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Past perfect and promising future

In the Bengali film industry, the divide between commercially successful films and parallel cinema is finally getting blurred.

The cinema of West Bengal refers to the Bengali language film industry based in the Tollygunge region of Kolkata. The origin of the word Tollywood, derived from the words Tollygunge and Hollywood, dates back to the 1930s. Although this regional industry is smaller, when compared to cash rich Bollywood, or Tamil and Malayalam cinema, Bengali films are known for producing many of Indian cinema's critically acclaimed films, with several of its filmmakers winning international recognition.

The golden period began with Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), which was awarded Best Human Document at Cannes. After that, Bengali films frequently appeared in international film festivals for several decades and continue to do so. This allowed Bengali filmmakers to reach a global audience. The most influential among them was Ray, whose films became successful with European, American and Asian audiences. His films had a worldwide impact, with filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, etc. being influenced by his cinematic style, and many others such as Akira Kurosawa appreciating his work.

Another important Bengali filmmaker is Mrinal Sen, whose films are known for their Marxist flavour. During his career, Mrinal Sen's films received awards from major film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Montreal, Chicago, and Cairo. Retrospectives of his films have been shown in major cities of the world. A noted filmmaker from the '50s, Ritwik Ghatak, began reaching a global audience long after his death.

Cut to 2017, and the audience is raving about young Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Ganguly's Bisarjan, which won the Best National Film Award this year. Ganguly says that the film grossed one crore rupees in 10 days flat, not a mean achievement for a Bengali feature film. "The tragedy is that despite doing so well, the number of shows will go down from tomorrow due to a big Hindi commercial movie release. There is no state protection till now. Maharashtra and Punjab have made it mandatory that a specific number of shows have to be given to local cinema," Ganguly told Millennium Post.

But directors like Ganguly have struggled hard and long to win recognition. Ganguly recalls how he and a handful of directors like Raj Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt started off making tele-films before Bengali audiences could develop a taste for a different kind of cinema. "The audience is slowly realising that content is king. The running-around-trees kind of commercial movies are not doing so well, instead, films like Bisarjan, Apur Panchali and Goynar Baksho are. The divide between commercially successful films and parallel cinema is getting blurred, finally," he explains.

Over the last few years, the Bengali film industry has undergone a major turnaround in terms of growth. The number of films produced every year has increased. Theaters that were shut down due to lack of good cinema and its audience, have now reopened. "A good number of young talents has delivered content-driven Bengali cinema which has regained its audience. With sleek production values, good scripts and great performances, Bengali cinema has redefined commercial success over the last decade", said Ravi Sharma, President, Films, Shree Venkatesh Films(SVF)Entertainment.

The production values have also changed. Bengali films are now tapping national and overseas markets. The future looks very promising with digital rights management and steps against piracy.

Looking back, the first Bengali feature film, Billwamangal, was produced in 1919, under the banner of Madan Theatre. Billwamangal released on November 8, 1919, only six years after the first full-length Indian feature film, Raja Harish Chandra.

The early beginnings of the "talking film" industry go back to the early 1930s, when it first came to Kolkata. The movies were originally made in Urdu or Persian to accommodate a specific elite market. One of the earliest known studios was the East India Film Company. The Madan Theatre production of Jamai Shashthi was the first Bengali film to be made as a talkie, released in 1931. At this time, the early heroes of the Bengali film industry like Pramathesh Barua and Debaki Bose were at the peak of their popularity. Barua also directed movies, exploring new dimensions in Indian cinema. Debaki Bose directed Chandidas in 1932, a film noted for its breakthrough in recording sound.

The first full-length feature film Dena Paona was released on December 30, 1931, at Chitra Cinema Hall in Kolkata. Bengali cinema later produced directors like Satyajit Ray – who was an Academy Honorary Award winner, and the recipient of India's and France's greatest civilian honours, the Bharat Ratna and Legion of Honour respectively, and Mrinal Sen – who received the French distinction of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and the Russian Order of Friendship.

Other prominent filmmakers in the Bengali film industry included Ritwik Ghatak. The Bengali film industry has produced classics such as Nagarik (1952), The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959), Jalsaghar (1958), Ajantrik (1958), Neel Akasher Neechey (1959), Devdas, Devi (1960), Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), the Calcutta trilogies (1971–1976), etc. In particular, Satyajit Ray's The Apu Trilogy is frequently listed among the greatest films of all time.

The most well known Bengali actor to date has been Uttam Kumar. His co-star Suchitra Sen and he were known as "The Eternal Pair" in the early 1950s and Sen is regarded as the most beautiful and the most influential actress of all time. Apart from Sen, Sabitri Chatterjee and Supriya Devi were popular actresses of the 1950s and they are celebrated among the best actresses of Bengali cinema. Soumitra Chatterjee is a notable actor, having acted in several Satyajit Ray films, and considered as a rival to Uttam Kumar in the 1960s. He is famous for the characterisation of detective Feluda in Sonar Kella (1974) and Joi Baba Felunath (1978), written and directed by Ray. He also played the adult version of Apu in The World of Apu (1959), directed by Ray.

In the 1960s, Bengal saw many talented actresses like Madhabi Mukherjee, Sandhya Roy and Aparna Sen. Aparna Sen was one of the most successful actresses of the Golden Era. She became the leading heroine of the 70s and since 1981, she has been directing films. One of the most well-known Bengali actresses was Sharmila Tagore, who debuted in Ray's The World of Apu, and became a major actress in Bengali cinema as well as in Bollywood.

The revival of Bengali cinema dates from the rise of directors such as Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose. Rituparno made his first film Hirer Angti in 1992 and dominated Bengali parallel cinema until his death in 2013, winning numerous national awards for films like Unishe April, Dahan and Utsab. Aparna Sen made her directorial debut in 1981 with the lauded 36 Chowringhee Lane, which took a peak into the lives of Anglo-Indians living in Kolkata. Some of her later films which have been celebrated would include Paromitar Ek Din, Mr and Mrs Iyer, 15 Park Avenue, The Japanese Wife, Goynar Baksho, etc. Gautam Ghose, another noted film director, is best known for award-winning films Dakhal, Paar, Padma Nadir Majhi and Abar Aranye.

In recent years, a younger generation of Bengali directors have come to the fore. Many work in the domestic film industry, but others have gone on to Bollywood where they have achieved noteworthy success. In fact, they have also turned the cinematic spotlight on Kolkata, introducing the city to a much wider national audience (Kahaani, Piku, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, etc). Successful Bengali films are getting their Hindi remakes in Bollywood: Rajkahini (Begum Jaan), Bela Sheshe, Praktan. Some of the directors who have gained success in recent years are Anik Dutta, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Anjan Dutt, Arindam Sil, Kamaleswar Mukherjee, Mainak Bhoumik, Srijit Mukherji, as well as Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee (who have made several films as a duo).

Bengali directors who have found artistic and commercial success in contemporary Hindi films would include Anurag Basu, Ayan Mukerji, Dibakar Banerjee, Pradeep Sarkar, Shoojit Sircar and Sujoy Ghosh.

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