FOR THE LOVE OF CINEMA: THE STORY BEHIND THE CALCUTTA FILM SOCIETY

May 25, 2016 – 5:28 am

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The Calcutta Film Society was registered in October 1947, with Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Dasgupta, Manojendu Majumdar and Purnendu Narayan as the founding members. The society became an important and integral part of the film culture that thrived in Calcutta and remained relevant for decades even though most of its founding members are no more. By Subha Das Mollick.

“WHY NOT START A FILM SOCIETY?

There is no reason why not.

The first decision to make is the scale upon which the proceedings are to be run. You can either start a film society on 16 mm substandard which is cheap or by gathering a membership of sufficient dimensions to be able to hire a cinema on a Sunday afternoon. Or you may be lucky enough to live in a town where some college or institution has a 35 mm installation.” – An excerpt from the last chapter of a book called Film by Roger Manvell, a Pelican Paperback published in 1946.

In 1946, serious studies on cinema were on firm footing as individual and group efforts, more than institutionalized efforts. The British Film Institute had been founded in 1933 with the mission to promote access to and appreciation for the widest range of world cinema; around the same year, Rudolph Arnheim, a believer in the Gestalt Theory, had published his book Film as Art and cinema was unquestionably accepted as an art form, to be taken seriously, analysed and written about.

However, in spite of the first film theories being propounded by Hugo Munsterberg, a professor of psychology at Harvard and by a poet Vachel Lindsay, Film Studies had not yet emerged as an academic discipline to be pursued in the universities. To study the craft of film making, there were only two film schools – the VGIK in Moscow, established in 1919 and the USC (University of Southern California) School of Cinematic Arts established in 1929. The task of disseminating the refined practice of film appreciation was left to film societies. Hence Roger Manvell’s appeal to his readers, “Why not start a film society?”

In Calcutta, the erstwhile capital of British India, a young man named Purnendu Narayan, a junior officer in the Steel Authority of India, procured a copy of Roger Manvell’s Film and underlined the lines, “A well organized Film Society is one of the greatest pleasures obtainable, and a definite addition to the social life of any community.”

He showed the book to his cousin Supriya’s husband Chidananda Das Gupta and to his close friend Manojendu Majumdar, who was then a junior officer in the Dept Of Commercial Intelligence & Statistics. Chidananda Das Gupta, the son of a Brahmo Acharya (Hindu reformist leader), knew Satyajit Ray through his Brahmo connection.

He forwarded the proposal of starting a film society to Ray because he was aware of his friend’s cinephilia. Satyajit Ray has written in Our Films Their Films that he used to go to movies with a notebook and took notes of points, first about acting and mise–en–scene and then about direction. The idea of starting a film society appealed to Ray in 1947.

India had become independent just a few months back and optimism was in the air. The four young men decided to take the plunge. Calcutta Film Society (CFS) was registered in October 1947, with Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Das Gupta as joint secretaries, Manojendu Majumdar as treasurer and Purnendu Narayan as librarian. At the time of the society’s formation, Satyajit Ray was the chief visualizer at the advertising agency DJ Keymer and Chidananda Das Gupta was an accounts executive in the same company.

The activities of the society were inaugurated with the screening of the film, The Great Waltz in Satyajit Ray’s maternal uncle’s home near Triangular Park off Rashbehari Avenue. A 16 mm projector had been hired for the purpose. Besides the four founder members and Ray’s extended family, a handful of common friends had dropped in for the screening.

The Calcutta Film Society (CFS) was not the first film society to have been set up in India. The Bombay Film Society preceded it by a year or so. But the formative years of CFS are replete with curious stories that throw some light on the life and times in a city caught in the cross currents of a social change.


Filmmaker Mrinal Sen (in Nehru jacket) with CFS members at Calcutta 71 inaugural show.

The four young members decided to use poet Jibanananda Das’s drawing room for the weekly meetings, with the understanding that they would pay a small monthly amount to the poet to help him out of his dire financial situation. However, after a few weeks, the landlord raised objections, saying that the film people were vitiating the environment of his house.

The foursome had a difficult time in convincing the landlord that they had nothing to do with the big bad world of ‘cinema’. Eventually they were allowed to continue when the landlord was assured that no film star would ever be invited to his house.

The weekly discussions of the film society members were many times pivoted around articles in the film journal, Sight and Sound. An article that had come out in Sight and Sound was called ‘The Kid – Eisenstein’s evaluation of Charlie Chaplin’. This article later inspired Mrinal Sen to write a book on Chaplin in Bengali. Sen’s book Charlie Chaplin, was published by New Age Publishers in 1953. Mrinal Sen used to be a frequent visitor to the Calcutta Film Society sessions.

Just as creative minds like Banshi Chandra Gupta, Madhav De (Bishnu De’s brother), Radha Prasad Gupta became members of Calcutta Film Society, so did many British who had stayed on in India as heads of companies like Metal Box, Shaw Wallace, Imperial Tobacco Company and Dunlop Tyres.

The films were procured from the British Council and American Information Centre. Initially the screening venue continued to be Ray’s maternal uncle’s house, ‘The Home of the Das-es’ near Triangular Park. Gradually, as the society membership grew, screenings were held at public spaces like The National Library or Artistry House or sometimes in school halls. Some of these screening venues were given free or hired for a small fee.

Not all screenings ended amicably. Once, for example, Chidananda Das Dupta had invited some of his American friends to the screening of Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington, a 1939 Hollywood political comedy starring James Stewart. The Americans were furious, saying that CFS was out to do anti-American propaganda. Das Gupta had a tough time explaining to them that the film was actually a celebration of the triumph of the ordinary American, a reassurance to millions of Americans that they have a say in the system that governs them.


French director Jean Renoir shooting River in Calcutta.

Jean Renoir came over to India for shooting the film, River. First he came on a reconnaissance visit and then he came with his entire shooting unit. Satyajit Ray and the other members of CFS followed him like a shadow. He was given a public reception at Artistry House.

One member of CFS stood up and asked him, “Monsieur Renoir, what goes wrong with competent continental directors when they go to Hollywood?” Renoir’s producer was also there in the gathering. So he gulped a few words and said, “In Europe we are used to working with simple equipment and a modest budget. When we go to America, we are overwhelmed by the excess of all kinds of resources.”

In spite of its humble beginnings and near zero budget activities, the CFS attracted every serious cinephile in town. Hari Sadhan Dasgupta became a member of CFS on his return from USA after completing the course on film craft. He took on the task of turning Tagore’s novel Ghare Baire into a film and took Satyajit Ray as his associate. Unfortunately, the project did not progress beyond the scripting stage.

Around this time, Satyajit Ray was sent to England by DJ Keymer for training in the latest technology in the visual arts. Ray, accompanied by his wife, was there for six months. This was the time he watched Bicycle Thieves several times and witnessed Mozart’s opera, Magic Flute, performed live on stage.

Ray also visited the office of the British Film Institute (BFI) and told them about the CFS. The BFI was impressed. They provided Battleship Potemkin to Satyajit Ray on permanent loan. But when Ray came back with the film cans, the customs office in Calcutta imposed a tax of Rs 400 on the cans.

The customs inspector could not be convinced that the film was meant for educational purposes. He had not heard of the film and he did not understand how a film could serve any educational purpose. Satyajit Ray wrote to the BFI with a request for a certificate about the film. But those were the days of super snail mails. Ray got impatient and paid the fine to release the cans from the customs office.

Incidentally, Battleship Potemkin had been banned in many parts of the world, including England and India, during the British rule. It was feared that the film would incite revolutionary action among the masses and so ruling authorities were skeptical about releasing this film for public viewing. This would be the Indians’ first chance to watch the classic. Incidentally, the London Film Society, formed in 1925, was a pioneer in the cine club movement. Films ignored or forbidden by the commercial circuit were screened here. One such film, banned by the British Censor Board, was The Battleship Potemkin. The film was premiered in London by the London Film Society.

Battleship Potemkin was screened at Artistry House and subsequently at other venues too. After watching the film at Artistry House, Tore Hackanson, a high-ranking British officer at an English merchant house commented: “I feel like kicking anyone in uniform.” The Calcuttan’s romance with Battleship Potemkin ended when the film cans mysteriously disappeared from the trunk of Satyajit Ray’s car.

Friends of Soviet Union, located on 46 Dharamtala Street, became a friend of CFS too. Their office became not only a venue for holding discussion sessions on films, but they lent films like October, Ten Days that Shook the World, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and Dovzhenko’s Road to Life to CFS for screening.

Perhaps this generous gesture was an extension of the foreign policy that Nehru was forging ahead. Be that as it may, the film lovers of Calcutta got an exceptional exposure to Russian classics thanks to the generosity of Friends of the Soviet Union.

To get a taste of the classics from other countries, such as Rashomon from Japan, the Indian audience had to wait till the first international film festival was held in 1952. But that same year, the CFS became moribund. Ray had begun his long journey on the little road, trying to put together funds for his first film Pather Panchali. Chidananda Das Gupta had taken up a high profile job with the ITC and the other two founder members got busy with their family responsibilities.

Marie Seton, a film scholar from the British Film Institute, revived CFS in 1956. Having just completed a tome on Eisenstein, Seton came to Calcutta and got acquainted with Ray. Ray’s Pather Panchali had just received the Best Human Document award at Cannes. Seton not only revived CFS with her lively discussions on cinema, she also wrote Portrait of a Director, a biography of Ray, the founder secretary of CFS, the man who brought India to the map of world cinema.

After CFS, several other film societies came up in India. In 1959, the Federation of Film Societies of India was formed, with its registered office in Kolkata. Six existing film societies in the country, namely Calcutta Film Society, Delhi Film Society, Madras Film Society, Patna Film Society, Bombay Film Society and Roorkee Film Society were the first members of the Federation of Film Societies.

The first Executive Committee of this Federation comprised Ray as President, three Vice-Presidents, namely Ms Ammu Swaminathan (Madras), Robert Hawkins (Bombay), S Gopalan (Delhi), two Joint Secretaries, Ms Vijaya Mulay (Delhi) and Chidananda Das Gupta (Calcutta), D Pramanik and Abul Hasan as Joint Treasurers, and members R Anantharaman, KL Khandpur, Jag Mohan, A Rehman, A Roychowdhury and Ms Rita Ray.

Today, Calcutta Film Society has become moribund once again. There had been some attempts to revive the Society, but easy availability of films has made film societies redundant. According to a recent article by Dola Mitra in Outlook, CFS has not been able to pay its rent for the office room in LIC building and they are facing eviction in the near future. The eviction will be the last nail in the coffin of a movement once spearheaded by India’s most celebrated filmmaker.

Note: Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Dept, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. The above article was posted at learningandcreativity.com. It is reprinted here in an abridged form with their kind permission.

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  1. One Response to “FOR THE LOVE OF CINEMA: THE STORY BEHIND THE CALCUTTA FILM SOCIETY”

  2. Excellent article, thank you for posting

    By Dirk Bill on May 25, 2016

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