Bengal and art, culture and intellectual erudition has always been perfectly matched … and their brand of cinema, especially of the artistic, classy, refined and sensitive kind, has always led from the front. Interestingly, although Bollywood has consistently been accused of providing mass entertainment catering to the lowest common denominator, it has always found time and space to accommodate quality stuff to enrich and entertain audiences not too wild about its stable populist hi-jinks, melodramatic, and escapist fare.
In this segment, Bengali film-makers have always glowed, winning accolade and awards all the way, along with huge quantum of reverence and respect. Nitin Bose, Phani Mazumdar, Amiya Chakraborty, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Shakti Samantga, Asit Sen have all all left an indelible mark that neither age can chill nor rivals steal. Even today, mention Sujata & Bandini, Daag, Seema, Anand, Guddi, Chupke Chupke, Golmaal, Chhotisi Baat, Rajnigandha, Piya ka Ghar, Anubhav, Aavishkar, Mamta, Safar, Aradhana and Amar Prem to lovers of good cinema across generations and they murmur, “Those were the days.”
Today’s new Bong breed carry this legacy forward, but in their very own individualistic way. Dibakar Banerjee, Sujoy Ghaosh, Pradip Sarkar, Anurag Basu and Shoojit Sircar are true-blue Bongs, but of the modern, pan-India and non-resident kind, who are sharp, savvy communicators, cool and confident about both story-telling and audience engagement. Being ex-ad professionals, they are totally cognisant about the venerated AIDA — Attention, Interest, Desire, Action — model and apply it with telling effect on their cinematic narrative. Win some, lose some, these guys are special because while saluting the past they unfailingly embrace the future with passion and purpose.
It is, however, unfair and inaccurate to compare them to the stalwarts of the past because time and place is critical as also the environment in which the oldies operated. That their gems, half a century old, are still loved by so many is a testament of their collective genius and the simple fact that some films stay with you, long after both the filmmaker and the decade have moved on,
In the present Bong connection both the Bengali sensibility and Kolkata seem to be taking centre-stage, with audiences rooting for it, big time. Trams, crowded streets, shabby by-lanes, coffee houses, cabarets, nightclubs, locals spouting Hindi with a Bong accent, Bidya Bagchi, and of course the inevitable Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial, the City of Joy seems to be exploding on the screen.
Why this sudden departure from the popular visuals, powered by the Yashraj Camp in particular, of Karva Chauth and swaying fields focussing on the fabled sarson ka saag or a quick leap into exotic Switzerland? Director Dibakar Banerjee, who boldly mase a Hindi version of the celebrated Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi, which played, expectedly, to critical rather than popular acclaim, believes that unlike most other Indian cities, in Kolkata, “most people have a life outside and beyond their everyday jobs. They, irrespective of the trade they pursue, love the many-layered Kolkata. This gives it facets and dimensions and makes it a terrific backdrop for story-telling. Also the city has an amazingly individualistic atmosphere that is unmatched.”
Shoojit Sircar, whose Vicky Donor had a charming Bangla flavour and whose latest just released Piku too follows that flavor, was shot extensively in Kolkata, agrees and reckons that it is a city with an inexplicable and intrinsic sense of drama that offers a charming blend of rooted and rigid traditionalism, astonishingly modern world views but above all a sense of human values that puts people, with their crackpot, quirky eccentricities, above consumerism and material or worldly gains. This makes for a superb canvas to paint different shades of human interaction and experiences, both endearing and eminently relatable.
“Hrishida was a master of this genre and my film is a salutation & tribute to the great storyteller,” Sircar says.
Sujoy Ghosh (Kahani) Pradip Sarkar (Parineeta) Anurag Basu (Barfi) also hit the Bong button hard n’ true and emerged winners. Blending nuance and sensibility with sensitivity, insight and intelligence, this breed made sure that Kolkata wasn’t just a superfluous, decorative icing on the cake … but was the cake itself, a crucial character in their cinematic narrative.
Film Historian Rauf Ahmed also believes that the Bengali touch offers “a refreshing, calm and exquisite touch of class — understated, elegant and quietly life-affirming, a sense of equanimity almost as if in conversation with memory.”
As Piku roars ahead winning raves and influencing viewers to storm the theatres across all sections of society, it might be interesting to do a small checkout–analysis of what made the great Bengali filmmakers of the past so unique in their vision, focus, perspective and worldview, but most importantly in the way they looked at their art, craft, audiences and contribution to the world at large providing both impetus and inspiration to their new and gifted inheritors.
The Bengali stalwarts of the past never ever entertained or demonstrated exaggerated notions of artiness in their work or projected a snooty, intellectually superior air while connecting with the industry, colleagues, trade, media or audiences. Their agenda as filmmakers was simple: communicate to the widest possible constituency across gender, society, religion, cast, class and creed, go easy on the demons of pretentious self-expression and ego-trips, concentrate on the content and handling of the subject in a way that brings joy to the viewing public.
Sure, established genres got a new twist and wrinkle on convention, but that was only to offer “reality beyond convention,” in the words of legendary director George Cukor. At no point did they ever forget that the movie-makers and the audience shared the same human values. Their attitude too seemed fascinating. It was composed of a toughness that was never harsh, a pride in achievement that was never boastful, a strong sense of self-reliance, an easy acceptance of problems under which they labored, flops sportingly admitted, bereft of either self-pity or finger-pointing for things gone wrong. Also, there was nothing neurotic about their habit of independence. They possessed natural strength and didn’t have to prove their “artistic integrity” on a daily basis.
Most of them served long and hard apprenticeships, which taught them something not only about their art, but of ordinary, everyday life. They lived in a world where money and glamor did not alienate the movie industry from the rest of humanity as today and ordinary causes and concerns were shared territory. They considered themselves, most importantly, not as life-transforming visionaries, but as craftsmen, professionals, committed and proud of their ability to bring forth, frequently from ordinary material, engaging commercial material on time and budget with a kind of chutzpah hardly associated with this line of work. The weight of the ages, or opinion of future generations hardly dialled in. They were like good conversationalists with the graciousness to listen to and respect differing voices.
Can there be a better blueprint for the new breed of talented Bengali film makers to follow? Or even — widening the bandwidth — any sensible, sensitive new-age Bollywood director to pursue?