Article Bengali

KIFF 2018: Celebrating Bengali cinema with an eclectic selection from Alibaba to Unishe April

While some may justifiably argue that Bengali cinema is not yet 100 years old, the choice of films to showcase for the occasion is an interesting one.

Shoma A Chatterji

To say that Bengali cinema has completed 100 years is not quite correct. It is only when a film begins to 'talk' that it can really be considered a film in a definite language. And this did not happen a 'hundred years' ago.

The first talkie in Bengali was Jamai Sasthi, which was released in 1931. But the first silent film to be released in Bengal was Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra in 1917. Perhaps the curators of the special screening section at the Kolkata International Film Festival took 1917 as the base year and decided it was time to celebrate the centenary of Bengali cinema.

Since at least a few thousand films have hit the screens in Bengal over the past 100 years, it must have been a really daunting task for the curators in charge of the selection for this section.

Considering all the paradigms of the history of Bengali cinema, genre, storyline, director and stream, the choice has been more than adequate. There is bound to be criticism and discussion around the omission of some film by some director, but on the whole the selection covers the history of Bengali cinema and meets the challenges of versatility, time difference and source material, not to forget the makers, of course.

The films, listed in chronological sequence and chosen with great care, are:

1. Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose
2. Mukti (1937), directed by Pramathesh Barua
3. Udayer Pathey (1944), directed by Bimal Roy
4. Kabuliwala (1957), directed by Tapan Sinha
5. Ganga (1960), directed by Rajen Tarafdar
6. Saptapadi (1961), directed by Ajoy Kar
7. Uttar Falguni (1963), directed by Asit Sen
8. Streer Patra (1972), directed by Purnendu Pattrea
9. Ganadevata (1978), directed by Tarun Majumdar
10. Chokh (1982), directed by Utpalendu Chakraborty
11. Kony (1984), directed by Saroj Dey
12. Padma Nadir Majhi (1992), directed by Goutam Ghose
13. Unishe April (1994), directed by Rituparno Ghosh.

This screening schedule covers the spectrum of Bengali cinema over time, beginning in 1937 and ending in 1994, a fifty-year period. The directors are famous and each film belongs to a different genre, has an individual style and approach, and a different story to narrate.

For example, Saroj Dey’s Kony, based on a novel by litterateur and sports journalist Moti Nandi, which bagged a National Award, was a moving film on the challenging relationship between a young swimmer who comes from a very impoverished family and her coach, an outstanding Soumitra Chatterjee.

A milestone film no connoisseur should miss is New Theatres’ Mukti. Released at Chitra on 18 September 1937, Mukti became an instant hit, turning Pramathesh Chandra Barua and Kanan Devi into screen icons overnight. Young women copied the way Kanan Devi did her hair and wore the sari in Mukti while men turned Barua's costumes into contemporary fashion statements.

In terms of cinema, there is an element of timelessness about the film and it does not appear dated even today. The aesthetic and cinematically appropriate use of Tagore songs enriched the texture of the film, taking it to a different plane.

Udayer Pathey was Bimal Roy’s first film as an independent director and also among his very few Bengali films. It offers, perhaps, the first example in Indian cinema of the novel being published after the film was released and, like the film, the novel became a bestseller and turned writer Jyotirmoy Roy into an overnight literary star.

Jyotirmoy Roy was an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The film was released at Calcutta’s Chitra talkies on 1 September 1944. Udayer Pathey introduced a new era of post-World War II romantic-realist melodrama that was to pioneer the integration of the Bengal School style with that of Vittorio De Sica.

Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala (1957), adapted from a famous short story by Rabindranath Tagore, won the National Award for Best Bengali Feature Film in 1956 and also bagged the Silver Bear extraordinary jury prize at Berlin in 1957.

Though Sinha took some liberties with the original story, this did not disturb the core of the relationship between the dry fruits seller from Kabul and tiny Mini, a little girl in a Bengali family, who become close friends though distanced in terms of language, culture, age, geography and everything else. Chhabi Biswas in the title role and little Tinku Tagore as Mini won the hearts of every member of the audience who watched the film that still has very good repeat value.

When one watches Utpalendu Chakraborty’s Chokh, one laments the deconstruction of one of the most promising directors of political cinema in Bengal who could not sustain the control he had acquired over the language of cinema and whose subsequent films slowly pulled him down.

Chokh won the Golden Lotus for Best Feature Film in 1982 and the CCIC award at Berlin in 1983. Chokh is perhaps one of the first truly political films created in the fictional format to come out of Bengali cinema in the 1980s and gave rise to a crop of talents that included Aparna Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Goutam Ghose.

The director’s leaning towards the Left comes across quite lucidly over the film, but the film transcends the purely political tone to enter into larger moral questions of humanity and ethics. Each character is fleshed out and no one is either a villain or a hero. Instead, they are all backed by the logic of the script.

A common strand that binds these films together is the musical score, which is enriched not necessarily by wonderful and melodious songs alone, but also through a rich background score that never tries to overshadow the main script. Technically, too, the films are above par in many respects.

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Kolkata International Film Festival