They are the new crop of actresses populating the Bengali cine-space. Young, beautiful, gutsy, confident, and brave. Some of them are brazenly, purposefully bold—willing to walk where only a few had dared to walk before and carve a niche for themselves in what can be described as a testicular tinsel town. So, when Mainak Bhaumik’s Take One opened in 2014, actress Swastika Mukherjee capped her full frontal nudity shots—a first for a Bengali film—with a TV interview, saying she was happy her breasts looked “so good on camera” despite having “breastfed my baby girl for eight months”. And that’s a middle finger to mainstream Tollywood that, much like Bollywood, has never been able to deal with subjects such as sexuality and sex.
Of the older generation, Rituparna Sengupta largely shook off her ’90s cardboard commercial persona in Paromitar Akdin (2000). She remains at the vanguard of projecting a certain muscular sensuality on to the screen in such movies as Rajkahini and 3 Kanya. Raima Sen, too, brings a subtle, mature poise, a pregnant stillness shorn of histrionics in movies like Noukadubi, Anuranan and Maach, Mishti and More.
The new lot—in their late 20s or early 30s—is raring to experiment and take up roles that predecessors were reluctant to play. That’s why the emergence of actresses like Shubhasree, Srabanti Chatterjee, Swastika, Pauli Dam, Arpita Chaterjee, Mimi Chakraborty, Nusrat Jahan, and Pooja Bose, to name a few, is steaming up the scene, although not all of them are doing unconventional roles. They have the capability to carry a movie on their shoulders. And no, these films aren’t Silk Smitha or Nylon Nalini-type B-grade boudoir with liberal coats of sleaze. Yet, these are risqué, like Paoli’s nude scenes in Chhatrak (2011) directed by Sri Lankan Vimukthi Jayasundara, but also content-driven with a strong plot/storyline.
But such content-driven movies aren’t still the norm in Bengal. That’s why Paoli, Swastika and Orin (Bangladeshi model-turned-actress) are exceptions, says journalist-filmmaker Arindam Basu who cast Orin in his film Arokto, a love triangle that heads to a dark end. “Paoli’s web series movie Kaali is an original,” says Basu, who recently completed The Gift, a short film with Shreelekha Mitra in the lead.
He rates top-grossing Bengali star Swastika’s Take One scenes as bold, drawing “more attention than the film itself”. “Swastika in Suman Mukhopadhyay’s Asomapto, which explores a plethora of human emotions within a marital relationship, is an example of Bengali heroines taking up bohemian, avant-garde roles,” he says. “Swastika as a drunken college professor’s depressed wife, in a complex relationship with her husband’s friend, brings forth a new meaning to a quiet, foggy nature of human psychology unseen in Bengali cinema.”
Tollywood has changed for the better, but song-and-dance remains the commercial staple, and most actresses act out remakes of south Indian hits, says journalist Sujoy Dhar. “Mainstream Bengali cinema lacks originality. A handful of filmmakers like Kaushik Ganguly, Mainak Bhaumik and Suman Mukhopadhyay explore social issues, casting new actresses,” he says. In the land of Ray, Ghatak and Sen, good and indifferent cinemas co-exist. What’s interesting is the depth actresses have brought to their roles.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta