mukherjee’s Chander Pahar (2013), based on a novel by Bibhuti Bhushan (the author of Pather Panchali), featuring the same Bengali adventurer in Africa in a kind of a sequel. Sunil Ganguly’s 42 Kakababu tales for children have elements of adventure too. Two of them — Mishawr Rawhoshyo and Yeti Abhijaan were adapted by Srijit Mukherjee, featuring Kakababu, alias Raja Roy Chowdhury, a former director of the Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, who is tasked with retrieving a rumoured treasure from a mummy in an Egyptian pyramid and solve the mystery killings by an arms smuggler in the guise of an Yeti, or the “abominable snowman”, respectively.

Although urban Bengalis are led by wanderlust, they are not a particularly adventurous race but juvenile readers avidly read adventure and treasure-hunt tales in libraries, press and magazines.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s time (1861-1941), a popular and prolific writer of adventure, detective and horror tales for children (who adapted Dracula) was Hemendra Kumar Roy (1888-1963). His treasure-hunt tale Jakher Dhan was rendered into an eponymous movie by Sayantan Ghoshal in 2017.

READ | The evolution of Bengali cinema – I

After release of Sandip Ray’s Professor Shonku O Eldorado, hopefully this year, a new genre of science-fiction movies may emerge; most of such movies will have adventure and treasure-hunt too. It is on an inventive scientist Professor Shanku of Giridih (now in Jharkhand State) who hazarded a journey to the mythical gold-city of Eldorado in South America. The kind of abysmal poverty and misery, depicted in neo-realist movies of Ghatak, Ray and Sen are a passé, these days. Shopping malls and multiplexes are coming up, even in suburban towns and online shopping is booming. Single-screen cinema-halls are closing, as moviegoers afford to spend more on tickets and snacks. This is making producers and directors choose hollow themes and stories. Moral taboos are giving way to candid man-woman relations, dating, live-in, free-mixing, pre-marital sex, pregnancy, affairs and divorces.

The evolution of Bengali cinema

Ray’s younger contemporaries treated new themes. Buddhadeb Dasgupta dealt with political disillusion in freedom fighters after India’s Independence in Tahader Katha (1994). In Charachar (1995), he dealt with the milieu of bird-catchers; his every other movie thereafter dealt with new themes.

In year of Ray’s death, Gautam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi (The Boatman of Padma, 1992) was about cyclone-ravaged people of a riverine village of East Bengal who look upon an enigmatic Muslim elder as their messiah, as he lures to resettle them in a barren island. His latest, Shankhachil (2017) depicted, like Srijit Mukherjee’s Rajkahini, the absurdity of the Radcliff Line to partition India and Pakistan through the touching tale of a Bangladeshi girl who dies on the operation table in a Kolkata hospital, where she is taken by her parents without visa, surreptitiously.

Few post-Ray movies are based on stories by Bengal’s classic writers—Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyaya, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyaya, Manik Bandyopadhyaya and Samaresh Basu etc; bulk of them are either by the directors, or are based on stories by contemporary writers like Sunil Ganguly, Shirshendu Mukherjee, late Suchitra Bhattacharya, Bani Basu, Samaresh Majumdar, Ashish Barman (for two of Mrinal Sen’s movies), Syed Mustafa Siraj, Sayantani Putatunda, Ratnottama Sengupta etc. because the milieus in their novels and stories are familiar to contemporary Bengalis.

Satyajit Ray did not make any candid political movie; India’s politics was “chameleon” for him. He once said censors won’t permit showing a Gandhi-cap wearing politician as corrupt. In Jana Aranya (1973), he admitted coming close to caricature the then Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal, S S Ray, in the role played by Utpal Dutt. In Paras Pathar (1958), the clerk who gets rich by using a touchstone wears a Congress cap. In Hirak Raajar Deshe (1980), he satirised the Left regime’s abolition of English in primary classes. He was generally cynical about India’s politics.

The evolution of Bengali cinema

“I find politicians and their game of politics extremely dishonest and puerile. They change colors like chameleons, so much so that it’s difficult to keep pace with them”, he told an interviewer in 1989.

With the exceptions of Mrinal Sen and Buddhadeb Dasgupta, most other directors after Ray avoid political theme and tales, fearing censor objections and persecution. More movies are held up, these days, for direct or oblique political references through apparently innocuous words, or phrases, than for sex and soft porn.

A long documentary on Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen by Suman Ghosh was held up long and at last certified after four politically-charged words were cut, or muted. Major movies dealing with novel themes are Japanese Wife (2010) on a story by Kunal Bose by Aparna Sen about love and marriage between two penpals — a Japanese girl and a school teacher of the Sunderbans, Arshinagar (2017) an adaptation, also by her, of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Ekti Nadir Galpa (2008) by Samir Chanda on a father’s successful fight with authorities to rename a river after his dead daughter, Aasa Jaoar Majhe (2015) by Aditya Vikram Sengupta about a working couple who do not meet and speak to each other for six days in a week, Jatiswar (2014) by Srijit Mukherjee about reincarnation of an Anglo-Indian singer, Baishe Shravan(2011), also by Mukherjee, about a former police officer turning a serial killer to avenge his suspension for using third-degree methods on suspects, who kills chosen victims on red-letter days, Phaltu (2006) by Anjan Das on everybody’s darling, the illegitimate son of a deaf and dumb orphan woman, impregnated by a village elder, Mayurakshi (2017) by Atanu Ghosh on reunion of an Alzheimar-afflicted father with his NRI son, settled in Chicago, Chilekotha(2017) by Premsangshu Roy on a recluse old man’s communion with his grandson, living abroad, via Internet in a turret, Chitrakar (2017) by Saibal Mitra on an old painter’s refusal to commercialise his muse by painting on a restaurant wall, Cinemawala (2016) by Kaushik Ganguly on heartbreak of the owner of a single-screen cinema-hall, following its closure after the emergence of multiplexes, Egaaro (2011) by Arup Roy on the historic victory of a Kolkata soccer team, playing without boots over the Fort William team of English players, Ek Je Achhe Kanya (2001) by Subrata Sen on a young girl’s seduction of a middle-aged married tenant in her house, Phoring (2013) by Indranil Roy Choudhury on an adolescent boy’s fancy for an older tutor and Parichay (included in three-in-one Teen Kaahan (2014) by Boudhayan Mukherjee, a story by Bibhuti Bhushan on the crush of an eight-year-old boy for the young wife of a government employee in a village and how being jealous, he tricked him to leave for Kolkata, Not a Dirty Film(2015) by Ranadeep Sarkar on Kolkata’s porn movie racket and how innocent people get trapped in it.

Arindam Sil’s Dhananjay (2017) is a brave exposure of an allegedly grievous error of death sentence by Kolkata High Court to a security guard, framed wrongfully by a police constable for rape and murder of a school girl in her parents’ absence.

Although offbeat directors hate doing remakes, they sometimes adapt themes of foreign movies; Srijit Mukherjee’s Uma (2018) is an adaptation of a Canadian true story in which a doting father holds a fake Durga Puja before schedule to please his dying daughter.

Mental and neurological illnesses have figured in many post-Ray other movies, e.g., Alzhemier’s in Mayurakshi and schizophrenia in Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013) and in Goodnight City (2018), both by Kamaleswar Mukherjee, a doctor who gave up practice to make movies. The former dealt with, authentically, schizophrenia in Ritwik Ghatak, for which he had to be hospitalised.

Goodnight City, a psychological thriller, released on 25 May, dealt with a schizophrenic youth’s emergence from his dark world with the help of sympathetic doctors and kin. Remarkably touching was the noble theme of hardcore convicts in a jail turning a new leaf through their participation in a Tagore opera, staged by the wife of a prison officer in an outstanding movie by duo Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy, Muktadhara (2012).

Many of young directors in Tollygunge were promising in their debut, e.g., Chilekotha(2017) by Premangshu Roy and Sahaj Pather Galpa (2017) by Manas Mukul Pal; among veterans, bold and new themes are being treated by Srijit Mukherjee, Kaushik Ganguly, Shiboprasad Mukherjee & Nandita Roy duo, Kamaleswar Mukherjee and Arindam Sil.

Thus, the offbeat genre which Ray, Ghatak and Sen pioneered and nourished has not wilted, or withered for over 300 feature movies, offbeat and verging on offbeat, have been made and released since 1992. Although they are numerically far less than mainstream movies and often fail at the box-office, they stand out as the real cinema, although their makers form a kind of plateau, compared to the peak that Ray was in most of his movies but all of them abide by the master’s advice: “The important thing is Truth; get at it and you’ve got your great humanist masterpiece”.