From 36 Chowringhee Lane To 15 Park Avenue – The Journey Of Bengali Cinema Over The Past Three Decades

Bengali film Actress Koyel Mallick

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Calcutta, Nov 19, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / Penning Creations) They say that change is the only constant in life. The same is applicable when we discuss films too. The movie industry of Bengal, or, Tollywood, as it is more well-known as, had already seen glory days in the 1950s and 1960s, with cinematic gems like Jalsaghar, The Apu Trilogy (The first Bengali movie franchise, if one can take the liberty of calling it so!), Devdas and Meghe Dhaka Tara wowing domestic audience and gaining recognition on the global stage as well. With directors like Bimal Roy, Ritwik Ghatak and, most notably, Satyajit Ray donning the director’s hat with regularity, Bengali cinema seemed poised for bigger and better things over time. So, has that journey been as smooth as it was once expected? Hardly so.

Before getting down to a more in-depth analysis of the movies that have been churned out by Tollywood over the last thirty years or so, an analogical study would, perhaps, be in order. While South Indian cinema, which did not even come close to Bengali movies in terms of culture, quality and sheer acting & directorial talent at one time, is regularly producing mega-budget movies and showcasing stars who have become popular on the national level (read: Rajnikant, Nagarjuna, Kamal Hasan and the likes), our ‘stars’ have gained scant, if any, recognition on a national level. There have been the occasional Victor Bannerjee-s and the Mithun Chakrabarty-s, but, on the whole, our mainstream actors have drawn a blank on the larger platform. Something is amiss, surely? Let’s take a look.

The decade of the 80s started promisingly enough, with film-makers like Gautam Ghose and Aparna Sen  coming into the fray with movies like Dakhal (1981) and Paroma (1984) and Satyajit Ray still going strong, with Ghare Baire (1983), Agantuk and Shakha Proshakha (1990) bringing the cinematic genius of the maestro to the fore yet again. Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980) (the sequel to the cult classic Goopy Gayne Bagha Bayne), proved that Tollywood had the resources and the talent to make movies that transcended the boundaries of age and class as far as its audiences were concerned.

Not everything was hunky-dory in the 80s with Bengali movies though. An alarming tendency to imitate Bollywood potboilers reared its rather ugly head during this decade. Mainstream Bengali movie lovers, long fed on their Uttam-Suchitra and Soumitra-Madhabi (Charulata) diet, were suddenly faced with formulaic boy-meets-girl stories. What made matters worse was the fact that, mainstream directors, at that point in time, had practically no budget to work with. The treatment of the films was, consequently, poor, and most of these movies were largely forgettable. However, flicks like Dadar Kirti (1980) showed that all was not yet lost for Bengali mainstream cinema. Stars like Tapas Pal, Prasenjit and Rituparna Sengupta were born during this decade and are still going strong, proving their quality and longevity.

The 90s, however, saw a massive decline in the quality of movies emerging from Tollywood. The decade marked the initiation of a commercially successful partnership of director Swapan Saha and Prasenjit (successful for them, pathetic for us, that is!). The focus shifted on making quick bucks from movies and crass entertainers (assuming that the films actually managed to entertain anyone!) like Bedenir Prem (1992), Sujan Sakhi (1995) and the regressively-titled ‘Baba Keno Chakor’ (1998) hit the theatres with amazing regularity. The relative success of these movies, mainly from the rural belts, resulted in more of the same being churned out by the directors during this decade. Bengali cinema was in a veritable vicious cycle of low-quality offerings. Prabhat Roy’s Swet Patharer Thala (1992), however, stood out as proof that there was no dearth of directorial, or acting, talent in the industry. Only the focus had shifted, in the wrong direction.

The scenario with offbeat, or parallel cinemas during this decade, was, however, just the opposite. The modern-day maestro of film direction, Rituparno Ghosh, announced his arrival on the stage of Bengali cinema with Unishe April (1994), Dahan (1997) and Bariwali (1999) – movies that won considerable critical acclaim and enjoyed success at the box-office too. Dahan (1997), in particular, showcased a brave brand of filmmaking hitherto unseen in the Bengali movie circuits. Notably, the decade also saw the emergence of women as central characters of offbeat movies. Rituparna Sengupta, Indrani Haldar, Debashree Roy, Kirron Kher (Bariwali) were all offered meaty, author-backed roles, showing that, Aparna Sen’s Paroma (with Rakhee Gulzar in a pivotal role) was no flash in the pan.

The first half of the new century witnessed more of the same from the Bengali film fraternity. While mainstream movie-makers persisted with the lousy Sobuj Sathi (2003)-s  and Sajani (2004)-s, offbeat filmmakers continued to give us gems like Utsab (2000), Titli (2002) and Paromitar Ekdin (2000). Shubho Mohorot, released in 2003, was the first time an Agatha Christie novel (The Mirror Cracked From Side To Side), was successfully adapted onscreen in a Bengali movie. Rituparno and Aparna Sen deserve maximum kudos for the richness of the ‘different’ brand of Bengali cinema during these times.

Things started looking up for mainstream Bengali movies too in the post-2005 period. While the beautifully shot Dosar (2005) reminded us that a successful marriage of mainstream and offbeat themes was possible, a slew of young and talented directors emerged with classy flicks. Beautiful and sensitive movies like 15 Park Avenue (2005), Anuranan (2006), Khela (2008), Kaalbela (2008), Antaheen (2009), 033 (2010) and Abahoman (2010) were presented to us and we, as audience, lapped them up. The recently released ‘Noukadubi’ (2010) and Iti Mrinalini (2011) have raised the quality bar for such ‘semi-offbeat’ Bengali cinema further. The contributions of Sandip Roy (at the helm of the immensely popular ‘Feluda’ franchise) and Anjan Dutt (The Bong Connection, Bow Barracks Forever, Madly Bangalee and the recent Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na) are worth a special mention too.

While Haranath Chakrabarty started the trend of ‘good’ masala films with Sathi (2002) with the fresh pairing of Jeet and Priyanka Trivedi (perhaps the first actually ‘entertaining’ entertainer for a decade!), directors like Raj Chakraborty, Sujit Mondol and Rajeev arrived on the scene, with an all-new perspective on the making of mainstream flicks. The production budgets increased manifold, and enjoyable movies like ‘Chirodini Tumi Je Amar (2008)’, ‘Prem Amar(2009)’, ‘Mon Maane Na (2008)’ and ‘Challenge(2009)’ hit the screens, bringing back audiences to the theaters, who had been keeping away from the Swapan Saha-led fiasco that had been raging till then. The emergence of matinee idols like Dev, Koyel Mullick, Jeet, Srabanti, Rudranil and, to a lesser extent, Subhashree, has given Bengali movies the ‘star-power’ that is often so crucial for a movie’s success.

No discussion on the journey of Tollywood over the last three decades can be complete without a tribute to Prosenjit. The cute child artist of ‘Chhotto Jigyasa’ matured into a star who currently enjoys the maximum popularity among the cine-goers of Bengal. The transformation of the man from the loud and melodramatic ‘Posenjit’ to the mature, subtle and sensitive ‘Prosenjit Chatterjee’ is praiseworthy indeed. He has worked with directors like Swapan Saha to cater to the front-benchers and, simultaneously, worked with Rituparno Ghosh, and more recently, Srijit Mukherjee (of Autograph, Baishe Srabon fame), showing that, for a hard-working persona, sticking to one particular genre of films is not an option. Bengali cinema had its first megastar in Uttam Kumar and however much critics might crib, Prasenjit has emerged as the next, and probably the last, Tollywood megastar.

Let’s turn our attention for a bit about the quality of Bengali film music in the last three decades as well. While the movies of the 1980s gave us some beautiful tunes, sung with great elan by maestros like Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Nirmala Misra and Kishore Kumar, the music of the 90s, much like the films themselves, were run-of-the-mill, low on melody and mostly, not worth listening to. The Kumar Sanu-s and the Amit Kumar-s tried their best, but with their rather limited singing skills, never achieved much. Practically no one listened to Tollywood music at the time, including yours truly!

The 2000s, particularly the latter half of the decade, has seen the Bengali music industry come back to its own. The successful partnership of Raj Chakrabarty and Jeet Ganguly has ensured that audio cds have started flying off the shelves again. The songs, while hardly portraying any great melody, are hummable, foot-tapping and have been popular enough to have two 24-hour channels dedicated to Bengali film music only. Music directors like Debjyoti Misra, Anupam Roy and Shantanu Moitra have ensured the popularity of music of offbeat movies too.

So, where does our film industry exactly stand now, after the heady heights of the 1970s? The journey has sure been a bumpy one, with things looking up one moment, only to take a nosedive soon after. While the Bengali movie industry is yet to recover all its lost glory, pieces are seemingly falling into place. Mainstream movies are turning out to be profitable ventures, while parallel movies have also managed to set the cash-registers jingling of late. However, certain obstacles still remain, apart from the obvious budgetary ones. In the 80s, our rigid mindset forced ‘Poroma’ out of the theatres and currently, the same rigid mentality has kept movies like ‘Chhatrak’ from releasing in India. Bengali movies, in the last 5 years or so, have definitely progressed a lot in terms of variety, experimentation and quality. The million-dollar question is, have we matured enough as audience?

The juries is still out.

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