February 15, 2020
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Song Of A Main Road

Bengali cinema’s long high, lows, and new hopes

Song Of A Main Road
Song Of A Main Road

When we talk about 100 years of Indian cinema, one thing that occurs to me is how many of our films don’t even exist anymore. Maybe about 50 to 60 per cent of them have been destroyed, ravaged by time. It’s unfortunate that we’ve not made any effort to create proper archives to preserve our heritage, and thus have lost these historical documents.

My earliest recollection of cinema is of Hollywood movies. At the time the major cinema houses would show children’s programmes every morning—Walt Disney, Tom and Jerry etc. I didn’t watch many Bengali movies, but started watching a lot of Hindi films in my early teens. My interest in Bengali cinema grew gradually. I went through an Uttam-Suchitra phase. Also, Baba (my father, Satyajit Ray) was making films. An interesting part of my childhood experience of the cinema was the outdoor shoots of Baba’s films.

Indian cinema in general, or Bengali in particular, has evolved over a century—from totally ‘masala’ to more serious experimentation as an art form. Indian cinema has always been influenced by the West. Hollywood influenced my father greatly—the stars, then the filmmakers, and then the films themselves, with filmmakers’ individual ‘touches’. Gradually, he was exposed to world cinema, when neo-realist films like The Bicycle Thieves changed his outlook.

The first milestone in Bengali cinema began with the setting up, in 1931, of New Theatres studio in Calcutta. People from Bombay would come and work there. Pramathesh Barua and Deboki Bose were associated with this boom period, characterised by professionalism and the latest techniques. Many milestones of early Bengali cinema were made at New Theatres. Aurora Film Corporation (set up in 1933 and which produced Ray’s Pather Panchali) belongs to this period.

Then there was the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen phase in the ’50s. This was the beginning of a golden era of Bengali commercial cinema, which also saw the emergence of some of Bengal’s greatest filmmakers. Apart from Ray (and Ritwik Ghatak), we are talking about Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Ashit Sen, Tarun Majumdar, Agradoot and others. Calcutta’s film studios were lively places, often with Ray working on one floor, Ritwik Ghatak on another and Mrinal Sen or Ajoy Kar on yet another. They’d drop in on each other, discuss cinema. It was a kind of film movement. They were taking cinema forward, ushering in new ideas.

After the advent of television in the ’70s, Bengali cinema was in the doldrums for a couple of decades. Nobody went to watch films. But we are seeing a resurgence. Different genres are being explored, experiments taking place in today’s Bengali cinema, and it’s well on its way to regaining its lost influence. The audiences are also back. Also, there are producers willing to invest in fresh talent. What we need right now is more cinema houses, both standalone and multiplexes. We are making more films than there are places to exhibit them.

Curiously, the golden age of Bengali cinema never was an integral part of Indian cinema. The films of Ray or Ghatak or Mrinal Sen were never exhibited in mainstream theatres outside Bengal. We still face that problem. We need an outlet for releasing Bengali films internationally. As for the ‘commercial’ vs ‘arthouse’ debate, it’s more about good-film or bad-film for us.

As Ray’s son and a filmmaker, I don’t bother about comparisons. Of course, I have to be careful. I’ve to do things properly, for a standard has been set for me and people are ever ready to pounce on the minutest of mistakes.

As told to Dola Mitra. Listen to the full audio:

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