Wave of change

Bengali films have now started to experiment with controversial themes, triggering a wave of \'New Bengali Cinema\'.

Published: 02nd October 2011 10:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 03:15 PM   |  A+A-


FM channels predominantly play Bengali songs in Kolkata these days. They are not hits from local bands as one might expect, but movie tunes. Watching these films, replete with English dialogues, 85-year-old freedom fighter, Khsitimohon Dutta, laments, “Is this, what we braved the police batons for?”

Yet, they have brought the Bengali middle class back to theatres, away from the clutches of Bollywood. One of the pioneering films of this breed, 'Autograph' (2010), makes inter-textual references to Satyajit Ray’s Nayak ('The Hero', 1966), and retells the narrative of a celebrity actor from a 21st century perspective. As the story goes, it was pitched to the producers Venkatesh Films not by its director Srijit Mukherjee, but the star protagonist, who wanted an image makeover from ‘Posssenjit’ (diminutive of his first name Prasenjit) to its chaste middleclass version. He was tired of inferior mimicries of Bollywood fight sequences. Like him, the Net-savvy bhadralok was ready to see itself on screen once more. This niche market is the backdrop of what has been touted as ‘New Bengali Cinema’.

This middle class derives its power and crises from being global citizens. Says director Kamaeshwar Mukherjee: “The way liberalisation has touched our everyday lives is reflected in Aniket’s (protagonist of his first film, 'Uro Chithi', and software engineer by profession) experience through a year of recession. Our lives are not straight lines anymore.” Uro Chithi (Stray Letters, 2011) is structured around 12 text messages, the contexts of which interweave with each other.

While 'Uro Chithi'—addressing issues like industrial slowdown and farmer suicide—is the most extrovert among these films, at the other end of the spectrum rests 'Arekti Premer Golpo' (Just Another Love Story, 2011). The first Bengali film with a gay theme, it is also the debut of well-known director Rituparno Ghosh as an actor. He plays gay director Abhiroop, shooting a documentary on Chapal Bhaduri—another legendary cross-dressing actor—who plays himself. When Bhaduri meets Abhiroop for the first time, significantly, he asks, “You’ll pay me, right?” Metaphorically, he mimics director Koushik Ganguly, who turns this labyrinth of narcissism into the USP of the film. Ironically, this locally-novel theme, finds legitimacy from Abhiroop’s global connections. Flamboyantly dressed, Abhiroop brags about never having a haircut in India. When asked about excessive usage of English dialogues in the film, Ganguly says, “Bengali language is not mature enough to deal with this subject.”

Siboprosad Mukherjee, the co-director of 'Icche' (Desire, 2011), insists his film is simply about a mother and her son. “When I read the novel by Suchitra Bhattacharya, I felt it was my story. I think the audience felt the same way. That’s why it’s successful.”

The desires of a mother and son bifurcate through the film. Pursuing “a homemaker’s vicarious life through her son” she evolves into a manipulative rival of his girlfriends. To escape her overbearing presence, Samik, the son, leaves Kolkata at the end of the film.

Paoli Dam, lead actress of Kagojer Bou (The Paper Wife, 2010) and Tokhon Teish (When I was 23, 2011) says, “When I started, there were only Tollywood (films made in Kolkata’s film district, Tollygunj) and ‘art’ films, with no ‘middle path’. These new films brought back a choice for the audience.” According to Ganguly, “Bengali TV channels created this space. After positive reception of several telefilms, distributors understood there was a market for these, which liberated Bengali cinema to some extent.”

Dam hit the headlines for doing a graphic oral sex sequence in 'Chhatrak' (Mushroom, 2011). As its clips circulated on the Net, established actresses like Pallabi Chatterjee taunted it, using the traditional proverb, Lojja narir bhushan (chastity is a woman’s trousseau). Thus, the ‘liberation’ alluded to by Ganguly defines its range between secretly watching porn (the theme of Tokhon Teish) and delving into psychological interiorities.  

But is this new cinema comparable to the recent flowering of national cinema movements in Iran, Korea or Thailand? Goutam Ghosh, National Award winner for his Moner Manush (The Quest, 2010), says, “I wouldn’t call this phenomenon a movement, as they haven’t engaged in any experimentation. They are better packaged, made for an urban audience, and fit a certain ‘branding’. Funding comes directly from corporations and chit funds these days. Producing these films gives these upstart corporations respectability.”

This new cinema, too, has its ‘Left Bank’. Koushik Mukherjee (Qaushik or Q), director of unreleased film Gandu (slang for ‘Idiot’, 2010), distances himself from ‘middle class films’. “I look at them, as an untouchable sees the upper caste. My advantage is, I don’t have to worry about losing status from unwarranted skin contact.” He argues, “Bengali cinema has become smarter, whipped by constant technological upgrading of Bombay films. In the process, there has been a homogenisation of style and rush towards fitting into the mould. I couldn’t work in that model.” Gandu has made an impression in the international circuit. Gandu, a social outcast, and his only friend, a rickshaw puller, are witness to a psychedelic universe where reality and fiction interchange forms. Aware of the graphic sex, uncouth language and violence in his film, Q didn’t send it to the censor board. His earlier work, 'Love in India', has found distribution in prime locations of Europe. “I don’t have to depend on the Indian market anymore. There are film buffs all over the world who want to see good cinema,” he says.


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