THE HAUNTING SHADOW Of SATYAJIT RAY ON MODERN BENGALI FILM

May 4, 2016 – 8:24 am

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The results of the 63rd National Indian film awards in March lead Amitava Nag to take another look at the beleagued Bengali cinema.

The 63rd National (Indian) film awards [announced on March 28, 2016; presented on May 3, 2016, click here] has created much furor and definitely a heartbreak for the Bengali film industry which had a good run at the National awards in its recent editions.

If we consider only the 308 feature films that entered the competition, there were 31 Bengali entries at 10 per cent as compared to 48 Marathi ones, 40 Kannad and 61 Hindi films. Interestingly these 31 titles are from nearly 100 films released in 2015 compared to Tamil cinema, where the same number entered the competition from over double the films released that year.

What this means is, even if Bengali cinema is producing fewer films in total on a yearly basis, it is still sending the films in equal percentage for the National film awards. This gives potentially a fair picture of the Bengali film industry where a sharp divide still exists between the so-called ‘mainstream, commercial’ cinema vis-à-vis the ‘art film’ genre.

The debate has been done and dusted for long, yet the way the Hindi cinema almost obliterated the divide or that the Tamil film industry apparently cares less for this type of awards and recognition; Bengali cinema on the contrary, has fallen trap to the golden mirage. As a result most of these films fare quite badly at the box-office whose importance their makers can’t afford to ignore.

On the other-hand, they are more often than not, short on artistic creativity as well. This half-cocked status of many Bengali films is probably due to two glaring reasons that are in a sense related and refer to an amateurish approach towards the business of cinema. Bengali cinema has been plagued with issues of marketability for long and as a result, finding producers to fund Bengali cinema had been a major obstacle for many decades now.
The current trend is that there have been flurries of small-time producers, many of whom, are lured by the glamour of the tinsel-town with no interest in the art of cinema. It is again not a new thing for the Bengali cinema (and probably any cinema industry in any part of the world) and one may recall an opening scene in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak where we find a typical Marwari businessman wanting to enter film production and drawing flak from the iconic hero, Arindam.

It says a lot of the Bengali psyche that rules a film culture that has shown little respect towards the producers who finance its cinema. This mutual disrespect often goes beyond the director-producer conflict, to a more ingrained tussle of the Bengali-Marwari clash, has crippled the Bengali film industry more than many other oft-discussed reasons.

If there are amateur producers jostling for the limelight with the stars and showing little passion for making the films successful, the other amateurishness is in the many one-off filmmakers the industry throws up these days. However, it seems, in Tollygunje it has mostly become a free hand for any who can manage a producer to fund his film. Most of these filmmakers, unlike their compatriots in Marathi cinema or Hindi or even in the South, like their producers, are from a different occupation and profession.

So you find musicians and poets, authors and politicians all turn to become filmmakers. Mostly, none of them could afford to leave all of their prevalent engagements to get into the filmmaking business with a seriousness that the job demands. Since the money at stake is less, so is the money to be collected through sale and with the exhibition outlets (read, the cinema halls mainly) dwindling by nearly 60 per cent in the state, the Bengali film industry unfortunately has become a space for gambling - by the filmmaker, by the producer and, of course, by the distributor.

The easiest way out hence for the filmmakers, is to participate in the numerous film festivals that have mushroomed all across the globe. The chances are that, one will eventually land his/her film up with a few olive leaves to sport on the poster. This has become a sly circle of deception and pretension, where only the audience is been fooled by the other stakeholders.

In one of my previous articles, ‘Ray-manic’, I had argued how Bengali cinema is being virtually ruined by the shady usage of ‘nostalgia’ - not as farce or irony or even a faithful remembrance of a past time and space, but in its blatant cheapest representation.

The easiest way out hence for the filmmakers, is to participate in the numerous film festivals that have mushroomed all across the globe. The chances are that, one will eventually land his/her film up with a few olive leaves to sport on the poster. This has become a sly circle of deception and pretension, where only the audience is been fooled by the other stakeholders.

I gave examples of 10 films, all made after 2000 and showed how these films in content or in their visual appearance or even in their advertising strategy have used Ray and his cinema excessively just to rekindle a sepia tone in the minds of the middle-aged Bengali filmgoer. The films I mentioned are the following:

Antaheen (2009, dir: Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury) which advertised that this was the first film after Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri where Aparna Sen and Sharmila Tagore acted together. It further went to the extent that even the Ray masterpiece didn’t have the two pitted against each other in the same frame as this film did.

Abar Aranye (2003, dir: Goutam Ghose) took three of the four characters of Aranyer Din Ratri to the forest of Dooars on a sequel train at a time when the DVD, CD version of the Ray original was not readily available all over the place.

Aborto (2013, dir: Arindam Sil) flaunts that all the characters of the film are having names same as the different major Ray characters in the master’s film oeuvre.

Charulata 2011 (2012, dir: Agnidev Chatterjee) uses Ray’s Charulata in the title and tries to depict a ‘contemporary’ Charu in showing her as a sex-starved siren.

3 Kanya (2012, dir: Agnidev Chatterjee) uses the name (but in a different font) that Ray used for a triplet he directed as a tribute to Rabindranath Tagore on the latter’s 100th Birth Anniversary in 1961.

Abohoman (2010, dir: Rituparno Ghosh) by Bengal’s most celebrated director after the towering Ray actually depicts an alleged love-story between Ray and his actress muse - fictionalized but the references are hard to miss.

Autograph (2010, dir: Srijit Mukherjee) by a debutant director draws frame-wise parallel between Ray’s Uttam Kumar starrer Nayak and a film-within film remake of it.


Anjan Dutta’s Chalo Let’s Go (2008).

Chalo Let’s Go (2008, dir: Anjan Dutta) again used Aranyer Din Ratri’s four characters to a trip to the mountains as the members of a travel agency with repeated reference to the Ray’s masterpiece in the form of game playing or conscience bursting!

Mahapurush o Kapurush (2013, dir: Aniket Chattopadhyay) took Satyajit Ray’s Kapurush o Mahapurush and slyly just interchanged the order of the words in the title.

Apur Panchali (2014, dir: Kaushik Ganguly) aims at Subir the child artist who played Apu in Pather Panchali and juxtaposes scenes of The Apu Trilogy in the narrative in an unmistakable ploy to rekindle memories of viewing the Ray’s triplet masterpieces.

There are a few who will argue, what problem is there in referring to Ray films? To this critic, this is again an instance of an amateur approach to tug the strings of a subject that the filmmakers think will sell well at the box-office due to their potential to rekindle nostalgia amongst the audience.

In the effort, a sizeable younger generation (apart from the film school students) has steadily and surely moved away from these films and unfortunately from some refreshingly different contemporary Bangla films as well.

This question of using film references of Ray (or any other film) is a tricky question altogether - cause the tenets of inter-textuality somewhat tend to lose relevance. Tagore for example is used and re-used much more than Ray - as background songs, in recitals, as the narrative of films and so on.

Yet in those cases we try to gauge how well the original has been ‘transcreated’ in the ‘different’ medium of cinema. That is how we have argued that Ray’s Charulata is indeed an artistic rendition of Tagore’s inciting Nashta-Neer. But here the charges are more serious and I am tempted to quote auteur Jean-Luc Godard who once famously said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”

That is why we suddenly find a sudden flush of films on the detective Byomkesh Bakshi and even if you have different actors playing the sleuth they all are made to look in the mold that Ray had when he made his forgettable Chiriakhana using Uttam Kumar in the lead. It takes a Hindi Byomkesh to break away from stereotype and is probably indicative of the pit Bengali cinema is in.

As mentioned before, the stranglehold lies with the film distributor where a monopoly exists along with the shutdown of the halls. It is time for the Government to step up and to probably follow what Maharastra Government has done to boost Marathi cinema i.e. every hall in the state should show the state’s vernacular cinema in the prime show time.

In multiplexes, having one show for the local language in the prime time has bolstered sales and beefed up revenue for Marathi cinema. What it has actually done is to bring back the revenue to the film producers that in turn allow directors to take chances with form as well as content. The same had happened before in Hindi cinema as well.

The (Indian) National Awards have several times exposed their selection to be questioned and ridiculed. And if one reflects on the award list over a period there is, at times, a hunch that the chance of particular region/state to fare well in the list has a clinical, cyclical repetitiveness.

So losing to popular, mainstream Hindi cinema in one particular year’s national awards is not the end of the world. However, what naturally pains is to find Bengali cinema’s bankruptcy of ideas and courage that refrains us to witness a Court (by Chaitanya Tamhane) or a Masaan (by Neeraj Ghaywan) or a Silence (by Gajendra Ahire) from the Bengali film industry.

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). The above article was posted at news18.com.

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