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Article Bengali

Pinaki Mukherji's Chowringhee (1968) was a faithful and absorbing adaptation of Shankar's novel

Chowringhee was perhaps the biggest multi-starrer among Bengali films in the 1960s and was mostly shot at the Grand Hotel.

Biswajit and Supriya Choudhury in a scene from Chowringhee (1968)

Shoma A Chatterji

Chowringhee is a Bengali novel by Shankar that was first published in 1962. Set against the backdrop of a high-profile hotel in Calcutta, the novel became so widely popular that it has been translated in several Indian languages, including in English by Arunava Saha in 2007. It is said to be the most popular and best piece of fiction among Shankar’s works.

In 1968, noted filmmaker Pinaki Bhushan Mukherji made a film based on the novel. The film remained true to the original story. Shankar's book is set in the 1950s, when the glittering days of Chowringhee, a central and posh location in Calcutta filled with starred hotels, bars and nightclubs that attracted the elite, including rich businessmen, social workers and NGOs plus a generous dose of foreigners, were still not behind it.

“Through the prism of a lowly hotel clerk's eyes, Shankar presents a microcosm of life in the city with extraordinary candour,” says Ranjita Biswas in her review of the novel's English translation. In fact, Shankar used the first person narrative with fluent smoothness in his writings and this made his novels all the more identifiable and popular. At the same time, he gave democratic space to all the lead characters and did not focus his attention on the protagonist — himself.

Mukherji had a long track record of direction spanning a period of 34 years from 1953. Of the 19 films he directed independently, several were big hits, of which old-timers may recall Dhuli (1954), a musical starring Suchitra Sen, Mala Sinha and Prashanta Kumar that was filled with wonderful classical-based music and the beats of the dhol the hero was adept at playing.

The other big hit was Chowringhee (1968), which was perhaps the biggest multi-starrer among Bengali films in the 1960s. Most of the shooting was done at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta.

Chowringhee, the film, followed Chowringhee, the novel, almost to the tee, so there was no displeasure among those who had read the novel about the film trying to veer away.

Mukherjee chose a stellar cast for his film and the artistes performed so naturally that it brought the novel to life.

Leading the gang was Uttam Kumar as Sata Bose, who shifts smoothly from waiting at the reception to organizing a banquet through intelligently holding the secrets of clients who use Shahjahan Hotel as a rendezvous with lovers / boyfriends.

The unemployed Shankar (a young and handsome Subhendu Chatterjee) suddenly lands a clerical job at the hotel with the help of a well-meaning middleman called Byron (Deepak Mukherjee) who knows that Rosy, an employee, has eloped with a married man and created a space for him.

When Marco Polo (Utpal Dutt), managing director of the hotel, a man who is forever depressed and addicted to the bottle, says there is no vacancy, Byron tells him of Rosy’s escapade and Shankar is appointed in her place. He is placed under the supervision of the very amiable Sata Bose. They become close friends.

The hotel also has among its staff a 'hostess', Miss Karabi Guha (Supriya Choudhury), who, as is subtly hinted in the film, is actually a ‘keep’ of the big industrialist Mr Agarwal who uses her as an 'escort’ to entertain his clients. One wonders whether this has been written from real life by the author, as it shows up an elite hotel harbouring an escort.

Supriya Choudhury, with her terrible makeup and hairdo and a melodramatic performance, sticks out like a sore thumb among the rest of the cast which includes Deepti Roy as the two-faced Mrs Pakrashi, a dedicated social worker by day and someone who has regular siestas with much younger men at the hotel by night.

Sata Bose falls in love with Sujata (Anjana Bhowmik), an air-hostess, an honest, simple young woman who is willing to give up flying to marry him. Bhowmik puts in a marvellous performance in a relatively small role.

Soon, however, the hotel changes hands and everyone is given the pink slip. No one cries when Karabi Guha commits suicide because she “did not count”, except for some of the hotel staff.

Bhanu Bannerjee gives an outstanding performance as Natahari, head of housekeeping, who adds that much-needed earthy touch to the artificial and 'sophisticated' ambience the others are trained to move in.

Dinen Gupta, one of the best cameramen of the 1960s, uses his camera extremely well with the help of just the right kind of lighting that ought to enrich the black-and-white in the film. Other milestones are the music and songs in the film and also their positioning and picturization. The music, by Asima Bhattacharya, includes a Tagore number, 'Ei Kothati Mone Rekho', rendered beautifully on the soundtrack by Pratima Bandopadhyay.

Two other songs, too, are still on the list of classic hit numbers belted out by the all-time great Hemanta Kumar Mukhopadhyay.

The soundtrack is superb. While the songs are beautiful, the instrumental tracks are very effective. This is one film where the director has taken great care to bring out a great film based on a great novel without distorting the original. The runtime of two-and-a-half hours does not allow you to nod off at any point.