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After a long time, an Amitabh Bachchan character—in the film Pink, by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury—had the audience in a multiplex stand up and applaud. His courtroom soliloquy towards the climax, where he intones, “No Means No”, is one of the most powerful in recent Bollywood. Close on its heel is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani 2, which deals with an even more heinous crime—child abuse. Again, the scenes where Vidya Balan’s character asks a young girl, pointing to her the body parts, if she was touched inappropriately, is one of the most bold, and sensitive, in commercial cinema.
Pink and Kahaani 2 cement a certain fact—a new batch of Bengali filmmakers have announced their presence. Roy Chowdhury, Ghosh and Shoojit Sircar not only bring their Bengali sensibilities to mainstream cinema, but in many cases, their beloved Calcutta too. The success of Pink and Kahaani 2 announce that they are dominating Hindi commercial cinema after a long time. They are doing this not by following formulaic traditions but by subverting it. They are infusing the genre with a social commentary rare in this milieu.
Consider the following A-listers from Bollywood’s current crop: Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Love, Sex aur Dhokha), Anurag Basu (Life in a Metro), Sujoy Ghosh (Kahaani, Kahaani 2), Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury (Pink), Shoojit Sircar (Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe, Piku) and Pradeep Sarkar (Parineeta). The films of Onir (My Brother Nikhil) and Ayan Mukherjee (Wake up Sid) too fit into this category. In each case, the directors, while adhering to ‘entertainment’ narrative techniques and styles—including the suspense-thriller, comedy, romance forms—have dealt with themes such as date rape and sperm donation. Khosla ka Ghosla is about the common man’s sufferings at the hands of real estate mafia, Shooji Sircar humourously chronicles the social stigma attached to men pursuing unusual careers in Vicky Donor. Ayan Mukherjee examines an abstract urban phenomena such as a deep, pointless malaise, in Wake Up Sid. Onir delineates the taboo topic of homosexuality in My Brother Nikhil. In Kahaani 2, Sujoy Ghosh brings out not the psychological trauma that plagues sexually abused children for life, but points to our apathy towards it too. Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink is a poignant commentary on how independent women are seen as easy game.
Commercial Hindi films had Bengali directors since its earliest days. Calcutta’s New Theatres had, in the ’30s and ’40s, doyens like Debaki Bose, P.C. Barua and Nitin Bose directing luminous stars like Kanan Devi, Prithviraj Kapoor and K.L. Saigal, while Bombay Talkies in the ’40s and ’50s had Gyan Mukherjee, Amiya Chakrabarty and the great Bimal Roy.
This new wave, however, can be traced back to the 2005 hit Parineeta, directed by Pradeep Sarkar, which delved into misunderstandings and break-ups in a believable way. The late Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali, based on the Rabindranath Tagore’s novel and starring Aishwariya Rai, was on the theme of extramarital affair. Indeed, the actor and actresses who play key roles in all the above films are Bollywood’s biggest stars: Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Rekha in Parineeta; Amitabh Bachchan in Pink; Vidya Balan in the two Kahaanis; Amitabh Bachhan and Deepika Padukone in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku; Irrfan Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Shilpa Shetty in Life in a Metro; Ranbir Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma in Wake Up Sid; Juhi Chawla in My Brother Nikhil.
Explaining the phenomenon—a successful blending of entertainment with social commentary—Sujoy Ghosh tells Outlook, “When there is an urgency to convey disturbing realities of social evils like child abuse and if your medium is films you can do it either as a documentary or a feature. I chose an option in which I could engage the audience in the way that popular cinema can do. I don’t think entertainment and themes of significance need necessarily be mutually exclusive.” (see interview) In Ghosh’s film, Calcutta, with its glorious idiosyncrasies, is a major character. In Kahaani, the city was not stock, tired, shots of the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial, but the Kalighat Metro station, the singada and hing kachori of Landsdowne, the inimitable buzz of Park Street. His second film goes beyond, to Chandannagar and to Kalimpong in north Bengal. Dibakar Banerjee painstakingly created ’40s Calcutta in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. In Piku and Vicky Donor, the charm is in the Bengaliness of its characters.
But how far is the phenomenon related to the fact of the filmmakers being Bengali? “Even if you can argue against the premise that ‘blending’ of the commercial and the critical is entirely new in today’s Hindi films, what is interesting is that even when it had taken place in a smaller scale earlier, the major players were Bengalis,” says film critic Anil Grover. Grover observes that in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Hindi films which deviated from conventional themes were mostly made by Bengali filmmakers such as Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. “While working within the industry, they concentrated on themes of broken relationships rather than those in which the hero and heroine lived happily ever after. Their scripts engaged with real life rather than the fantasy dream worlds of commercial cinema.” Admitting that these earlier films never quite made the grade as ‘mainstream commercial’ but were considered more ‘alternative’ or ‘parallel’ cinema, Grover feels that today’s trend is more a ‘continuation’ of an earlier one set by those legends.
What then distinguishes the Bengali director from his non-Bengali counterpart in Hindi cinema? “At the risk of sounding parochial, even pompous,” observes a Bengali film director, “I think that Bengali sensibility, especially the urban Bengali sensibility, is one which has traditionally been moulded in intellectually-charged atmospheres. At its source are socio-political reasons. Bengal had been ruled for over three decades by a Communist regime. Idealism has infiltrated into the very psyche of the Bengali. We Bengali filmmakers emerge from this set-up.” Not all agree though. “I don’t think we can make broad generations. While Bengalis may indeed be infused with a strong sense of idealism and are progressive for whatever reason, political or social, and their work may reflect this, that is not to say others are not,” says stage director Alokananda Ray. While she has adapted several plays of Tagore for musicals she intends to delve into the works of the country’s intellectual greats too. “The Bengaliness of the new crop of directors could be incidental,” she adds.
That may be true but only a Bengali could make Piku and get the nuance so right. Shoojit Sircar had done it in Vicky Donor too, where real-life Himachali Yami Gautam plays the quintessential, Delhi-bred Bengali girl. These filmmakers are going beyond stock Bollywood generalisations of a stylised ‘Babumoshai’ or a throwaway ‘ami tomake bhalobashi’. They are getting into their Bengali skins with gusto and dressing their messages in slick garbs. Their audiences remain entranced.