New Bengali cinema: A contemporary genre to anchor the vernacular



Bengal is the new regional Hollywood in the making – and the hives can’t just stop buzzing about it. A wave is sweeping through the consciousness of contemporary Bengali cinema – powered by multiplexes, higher entry tariff, younger audiences, Internet, deeper penetration of arts awareness, proactive engagement with story-telling – and finally literature that is reaching out to the masses in non-formal ways moving beyond the confines of fine print.
A couple of years into the eastern metropolis of Kolkata – the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema – have changed the Bombay and Hollywood-centric cinematic awareness among several of our generation of returnees, who have reconnected to this bastion of Bengali culture that thrives and progresses amid the rubble of stagnant economics and a dusty political milieu. I have not been spared of the dawn of the new fathoming.
Cinema that has mirrored the social transformation of the Bengali ethos of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties  – well past the millennial decades into 2016 – has acquired a global hue which is cosmopolitan and universal in its interpretation of realities and literature- two primary sources of narratives in the Bengali cinema down the decades.
The contemporary cinema in Bengal – the current  platter of releases in the last two years or so – points to two trends. A fusion of parallel and commercial mainstream of ideas and a more refined treatment of narratives  – accompanied by crisp and meaningful scripting of dialogues, editing and deployment of hi-tech special effects on screen. Consequently, it has acquired an edgy pace that has set it apart from Marathi and southern regional cinema – two other vernacular oeuvres that vie of spotlight in terms of powerful storytelling and theatrics on the screen.  Popular literature is also being adapted more intelligently to suit the sync of the audiences – who are bred on action thrillers and slick content of Hollywood and Mumbai – with considerably less attention spans rejecting meandering and oversized dramas.
The notion of contemporary universalism paints Bengali cinema at this juncture with the greater cultural contiguity of the west – the stories have to be sharper and easily told with greater movement of characters and narrative structures that should not deviate widely from the linear pattern that characterizes modern mass fiction books.
Bengali cinema has a traditional advantage in this sphere – the Calcutta realism wave which gave to India the pioneering parallel hits of the 1940s the 1950s- enshrined by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Gautam Ghose (later in the decades),  has helped the mainstream industry evolve a distinct identity of its own.
If Pather Panchali captured the social dilemma of an angst riven Bengali middle class dialectics that dictated the discourse of the cultural consciousness of a Bengal in the cusp of a sociological change in the 1950s  – then movies like Praktan, a 2016 release by Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Ray starring Prasenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta probes the disintegration of the contemporary social mosaic with the narrative of a broken marriage  – played in a journey on train. A decade ago, marriages were sanctified on the Bengali screen as the denouement of climatic storytelling in the commercial mainstream. Melodrama, romance and happy endings followed a Mumbai stereotype – harking to the lifestyle gamut of an economically resurgent Bengal under a Left rule where the average cine-goer – the “Bengali” from the city and the suburbs – would relive their own experiential odysseys of love, sorrows, bitterness, prosperity, social churnings and happy endings on the screen.
But life on the fast lane has forced the cinematic narrative to take contemporary detours.
Last week, a chance visit to a neighbourhood theatre on an idyllic afternoon threw up a revelation – the Bengali conservatism and insularity of the 1970s-1980s have made way for the universal western language of the hip and the reckless manifest in the social rot that gnaws at the metropolis – in its purple mists and blues. “Devi”- a Devdas-meets-Streetcar Named Desire remake (rather crude though) of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay classic in which the leading light dons a female avatar of a spurned blog journalist turned junkie in Thailand- who dies of heartache, urban angst and cultural alienation.
The movie, directed by Rick Basu, is an exercise in aberration and confusion but strangely ground-breaking at the same time with its audacious reference to debilitating social fads like drug-addiction, disconnected relationships, clash between old and new sensitivities, rural-urban social dislocations brought on rampant urbanization, migration, aspirational living and changing politica; power equations. The contemporaneity aside, the movie mirrors the cross-cultural assimilations that are transforming the root perceptions of the Bengali society and its arts consciousness – hued by opening up of the economy and geographical boundaries, English-oriented education, younger audiences and multi-linguistic and cultural crews & casts on screens.
An award-winning movie, Shankachil –  an Indo-Bangladesh production by noted director Goutam Ghose is a case study of the cross-cultural osmosis that has set regional Bengali on a new trajectory travelling the sub-continent to a greater audience and social connecting threads.
Intelligent story-telling in an universal language to engage with the global audience – and the formidable Bengali diaspora population – began in the 1950s – post Independence when the modern educated “Bengali” migrated abroad  sporting an indigent culture instead of the “legacies” of British colonialism – combining the modernism of the west with the progressive traditions of a free India. A new culture revolution was raging across the capitals of the country with the progressive arts movements.
The trend was enshrined in the iconic classics of 1950s-1970s created by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Rittwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha who translated the urban deconstruction on screen to address issues like the corporatization of a political Bengal, Left awakening and progressive cultures in the art-house movement. But the cinema post-2000 in Bengal is a watershed in the growing trade and aesthetics of regional filmmaking – standing on its own with brazen narratives and empathy for young realities of a well-heeled class that came of age in the 1970s-1980s with Ivy League grooming.
If the 1980s- 1990s were an era of decadence  and pedestrianism in mainstream Bengali cinema – characterized by slump in trade statistics, closure of standalone movie theatres, insipid film-making and degeneration in consciousness, the decades around the millennium and those ensuing witnessed a surge – shot of life into the cinematic morass with multiplex theatres, steeper tariffs, production budgeting, intelligent movie-making and projecting cinema as holistic entertainment complemented with shopping sprees and lifestyle accoutrements in the age of retail revolution at mega consumer arcades to  draw new segments of cine-goers into the tinsel loop- with sharper consumer focus. Consequently, Kolkata and the adjoining cities have seen a spurt in the number of one-stop entertainment and lifestyle facilities- malls as they are monikered – kitted out with PVRs, the ruling movie multiplex brand across the nation.  Observers point out the evolving experience of cinema as a lifestyle add-on in tandem with “direct” consumption of consumer goods have brought the studios back from the precipice in Tollywood- Tollygunge- the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema. Bollywood or Mumbai has also contributed to the process of recuperation of Tollywood – with migration of names, resource and know-how to and fro between Kolkata and Mumbai.
In sync, Bengal has stepped out of box  to combine art-house with the mainstream commercial to develop a language of its own championed by new-age directors like Anjan Dutt, Rituparno Ghosh, Srijit Mukherjee, actor-turned filmmaker Aparna Sen, Shiboprasad Mukherjee, Sujoy Ghosh to name a few.  The string of engaging narrative-driven movies – like Dark Chocolate, Baastu Shap, Cinemawala, Angaar, Gansgter to name a few –  addresses a new audience which is well informed, jet-setting, affluent, young and discerning.
Literature – a powerful narrative fountainhead for cinematic story-telling – has lent itself ingenuously to Bengali cinema over the decades to convey the march of the socio-cultural politik of the terrain – rich in the lores of people, history and change. Instances of adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s, Manik Bandopadhhay’s and Bibhuti Bandopadhyay’s short stories  are galore  on the Bengali screen post-Independence.  The transcreation of popular literature into the cinematic oeuvre is a continuum- though the nature of translating literary content for the mass audience has tailored itself to address the demands of the racier and younger segments of cine-goers. Literature embellishes in the movie script with colourful dollops of thrills, frills and tweaks in the tale to context in the modern times.
A 2016 release from Tollygunge, Zulfikar, directed by Srijit Mukherje, was  an adaptation of two of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, Julius Ceaser  and  Anthony and Cleopatra. The movie set in the milieu of a contemporary Bengal wove its narrative around a prodigal, Zulfikar Ahmed, a ganglord of a powerful crime syndicate, throwing his journey across the maze of the underworld into the spotlight against his inter-personal relationships. The movie did not smash the box office – but its score and innovative adaptation were both critiqued and appreciated unlike Hemanta, a transcreation of Hamlet, by director Anjan Dutta, which earned lukewarm reviews.
Monchora directed by Sandip Ray, released in January 2016, was an adaptation of Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s  story of the same name. Set in the Bengal of the 1950-1960s, when light romances, mild mysteries and family soaps were reflecting the languid socio-political state of a pre-radical West Bengal, the movie revolves around the life of a thief, who comes across as a pleasant anti-hero.
The drudgery of romance – drama – and laughter have in the last decade made room for darker tales with edgy thrills in Tollywood spurred by the pervasive influence of Hollywood and the television action movie spectrums that beam western potboilers to young adults and the upwardly segments of movei-goers, as the old timers.
One of the most enduring spin-offs has been resurgence of thrillers as a cinematic genre on the Bengali screen. Five releases between 2015-2016 have taken Tollywood on a hunt for hitherto untold stories from the vast repository of “mass mystery fiction”- that has carved a premium slot for itself in contemporary Bengali literature over the last 100 years. Critics and literary reviewers concur on the ingenuity of filmmakers like Aniket Chattopadhyay, Anjan Dutt, Arindam Sil, Anindya Bikash Dutta, Sandip Ray and Pratim Gupta, who have harked back to the archives of fiction writers like Nihar Ranjan Gupta, Saradindhu Bandopadhyay and Satyajit Ray to exhume gripping thrills – adapted into tight narratives and slick film-making for the growing segment of younger audience.
Titles like “Kiriti O Kalo Bhramor”, “Kiriti Roy”, “Byomkesh O Chiriyakhana”, “Byomkesh Parbo”, “Double Feluda”,  “Chorabali”, “Gwenda Shabor: Eagaler Chokh”and “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam” drew serious audience bred on fiction- but with a affinity to the esoteric and the racy to the multiplexes and the theatres across the state – to keep the thrills spilling on to the fantasy space of the average movie-goer.  The genre of thriller as a cinematic movement has rendered commercial Bengali film-making fresh life fluids – with the PVRs eyeing possibilities of revival in business that had witnessed a slump in the last few years because of the paucity of funds in the movie industry as a whole- despite the outbound experiments across cultures, language and physical turfs.
The intelligent handling of the Bengali mystery classics trace their refined treatment to the television where snoop masterpieces like “Byomkesh” have been serialized – the small screen setting the template for the bigger screen to improvise on and stretch the mosaic of the narrative and visuals. Television has established  a  seamlessness with the big Tollywood screen – like in the rest of the country – with its glut of commercial soaps and tele-cinema that follow the blueprint of the Mumbai television.
The serialized dramas known as “serials”  meld into the bigger format of commercial cinema without much deviations – at times it is difficult to distinguish between the original screenplay for the television and its broader manifest on the cinema screen. This explosion of creative television in Bengal has imbued Tollygunge with resources – both in terms of spice, human resources and faculties to juggle bigger frames on tighter tele-budgets.
In many ways, the Bengali cinema reflects the trends – though on a micro-canvas – in Bollywood (Mumbai movies) where the multiplexes and changing movie-goers’ curriculum vitae are dictating the rules of commercial filmmaking on smaller budgets for an educated overseas markets. It also resonates with Hollywood – though on a much subdued scale – in its near epic scope of narratives, adaptations of classic literary theatres (the holistic genre of modern literature and drama) and creative thought-spacing of expression.
Bengal is a regional genre that will hold the parallel industry of vernacular cinema aloft in the years to come when the linguistic languor and the fatigue with Hindi as the “linear primary” of communication seeps into the viewer.

 Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman)
The Statesman/ANN Coordinator


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