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The representation of the Marwari in Bengali literature or cinema has mostly been as corrupt businessmen. It is therefore interesting that some of Satyajit Ray’s best films, including Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964), Kapurush o Mahapurush (1965) and Nayak (1966), were produced by RD Bansal, a Marwari film producer who predominantly produced Bengali films. It has to do with history and how the Marwari businessmen were perceived by the Bengalis in social life. Film critic Amitava Nag explains.

Within the first 10 minutes of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966) we find matinee idol Arindam making fun of a film producer who has come with a hope of signing a contract for his forthcoming film with the superstar. The producer sports an affected Bengali accent typical of the Marwari * businessmen in Calcutta. Typecast as he is, the hero’s jibe at him - “I don’t think you read any newspaper apart from the share-market” is gleefully accepted by the businessman.

This process of racial identity through comical representation not only signifies the Marwari businessman in question but also the high-handed parochialism of the Bengali educated class. Much earlier in Ray’s third film, Parash Pathar (1958), we find Kachalu as the conniving Marwari businessman who goes to lengths for monetary and other ‘narrow’ gains.

The representation of the Marwari in Bengali literature or cinema has mostly been as corrupt businessmen. It has to do with a bit of history and how the Marwari businessmen had been perceived by the Bengalis in the social life.

The early advent of the ‘baniyas’ from Rajasthan predated the British rule in India. (Editor’s note: The word Marwari being used as a generic name for Baniyas from Rajasthan.) Jagat Seth, a close aide of Siraj-ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, happened to be one of the most influential power-mongers of the time and one of the chief conspirators against the Nawab in the famous Battle of Plassey that instated the East India Company’s reign in India in 1757.

Then, after almost two centuries of British rule during the Indian Independence of 1947, the Marwaris of Calcutta at the time were alleged to play an active role in the partition of Bengal. Primarily these two events of purported treachery by conspiring with the foreign rulers created an indelible dent in the perception of the race in the minds of majority Bengalis.

This mark of discomfort and, at times, dislike is so ingrained that in the process the average Bengali will tend to forego and forget the substantial philanthropic activities of the Marwaris in the city of Calcutta in the form or hospitals and educational institutions.

In Ray’s 1962 film Abhijan, Sukhanram is the crooked Marwari who categorically comments - “If any businessman says that he doesn’t adopt any wrong means then he is a liar.” Sukhanram is one of the most important Marwari characters in Ray’s cinema. He is slimy at his best and works as a counter balance to the staid taxi driver Narsingh. It is to be noted that Narsingh himself is a Rajasthani though he is a ‘khastriya’ - the upper caste. In making Sukhanram the selfish businessman with no scruple at all, Ray probably reflected the pan-Bengali perception about the Marwaris in general.

In Bengali literature the Marwaris are not depicted profusely in spite of their significant presence and contribution in shaping the history of Bengal for nearly three centuries. One notable exception being Parashuram whose infamous Ganderiram Batparia is a notable Marwari whom Bengalis have loved to hate.

It was Parashuram’s ‘Birinchibaba’ (apart from the writer’s ‘Parash Pathar’ made into a film by Ray with the same name) which Ray transformed into Mahapurush where the Marwari businessman resurfaces again and with exactly the similar traits - physically as well as behaviorally. The theme of Marwari as the epitome of vice that is in conflict with the high moral of the educated, liberal Bengali does reappear in the form of Mr Bharagav versus Dr Gupta in Ganashatru (1990), Ray’s most forgettable film of the last phase.

The other most important Marwari character in Ray’s cinematic oeuvre is none other than Maganlal Meghraj, the villain in the detective film Joy Baba Felunath (1978). Written by Ray himself as part of his detective series for teenagers, Maganlal is corrupt, shrewd and dishonest. He runs an illegal trade of selling India’s heritage art and sculpture to foreigners. In a separate story Maganlal has been referred to as the most complex and difficult villain that the sleuth Feluda has ever come across.

This generalization of the Marwari community in Bengali culture and also in Ray’s cinema is unfortunate and fractured. It also shows how for three centuries the Marwaris remained as ‘outsiders’ in Bengal. They have amassed huge wealth and associated power by remaining all along in the fringes.

It is indeed interesting that some of Ray’s best films including Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964), Kapurush o Mahapurush (1965) and Nayak (1966) were produced by RD Bansal, a Marwari film producer who predominantly produced Bengali films. Incidentally he was the producer of Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath (1978) as well. The majority of Bengali films are being produced by the Marwari businessmen, in essence, they sustain the industry. It is farcical hence to observe how Bansal and others of his clan continue to patronize Bengali cinema that inherently depicts them in an abysmally poor light.

Note: Amitava Nag is an independent film scholar and critic for the last 15 years and edits film magazine Silhouette. He is a freelance critic for CNN IBNLive, The Statesman, Deep Focus, Dainik Statesman, Silhouette Film magazine, Scope (UK), DearCinema, South Asian Cinema, to name some. His most recent book is Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English - observing life in a platter. Amitava lives in Kolkata and works as an IT professional to earn his daily rice. The above article was originally published in The Statesman, Kolkata, India; January 6, 2018.

* Editor’s note: The Marwari or Marwadi are a South Asian ethno-linguistic group in Nepal and India that originate from the Marwar region of Rajasthan, India. Their language, also called Marwari, comes under the umbrella of Rajasthani languages, which is part of the Western Zone of Indo-Aryan languages. They are a highly successful business community… Today they account for one quarter of India’s billionaires, and control many of the country’s largest media groups. Although spread throughout India, historically they have been most concentrated in Calcutta and the hinterlands of central and eastern India. - wikipedia

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