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The Magnificent Seven: Filmmaker Suman Ghosh picks Landmark Bengali Films Since 2000

06 Jun, 2020 | Short Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Suman Ghosh

Over the last two decades, the Bengali film industry has seen a number of films and film-makers breaking out to create a new narrative aesthetic. National Award–winning director Suman Ghosh talks about seven such significant films in conversation with Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri… 

Bengali cinema has come a long way from the uncertain days at the beginning of the new millennium. The 1980s and 1990s had sapped the industry of vitality and creativity. The death of Uttam Kumar in 1980 and Suchitra Sen’s retirement from cinema had created a void that was seemingly impossible to fill. The trinity of Satyajit Ray-Mrinal Sen-Ritwik Ghatak had ceased to make films. They were followed by the quartet of Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen, Goutam Ghoshe and Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who made films with an evolved aesthetic but which were in essence a continuation of the ethos of the 1970s. 

I want to talk about a few influential films over the last twenty years (that in itself excludes the trinity and the quartet mentioned above). Films that have led to a new language of cinema, that introduced us to film-makers who challenged existing conventions of film-making, films that were drastically different in their aesthetics than what the Bengali audience was exposed to.
I want to talk about a few influential films over the last twenty years (that in itself excludes the trinity and the quartet mentioned above). Films that have led to a new language of cinema, that introduced us to film-makers who challenged existing conventions of film-making, films that were drastically different in their aesthetics than what the Bengali audience was exposed to. Films that would, in a small way, change the moribund Bengali cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. Given the constraints of space, I am restricting myself to seven films, but these are landmark films and I want to argue why I am calling them landmark. 

HERBERT (2005, d: Suman Mukhopadhyay)
 
Suman Mukhopadhyay's Herbert (2005). Image Coutesy: Starguidephotography


Suman Mukhopadhyay’s debut film got the National Award for Best Bengali Film and remains one of my favourites. First, it is not an easy task to make a film based on a story by a genius like Nabarun Bhattacharjee. Suman Mukhopadhyay did that with élan. The film was intensely theatrical, because Suman-da comes from a theatrical background. However, he found a wonderful way of enmeshing cinematic language with theatrical language – and that’s not easy to do. Ritwik Ghatak’s best films brought about that confluence so wonderfully to convey emotional turmoil. To know the two mediums – cinema and theatre – so well to be able to merge the two … Herbert was a brilliant exercise in that. 
To know the two mediums – cinema and theatre – so well to be able to merge the two … Herbert was a brilliant exercise in that. 
I would specially mention Somak Mukherjee’s cinematography and Mayookh Bhaumik’s music. Somak is no more with us. The film captured these different elements of cinema and brought them together optimally. Herbert is a classic in Bengali cinema history. I am proud of Suman Mukhopadhyay and his film and wish more and more people watch it to understand what Bengali cinema is capable of.

THE BONG CONNECTION (2006, d: Anjan Dutt)
 
Anjan Dutt's The Bong Connection (2006). Image Courtesy: Amazon
What I would call new-age Bengali cinema started with The Bong Connection. In that itself, it has remained unparalleled.
What I would call new-age Bengali cinema started with The Bong Connection. In that itself, it has remained unparalleled. As far as I was concerned, Bengali cinema of the era had started to feel a little dated. There was little that was fresh. And then The Bong Connection happened. I think I was also making my first Bengali film around that time. I saw the film later. The vivaciousness of the movie was unlike any Bengali film till then. There is a perimeter of Bengali culture which The Bong Connection skirts, but it also creates new rules. Particularly the use of Rabindra Sangeet. Neel Dutt’s music was brilliant. The way ‘Pagla hawa’ was used. It had a very young cast of actors – it was one of Parambrata’s early films, Raima too. And the characters looked like they lived ‘today’. The dialogues were very modern, I thought. The film attempted to connect to Bengalis not only from Calcutta, but across the Atlantic. It did a brilliant job of capturing the ethos of Bengalis and it was necessary to make that connection beyond the boundaries of Kolkata. It truly heralded a new-age Bengali cinema for me and that is what makes it important.

ANURANAN (2006) (d: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury)
 
Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's Anuranan (2006). Image Courtesy: Amazon
 
I think Anuranan was one of the reasons behind urban-centric multiplex films taking off in a big way in Kolkata.
Though I like Antaheen better as a film, that is immaterial here. I think Anuranan was one of the reasons behind urban-centric multiplex films taking off in a big way in Kolkata. Multiplexes had just started in Kolkata a year back and the film gave a much-needed boost to that. The Bengali industry needed a film like this to sustain the multiplex era. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s films have always had that gloss, the glitz, the glamour with exciting locations. Anuranan was shot in London, a big deal for Bengali films then. Antaheen followed it up with a big star cast in Sharmila Tagore, Aparna Sen and Radhika Apte who subsequently became one of the big stars of the country.

These films had a large canvas, which Bengali films needed to be able to think big. However, it was not just about the glitz and glamour. They garnered quite a few National Awards. Antaheen got four or five and Anuranan got one. These films made a big contribution to Bengali cinema in increasing its scope and canvas beyond narrow, constricted approaches. These were relationship stories, but they encompassed a different way of shooting and the end result was unlike what we had seen before.

AUTOGRAPH (2010, d: Srijit Mukherji)
 
Srijit Mukherji's Autograph (2010). Image Courtesy: Times of India


Srijit Mukherji’s debut film, Autograph, is seminal in many ways, though I think Srijit has made better films after that. Before Autograph, the Bengali audience that yearned for tasteful cinema had gone to the theatres to watch a Rituparno Ghosh film. There was another branch of Bengali cinema at the time, the art film, headlined by directors like Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose. But there was a chasm between these two and the art film barely managed theatrical sustenance. Rituparno’s Unishe April brought a new genre of films whose aesthetics were very clearly defined and yet which appealed to a larger audience than the ‘art cinema’.
I think Autograph was the next stage of development after Rituparno Ghosh. It represented a structural break from the aesthetics of both the ‘art cinema’ and Rituparno Ghosh, from the point of view of the shot-taking, the use of music, the vibrancy of the film in general.
I think Autograph was the next stage of development. It represented a structural break from the aesthetics of both the ‘art cinema’ and Rituparno Ghosh, from the point of view of the shot-taking, the use of music, the vibrancy of the film in general. I would say that Autograph not only marked Srijit’s arrival but also that of other young artists like Anupam Roy in music. ‘Amake amar moto thakte dao’ was a game-changer in Bengali film music. Not only Anupam Roy but Srijato too. He had been a well-known poet, but I don’t know if he had worked in films before. His lyrics, Rupam Islam’s voice – Autograph brought all this to the forefront in Bengali cinema. Together, they made a huge impact on the ‘conservative’ aesthetics of Bengali cinema.

What the film also managed to do in a big way was change the Bengali audience. With its hit ‘modern’-sounding music, its fresh approach to film-making, a much younger demographic started patronizing Bengali films. Autograph was a landmark film in post-2000 Bengali cinema. 

BHOOTER BHOBHISHYOT (2012, d: Anik Dutta)
 
Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhobishyot (2012). Image Courtesy: Amazon
Bengali cinema in general took itself too seriously. If at all there was an exception, there were slapstick comedies. Bhooter Bhobhishyot was not only classic genuine Bengali humour brought to the screen, it was also genre-bending.
One thing Bengali cinema, particularly post 1990, lacked was humour. We are all aware of the classics of comedy made in earlier days with Bhanu Bandopadhyay, Rabi Ghosh, Jahar Ray. We all know about Tapan Sinha’s Golpo Holeo Shotti and Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar. In the mainstream, we had films like Share Chuattor, Bhanu Goenda Jahar Assistant and others. What I think was lacking in Bengali cinema was a sense of humour. Mind you, I am not talking about slapstick comedy, but pure humour. Bengali literature is such a treasure-trove of humour, starting from Upendrakishore to Sukumar Ray and of course Satyajit Ray and also in the works of, say, Parashuram or Tarapada Ray. Though some of it had been captured in cinema, Bengali cinema in general took itself too seriously. If at all there was an exception, there were slapstick comedies.
It has been eight years since Bhooter Bhobhishyot and I have not seen a film close to that in humour and power. A lot of credit goes to Anik Dutta.
Bhooter Bhobhishyot was not only classic genuine Bengali humour brought to the screen, it was also genre-bending. It was a political film, a satire, in a sense a very realistic film also, all couched in the language of outrageous comedy – brilliant dialogue and the way it captured the Bengali world-view. It just shook the Bengali cultural ethos. It had a limited release to begin with but spread like wildfire to become a huge hit. It has been eight years since Bhooter Bhobhishyot and I have not seen a film close to that in humour and power. A lot of credit goes to Anik Dutta.

SHABDO (2012, d: Kaushik Ganguly)
 
Kaushik Ganguly's Shabdo (2012). Image Courtesy: Changeyfallsresort
 
I think Shabdo was crucial for a couple of reasons. If you think about the films that were being made in Bengal at the time, Kaushik Ganguly’s idea was out of the box. Who would have thought of making a film on a sound recordist and his obsession?
Kaushik Ganguly and Anjan Dutta were the mainstays of the telefilm in the 1990s I think. He had directed half a dozen films before Shabdo, but had not made a mark as yet. Though he has made better films than Shabdo subsequently, I think this film was crucial for a couple of reasons. If you think about the films that were being made in Bengal at the time, Kaushik Ganguly’s idea was out of the box. Who would have thought of making a film on a sound recordist and his obsession? Kudos to him for thinking cinematically about that. He has consistently come up with such innovative ideas. Cinemawala is one of my favourite Kaushik Ganguly films. Also Chhotoder Chobi
The second reason is the way he has highlighted a marginalized identity – the sound recordist is almost marginalized in film-making society. We obsess about directors, actors and maybe music composers or cinematographers, but I don’t think the audience even knew that the sound recordist exists.
The second reason is the way he has highlighted a marginalized identity – the sound recordist is almost marginalized in film-making society. We obsess about directors, actors and maybe music composers or cinematographers, but I don’t think the audience even knew that the sound recordist exists. In many of his films, Kaushik Ganguly has dwelt on the marginalized. Film-makers before him have done that, but after 2000 we as a film-making fraternity have given ourselves over to potboilers, melodramas or chamber pieces. But Kaushik-da has repeatedly broken the mould. Even in Apur Panchali he brings us face-to-face with the actor who played Apu, Subir Banerjee. Shabdo won National Awards and was a commercial success. It was a harbinger of good Bengali cinema. I think, in that sense, Shabdo is a very significant film. Kaushik Ganguly remains an important voice of tasteful, artistic cinema in Bengal.

ASHA JAWAR MAJHE (2014, d: Aditya Vikram Sengupta)
 
Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Asha Jawar Majhe (2014). Image Courtesy: IMDB
People today use the word masterpiece so casually, but I think the true masterpiece in post-2000 Bengali cinema is Asha Jawar Majhe.
People today use the word masterpiece so casually, but I think the true masterpiece in post-2000 Bengali cinema is Asha Jawar Majhe. There are many reasons for this. For the longest time, Bengali cinema had been nowhere on the international film scene. At one time, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen regularly participated in the competition sections of major film festivals like Cannes and Berlin. Goutam Ghose and Buddhadeb Dasgupta have featured in some and of course Rituparno with that Berlin entry of Bariwali… I don’t think even Rituparno has been quite successful in breaking through to the major festivals and he was aware of that. Buddhadeb Dasgupta had a Venice entry and was featured in the ‘Masters’ section in Toronto. 
Asha Jawar Majhe put Bengal on the map once again. It is the only film that has made a mark on and is talked about by international audiences. 
No one in the new generation had made any mark in the international film circuit. Even now when I go to big film festivals people ask me: whatever happened to Bengali cinema? When they say Bengali cinema, they mean Bengali cinema that has crossed borders and has been to where international audiences would see Bengali cinema of that class. Asha Jawar Majhe put Bengal on the map once again. It is the only film that has made a mark on and is talked about by international audiences. 

I find it extremely sad and frustrating that Bengali cinema has a very provincial acceptance now. At a national level, we see Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi or Hindi films – but we rarely talk about Bengali films. Asha Jawar Majhe crossed that border. Aesthetically speaking, I remember a comment that Soumitra Chatterjee made when he saw the film at a studio in Kolkata. Just after the film finished, his first reaction was, ‘E toh Manik-da-r, Ritwik-da-r kotha mone poriye dilo chhobi ta.’ (It reminds one of the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.) We still cling on to the class of Ritwik Ghatak-Satyajit Ray-Mrinal Sen’s films and this film had that essence. It was not a neorealist film, in the sense of Mrinal Sen or Satyajit Ray’s films. Neo is different; I think realist is the word.

Aditya’s film was very lyrical and realistic. The use of sound in the film, the camerawork, the precision, the rhythm, the lyricism with which he imbued the narrative, everything captivated me … it made a huge mark. It was like poetry on celluloid. Asha Jawar Majhe is the one masterpiece that Bengal has produced in the last twenty years.

Suman Ghosh is a National Award–winning film-maker. His debut feature, Podokkhep (2006), won two National Awards. His other feature films include Dwando (2009), Nobel Chor (2012), Shyamal Uncle Turns off the Lights (2013), Kadambari (2015), Peace Haven (2016), Mi Amor (2017) and Basu Poribar (2019). He has also directed a documentary on Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian (2017). Suman Ghosh graduated in economics from Presidency College, Kolkata, after which he went to the Delhi School of Economics. He trained in film at Cornell University, New York. 

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About the Author

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). 

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