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

The Swami Of Accra

The West African nation of Ghana is an unlikely place to encounter a Hindu monastery. Photographer Smruthi Gargi Eswar meets the eclectic cult

(As told to Trisha Gupta)
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 32, Dated August 15, 2009

Truth Be Told: thoughts on the TV show 'Sach ka Saamna'

Published in Tehelka, 8 Aug 2009.

A new television show brings middle class skeletons out of the closet and onto our screens.

A SLIGHTLY BALDING 60-year-old man in a creamy yellow suit sits under the spotlight. The talk show host, a television actor probably half his age, asks him, “Kya aapko ab bhi apni sapnon ki rani ka intezaar hai? (Are you still waiting for the woman of your dreams?)” Though worded Bollywood-style, such a question asked of a 60- year-old in a popular Hindi film would have been part of the comedy track. But on the night of July 17, the question was asked of a real person, and no one laughed. Not just that. As actor Yusuf Hussain, veteran of three marriages, replied in the affirmative, a hush descended on the audience. What would Jezebel, Hussain’s girlfriend of some six years, say to this? But there were no tears, no recriminations. Jezebel just smiled.

In a country where our popular fictions tend to stick to stereotypes, it is reality TV that seems to be challenging deeply-ingrained beliefs about what ordinary Indians can think, feel, do and most importantly, live with. And Sach ka Saamna is its most recent – and possibly its boldest – example. Which is why Star Plus’ new show is suddenly the subject of impassioned debate everywhere, from the living rooms into which it is beamed every weeknight to the Rajya Sabha. Sony TV’s Bigg Boss (the Indian version of Big Brother, telecast in 2006-07) tested the waters by putting on Indian screens the faux-everyday (because artificially collective) private lives of a bunch of half-forgotten/B-grade celebrities. Sach ka Saamna not only turns the spotlight on ordinary middle-class contestants – a Mumbai schoolteacher, an executive in a pen company, a small-time sexagenarian actor – but also places in the public eye more of the private lives of Indians than ever before.

Sach ka Saamna is based on the enormously successful US show The Moment of Truth, that ran on Fox for 23 episodes in 2008. Versions are being produced in 23 countries, but the show is much reviled, even in the US. The New York Times described it as extracting “confessions for cold cash”.

But as a journalist from the Star network told me, “It’s all relative. When KBC started, it was considered immoral to offer money on TV every night.” Going by the ratings, the show is a massive success here, too. Having opened with a 4.6 TVR rating (the best yet for any reality show in 2009), it notched up a first week average of 4.3 TVR. But the asking (and answering) of forthright questions addressing such taboo topics as sexual fantasies, premarital and extramarital sex, unwed motherhood and abortion has also led the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to issue the channel a show cause notice for obscenity.

“But look at the competition: Rakhi ki Swayamvar on NDTV Imagine, and Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao on Sony, where a bikini-clad actress is shown bathing every day,” says the same journalist. But perhaps that is precisely the wrong tack: to equate the faux-sexuality of item numbers and waterfall scenes that we seem both to revel in and forgive, with a show that claims to encourage an honest, open approach to real people’s lives.

But, critics ask, does the show reward honesty or promote exhibitionism? Since the telecast of the Yusuf Hussain episode, this charming old man with a passion for Urdu poetry and a predilection for white sheets (which he cheerfully admitted to having stolen from hotel rooms, because, he said, such thick, pristine bedsheets could not be found in shops!) has been both fêted and berated – via comments on sites like YouTube – for admitting to actions and desires seen as both generally immoral and particularly inappropriate to his age. These include sins of omission – not having tried genuinely to save any of his three marriages – and of commission – having had a sexual relationship with a woman younger than his daughter, having produced a child out of wedlock. It’s obvious to anyone who watched the episode that this is a man who enjoys attention. Well preserved and nattily dressed, he confesses to being uncomfortable with the anonymity of old age, because he was used to “turning heads” as a young man. To me, there seems no doubt that his being on the show is at least partly about his desire to turn heads once more. But how can one deny the courage needed to take the blame for three failed marriages – on national television?

A RELATED QUESTION is whether contestants’ relationships with spouses, parents, children, siblings and friends are strengthened or threatened by what takes place on air. The Colombian show was notoriously taken off air after a woman confessed to having hired a hitman to kill her husband, while the US version regularly featured sexual confessions “of the marriage-busting kind”. (One Lauren Cleri told an ex-boyfriend on the show he was the man she should have married, while her sweet, bespectacled husband blinked nervously). Sach ka Saamna seems definitely tamer: many questions are worded in a way that leaves them open to positive interpretations. Allwyn D’Souza from Mumbai, answering ‘Yes’ to a question about whether he wanted a different person as his wife, quickly followed-up by saying that everyone has an imaginary ideal partner. Or is it just an Indian desire to cover up instantly, even after just having ‘confessed’? Teacher Smita Mathai, having affirmed that there had been times when she wanted to kill her husband, went on to say it was because she couldn’t bear to see him suffer as an alcoholic. Perhaps the traditional Indian version of an open society, where much is condoned as long as it stays below the surface, will take its time to change.

The third question concerns audiences rather than contestants. Does the show enable us to identify with participants, or make voyeurs of us? Of course we’re being voyeuristic when we wait with bated breath to see someone we don’t know at all confess to a teenage pregnancy or a secret sexual liaison. But it seems clear enough that’s not the whole of it: we can simultaneously condemn, sympathise, identify. What are young married couples, sitting on their sofa, thinking as they watch a fresh-faced young man, recently married, admit that he often lies to his wife, saying he’s caught at work while actually hanging out with his (male) friends? Even as public figures like cricketer Vinod Kambli or television vamp Urvashi Dholakia emerge as not-so-perfect people in their private lives, surely one can identify with them and feel, as one recent columnist put it, “a little better about the mistakes I might have made”.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 31, Dated August 08, 2009