The comedy of Bhanu Bandopadhyay went beyond the quaint accent and the definitive Bangal character that he patented. Cinemaazi editor Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri looks at what made Bhanu a legendary star in an era when Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen defined sophistication…
In an oeuvre literally overflowing with uproarious moments – from ‘Masima malpo khamu’ (Sare Chuattar, 1953) to ‘Sebai toh amader dhormo … tar opor ami manush’ (Miss Priyamvada, 1967) or the unforgettable ‘jora ilish’ squabble with another comic legend Tulsi Chakraborty in Ora Thakey Odhare (1954) – this little nugget of a sequence hasn’t received the attention it deserves, probably because in its almost off-hand, understated delivery it goes against the grain of the kind of comedy that Bhanu Bandopadhyay was known for. In Chowringhee (1968), Bhanu, playing a hotel butler with some swadeshi leanings, has the film’s funniest line on the Bengali’s addiction for the paash/kol baalish as he plans on getting the hotel’s foreign guests addicted to the comfort of one before they leave so that they have a hard time making do without one for ever after – his way of avenging native humiliation at the hands of the foreigner. The sequence provides an inkling into the kind of subtexts that led to Bhanu’s brand of humour being labelled the ‘common man’s comedy’.
A producer of the era is on record saying that Bhanu was the only comedian of the time around whom scripts were written.
Bhanu ruled the comic landscape of Bengal at a time when the Bengali film industry was brimming over with great talents – Tulsi Chakraborty, Jahar Roy, Santosh Dutta, Chinmoy Roy, Nabadwip Halder, Rabi Ghosh, Anup Kumar, Nripati Chatterjee, to name a few. If Bhanu towered over them and was, in the 1950s and 1960s, a box office phenomenon as big as Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – a producer of the era is on record saying that Bhanu was the only comedian of the time around whom scripts were written – it was because a number of factors came together to define his brand of comedy. His comic persona – loud, brash, spoiling for a fight – contrasted the intrinsic sophistication of the Bengali bhadralok that Uttam-Suchitra represented. Consider the delectable song from the film Ashi te Ashiona (1967), ‘Tumi aakash ekhon hote’. Even when Bhanu goes all poetic in expressing his love for his wife, she responds with her own mode of love – ‘tumi moida jodi hote, jalkhabar e luchi beltam’ (if you were flour I would have made luchi for you), going on to liken him to tetul and panta bhaat – those archetypal proletariat food. This becomes one of the great love ditties of Bengali cinema primarily because of Bhanu’s everydayness. It is unimaginable that Uttam-Suchitra would ever sing a song like this, but that in no way dims its popular appeal.
What was it that made Bhanu Bandopadhyay the most celebrated name in a glittering array of comic stars? In the words of Sharmistha Gooptu, ‘Was it, more importantly, about a particular political position which his comedy encapsulated?'
What was it that made Bhanu Bandopadhyay the most celebrated name in a glittering array of comic stars? In the words of Sharmistha Gooptu, ‘Was it, more importantly, about a particular political position which his comedy encapsulated? … he also carried in his persona a political message – one that made his comedy the common man’s comedy. By the phrase “common man’s comedy” I mean here a brand of comedy, which though often loud and boisterous also had an element of the tragi-comic – one that was linked to its ability to tap into the everyday life of the bhadralok (gentleman) middle classes. This was a life made up of disappointments and deprivation, yet also one that was able to produce its own sense of humour – a humour that was able to mock and turn on its head the tribulations of the everyday. And in that Bhanu excelled. His oeuvre was often political without being overtly so, and through it he was able to set himself up as the common man par excellence … Bhanu evolved his brand of satire and social critique near contemporaneously with the growth of a leftist movement for “political” cinema in Bengal, which attained fruition in the 1960s and 1970s … Bhanu needs to be seen as a part of the same movement, even though he largely operated as a part of the mainstream cinema.’
His oeuvre was often political without being overtly so, and through it he was able to set himself up as the common man par excellence.
Starting out in neighbourhood plays (as early as a student of Class VI in Amod Dasgupta’s Bonobir), Samyamay Banerjee or Bhanu became a name to reckon with in amateur theatre with the historical play Chandragupta, where his performance was applauded by none other than scientist Satyen Bose, who happened to be his teacher-mentor at Dhaka University. Siraj-ud-Daulah, directed by Girish Ghosh, further cemented his reputation. Another heart-rending performance came in IPTA’s well-known play Natun Ihudi (The New Jew) where he essayed a character uprooted by the partition. Forced to leave Dhaka after he was externed (he never spoke of the reasons why the government took this measure against him), he arrived in Kolkata in 1941. As his son remembers, Bhanu looked upon revolutionary Ananta Lal Singh, who participated in the Chittagong Armoury Raid of 1930, as an idol. While he was a favourite of Satyen Bose and poet Jasimuddin, he was also an ardent swadeshi, actively involved in transporting banned literature and even firearms among the underground rebels fighting for independence. He had to escape to the other side hiding in the rear seat of a friend’s car when the heat got too much. Interestingly enough, Ananta Singh went on to produce three feature films starring Bhanu. Two of these – Shesh Parichay and Natun Prabhat – flopped but the third, Jamalaye Jibanta Manush (1958), is considered a landmark in Bhanu’s career.
Before debuting with a small role in Bibhuti Chakraborty’s Jagaran (1946) – in which he played a rare serious character as someone who sells his daughter to feed himself and his family – he made a name for himself as a radio and gramophone artist in what are referred to as kautuk nakshas (comic sketches), the first of which, Dhakar Gadoan (The Driver from Dhaka), released in 1943 to massive success.
However, it was Sare Chuattar (1953), among the earliest Uttam-Suchitra successes, that made Bhanu a phenomenon with his portrayal of what Bhaskar Sarkar describes as ‘loud-mouthed, crass and ultimately absurd Bangal’.
He caught the eye with Sudhir Mukhopadhyay’s Pasher Bari (1952), which was later made in Hindi as Padosan in 1968. (Bhanu enacted the role essayed by Mehmood in the Hindi version.) However, it was Sare Chuattar (1953), among the earliest Uttam-Suchitra successes, that made Bhanu a phenomenon with his portrayal of what Bhaskar Sarkar describes as ‘loud-mouthed, crass and ultimately absurd Bangal’. Satyajit Ray regarded this film as among the most important early sound films in Bengal and a definitive social comedy. As Kedar, a resident of Annapurna Boarding House, the quintessential Kolkata ‘mess badi’, who has his eye on the pretty Ramola, Bhanu is a scream. His ‘masima malpo khamu’ became a catchphrase, and his Bangal avatar the prototype for almost all his subsequent film characters, particularly with the success of his next film Ora Thake Odhare (1953), also starring Uttam and Suchitra. His comic sketches where he almost always took on the Bangal dialect added to the popularity of his image.
But it would be oversimplifying to say that just the Bangal persona was his ticket to success. As Bhanu himself opined, ‘If only Bangal speech could produce comedy, anyone from East Bengal could have been a comedian.’ The persona – ‘unsophisticated yet endearing’, quick to provocation, yet spirited and amicable – needs to be seen against the backdrop of the social context, the issues facing primarily the bhadrolok lower middle classes of the era which Bhanu highlighted in his characters both in films and his kautuk nakshas: the trauma of displacement still playing on their mind, the growing lack of confidence in the political process, falling standards of living, uncertainties pertaining to employment. Bhanu’s prototype highlighted these issues but in a manner that generated laughter and eased the despair of everyday life.
In the garb of a comedy, Bhanu Pelo Lottery makes some of the most stinging comments on the refugee crisis in Bengal which witnessed millions starving on the streets of the city, with nowhere to go.
Sample his dialogue with Bichitragupta (played by Jahar Ray) in Jamalaye Jibanta Manush, in which he journeys to heaven and finds the gods and goddesses all living the high life and wasting food with no thought for the common people on terra firma who have their hands full coping with an unmitigated food crisis. In Bhanu Pelo Lottery, also 1958, he trains his guns on the hypocrisy of high city life after he wins a lottery. In a sequence of biting sarcasm, we have Bhanu coming across a hand-pulled rickshaw. When his friend Jahar (again Jahar Ray, calling himself J. Hurray) explains that it is a cheap mode of transport, it sets Bhanu wondering about life in a city where a vehicle drawn by a man is cheaper than one drawn by a horse. In the garb of a comedy, Bhanu Pelo Lottery makes some of the most stinging comments on the refugee crisis in Bengal which witnessed millions starving on the streets of the city, with nowhere to go. In these characters and in the way he took on the political and privileged classes in his radio plays, he touched a chord with the common man. Someone who was not afraid to take on even the law, while ensuring he did not cross a certain line – which he ensured with recourse to comedy. In an unforgettable sequence in Ashi Te Ashiona, for example, he avoids being arrested by the police by jumping into a pond and reasoning with the policemen that he could not be arrested now that he was under the jurisdiction of jolpulish! It defies logic and reason. But the little man in the theatre, probably facing harassments like this every day at the hands of the powers that be, has his moment in the sun, getting back at an uncaring, often hostile system.
Entirely devoid of glamour, having nothing to do with any makeup whatsoever, Bhanu, with his Bangal dialect, his sartorial do comprising a dhuti and a shirt, and his well-oiled and well-combed hair, was the very antithesis of the suave and debonair Uttam Kumar.
This identification also came with the ‘mess badi’, another trope that Bhanu popularized in a number of Bengali films of the era. In films like Joy Maa Kali Boarding (1955), Personal Assistant (1959) and Miss Priyambada (the mother of all the Mrs Doubtfires and Chachi 420s), the ‘mess badi’, that abode of the lower middle class man who cannot afford a house in the city, becomes a conduit for intrigue, politics, fun and comic engagements, offering a shared refuge from the world outside.
Entirely devoid of glamour, having nothing to do with any makeup whatsoever, Bhanu, with his Bangal dialect, his sartorial do comprising a dhuti and a shirt, and his well-oiled and well-combed hair, was the very antithesis of the suave and debonair Uttam Kumar, with whom he starred in a number of films. Yet, that he became as big a draw, proved as influential an icon, even rebuking the gods and getting his way with them, is a tribute as much to the actor as it is to the fact that he articulated the emerging political and social voice of the era.
Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books).