June 25, 2021
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The 'All-India' Film

A definitive history of Bengali cinema presents an alternative understanding to the currently influential notion of the Hindi film as the ‘Indian’ or ‘national’ cinema

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The 'All-India' Film
Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation
By Sharmistha Gooptu
Roli, 2010. 234 pages/ Rs 395

From Chapter 3, ‘The Transition to a “Regional” Cinema’ 

In the post-war period, Calcutta’s double versions were fast failing in the ‘all India’ market. New Theatres’ Hindi films Anjangarg (1948), Manzoor (1949), Rupkahani (1950), Naya Safar (1953), Bakul (1955) failed the tried and tested formulas. One explanation often given for such failures was the exodus of talent from Calcutta to Bombay in the post-war years. However, while the drift to Bombay, impelled by the decline of the big Calcutta studios in the post-war era was a significant factor, it is not so easy to explain how a few of the same films did better business in their Bengali versions. The failure of Calcutta’s double versions may be more insightfully attributed to an emerging configuration of the ‘all-India/Hindi film’, which marked its ultimate divergence from the Bengal cinema…

Among the films of this period which made history through their box office successes – and bore testimony to the Hindi film’s changing orientation – were Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Andaaz (1948), and Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949). Of Anmol Ghadi, Reuben writes, ‘Anmol Ghadi confirmed Mehboob Khan’s position at the very pinnacle of fame, fortune and an incredible mass popularity. It had been a purely romantic subject with plenty of scope for music – the sort of “mix” which is responsible for making Hindi movies super-hits to this day’ [emphasis mine]. In this film, Mehboob had cast three of the biggest stars of the era, Noor Jehan,59 Suraiya and Surenda Nath, who were also the last among the great singing stars of Indian cinema, with the script revolving around chance encounter, coincidence and accident that gave full play to this love-triangle. The film’s highlights were Naushad Ali’s music, and Noor Jehan’s best known songs ‘Jawan hai mohabbat’, ‘Mere bachpan ke sathi’ and ‘Awaz de kahan hai’, the last a duet with Surendra. The song situations were employed to maximum effect to augment the star texts in the film.

An even bigger milestone of contemporary Hindi cinema was Mehboob’s Andaaz, ‘a film which would have the gloss, sophistication and sheen of a Hollywood film’. As Meghnad Desai puts it, ‘Andaaz was the modern film of its time … The sumptuous sets indicate opulence of a scale not shown previously in Hindi films especially of a westernized fashion … There are dances and birthday parties, pianos everywhere and the houses are big … After Andaaz there was no excuse for tattiness in sets…’. Of the three lead actors, Nargis, a Mehboob Khan ‘find’, was already a star in her own right. Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar were the rising stars, who rose to command the Hindi film industry of the next two decades. Of the latter Reuben writes, ‘these young actors who first appeared on the film horizon in the mid-forties, heralded the new era of youth in Hindi cinema … theirs was a magical influence on the youth of the country, able as they were to sway the emotions, mould the thought-processes, fashion, sartorial taste, hair styles, mannerisms, ideas, sentiments…’. Andaaz made Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar top stars, and was followed by Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat, which made Raj Kapoor and Nargis a sensation for their on-screen chemistry. Never had the Indian screen witnessed such unabashed and overtly sexualized romantic love. Bombay cinema was now the domain of the star, and romance ruled the roost.

The new ‘all-India’ film was not simply an all-encompassing entertainment formula; by the late ’40s and early ’50s it also encompassed the popular issues of the new nation, which were collected on to the person of the star. While Indian films had projected nationalist ideas and sentiments since the beginning of the talkies, whether it was a stance against untouchability [Achhut Kanya (1936)] or the idea of collective farming [Desher Mati (1938)], it was not before the ’40s that the central paradoxes of the nation became embodied – and resolved – in the figure of the star. The contrast may be established with reference to that iconic prototype of the first talkie era: Pramathes Barua/ Saigal’s Devdas, a figure that embodied the paradoxes of an Indian modernity, but failed to resolve them. Devdas, who had transgressed the family, and by extension a middle-class morality, was doomed to waste and die, unlike the ’40s anti-hero, who is not only redeemed but also re-inserted into the familial and social. The film which was a landmark in this respect was Bombay Talkies’ Kismet (1943). One of the greatest hits in the history of Indian cinema, it had Ashok Kumar playing a petty criminal who falls in love with a crippled girl, played by Mumtaz Shanti, and who is ultimately redeemed by her love, in the process also gaining a lost inheritance. This was Indian cinema’s first lost-and found crime drama, which transformed Ashok Kumar’s man-next-door image and made him Bombay cinema’s first anti-hero, who embodied the good and bad of the Indian imaginary. About the film, Star and Style wrote:

[Kismet] owes its amazing, unexpected success to the time in which it was made. The War period had produced a climate for quick riches and success in certain trades. For the go-getters, the people on the move, luck (kismet) was the password. The dream of rags-to-riches was frequently becoming a reality for those who could venture and dare. And ‘kismet’ was the handy word to explain away such quick success. No wonder that the film using this title as well as this spirit in its contents became such a resounding success.

Ashok Kumar enhanced his Kismet persona in the 1950 hit Sangram, where he played a ruthless criminal who is finally shot to death by his own father, a police-inspector. The film was banned in Maharashtra for its portrayal of an ineffectual police force, later a standard trope for the validation of the anti-hero in Hindi films. About the film Ashok Kumar had himself later noted, ‘Before this, people had not really witnessed such a well-crafted mixture of sex and violence in Hindi films’. A film like Sangram played upon generic popular disaffections and also proposed their resolution, all within the scope of the family drama. With their themes of inheritance versus environment, or legitimacy versus the illegitimate, films like Kismet and Sangram anticipated Raj Kapoor’s Awaara – Bombay’s most iconic film of the post-independence era, which emblematized the principal paradoxes of post-independence India….With such films, the Bombay star – particularly the male star – became a nationalized figure. The female star, on the other hand, emerged as the embodiment of the integrity of the nation. Mumtaz Shanti’s famous song in Kismet ‘Dur hato aye duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai’ (Get away you people of the world, India is ours) provides an apt illustration. Thus, the Bombay star of the ’40s did not only embody a call for romance, s/he also effectively appropriated the voice of the nation’s youth. The figure of the star as it emerged in this period therefore became the most crucial factor in Bombay cinema’s ideological construction as ‘all-India’ film.

By contrast, the Hindi films which came out of the Calcutta studios in the same period and failed in the ‘all-India’ market were grounded in the Bengal school’s fundamental premise of ‘good story’, and privileged the narrative over star text.69 That the Bengal cinema of the post-war era did not create any great stars in the league of Raj Kapoor and his peers was largely a function of this privileging of narrative over star. The institutionalization of play-back singing during the ’40s, whereby most actors did not sing their own songs in a film, further reduced the scope of the star text, unlike in the early talkie era when Bengal created singing stars like K.L. Saigal and Kanan Devi. At the same time, unlike the Bombay star, who now sported a more complex persona, a top Bengali actor like Asitbaran remained relatively one-dimensional in his screen portrayals, somewhat in the mould of a younger Ashok Kumar – the man-next-door who embodied middle-class ideals and family values. That is not to say the Bengali film ‘hero’ of these years did not exhibit darker shades of character – a film like Premendra Mitra’s Hanabari (Haunted House, 1952) had the ‘film noir’ type of leading man – yet, this was a prototype which never gained adequate currency among Bengali audiences.

Against the romantic thrust of Bombay cinema, the Calcutta studios overwhelmingly continued to produce ‘socials’ or family dramas, with the emphasis on ‘good story’…In these ‘socials’, the element of romantic love meshed with family drama, or tended to be set against larger social issues, as opposed to Bombay films like Andaaz, which were purely romances. A classic case was Bimal Roy’s acclaimed directorial debut, New Theatres’ Udayer Pathe (1944), remade in Hindi as Humrahi (1945), which enunciated Indian cinema’s future staple of the crossclass romance, or the ‘rich-girl poor-boy’ love-story, but against the critical social issue of the capitalist exploitation of workers. The story was written by novelist Jyotirmoy Roy, and Bimal Roy cast two unknown faces, Radhamohan Bhattacharya and Binota Bose in the lead roles, even though he might possibly have used any of New Theatres’ established actors.71 Indeed, Udayer Pathe is often considered a precursor of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, for its strong script, realist ethos and the use of non-stars. The same kind of approach ensured that a star like Kanan Devi, who was well past her prime in the late ’40s and had graduated to playing character roles, could still successfully play the female lead in films like Mejdidi (1950) and Darpachurna (1952). Speaking of that era, Kanan Devi herself later admitted, ‘The greatest sufferer in the whole affair was the Bengal film industry … the “Star System” killed Bengal’s Hindi market’. 

The question then arises, why did Bengal producers continue to function in relation to the master-template of ‘good story’ when the ‘all-India’ film clearly had a new configuration? Perhaps it was their sense that their base – the home market – was best secured through this tested formula, which pandered to the Bengali middle-class’s literary penchant. That this was largely the case is suggested by the following appraisal in the pages of the Indian Talkie 1931–’56: Silver Jubilee Souvenir, a commemorative volume published on the occasion of the twenty-fifth year of the Indian talkie in 1956: ‘for the Bengali screen, it [stardom] is only of a recent origin and has not attacked our films in any marked kind or degree. Bengali film audiences still show a decided preference for a good film with a good story, and with really good acting’ [emphasis mine]. Writings in contemporary journals also indicate that industry persons were highly conscious of the ‘different’ tastes of Bengali audiences, and grappled to strike a balance between the ‘good story’ index and other popular elements.  Given what was considered to be a demand specific to Bengali audiences, it was unquestionably realistic for the Bengal industry to make certain kinds of films and not others. This together with the changing orientation of the ‘all- India’ market in this period meant in effect that the industry was driven more towards the home market, which though enormously restricted after 1947, nonetheless existed as a relatively secure field, where films could be made on much lower budgets than Bombay. In fact, for the first time in the late ’40s, it is possible to detect the Bengal industry ‘turning inwards’, away from the ‘all-India’ market and into the making of a ‘regional’ cinema. 

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