Bengali Cinema is Moribund and Smug in its Comfort Zone

A still from Prakton.

A still from Prakton.

After watching Sairat, a Bengali professional based in Bombay posted a moving comment on his Facebook wall. The post said how the Marathi film reminded him of his parents – refugees and also ardent Communists in post-colonial India – who had an inter-caste marriage in 1951. Cinema, by temperament, is trans-lingual and trans-cultural. That Sairat reminds this man – away from home and foreigner to the tongue – about his parents who belonged to a past radically unlike his own is an homage to cinema’s exhaustible capacity to touch lives alien to its immediate context.

On the other, dark side of the moon is the depressing epiphany that there is nothing in contemporary Bengali cinema that even remotely triggers an effect of this nature. Bengali cinema now thrives on self-perpetuating, aphasiac forgetfulness, a total abhorrence for self-reflection and an incestuous cronyism that celebrates the co-minion’s innocuous achievements.

A fine symptom of this vicious cycle is the new Bengali film Prakton (The Former), currently running to packed houses in Calcutta, which has triggered bitter debates among Bengali cinephiles, émigrés and natives alike. This film casts two leading but well-past-their-prime actors of the Bengali film industry as an estranged couple who chance upon each other on a train journey and relive their memories. The context is familiar – think Gulzar’s Ijaazat – except that this film makes no bones about the entrenched patriarchy of the situation, which proclaims, among other inanities, that had the woman adjusted to marital difficulties, had not been ambitious and so on, the marriage would have survived.

The obsolete idiocy of this reasoning assumes painful proportions when one realises that this film, re-tells the story of Jotugriha (House of Wax-1964), Tapan Sinha’s extraordinarily sharp film (and the far more complex original of Ijaazat), about a couple who, unable to work on the emptiness of their relationship, somewhat helplessly oversee its irretrievable unraveling.. That film, with Uttam Kumar (who else) and Arundhati Debi in the lead, was produced by Kumar and was made 52 years before the current, morbidly misogynist film. And no, there was not a hint of blaming another woman (like in Ijazaat), no entrenched chauvinism or patronising one-upmanship, even though Kumar was then a star of gigantic proportions and could well have written his triumph into the script.

The debate here is hence not about politically progressive cinema. After all, some of the greatest to have made their mark on celluloid, W.G. Griffith and Leni Reifenstahl for example, were no political progressives. Rather, what is at discussion are the limits of the popular and to what extent is cinema to be seen as both as an expedient career and symptom of the same. Most cinema cultures embody this tension – good, meaningful cinema seems to be perpetually in conflict with trashy, hyperventilating melodrama or the irritable nuisance that goes under the rubric of entertainment. Bengali cinema is no exception.

But what is interesting is since attaining adulthood in late 1940s and early 1950s, Bengali cinema had comfortably juggled with the un-guarded borders between the popular and the intellectual (Jotugriha is wonderful example). If Kumar was the talisman of the popular with easy access to the artistic, Ray, Sen, Ghatak and others were custodians of an effortless, cosmopolitan globalism. Bengali cinema was not as much about being a Bengali as it was about the crisis and trials of modernity, about being a citizen of the world who speaks the Bengali language. Something that Marathi, Malayali and a sub-genre of Hindi cinema are regularly doing now, with obvious and glorious commercial and artistic success.

It is hence even more intriguing that in the last three decades, Bengali cinema has progressively eschewed any claims towards the global and the liberal in its headlong rush towards an exclusive re-configuration of the popular. Why so? The factors span decades, histories and socio-political projects. It is too big a debate to make claims of any conclusive evidence but some observations about the crisis that endanger contemporary Bengali cinema may not out of place.

Some of the troubles are obvious, typical and in circulation for some time now: the shift in narrative form and style after the death of Kumar and other towering performers, and makers since the 1980s; the gradual move away from literary sources; the tendency to de-incentivise good storytelling; the dismemberment of talented; behind-the-scenes cadres; the lack of effective schooling and training in cinema techniques; the drying up of public funding; the decline of neighbourly single theatres; the dumbing down of television and other popular platforms. All these have been discussed here and there. What is less obvious is that a whole new viewership has been manufactured and a whole new incestuous cinema society has been bolstered in the last few years which suffers from exaggerated self-importance, virtually blacking out the cultural memory of an astonishingly rich cinema tradition.

In the mid-90s, Rituparno Ghosh emerged as the chief custodian of a new, middle-class Bengali chamber cinema whose effective success was dependent on foreclosing the natural, expansive richness of the cinema of the past (say till 1975) – both artistic and popular – by telling the new middle class closeted, cloistered and cinematically unremarkable stories they would want to hear. His early works (Unishe April, Dohon, Asukh, Utsav, Doshor) were more televised narratives, which betrayed the inability of the middle-class to engage with a world outside their own. Ghosh was partially redeemed by his later works but his style, without even an iota of substance, solidified into a kind of Bengali genre cinema – multiplex-dependent, myopically urban, too-clever-by-half, vacuous and navel-gazing.

A poster for Unishe April, directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

A poster for Unishe April, directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

There is no harm in the ordinary; after all mediocre filmmakers are not expected to reach greatness. But Bengali cinema enjoys a disproportionate cultural heft in Bengal’s quotidian life. This meant that a part of the media had to step in – Wizard of Oz like – comforting the forgetful middle-class of a greatness that has long been dead, but whose ghost was well worth preserving. One result was an entente among viewers and film-makers to recycle the same story – a self-congratulatory, incestuous world of happy proclamations. Autograph, Chotushkone, Family Album, Bedroom, Antareen etc are a handful of examples from this endless list of slickly-produced, pretentions and gratuitous cinema

This façade is in no danger of being destroyed because the cinema universe is controlled by a handful of powerful men and a cluster of minions in the media. Good films are few and far between – Arekti Premer Golpo, Shobdo, Nirbashito, Phoring, Cinemawalla, to name a few – but it is otherwise a uniformly bleak scenario. No one wants to call the emperor’s naked bluff and instead cheers to his misery. Bengali cinema has long lost its Madeleine and has also forgotten that it has lost it.

In Prakton, through one cringe-worthy dialogue after another, the estranged woman expresses her affection for her former husband who has moved on and is happily ensconced with a ‘simple’, non-working, unambitious wife. The circle is now complete. The forgetting is now total. Prakton, an excellent example of antiquated thinking masquerading as a crisis of modernity – it is not surprising then that the film is all the rage in today’s Bengal.

The writer teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Views are personal.