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Saturday, July 24, 2021

From Ray to Rituparno: A long history of politics in Bengali cinema

Ray’s trilogy along with a host of other celluloid dramas, primarily Mrinal Sen and Rwitik Ghatak’s works, form the spine of Bengali political cinema on a more tangible understanding. However, the term ‘political’ has never been restricted to its definition in Bengal.

Written by Nilosree Biswas | Mumbai |
Updated: June 20, 2021 9:03:52 am
Satyajit Ray, Bengali cinema, Ray films, Ray cinema, politics in Bengali cinema, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Rituparno Ghosh, Bengali films, Bengali film history, Bengali film news, Ray film news, Bengali cinema news, Indian ExpressFrom left to right, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh. (Edited by Abhishek Mitra)

In a left to right pan of the camera, the white washed wall is revealed, the political graffiti reads clear and loud. It reads in Bangla “banduk er nal e shaktir utsha” (loosely translated would mean ‘the gun is the only source of power’). A few scenes later, the same wall is shown freshly lime painted and has a diametrically different slogan,a rather less sinister idea summed up in three words; “Brigade cholun” (Come along to the Brigade Parade Ground).

The above are vividly mounted scenes from Jana Aranya (The Middle Man, 1975), the last of Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy, the preceding ones being Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970) and Seemabaddha (The Company Limited, 1971). Ray’s trilogy along with a host of other celluloid dramas, primarily Mrinal Sen and Rwitik Ghatak’s works, form the spine of Bengali political cinema on a more tangible understanding.

However, the term ‘political’ has never been restricted to its definition in Bengal. Unlike films across the world that emerged from political movements or ostensibly from people’s movements like Italian neorealist cinema of post-World War I, the ‘political’ in Bengali cinema is more expansive and malleable. An apt example would be ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, a cinematic resultant of war torn Italy, while its closest counterpart in Bengal, Pather Panchali (The Song Of The Road, 1955) can only be considered a more organic cinematic creation encompassing questions regarding Bengali society set in pre-independence era.

Satyajit Ray, Bengali cinema, Ray films, Ray cinema, politics in Bengali cinema, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Rituparno Ghosh, Bengali films, Bengali film history, Bengali film news, Ray film news, Bengali cinema news, Indian Express A still from Satyajit Ray’s iconic film “Pather Panchali”

This has been by and large the legacy of the political landscape in Bengali cinema, where the term ‘political’ often bordered on a more humanitarian understanding; of deprivation and discrimination, of the issue of rights and justice not relegated only to cultural auxiliaries of a political movement. Between the semblance of defined political and a more humanitarian narrative often highlighting the Partition and later movements like the ultra-Left and the general poverty, haplessness of a large population; Bengali cinema oscillated from being marked as ‘political’ to ‘liberal cinema’.

Examined closely, both these categories represent the political in their spirit, perhaps like the political component is deciphered in family dramas like Tokyo Story (1953) where Japanese filmmaker Ozu showcases contrasting lives led in rural and urban Japan, with the breakdown of a conventional Japanese society. More relatable would be 70`s mainstream Hollywood – ‘Taxi Driver’, a tale of a New Yorker, also a veteran, who redefines the identity of an American ‘citizen’ or ‘people’.

While Ghatak, Sen and Ray`s works had often been referred as forbearers of socially conscious and political heightened cinema, there were others like Tapan Sinha, Goutam Ghosh, Bijoy Bose, Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen to name a few, who consistently churned out films that mirrored a society battling deprivation, glaring gender gaps and human complexities. These films were expressions or voices of resistance that stemmed from their social ecosystem, not particularly an outcome of a defined political movement.

In Apan Jan (One’s Own People, 1968), directed by Tapan Sinha, the audience is drawn into the story of two rival local gangs comprising educated unemployed as their leaders, who got initiated into crime while they were making desperate attempts to secure a ‘decent’ job. The plot directly links to the state of rampant unemployment in late 60’s Kolkata.

In Bijoy Bose’s Baghini, (Tigress,1968) the protagonist, a lower caste girl from a backward village, is compelled to take up hooch making as her livelihood, when her father dies of an otherwise mundane injury of a rusted nail penetrating his foot, ending up in septicemia. Baghini`s plot isn’t particularly ‘political’ either, but is more humane, providing a peek into the hapless rural life of Bengal, its caste politics and gendered labour. Such films by no means were a rarity in Bengali political cinema.

The more politically intense cinema emerged as the outcome of organised political movements, trade unionism, rebellions, ideas of liberations like in Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta ‘71 (1972 )or Rwitik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar (A soft note on a sharp scale,1961) respectively born out of the Naxalbari Movement of the late sixties and Indian Progressive Theatre Association’s (IPTA) impact on mass cultural movements of the same decade, a derivative of its parental Left ideology.

Calcutta `71, an assortment of stories, is built around the stratified Bengali society, the limping economy in the post World War II days that resulted into displacement of people, compelling many to take up prostitution and or smuggling. Sen continued to work on deprivation at large and class struggles, often swinging between individual crises as in his ‘Interview’ (1971) where a personable young man faces a predicament to get a suit, which he plans to wear on his upcoming interview for a job. Soon a labour union strike messes up his plans.

What is worth noting is even in most direct cinema by Sen or later filmmakers like Utpalendu Chakraborty: Chokh (The Eye,1982) the main plot continued to take into account the larger issues of the society unlike typically activist cinema of South America or Cuba. The case in point, ‘The Hour of Furnace ( La Hora de los hornos)’, a cult Argentinian movie directed by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gentino or ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ by Tomas Gutiérrez Alea, wherein the directors affirmed their contributions to the liberation of their countries by the sheer act of producing films, in tandem with ongoing political movements.

In the context of Bengal, Sen’s films held the radical essence till 1980`s, beyond which his cinema became more individualistic rather than being a statement about the community. In Akalaer Sandhane (In search of famine), perhaps the last of his signature cinema, Sen delved into both rich-poor and urban– rural divides, with a city-based film crew landing up in a remote village to film a story of famine.

Parallelly Sen’s peers Ray and Sinha’s work were broader in their scope and dealt with more than one lacuna of the society. In Hatey Bazaarey (The Market Place 1968), Sinha tells a story of a kind hearted, socially aware doctor who had chosen to base himself in the exploitative coal belt of Bihar located in Palamau region. Haatey Bazaare turned out to be commercially successful.

So was Baghini (Tigress, 1968), with superlative performances by Ashok Kumar as the people’s doctor and Soumitra Chatterjee as the leader of the hootch makers, the village subalterns. Both films were targeted to a wider audience, unlike the activist cinema of their times.

In the next decades, socially conscious cinema was marked with continuous experimentation of cinematic form and structure. Goutam Ghosh’s ‘Padma Nadir Majhi’ ( The Boatman Of River Padma, 1993), an Indo–Bangladesh production, narrated the story of an utopian island, Moynadeep, where the leader of the boatmen community, Hossain Miyan, wants to settle down along with his people. The idea of Moyanadeep bore similarity with the mysterious restricted zone of Stalker (1979), a metaphor of the ideal promised land, directed by the legendary Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

What follows in the bid to populate the island is the main staple of the story. Ghosh, whose oeuvre had followed a more rounded activist cinema till then, took a wider course by breaking away from Leftist didactic narratives. His contemporary Aparna Sen too was breaking barriers with her debut film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). Sen, an already popular actor, forged into direction with the story of an elderly Anglo-Indian teacher of Shakespearean Studies, Miss Violet Stoneham, and her friendship with her former student Nandita and her author boyfriend Samaresh. The film touched the chord of Bengali audience who by then were bored with ‘only arthouse’ and or heavily cerebral cinema. The story of a lonely teacher, her humane experiences in a building, and an untimely breakage of relationship with much younger Nandita and Samaresh appealed to many. It was critically successful and Jennifer Kendal’s performance was much lauded. Sen went on to receive her first directorial National Award for the film.

Socially conscious Bengali cinema was taking a wider sweep. Sen continued to make more films with women as their protagonists with Paraoma (1984), Sati (1989), Paromiter Ek Din (House of Memories,1990) leading the narrative.

Rituparno Ghosh’s foray into cinema in the next couple of years with Unnishe April (19th April, 1994) followed by Dahan (Crossfire) in 1997 marked a fresh timeline for Bengali cinema; a phase that would eventually lead towards liberal, socially responsible cinema as it stands in Bengal today. Rituparno was known to be a lover of Ray’s cinema and his storytelling drew energy from Ray’s style, a subtler way of telling complex problems that plugged Bengali society. Along the way he understood the valency of commercial success, while remaining sensitive to his storyline. Till his last, Ghosh never drifted from the key essence of his stories — human relationships. In this, more than Ray, his works carried the essence of Tapan Sinha`s films, empathic, appealing and observant, but also box office friendly.

Satyajit Ray, Bengali cinema, Ray films, Ray cinema, politics in Bengali cinema, Aparna Sen, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Rituparno Ghosh, Bengali films, Bengali film history, Bengali film news, Ray film news, Bengali cinema news, Indian Express Rituparno Ghosh with Amitabh Bachchan in the sets of the film, ‘The Last Lear’. (Wikimedia Commons)

The recent crop of films continue to delve into social issues, like in Baishe Srabon (22nd Srabon, 2011), a thriller around a serial killer and two cops or in Proloy (Disaster, 2013), a story of a socially responsible teacher Barun Biswas. But they are not the outcome of any political movement, nor do they carry a palpable political voice. These movies along with a motley group flirt with the idea of the political and then skirt away to more mainstream elements as in Sweater (2019), Sanjhbati, (loosely translated, The Evening Lamp 2019) and or Dracula Sir (2020). Although they pick up complexities of patriarchy, sexuality, geriatric issues at the best they can be bracketed as chroniclers of current times, drifting away from the genre of intense political celluloid dramas that is now relegated to the archives.

Perhaps a younger generation of filmmakers and writers will reclaim the space of political liberal cinema and restore what was once a distinct genre of Bengali filmmaking.

 

Nilosree Biswas is a Mumbai-based filmmaker and writer.

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