Unmistakable areas of Hope & Despair
What needs to be investigated in contemporary Bengali cinema, without the blinkers that come from aggressive promotion, are areas of hope that are emphasised by stakeholders and bigger areas of despair rooted in inescapable realities.
It is always tempting to grab the feel-good factor in order to sustain the prevailing climate of spurious optimism about Bengali cinema. The latest opportunity was the announcement of the National Film Awards in which the best actor, still in his teens, will be in the exalted company of Amitabh Bachchan, Uttam Kumar, Kamal Haasan, Mammootty, Mohanlal and Akshay Kumar. It was an achievement that will perhaps remain unrivalled for quite some time. Hence, it was quite appropriate that the announcement was greeted with handsome accolades for Riddhi Sen who has just started out on his acting career and stands out as a worthy inheritor of an excellent legacy handed down by his grandparents. There are not too many actors who get noticed outside the mainstream. Both the appearance and the aptitude of the actor do not suggest a tectonic shift in the way directors will be looking at him. But, there are clear indications that there will be bigger challenges. At least, the contributions that Riddhi will be making from now on could be derived from the perceptive roles that could well be written for him – perhaps to the extent of making a difference to the film as a whole.
All this doesn't undermine the fact that Riddhi has just begun a journey that is paved with uncertainties quite unlike the award winning stars, who could have relied on their confirmed constituencies. Director Anindya Chattopdhyay had the courage to break new ground in Open Tee Bioscope and Kaushik Ganguly's concern for the third gender in Nagarkirtan is a natural outcome of his relentless search for off-beat subjects. Both films served to test an actor who has found interesting opportunities outside Bengal as well. The question survives as to what extent a Kaushik Ganguly here and an Anindya Chattopadhyay there will sustain the potential of an actor who, by all accounts, would be disinclined to provide either inconsequential support in popular offerings by Arindam Sil, Anjan Dutt, Mainak Bhowmik, Srijit Mukherjee and the Shiboprasad Mukherjee-Nandita Ray team or, worse, stray into the realm of romantic pulp. For talented actors with great promise, there is always the difficult choice to be made between "big" directors and bit roles, on the one hand, and the sprawling attractions of the market with abundant glamour, foreign locations and commercial rewards. After the national award, Riddhi would seem to be cut out for neither of these categories. That is all the more reason why his future will be watched with great interest.
The larger question is what this means for the prevailing climate of Bengali cinema as a whole. Four national awards have gone to Nagarkirtan in different categories – acting, costume design, make-up and special jury recognition. In the Bengali language category, Mayurakshi was selected as the best for the year. If this is the sum and substance of Bengal's achievements, the sobering realities need to be digested. Four awards have gone to a director who is now the face of quality cinema and has notched up an enviable record with films like Apur Panchali, Shabdo and Bisarjan; while Atanu Ghosh's Mayurakshi is an outstanding original work that has to be satisfied with the ritual of an award in each recognised language. It is another matter that films made in Malayalam, Marathi and Kannada have revealed exceptional growth in terms of ideas and treatment. To that extent, Mayurakshi could easily have competed with the best on a national scale in its social and human concerns, as much as in its bold exploitation of visual metaphors.
One director who has lived up to his reputation and another who may have missed a bigger landmark don't add up to a cause for big celebration. What needs to be investigated, without the blinkers that come from aggressive promotion, are areas of hope that are emphasised by stakeholders and bigger areas of despair rooted in inescapable realities. Why there should be such an embarrassing distance between just a handful of productions that make the grade and the majority without the slightest chance, is a mystery that has not been solved. Some years ago, Bhooter Bhabishyat had found itself stuck in a miserable whirlpool of pre-release uncertainty (like many productions that never see the light of day), till it found its way belatedly to the theatres, took time to settle down and soon ran into a virtual stampede that lasted months and found resounding echoes. The trouble was that one miracle was considered to be the justification for a wave of misguided missiles that landed in deep waters. That, in brief, would appear to be the tragedy of an industry that pretends not to look at the reality but experiences it all the same.
Bengal has its own pattern of miracles that keep hopes alive. One such miracle is the transformation of stars with supposedly declining fortunes into full-time producers. One such phenomenon was Dev, whose misfortunes as an actor appeared to coincide with his success on the political front. It was then that he decided on an image makeover that provided him with a rewarding escape from distress. He converted himself into an actor-producer, found a new screen partner and began to venture into unknown territories. Some of these efforts like Arshinagar and Buno Haans fell flat though he had he relied on the reputation of Aparna Sen and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury. It didn't appeal to the audience. Then, a tactful cocktail of glamour and substance in Chaamp and Cockpit, his home productions, fetched better dividends and encouraged him to build on the jungle safaris that had already scaled new heights.
It will never be known whether the multi-crore adventures in Africa and the Amazon, in films derived from the Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay stories (where he played the incurable explorer Sankar), sustained the excitement of packed houses long enough to be considered authentic blockbusters. What was unmistakable was the energy and technical skill brought to the hunting expeditions in deadly terrain by director Kamaleswar Mukherjee in Amazon Obhijan that Bengal could never have imagined till then. Kamaleswar is one of the directors – the others include Suman Ghosh, Mainak Bhowmik and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury – who had discarded their earlier careers to reinvent themselves as creative personalities after the passing of Rituparno Ghosh. They constitute the most promising minds that have entered Bengali cinema. It is a different matter that they claim only varying degrees of critical response. But that, in any case, was a departure from the insipid cocktail of mindless entertainment rooted in sizzling tunes, foreign locations, a desperate attempt to embrace new territories in the Bengali-speaking world, a crass creation of caricatures and cardboard types through actors like Jeet, Ankush, Yash Dasgupta, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan and Soham. Some of them may have been made for better things but opted for the easiest route to security in their careers. Dev should have provided the most striking proof that security on the screen is now – as always – an elusive concept.
Unlike Kaushik Ganguly and Atanu Ghosh who have persevered with their experiments, other directors with minds of their own have been less consistent. Suman Ghosh is based in the United States and grabs attention with potentially serious subjects in Kadambari, Nobel Chor, Peace Haven and Dwando and then grabs headlines for a minor tiff with the censors in a documentary on Amartya Sen. But there is yet no sign of his intellectual qualities being transformed into a settled cinematic identity. Mainak Bhowmik has revelled in his brand of supposedly intelligent absurdities which are now stuck at a point of urban mundaneness targeting a particular section of the audience. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury almost looked like a one-film wonder (Antaheen) till Amitabh Bachchan rescued him in Pink. There is no idea when he will return to the soil that he can claim to be his own. His experience matches Anik Dutta's. The maker of Bhooter Bhabishyat has not been able to live up to those expectations though his last film, Meghnadbad Rahasya, promised to restore the exciting twists and turns of his first film – only to get dissipated in an excess of pamphleteering.
It is a different story with Arindam Sil and Anjan Dutt. Both had found their own constituencies with reasonable success. The former began with stylised thrillers and discovered the possibilities of translating the contradictory elements of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's detective Shabar Dasgupta – an unconventional blend of a tough exterior and an engaging sense of humour – into a screen personality. His biggest asset was Saswata Chatterjee who had stormed into the national consciousness with his extraordinary depiction of the hired killer in Sujoy Ghosh's Kahaani. But things began to take an ugly turn with Arindam Sil and Anjan Dutt (who had till then found a sense of fulfilment with his brand of musicals rooted in his own compositions) discovering a common interest in Byomkesh. In the years when Bengal had run into a rough patch but for the repeated awards for Kaushik Ganguly, the Saradindu detective seemed to be the only answer to a declining graph. Trouble started with Jishu Sengupta and Abir Chatterjee staking their respective claims to the detective's mantle and the latter adding to the confusion by steeping into the shoes of Feluda that no one was inclined to remove from the feet selected by Satyajit Ray. With a long history of excellence behind him, Soumitra Chatterjee has preserved a diplomatic silence on the turn of events. But the voices that really determine the future of meaningful cinema have not been silenced. The confusion may have eventually been managed by a convenient formula but the arguments on the screen depiction of detectives have not changed.
All this may not have happened if the inspirations drawn by filmmakers could be traced to the right sources. One of the most effective sources is the bank of literary material. Unlike the situation prevailing half a century ago, the literary sources are far removed from cinematic sensibilities. In recent times, Shiboprasad Mukhopadhyay and Nandita Ray have made a conscious effort to revive the thinking cinema in Ramdhanu and Alik Sukh, both based on stories by Suchitra Bhattacharya. But the choice of contemporary writers hasn't been large enough to prompt a constant flow. The result has been an excess of uninspiring material bursting out of writing factories and, strangely enough, finding the required degree of commercial support. Out of the 70 or 80 films flowing from these filmmaking factories, not more than ten make the grade. It is a virtual washout but for selective gains derived from television rights. On the other hand, the Shiboprasad-Nandita team has struck a formula of commercial success after exhausting their literary sources. Belasheshe and Praktan have confirmed that the tenderness of a middle-class heart with all its improbabilities and social incongruities are better options than festivals and awards.
The best inspiration could have been drawn from the names that have done Bengali cinema proud over the past 60 years. But the prevailing wisdom would suggest that, while Satyajit Ray's films are ingrained in the consciousness of directors who throw in bits and pieces of the master's work into their films, the urban youth carry a different cultural identity. That could be one reason why the warmth of Tarun Majumdar's Bhalobashar Bari or the social relevance of Goutam Ghose's Shankhachil didn't find a comfortable environment. One would hope that the power of the market will not finally weaken the creative roots. The market has the devices to bring instant results in selective areas. Eventually, cinema is all about the creative identity that breaks the barriers of time and space.
(Swapan Mullick is a National Award winning film critic, a veteran journalist and currently Principal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's Asutosh College of Communication and Management)