by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
(The article was published initially in Projectorhead.in)
The Golden Era: The 1950s and 1960s
The next two decades witnessed Bengali cinema at its best, with a never before coming together of exceptional directors, actors and technicians, a willingness to experiment with forms, techniques and content, and nuanced understanding and application of film techniques. Fittingly enough, the era began with Nemai Ghosh’s Chinnamul (The Uprooted, made in 1951), which despite certain aesthetic glitches, is a telling document of partition and a landmark in the growth of socially conscious cinema in India. Hemen Gupta’s Bhuli Nai (We Shall not Forget) and ’42 (1942), both made in the late 1940s but releasing only in the 1950s, were entirely original subject matters that owed themselves to the director’s experiences as a freedom fighter and were remarkable for the director’s uncompromising sincerity. The First International Film Festival held in India in 1952 provided further impetus to the development of world-class cinema in India, influencing Indian film-makers who were exposed to the best of international cinema for the first time.
Over the next few years one saw the appearance of a troika of film-makers who changed the cinematic landscape not only in Bengal but in India as a whole. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak emerged as the vanguards of an entirely new kind of cinema and were instrumental in ushering in what the media of the early 1970s termed the ‘New Indian Cinema’. Ray’s influential Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955) is the stuff of film folklore not only in India but also abroad, and its impact on Indian cinema does not bear retelling. Suffice it to say, more than fifty years later, it continues to be India’s most well-known film at all international forums. Ray made some of his finest films in the 1950s and 1960s, films steeped in a humanist outlook and an understanding of the human condition not hitherto seen in Indian cinema, films that demonstrated an amazingly diverse oeuvre: literary adaptations like the Apu trilogy and Charulata (The Lonely Wife), a look at the crumbling feudal order in Jalsaghar (The Music Room), the tragedy of superstition and blind faith and its insidious hold on people in Devi (The Goddess, 1960), the delightful children’s film Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha, 1969), the many-layered ensemble piece Kanchanjangha (1962), based on his own story. With the 1970s, in the light of changing socio-political conditions in the country, his outlook to cinema changed, with issues that made political headlines finding a way into his films: the alienation and waywardness of the urban youth in Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976); the collapse of the middle-class moral order in Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1974); the parable on authoritarianism in Hirok Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980).
Charting diametrically opposite pathways to Ray in terms of form and content were Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen.
Jukti, Takko aar Gappo (1974) – Starring director Ritwik Ghatak in a leading role in his final film, finished two years before his death.
As overtly sentimental as Ray was nuanced, Ghatak was a maverick film-maker, as seemingly disorganized in the cinematic presentation of his subject matter as Ray was systematic. One of the icons of Indian cinema, Ghatak’s films had an intensity of feelings that was almost unnerving, coupled with an imaginative understanding of the cinematographic technique. According to Ray, ‘As a creator of powerful images transposed into an epic style, almost no one surpassed Ghatak in Indian cinema.’ What is fascinating about Ghatak’s oeuvre is that he remained independent of the influences of Western cinema. Forever agonizing about the partition of his motherland Bengal in 1947, almost all his films, from his masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star, (1960) to his magnum opus Subarnerekha (1962), to his allegorical and autobiographical swan song Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Discussion and a Tale, (1974) reflect this agony. The frustrations arising from his lack of commercial success, his own uncompromising personality and his alcoholism took a heavy toll of him and he passed away at the relatively young age of 51, leaving behind as many as six films listed as incomplete—testimony to the disorganized nature of the genius he was.
While Ray, Ghatak and Sen were the standard bearers of off-beat, art films, the commercial set-up of Bengali cinema in the 1950s and 1960s was equally productive and classy. One had such exceptional star-actors as Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, arguably the greatest Bengali stars ever, and Soumitra Chatterjee and Supriya Devi, who had the charisma to lift even mediocre material to a certain artistic height. There was a crop of brilliant character actors like Chhabi Biswas, Utpal Dutt, Robi Ghosh, Tulsi Chakrabarty, Dhritiman Chattrejee and Anil Chatterjee, among others, who could be counted upon to consistently deliver the goods. And commercial Bengali cinema of the era had film-makers of the stature of Tapan Sinha, Ajay Kar, Agragami, Asit Sen, Tarun Majumdar, Rajen Tarafdar, who working within the conventional boundaries of mainstream cinema managed to create enduring works of art. In between these actors and film-makers Bengali cinema witnessed its most successful phase at the box office.
The Decline: 1980s and After
After a glorious twenty-year run till about the mid-1970s, during which Bengali cinema reached its zenith both in terms of artistic expression and box-office success, things started falling apart rapidly. By the time the 1980s dawned, decline and degeneration had set in almost permanently. A number of factors were responsible for this. Rising costs of making films was a deterrent to good cinema. Further, the New Cinema Movement had started to peter out, thanks as much to a lack of proper distribution and marketing as to the self-indulgence of many of its practitioners and the changing economics of film-making. Finally, none of the new actors and technicians who emerged measured up to the old guard who were slowly on their way out. The death of Uttam Kumar robbed Bengali commercial cinema of its most saleable name and many films aficionados argue that the void he left is yet to be filled. Where once Bengali cinema of the 1950s and 1960s used to be the inspiration for remakes in sundry other Indian languages, things came to such a pass that most Bengali films came to resemble a badly made Hindi commercial potboiler.
A few film-makers like Gautam Ghosh (Dakhal 1981; Antarjali Jatra 1987; Padma Nadir Majhi 1993), Aparna Sen (36 Chowringhee Lane 1981, Paroma 1984), Buddhadev Dasgupta (Dooratwa 1978; Neem Annapurna 1979; Bagh Bahadur 1989; Tahader Katha 1992; Charachar 1993) and Rituparno Ghosh have tried to stem the tide but these were more in the nature of individual efforts and not concerted attempts.
Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is the Managing Editor at HarperCollins India Publishers. He has edited a number of National Film Award winning film books.