How is the Bengali film industry doing, my non-resident Kolkatan friends often ask me when they come down for their yearly dose of Flury’s rumball and Mocambo’s devilled crabs. I answer in grunts or sighs, depending on my last outing at the cinemas. How does one explain this exasperation to people outside Bengal? Do you remember the horror of watching Ram Gopal Varma deliver dud after dud after Sarkar? It is the agony of watching the beautiful dissolve into something mundane. Worse, while Varma has the self-deprecatory humour to laugh at himself, the Bengali film fraternity takes itself very seriously.
In the past five years, Bengali cinema has made itself comfortable in the cocoon of mediocrity. The state of affairs was best articulated by the late Rituparno Ghosh. In an episode of Ghosh & Company, his eminently watchable talk show that made even Babul Supriyo sound interesting, Ghosh chides Aniruddha Ray Chaudhuri and Kaushik Ganguly, celebrated filmmakers of contemporary Bengal at that time, for not being true to their craft. The disappointment is like that of an exasperated older sister whose younger siblings ape her blindly. “You have recreated my style but what about the content?” Ghosh asks. Half a decade after the interview, the question remains pertinent.
Ghosh died in 2013, and Bengali cinema still hasn’t gotten over its Rituparno hangover. Having watched Agnishwer Chatterjee’s Khwato, and Shiboprasad-Nandita Roy’s Praktan, you can’t help wonder at this genre of ‘Rituparno Lite’.
Like Ghosh, the filmmakers place themselves squarely in the middle-class home. The characters are urbane and in emotional crises. Scenes sweep past in a flurry of Fabindia curtains, designer stoles and tissue saris. Men and women speak in affected accents, indulge in vacuous conversations and look wistfully out of pretty windows. In his best films (Shob Charitro Kalponik or Asukh), Ghosh used the chamber drama to hold up the middle-class life to the sharpest scrutiny. He drew us into exquisite rooms, indeed, but showed us sexual possibilities and politics. He wanted us to grasp the futility of existence by pushing his characters and aspirations to the brink of meaninglessness.
Unfortunately, most filmmakers’ ambitions do not go beyond a familiar template. A Suman Ghosh film could be a Kaushik Ganguly film. A Srijit Mukherji film could be an Anjan Dutt film (with or without a soundtrack ripping off songs by Leonard Cohen/Bob Dylan). And they all could be Rituparno Ghosh’s lesser films. “As kids, we were encouraged to learn answers by heart and then vomit them on answer scripts. Is it any surprise then that we are still filling up colours in the same Mickey Mouse picture?” says Indranil Roychowdhury, who made Phoring, the coming-of-age film set in a small town Bengal, in 2013. It depicted the pathos of living in a place where nothing happens. The film didn’t find the backing of any big production house of Tollywood and got a limited release. He hasn’t made a full feature-length film since then. “I was very angry till about a year ago, now I have just made peace with the fact that I will have to do my own thing,” says Roychowdhury, who directs telefilms now.
Since January 2016, Tollywood has seen a couple of big releases and only one big hit. Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s Praktan starred Tollywood’s celebrated couple, Prasenjit and Rituparna Sengupta. It has the ambition of a television film that was made into a feature film. A callow study of a failed marriages, Praktan talked about compromise in modern marriage. The onus of compromising mainly fell on the wife. If you were to watch the film in silent mode, you could easily mistake some of the frames for scenes in Ghosh’s Prasenjit-Rituparna starrer, Utsab (2000), which explored a similar theme but was written better.
Utsab examined the ebb and flow of a marriage through the prism of a family gathering, and relied heavily on the intra-personal equations of the protagonists as its main source of drama. Because they were well-written, well-presented and shrewdly contextualised, Ghosh’s characters felt real, as opposed to the characters of Praktan, who seem like ghosts of Rituparno’s protagonists. “Ghosh was telling his own stories. We took his characters, turned them into zombies, who are put in certain situations but are never more than cardboard cutouts,” says Samata Biswas, professor of English, Bethune College, Kolkata. Pradipta Bhattacharya, an independent filmmaker who made the docu-feature, Bakita Byaktigyato, in 2013, says, “People want to put you in a slot in this industry. The trend is to make films on interesting subjects, but within the same template,” says Bhattacharya.
Indeed, in the last few years, Tollywood has dealt with a variety of topics, from necrophilia (Nirbaak), to dwarves (Chotoder Chobi), the partition of Bengal (Rajkahini), the Park Street rape case (3 Kanya). But these films rarely pushed the envelope. Agnidev Chatterjee’s 3 Kanya, for instance, was a crude retelling of the late Suzette Jordan’s story, juxtaposed against a troubled marriage of an urban couple (that old Rituparno trope again). In their evocation of a certain nostalgia or ineffectual exotica, the films appear to be made for an audience twice removed—perhaps, the techies in Bangalore or the diaspora in the US.
But why can’t Bengali films find a new idiom? In 1980, after Bengal’s superstar Uttam Kumar died, the industry was in doldrums. Producers backed out from projects, standalone theatres started closing down. “It had been a one-man industry. That was the main problem,” says Roychowdhury. That’s when Anjan Chowdhury, a little-known filmmaker, began making family dramas about tortured daughter-in-laws, targeted mainly at the rural audience. “He was a shrewd man. He knew that, after the land reforms of 1977, the farmer had disposable income with which he or she could watch films,” says Roychowdhury.
The 1980s and 1990s, referred to as the bleakest period in Bengali cinema, was all about rural Bengal. “When Ghosh started making films about the urban middle class, there was a collective sigh of relief,” says Roychowdhury. Unlike contemporary Marathi cinema (Sairat, Fandry and Kila), Bengali cinema has not recovered from the schism of village/city and remains almost self-indulgently urban. Bhattacharya has an explanation for the slide. “Marathi and Tamil film industries have a very sound mainstream industry that actually makes money. Their technicians are hungry for better work. Here, we don’t really have a mainstream industry; films don’t make money, technicians are not paid. How can a dissatisfied industry make good films?” he asks.