19 August 2009
The Bong Disconnect: the new Bengali cinema
A new Bengali cinema — cosmopolitan, urban and sanitised — now whets the appetites of a hip, globalised audience.
SOMETIME IN the 1990s, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, then a maker of ad films, went to visit an acquaintance on a Kolkata film set. “The film’s characters were meant to be modern, contemporary,” Roy Chowdhury remembers. “But the room had a palonko-style bed, of the sort that Ray might have used in Ghare Baire!” Roy Chowdhury was appalled at the filmmakers’ garbled attempt to signify modernity, which represented no contemporary Bengali he knew: behind the palonko were posters of: Subhas Chandra Bose, Sri Aurobindo, John McEnroe and Michael Jackson.
In 2007, Roy Chowdhury released his first feature film, Anuranan – The Resonance, about a London-based Bengali couple who return to Kolkata and find their relationship slowly unraveling. Anuranan ran for over 100 days all over West Bengal, bringing middle class audiences back to the cinema after several years. It also became the first Bengali film to have a US release. Roy Chowdhury had finally created a non-cringeworthy onscreen version of Bengali modernity – something that wouldn’t embarrass people like him. “For the first time, there was a Bengali hero drinking Tropicana juice and driving a Mercedes,” says Indranil Roy, a friend of Roy Chowdhury’s. His second film, Antaheen (2009), a romance in the You’ve Got Mail mode, ran for 10 weeks in Kolkata and its soundtrack by Shantanu Moitra topped Bengali charts for 21 weeks.
Roy Chowdhury is seen today as one of a handful of filmmakers who have spearheaded the rise of a new Bengali cinema, something that belongs neither in the auteur-driven, critically-acclaimed tradition of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, nor among the low-brow romances and family dramas made for the mofussil market. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Bengali middle class had a cinema to call its own: films by directors like Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar. Often adapted from Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay and Sharadindu Bandopadhyay and starring matinee idol Uttam Kumar, these were well-crafted films and box office hits.
The cinema of Ray and Ghatak spawned successors like Buddhadev Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh, but since the 1980s, their films have circulated largely on the festival circuit. Barring a few notable exceptions, “these films seemed more to keep Europeans happy,” says Suman Mukhopadhyay, director of Herbert (2005) and Chaturanga (2008). Meanwhile, the tradition of Sinha and Majumdar dissolved into low-budget mass-market films mostly rehashed from Hindi or, recently, Tamil and Telugu hits, and no production values. Bengal developed what Rahul Bose calls “a schizophrenic film culture”. “On the one hand, you had four of the country’s top arthouse filmmakers — Gautam Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Rituparno Ghosh — living within a single square mile radius,” says Bose. “On the other hand, you had the out-and-out commercial cinema. It is the huge space in between that is now being filled.”
The target audience for this new middle-of-the-road cinema, Bose argues, is the “new urban upscale demographic” of 18 to 35-year-olds who “don’t necessarily have the artistic sensibilities demanded by great literature or great cinema, but who have a modern outlook honed by cable television and the internet.” Some of the changed expectations were met by an improved infrastructure of film-watching in multiplex cinemas that have appeared all over Kolkata in the last decade (and more recently in towns like Durgapur and Burdwan): plush seats, good projection, stereo sound. “But because the films were so crass, Bengalis would go to watch English films or Hindi hits,” says Roy Chowdhury. Despite the huge commercial success of family dramas like Swapan Saha’s Baba Keno Chakor (1998), or more recently, romances like Paran Jaye Joliya Re (2009), based on the hit Namastey London, the mainstream Bangla film industry is something that literate, urban Bengalis are still quick to disown. “There’s absolutely no chance I’d go to see a Paran Jaye. That’s what maids watch,” says Royona Basu, a Kolkata-based graphic designer.
This new Bengali cinema, then, is often closely tied to the aspirations of a new class: one that feels more connected to the US than to the rural hinterland that surrounds them. In it the West features again and again, as actual locale and dreamland. The most iconic of these films is perhaps Anjan Dutt’s The Bong Connection (2006). Dutt, who started out as a singer-songwriter and actor, turned director with Bada Din (1998), a Hindi film set during a Kolkata Christmas and Bow Barracks Forever (2004), an English film about the Anglo-Indian community. But it was The Bong Connection that established Dutt as someone who had successfully reached out to a post-globalisation generation. The first sign was the film’s title, which incorporated the colloquial name for Bengalis among English-speaking Indians. The film, a parallel unfolding of the lives of two young men — one a Kolkatan starting work in the US and the other a second generation NRB who decides to spend a year in Kolkata. And a new Bengali hero: upper middle class, cosmopolitan, someone with a corporate career who switches easily between Bangla and English. No longer clad in Uttam Kumar’s starched dhotis or tailored suits, he wears collared shirts, t-shirts, sometimes a kurta with jeans. Most importantly, he is young. If Anuranan’s Rahul Chatterjee was in his 30s and Bong Connection’s Apu in his 20s, Dutt’s Madly Bangalee (2009), about a Kolkata rock band, has 19 to 21-year-olds as protagonists. As 23-year-old Tanaji Dasgupta, who played a band member, points out, “Even that is big for Bengali cinema.”
BUT THE GREATER coolness quotient of these films has resulted in sanitised settings and flattened characters. Wooing upper middle class teenagers or their parents into cinemas required the on-screen world to only contain people like them. Not just the village, even the multi-layeredness of a city like Kolkata has largely disappeared from these films. There have been brave attempts to buck this trend, like Sudeshna Roy and Abhijit Sen’s charming Teen Yaari Katha (2006), an endearingly honest tale of three lower middle class boys who dream of making it big while ogling an attractive neighbourhood boudi through a hole in the wall. “Today’s autowalla too dreams of a honeymoon, or a house with a verandah where he can have evening tea,” says Roy. The film, unfortunately, never got released. The street slang and frank discussion of sex appalled many, even festival audiences.
But Roy insists that censorship had nothing to do with the film not releasing; Dutt proudly proclaims that Madly Bangalee deals with teenage sex and unmarried pregnancies; while Roy Chowdhury claims the pishimas loved his film and wanted to know why Rahul Bose and Raima Sen “didn’t actually do anything”. Filmmakers may sound optimistic, but Bengali cinema is still a long way from breaking bhadralok taboos. Roy and Guha’s Cross Connection (2009) shows its young lovers holidaying together, but steered clear of sex.
The only recent challenge to the unspoken rules of this babuana has perhaps been Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Herbert. Based on Nabarun Bhattacharya’s acclaimed novel, the film is an eerie history of the Bengali present, viewed through the prism of the strange death (and even stranger life) of one Herbert Sarkar. This is a world far removed from starched dhotis, but also from branded jeans. Mukhopadhyay explores a North Kolkata of galis dark with sewage and memories, where English is heard either as a threat or a stream of gibberish. But Herbert, a huge festival success in India and abroad, ran into controversy even before release. It was finally shown only at the arthouse Nandan cinema, and ran for five weeks.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Mukhopadhyay’s next film, an adaptation of a Tagore novel, Chaturanga (2008), ran for five weeks in 10 Kolkata theatres. The new Bengali may now aspire to corporate success, but he clings to the idea of a ‘sensitive’ inner self. Anuranan’s ‘bad husband’ has no interest in literature, while the good guy recites poetry while admiring the mountains. Even in the much younger Cross Connection, one is meant to identify with the couple who share a love of the sea and of poetry – not the ones who are starry-eyed about IT. The Bengali middle class, it seems, will take its time to shed its old self image.
Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 33, Dated August 22, 2009