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Evolution of Bengali cinema-1

Looking at the current scenario, there has been a rise in independent movies with minimal investment which are being released in diverse digital platforms. A dominant trend nowadays in Tollygunge is the making of detective, scary, adventure and treasure-hunt movies.

Bibekananda Ray |

Film director Satyajit Ray passed away at a Kolkata nursing home on 23 April 1992 at the age of 71 after a prolonged illness following a massive heart attack in 1983.

He was advised complete rest to avoid the strain of filmmaking. But five years later, at his insistence, the doctor permitted him on the condition that the movie must be shot indoors.

He made three movies —Ganashatru (1989), Shakha Prasakha (1990) and Agantuk (1991). His son Sandip and director of photography Barun Raha supervised everything and doctor and ambulance were constantly present.

Ray pioneered the trend of neo-realism in Indian cinema with his debut Pather Panchali (1955), inspired by Italian director Vittorio De Sica. This trend explored themes depicting poverty, squalor and misery. His coevals Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen also made movies in this genre. While Sen dealt with capitalistic exploitation, Ghatak threw light on the plight of refugees in West Bengal post Partition.

Looking at the current scenario, there has been a rise in independent movies with minimal investment which are being released in the diverse digital platform. A dominant trend nowadays in Tollygunge is the making of detective, scary, adventure and treasure-hunt movies. In the first genre too, Ray left a mark with three Chiriakhana (1967), Sonaar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1978).

In genetic inheritance, his son, Sandip made 18 such films for big and small screen, mostly on his father’s Feluda tales. As film rights of all Feluda (and Professor Shonku) tales lie with Sandip, directors and producers went for other tales, generally by four Bengali writers, whose cine rights were easier to get, for example, Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, an expatriate Bengali, born and brought up in Uttar Pradesh, Nihar Ranjan Gupta, an army dermatologist and by two Bengali writers Sunil Ganguly and Shirshendu Mukherjee.

Bandyopadhyay, born in 1899 in Jaunpur was an erudite and popular writer. In 39 years of creative life in Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune, he wrote 33 detective tales, featuring an expatriate Bengali youth Byomkesh (1931-1970) in the role of the sleuth, five historical fictions, 27 non-detective short stories and scripted four movies in Bombay; 18 of his stories were rendered in Bengali and four in Hindi movies.

In his boyhood, Ray had been a voracious reader of Arthur Conan Doyle and when began to write detective stories for family magazine Sandesh, he took Sherlock Holmes as a model for his sleuth Pradodsh Mitter alias Feluda. Like Doyle’s Watson, he created an assistant to him too, Topse, his nephew, who helped him unravel mysteries and identify the culprit.

The sleuths, created by three other writers are different from Ray’s. Bandyopadhyaya’s sleuth, Byomkesh Bakshi was an unassuming Bengali gentleman (Bhadralok) with a mission of ‘seeking the truth’ in mysterious murders and other crimes, from slenderest of clues; Feluda used the weapon of intellect (magajaastra, in Bengali) like Holmes.

The sleuths of Bandyopadhyay, Dr Gupta and Ray were private detectives’who were engaged on fees; Ganguly’s Kakababu is a university professor of archaeology and Mukherjee’s Shabar Dasgupta is a Kolkata Police detective.
In current movie versions, Byomkesh is made to wear Western attire (not dhoti) and use laptops, smart phones and expensive cars, to make him look contemporary.

As in Feluda tales written for juveniles, the sleuth and his assistant in these two movies and in renderings by Sandip, are not attracted to women, don’t even fall in love or marry. Initially, this repelled producers who refused to invest in what they termed, ‘unromantic children’s movies’.

In some of Bandyopadhyay’s tales, with an adult target readership, Byomkesh fell in love and married Satyavati who often provided clues.

As melodramatic movies became passé and crimes increased, detective movies turned into the proverbial golden goose in Tollygunge. Although Ray’s three younger contemporaries — Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Gautam Ghose and Aparna Sen- did not make any (Dasgupta even debunked them), a host of directors in the next generation turned to making detective, thriller and scary movies, eyeing box-office bonanza.

Some of the remarkable detective and thriller movies after Ray include his son’s Baadshahi Aangti, Bombaiyer Bombete, Gorasthane Saabdhan, Kailashey Kelenkari, Mayurkanthi Jelly and the latest 2017 hit Double Feluda (all on Feluda tales), 89 (Eighty Nine) by Manoj Michigan, A Political Murder and Dark Chocolate by Agnidev Chatterjee, Aabaar Byomkesh, Byomkesh O Agnibaan, Byomkesh O Chiriakhana, Byomkesh Phire Elo— all by Anjan Dutt, Abarta, Byomkesh Parbo, Aschhe Abar Shabar, Eagoler Chokh, Ebar Shabar, Har Har Byomkesh, all by Arindam Sil, Baishe Shravan, Chatuskone, Mishar Rahasya, Yeti Abhijaan — all by Srijit Mukherjee, Shajarur Kanta by Saibal Mitra, Kaagajer Bou by Bappaditya Bandyopadhyaya, Buno Hans by Aniruddha Roy Choudhury, Kanchenjungha Express by Arnab Ghoshal, Byomkesh Bakshi- Room Number Dui by Swapan Ghosal, Chorabaali by Shubhrajit Mitra, Durbin by Swagata Choudhury, Dugdha Nakhar by Sourav Sarkar, Kakababu Herey Gyalen! by Pinaki Chowdhury, Khwata by Kamaleswar Mukherjee, Meghnad Badh Rahasya by Anik Dutta, Piyalir Password by Raj Basu,Royal Bengal Tiger by Rajesh Ganguly and Saheb Bibi Golam by Pratim D Gupta.

Although a craze these days, detective movies do not stay long in the mind, or move deeply. Watching Ray’s Kanchenjungha (1962), a reader wrote to a newspaper editor that like the wealthy suitor in the movie, he withdrew from marrying a girl who loved a poor young man but did not care for security.

Another emerging theme in post-Ray “other” Bengali cinema is emancipation of women who question traditional social prejudices against them and the so-called male chauvinism.

In Swet Patharer Thala (1992), a “middle” movie by Prabhat Roy, a young widow refuses to wear white, as Hindu widows do, to please her young child. In offbeat Hemanter Pakhi (2001) by Urmi Chakraborty, a happy housewife, at the suggestion of her uncle, returns to her pre-marriage hobby of writing.

When she is published profusely, her husband and sons initially welcome and support her but as she holds literary meetings at home and ignores the family, they make such a hue and cry that she is forced to give up her creative avocation.

The Modi government in the Centre and the Mamata regime in State have launched monetary schemes to motivate girls to pursue higher studies and not marrying before 18. Way back in 1963, Ray recreated a tale of such emancipation of women in Mahanagar but then had few followers but on TV and cinema, these days, it is now a vigorous trend.

Girls and women from poor households are busting age-old rituals of purdah, veils, domestic violence and religious taboos and stepping out of secure homes , despite rape and other forms of insecurity that make screaming headlines in the media, almost every day. Tapan Sinha’s Aadalat O Ekti Meye (The Court & a Girl1982) and Rituparna Ghosh’s Dahan (1997) dealt with protests by raped women against social prejudices.

On its flipside, as it were, another brave trend is emerging in Tollygunge, of candid sex scenes and amours. Gone are days when a kiss even could not be shown; British director David Lean charged India’s censor boards with perpetuating these taboos in a country where an 8th century sage Vatsayana wrote and preached Kama Sutra.

Both in silent and talkie movies, depiction of man-woman sex was a virtual taboo; if at all, it was conveyed through telltale symbols and insinuations. In J L Freer Hunt’s Karma (1933, English and Hindi), produced abroad, Devika Rani, then his wife, kissed Himansu Rai for four minutes. Released in Hindi as Naagan Ki Raagini, it failed at box-office but the kissing scene made it controversial.

Ray recalled a silent movie Kaal Parinaya (Doomed Marriage 1930) that he saw at nine, in which two pairs of feet rubbed on a bed, hinting at coitus. Though hailing from a Brahmo conservative family and squeamish about depicting bedroom scenes as in Western movies, he let heroine Bimala of Ghare Baire (1983) be kissed twice by the ‘fake’ Swadeshi leader Nikhil and once by her husband Sandip.

In many offbeat movies after Ray, even candid sex and female nudity have been shown, weakening the taboo. In Rituparna Ghosh’s Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012), Ghosh, himself a gay, engaged in sex with a male partner, rather nauseatingly.

He dealt with homosexuality as an actor and director in some other movies too. In Maya Bazaar (2012) by Joydeep Ghosh, the lustful widow of a young Army officer (played by Roopa) had sex with several robust males in whom, she imagined, her husband’s soul resided until in a planchete he tells her to stop it.

Women in scanty clothes, semi-nudity and erotic dances are no longer taboo in Bengali movies. India’s censor boards hold up movies on flimsy and ludicrous grounds but is lenient in moral policing. These days, they allow scenes of hugging and making love; tell-tale scenes of homosexual and lesbian intimacies are left uncut too.

These make even an otherwise insipid movie a hit. Although Seema Biswas of Assam as Phoolan Devi walked nude to a well and was obliquely shown gang-raped by dacoits in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), Bengali cinema had to wait for seven years more to have its first frontally nude female in Paoli Dam in Chhatrak (2011) by Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara, to widespread condemnation.

To survive in the competitive millieus of Hollywood movies, and remakes of hit Hindi and South Indian movies, movies on TV, computer and smartphones and to cope with the rising costs of movie-making, producers are investing in permissive Bengali movies in Tollygunge.

Other Bengali movies that broke stereotypes about women in this respect are Raaj Kahini, Cosmic Sex, Bibar, Khwata, Chitrangada: A Crowning Wish, Take One, Aarekti Premer Galpa, Family Album, Bissh and Maya Bazar. Kolkata censor board has also become somewhat lenient after it allowed kissing sequence in Ray’s Ghare Baire (1983).

READ | The evolution of Bengali cinema – II