THE TREASURE TROVE OF BENGALI CINEMA

Learning is a curve, a constant wave buoyed by the willingness to embrace reality and its appropriate approximates in other forms, far removed from our usual human dilly dallying of ideas in general day to day dealings with the world .

In the years that this writer transitioned towards a scholarly realm of literature and the cinema emerging from that pool’s vast treasure trove, cinematic masterpieces from the culturally mighty state of Bengal, always recognised as socially conscious, no nonsense and narratively excellent, came to define his sensibilities , abetted tremendously by the fact that he is well versed in the spoken language owing to a preponderance of its value both from his maternal and paternal sides. You see, Bengali is a state of mind too where the emphasis is always on simplicity of living, thus finding elegance in the real joys of existence, and a flowering of the intellect. There will be no fair artistic oeuvre without the sea of literature and cinema from the Eastern state amalgamating to form a cohesive body of Indian works. Or in the annals of publishing and editorial duties. The Bengali mind is a thing of beauty.

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So in the articles I will write about new wave Indian cinema, the contributions of the Bengali industry will hold fort, earning its commitment and being celebrated for its imagery above all things. A few of the films will be discussed here regarding that moot point of images as forms of conveyance and in the usual style of this omnibus , there is emphasis on realism and none of the cookie cutter ostentations or larger than life impulses. These are humane tales culled from the craft of observing daily lives caught in the grind of survival. All of the acclaimed films discussed hence must be unearthed by willing cinephiles who haven’t seen them and rediscovered by others for further clarity and newer perspectives.

These are instances of upholding our utmost truths and lend themselves perfectly to the looking glass quality of filmmaking as a medium. Here is the treasure trove of Bengali cinema, in an initial part, as other exemplary cinematic milestones of a pan Indian and global sensibility will find their way here too, on this blog.

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ASHA JAOAR MAJHE (2014)

Watching this film is as if somebody left a camera in the home of a young couple; that’s the conceit of this fly on the wall feat that lives up to its English language title as it is very much a ‘labour of love’ for discerning audiences.

ASHA JAOAR MAJHE( in between arrivals and departures) , a film with no dialogues at all, except the distant buzz of some speech heard in the background, is the tale of modern Kolkata, in the micro world of the two protagonists whose only option is the langour of waiting for a fleeting intersection of their time zones. We register the poignancy of this unintentional separation even though they return to the same roof. The wife(Basabdatta Chatterjee) leaves for work in the morning and by the time she returns in the evening hours, the husband(Ritwick Chakraborty) who works a night shift at a printing factory, has already been through the motions and left for his nocturnal duty. This is the engrossing, minutely engrossing tale of every bustling metropolis where the real capital is human effort and it is often emotionally crippling. To this writer, it implies a search for a centre to those who clearly don’t get their dues. The screenplay recognises that dilemma.

Never in a film before had I been privy to such microscopic detailing and the editing here is an intelligible extension of the way films are cut and each sequence is evaluated or extended for maximum impact. The ultimate goal is the economy of expression .

There are extended shots, prosaic, static punctuations in LABOUR OF LOVE that have stayed with me after all these months. The magical, unbroken shot of the sunset, the lady of the house reaching her official destination with a ‘nomoh, nomoh’ chant in the background, the intricacy of her cooking, these assume the status of almost mystic rituals . Then there are the brooding images of the two looking at the world around or lost in thoughts, observing the sanctity of work and a process of staying indoors at home, in the absence of a spouse. The naturalistic sound and imagery is truly heartwarming as it acknowledges the daily grind and simultaneously the little gestures, positing our commitment to espousing love for a significant other and to the idea of hope for better days ahead. The underlying theme here is the hope for making the twain meet somewhere.

This leads to the beauty of the open ended climax as a marital union unravels in distanced telepathy, it seems.

The topicality of working class lives bearing the brunt of economic distress and the night to day and beyond movement intrinsic to this cyclic uncovering of depths of the human condition is so rich with the power of visual significance here.

This is one of my all time favourites owing to the innocence and purity of the manner in which the camera becomes the all encompassing third eye, employing a neutral third person perspective rather than a voyeur. The haunting placement of the external viewpoint and mid shot displaying the intricacy of the moments and actions build up a humbling experience.

This is a proper introduction to the subtlety of silent cinema in recent years, an experiment held favourably and triumphantly by the multitasking director Aditya Vikram Sengupta in his first feature. The performers, as such, have been tasked with a tough solo act where their natural bearings make the cut and attest to the unrehearsed, improvised tone of filming scenes. They don’t act as much as contribute towards uncovering the little touches of diurnal lives.

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APUR PANCHALI (2013)

Kaushik Ganguly’s APUR PANCHALI is not a documentary with recreated scenes on his subject as one may think though the non sentimental tenor and economy of shots are common to its narrative. It is an attempt by the celebrated veteran to identify the elusive life script of Subir Banerjee, the original Apu of Satyajit Ray’s trilogy that launched a global new wave in cinematic annals.

By using the conceit of a young filmmaker(Gaurav Chakrabarty) searching for Mr. Subir(Ardhendu Banerjee) , now a senior citizen, before he is bestowed an international award for his haloed status as a great screen presence, preserved in glory even after almost fifty years in abject anonymity, APUR PANCHALI(Apu’s song) finds the person behind the actor playing him on screen. The interactions among him and the filmmaker who slowly comes to look up to this tacit, extraordinarily decent man as a father figure, are juxtaposed with original film scenes from the Apu trilogy.

There is a beautiful scene here where the director lists a canon of legendary child performances including the likes of Home Alone’s Macauley Culkin and The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment and their obscure adult lives. The introverted Subir da too didn’t smell the roses owing to many circumstances and Parambrata Chatterjee plays a younger self of the man with a stoic, graceful disposition. The life of Subir Banerjee was very much tragic on the lines of Apu from the trilogy as subsequent parallels show in the screenplay, including the death of his wife(Parno Mittra) echoing Apu (Saumitra Chatterjee) losing his beloved (Sharmila Tagore) in APUR SANSAR ( Apu and the World)

Like all great child artists, he too abstained from the screen after iconic stints in Pather Panchali ( Song of the Road) and Aparajito( Unvanquished) .

The adaptability to a normal middle class continuum tells us of his Zen like mental space and the hardships of daily subsistence. Like the ethos of Apu’s world, Subir never received a grand standing in life. The sheer irony of that is so compelling as a commentary on the fickle nature of fame.

That forms the basis for the contingency of lives and the part it played for the young filmmaker to discover him living a frugal retired one . Reason and practicality are the cornerstones in this compassionate take on the reimagined, anonymous life of an all time great artist. It’s a must watch. Also the flute based theme music has stayed with me.

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AKALER SANDHANEY (1981) and DEBSHISHU (1985)

Addressing the true to the spirit human implosion arising out of poverty and gnarled social codes has been one of the founding tenets of Bengali cinema, one that mainstream Bollywood has often glossed over or avoided . For these ills trickle down generations. It is a problem the state has grappled with for eons. Filmmakers, on their parts, have trained a stark eye towards these stories from the societal undertow. In the films AKALER SANDHANEY (IN SEARCH OF A FAMINE) and DEBSHISHU (GOD’S CHILD), the grit and grime is open to a no holds barred representation rather than shameful rejection at the annals of a pseudo intellectual, elitist altar. The cultural rot is addressed in both cases by acclaimed auteurs MRINAL SEN and UTPALENDU CHAKRABORTY respectively and benefits from the presence of the Renaissance artistic force that is Smita Patil in lead roles.

AKALER SANDHANEY is about the film crew that descends upon a remote hamlet in Bengal to film a story about the 1943 famine that claimed millions and has been deemed as a man made disaster down the years. The location itself had seen its share of the tragedy. The cinematic recreations of the hamlet under the horrific pall of starvation and larger moral quandaries in famine stricken countrysides opens up a Pandoras box on how temporal distances between the original events and the present don’t really change the many hues of humanity, good or bad.

The imagery and scenes are so memorably etched in my mind because they have zilch artifice. Among the most memorable are quite a few such as the casual bantering and intellectual batter around photographs of skeletal humans from the original epoch among the crew.

The duality of the facile commitment from the team and the emphatetic transmutation to the common folk, especially the working hand(Sreela Majumdar) who perhaps feels the smog rising out of her own soul, from the incisive screenplay and as performed by the consummate actor (Patil) ; interestingly, Smita plays herself here in a betokened instance of meta casting and reference in the film within the film scenario. Sreela and Smita had also shared the screen in Shyam Benegal’s seminal 1983 film MANDI (marketplace) As a bit of observational humour, a cackle of children are shown mouthing ‘cut, cut, cut’ after scenes are canned, imitating the director (legendary Dhritiman Chatterjee)

Another powerful scene arises out of the rejection from the man of the house upon hearing the narration of the part offered to his daughter. The past and the present hold an unsteady, interminable glue to this gram’s(village) collective destiny. Their local Man Friday ( Rajen Tarafdar) is a mouthpiece for the alchemy of the artistic / performative medium, reviving memories of his own stint in theatre and the discomfiture of the villagefolk who eventually demean the unit and accuse them of impinging upon their collective reputation.

The interpersonal bonhomie between the young actor(Smita) who has a heart of gold and the senior lady(Gita Sen) tending to her bed ridden husband within the once prosperous and now crumbling mansion where they are housed is another beautiful aspect of the connections forged here. The attention to details enlighten us about the human condition. Finally, it is the women who propel its soulful conclusion whether it is the emotional gravitas of the actress (Patil) canning shots as a villager being berated by her husband at the height of the famine for compromising with her morality to put food on the table or when she wistfully breaks down after losing her family members and being forced to leave her home along with countless others . The silent storm within those scenes, shot in the dead of night and quietude of the day respectively, will haunt us. Sreela Majumdar’s distant figure dissolving farther in the climax posits a wrenching soul capitulating at hands of an open ended fate.

AKALER SANDHANEY is topical and extremely necessary viewing, complemented by the background score by Salil Chaudhary, especially the dirge like theme for Sreela. It is beautifully resonant of these lives on the margin and their desperations.

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DEBSHISHU (1985)

A peepal tree in the evening silhouette as a struggling couple(SMITA PATIL and SADHU MEHER) approaches closer , the opening strains of ‘ SAPNA HUA SACH( the dream came true) sung by a group of wandering minstrels accompanying a religious procession;. the rising flood water in another village preceding the events that will eventually unfold , the people trapped behind a barred door; the mix of Bengali and Hindi in this landscape bordering neighbouring states Bihar and Bengal; then the stark natural deprivation and the irony of nature’s serenity opposed to a hand to mouth subsistence of millions.

These and many other images from DEBSHISHU (God’s child, 1985 ) have been lodged in the mind’s eye. Director UTPALENDU CHAKRABORTY, whose documentary MUSIC OF SATYAJIT RAY was another fact based work that I have seen, is attuned to the spiritual debts of an innocently naive populace so enmeshed in poverty and lack of opportunities that accommodating superstitious fiats remains the last resort. The DEBSHISHU of the title is actually the physically misshapen son of man and wife who was taken under the care of a priest years earlier (OM PURI) for fear of the couple’s persecution. Today, he is peddled as a God, a miracle of being and exploited by a whole money minting consortium feeding on the cult of age old myths.

The fight for regaining their son, their inner unraveling as in a tense scene where the man almost gives in to his impulses and the woman’s banter with her haughty, well off sister in law ( the great Rohini Hattangadi) who ridicules her for her economic stature as much as her emaciated physical health all packs in realism and the concluding shot of the dream in which the mother (Patil) assumes the avatar of an avenging Goddess Kali, then her body against barbed wires at the break of dawn as she recovers from the subconscious vision is compelling, thought provoking and evocative of a million lives.

DEBSHISHU was made in Hindi and it is rarely found online so buy its DVD and stream it on AMAZON PRIME where I watched it a year ago. This is essential viewing, espousing the sheer commitment of the late great Patil and of an era where filmmaking stood for a larger purpose than mere entertainment.

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NOTE : with this, I conclude this part. In the next part on Bengali cinema, PARAMA, ARANYER DIN RATRI and JALSAGHAR will be discussed. So read this one and share your thoughts.

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