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Antony Firingee and his poignant question that haunts us even today

Antony Firingee (1967) will be the opening film at this year's Kolkata International Film Festival which celebrates 100 years of Bengali cinema.

Shoma A Chatterji

The term 'Firingee' was coined by upper-caste Bengalis during the colonial era, a derogatory word for Portuguese nationals who had settled in Bengal and for people of mixed parentage, with one parent Indian and the other Portuguese.

Over time, the term came to include all mixed-parentage people and even the children of white people settled in Bengal.

Ironically, it was left to Antony Firingee, a 19th century man of Portuguese descent who became a famous poet of a noted school of Bengali folk poetry and music called kobigaan, or song of the poet, to raise the status of the term through the power of his compositions and music in which, over time, he became a champion.

In January 1967, the Bengali film Antony Firingee was released, starring Uttam Kumar in the title role opposite Tanuja, who played the courtesan Soudamini whom Antony married despite the ostracism he had to face even from his own community, not to speak of the high-caste Bengalis who anyway detested his 'intrusion' into 'their' poetry and music.

The film wove in a lot of fiction to romanticize the life and love story of Antony Firingee, whose real name was Hensman Antony. It became one of the biggest box-office hits in Bengali cinema history.

Uttam Kumar is not the only reason for the film's historical importance. The story was also dramatized well with different points of conflict — social, political, religious and emotional — all woven into the main story beautifully.

Thirdly, Antony Firingee is still regarded as one of Bengal's best films for its unforgettable musical score and songs which could easily have slotted the film as a musical, except that the film with its multi-layered subplots defied slotting.

Kobigaan is a folk musical show performed live in an open arena with the audience surrounding the performers. Two performing groups compete with each other through poems composed and sung on the spot, each trying to outdo the other in satire, sarcasm, irony and insult. This demands excellent command of the language, rhythm and vocabulary and Antony, though Bengali was not his mother tongue, had mastered all these.

In the end, there is a duel between Antony and Bhola Moira of Guptipara, the reigning champion of kobigaan who had once refused to teach the firingee the nuances. Antony wins the duel and Bhola Moira, born into a family of sweetmeat makers, not only acknowledges his defeat happily, but also takes off his floral garland and puts it around Antony.

The film pointed out subtly how the son of a sweetmeat-seller excelled at a difficult form of musical art while another who was not even Bengali mastered his chosen form of music and poetry through practice and determination.

Antony's wife Soundamini gives him constant support in his endeavour though they begin their married life in dire poverty. This point of rebellion forms another layer of social commentary where a Portuguese man marries a courtesan and leads a happy life despite social rejection.

In another version of the story, Soudamini was a young and beautiful widow whom Antony fell in love with and married. But the film makes her a court singer to represent another school of music through songs like 'Ami Je Jalsaghare' and 'Ghir Ghir Aayee', which have no connection with kobigaan.

Uttam Kumar, Tanuja, Asit Baran as Bhola Moira and Ruma Guhathakurta as a lady kobi gave excellent performances, not to forget the chorus singers and accompanists on either side. Uttam Kumar won the National Film award for Best Actor for 1968 for his performances in Antony Firingee and Satyajit Ray's Chiriakhana (1967), in which he played the detective Byomkesh Bakshi.

Tanuja also gave one of the most sterling performances of her career, essaying well the metamorphosis in the character of Soudamini as she slowly changes from court singer to dedicated housewife with strong religious associations.

Sunil Banerjee wrote the story and directed the film. Anil Bagchi composed the music while the lyrics were penned by Gouriprasanna Majumdar along with others while the voices on the track were mainly those of Manna Dey and Sandhya Mukherjee. A few original compositions of Hensman Antony are also said to have been used in the film.

Antony Firingee, a devotee of the goddess Kali, constructed a temple to her in Kolkata. Firingee Kalibari in Bowbazar locality is dedicated to the goddess. The temple is said to be over 500 years old but is named for its association with Antony Firingee.

The final touch of placing the film in a sociological and historical context comes at the climax when Antony and his wife decide to celebrate Durga Puja at their home and wish to include the entire neighbourhood. The brahmins are not only scandalized, but also infuriated by the 'temerity' of a firingee and a former courtesan to even think of celebrating a festival that was the preserve of the so-called upper castes.

So, when Antony is out giving one of his best performances, they set his house on fire with the idol of Durga in it. The fire tragically swallows Soudamini as well, leaving Antony to ask, with his wife’s corpse in his arms, “Was this really necessary?”

Was it really necessary? That is a question that continues to haunt our collective conscience even to this day. That is why Antony Firingee, despite its mainstream status, is a classic engraved in the archives of Bengali cinema.


Related topics

Kolkata International Film Festival