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What made the ’60s the Golden Age of Bengali cinema when the scars of India’s partition and independence in 1947 were still felt? Film critic and book author Amitava Nag discusses one golden year, that of 1966.

The ’60s had been the proverbial ‘Golden Age’ of Bengali cinema. Not only did this decade warrant a flurry of celluloid masterpieces from the maestros viz Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Tapan Sinha, but at the same time it also ensured that the mainstream projects were well-made films in the end. There was no divide between the ‘parallel’ and the ‘mainstream’ yet and the lesser known filmmakers took it as their challenge to make films that can proudly find their position besides the jewels of Bengali cinema.

The ’60s is also important from the political situation of West Bengal. The previous decade was the one which was still suffering from the butchery of partition termed as the great Indian independence! The partition had a mammoth impact on West Bengal - both economical and political. The streets of the city of Calcutta then (Kolkata now), were thronged by immigrants driven out from East Pakistan - battered, mutilated, hungry and debased. They had no home, no food, no shelter and a bleak future.

Their plight which was shared in similar terms with Punjab (the only other Indian state to be partitioned in 1947) was reflected in the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak. Along with the sudden increased population, the market for doing business reduced considerably since Bengali cinema couldn’t be released in East Pakistan. This double blow ensured that the ascendent cinema of undivided Bengal courtesy of the New Theatres studio waned rapidly - skilled technicians including Bimal Roy, Salil Chowdhury and Hrishikesh Mukherjee started moving to the new film capital in Bombay.

In these trying times, the Uttam-Suchitra pair (Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen played a romantic couple in 30 films) saved Bengali cinema from complete whitewash coupled with the all important milestone of Indian cinema - the making and release of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’. If the ’50s was just an uncertain wobble, it was the ’60s which saw the flourish - the decade of resurgence, of self-belief and of filmic conquests.

The Gems Of ‘66

On May 6, 1966 Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’ was released. The film which was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin Film Festival ultimately got a ‘Special Recognition’. Though criticized at times for being similar in style with Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), Nayak remains supremely original in its flashbacks, dream sequences and excellent cameos that remain a hallmark of most of Ray’s films.

Inspired by the legendary rise to stardom of Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s biggest matinee idol to date, the film bares an insecure man who has undermined himself and has allowed himself to the wills and wishes of the film industry. Behind the façade of an indifferent and rude star, the hero’s fragile interior is revealed through an empathetic, critical gaze of a lady journalist he meets on a train journey to New Delhi to collect a national award.

The film was essentially important for Uttam Kumar who played almost himself on screen since this was his first entry into the world of Satyajit Ray’s cinema. He repeated the feat again in Ray’s next film, ‘Chiriyakhana’, the following year though that is considered one of the weaker films of the master.

The Indian critics who at that time were fed mostly by European cinema culture had almost always looked down upon the mainstream endeavours on charges of being flirty. The stars of mainstream cinema had to bear the brunt for this as well since it was believed they had a lesser chance of showcasing their talents in ‘real’ life situations.

With ‘Nayak’, Uttam had the audience and the critics eating out of his palm. Though he started earlier, it was with ‘Basu Paribar’ in 1952 that Uttam first became noticed as a promising actor, following up with ‘Saare Chuattor’ the next year. Fourteen years later Uttam reached the peak of his acting prowess with ‘Nayak’. Unfortunately, the film remains his artistic crest as his illustrious career ended exactly 14 years later in 1980, due to his untimely death.

The lack of a habit in India towards maintaining records over decades is reflected by the difficulty in finding the exact number of Bengali films that were released in 1966. The numbers vacillate a bit but it might be safe to assume that there were approximately 20 to 25 films released that year.

While most of the other films were swept away by the tides of time including many Uttam Kumar starrers viz. ‘Kal Tumi Aleya’, ‘Sudhu Ekti Bachhar’ or ‘Rajdrohi’; the film that remains etched in public memory is ‘Galpa Holeo Satyi’ by ace director Tapan Sinha.

Rabi Ghosh who acted as the central character in the film was a noted comedian appearing mostly as the hero’s sidekick or in films where his screen presence had been limited even though crucial at times. It was with ‘Galpa Holeo Satyi’ where Tapan Sinha credited him with the main character and Ghosh did it with aplomb drawing acclaim which many heroes of the time couldn’t garner with their amorous charms.

It was only two years later that Ray made him the central character in his musical ‘Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne’ that pushed Ghosh to a different league altogether. Suffice to say, Ghosh’s portrayal of the servant in ‘Galpa Holeo Satyi’ was so intense that when Rajesh Khanna played the same character in ‘Bawarchi’  he paled in comparison.

In the same year, Salil Sen’s ‘Monihar’ made an indelible mark in the realm of Bengali film music. With stalwarts including Pankaj Mullick, Salil Chowdhury, SD Burman and Hemanta Mukherjee in the early years, music in Bengali cinema had already been very rich.

‘Monihar’ scores because of the extensive classical numbers composed and sung by Hemanata Mukherjee and made the film one of the biggest hits of Bengali cinema. The year also marks three radically different films by Ray heroine, Madhabi Mukherjee - opposite Uttam Kumar in the romantic happy-ended ‘Sankhabela’; opposite Soumitra Chatterjee in the tragic ‘Joradighir Chowdhury Paribar’; and in artist-illustrator-novelist-filmmaker Purnendu Pattrea’s first feature film ‘Swapno Niye’.

However the least talked about and yet extremely important film of 1966 remains Jagannath Chatterjee’s ‘Paari’ - based on a story by the eminent Bengali writer Jarasandha. This was Dharmendra’s first (and probably the only) Bengali film and had Dilip Kumar in a very important role as well.

In an interview with The Hindustan Times in 2009 Dharmendra remarked: “What a powerful story ‘Paari’ had. The film was shot in the Andaman prison, which had opened for shooting for the first time. Sadly, my dialogue had to be dubbed but I thought that I really got the scope to perform without being overshadowed by the mighty Dilip Kumar, who played the role of a jailor in the film.” The film was later remade as ‘Anokha Milan’ in Hindi in 1972 with the same main cast.

Like almost all the individual years of the decade, 1966 also presents us with a bouquet of memorable films that are watched, revered and appreciated even today - both aesthetically and from an entertainment perspective. They show the power of the audio-visual language if handled with care and caution - and many of them will remain as markers of Bengali cinema for the aspiring practitioner to watch and to learn from.

Note: Amitava Nag has been an independent film critic for 15 years. He has worked with CNN IBNLive, Outlook, The Statesman, Deep Focus, The Bengal Post, Dear Cinema and Silhouette Film Magazine. He is a member of the national film critics body - the Film Critics’ Circle of India. His latest book, launched in January 2016, was on the legendary film actor Soumitra Chatterjee - Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite Film Roles of Soumitra Chatterjee (Harper Collins India). This article was first published at IBNLive.com and can be seen here.

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