Article Assam Bengali Hindi

Asit Sen, creative artiste par excellence


Asit Sen, who was born on this day (24 September) in 1922 in Dhaka, was one of the early filmmakers in Bengali and Hindi to use strong female characters even though the stories were rooted in the prevailing patriarchy of the times.

Shoma A Chatterji

Asit Sen is a name to be reckoned with and will remain engraved in the history of Indian cinema in general and Bengali cinema in particular.

Sen belonged to the golden age of Bengali cinema, sharing directorial space with such luminaries as Ajoy Kar, Pinaki Mukherjee, Niren Lahiri and Agradoot.

Sen was born in Dhaka in pre-Partition Bengal and joined films as a camera assistant to DK Mehta before assisting his uncle, noted cameraman Ramananda Sengupta, on Purbaraag (1947).

He then joined Gandhiji’s entourage for a month, shooting an independent documentary on 16mm film covering Gandhiji’s momentous tour of Noakhali and Patna.

He made his directorial debut with the Assamese film Biplabi (1948). Biplabi tells the story of an Indian radical who sacrifices his life for the country. It remained a benchmark in the genre of films depicting the struggle for freedom for many years.

Ironically, Sen failed to get his own name in the credits following a dispute with the producers over the film's ending. This omission has since been rectified on online websites.

Asit Sen was deeply influenced by the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Danny Kaye. His first Bengali film Chalachal (1956) was a thumping box office hit. It starred Arundhati Devi. The director-actress pair worked on his next film, Panchatapa (1957), as well.

Asit Sen will remain linked with two landmark Suchitra Sen-starrers: Deep Jweley Jai (1959) and Uttar Falguni (1963). The Hindi remake of Uttar Falguni was Mamta (1966), which was the biggest commercial hit of Asit Sen's career and also Suchitra Sen’s biggest hit in Hindi cinema.

A technically accomplished director who was an excellent cinematographer as well, Asit Sen did not use flashy techniques to tell his stories. He maintained that if you have to resort to technical gimmickry to prop up your film, it means you have nothing of substance to say!

To Sen, film-making was about sharing emotions, sharing pain. Much of Asit Sen’s style as a filmmaker was in the vein of Bimal Roy in its simultaneous assimilation of romantic Bengali literature, Hollywood and neo-realism. Bimal Roy even produced two of Asit Sen's films, Parivar (1956), his first Hindi film, and Apradhi Kaun (1957).

Asit Sen also directed Rajesh Khanna in two of his best known Hindi films, Khamoshi (1969) and Safar (1970). He won the Filmfare award for Safar, which was a remake of Chalachal.

The five qualities that marked Asit Sen out as a director with a unique vision were:
1. his choices of story/subject, mostly adapted from literature,
2. his command of cinematography, which helped him to frame his sequences, direct the lighting and orchestrate the scenes,
3. his ability to extract ideal performances from his artistes, never mind whether they were very good, good or just famous for their image,
4. his strong portrayals of women as protagonists trapped in conflicts created by the circumstances they are placed in, and
5. his feel for music, lyrics, songs, their picturization and positioning within his films.

This was a time when cinema, Bengali or Hindi, was almost entirely patriarchal and the hero dominated the plot and the film. So Sen was a pathbreaker of sorts in his choice of stories and his cinematic treatment of women who may not have been feminists in the strict sense of the term but were powerful in their understated performances and statements.

If we take a walk down memory lane, we will discover that three of the best performances in Suchitra Sen’s career came in films directed by Asit Sen. None of these three films featured Uttam Kumar, her most frequent co-star. One of them was Deep Jweley Jai, the others are different language versions of the same story — Uttar Falguni in Bengali and Mamta in Hindi.

Sharmila Tagore will, perhaps, agree that one of the most outstandingly poignant performances in her career in Hindi cinema came as Dr Neela in Safar, where she was pitted against Rajesh Khanna and Feroz Khan, both of whom also excelled in living out their characters, though neither actor was particularly renowned for histrionic ability.

Safar was the Hindi remake of Asit Sen's Bengali hit Chalachal (1957), but the director changed some portions of the characterization to suit a Hindi-speaking audience. It worked beautifully, specially the songs and their positioning and choreography, which won the hearts of the audience.

Safar was an understated film. Few noticed the strong undercurrent of the young Montu, whose older brother Bipin Neela gets married to, who has a major crush on his tuition teacher, Neela, much older than he is. This is an element we do not get to see often. But Montu’s crush disappears once she becomes his sister-in-law.

Safar was the tenth top-grossing production of the year. It won one Filmfare award and four Bengal Film Journalists' Association (BFJA) awards. Rajesh Khanna even received a nomination for the BFJA award for Best Actor.

Deep Jweley Jai was made when cinema was mostly shot in black-and-white. Jyoti Laha and Anil Gupta’s cinematography reveals a beautiful encapsulation of this technical mode that generates an ideal balancing act between Suchitra Sen’s magnificent close-ups and the shot breaks that span everything from very slow panning shots to silhouetted shots to shots taken in semi-darkness to long-angle shots and even an overhead crane shot in the opening frame of the film. Some shots show Suchitra Sen in backlight with the halo her screen image was famous for. There is also one moving scene where she imagines herself with a bindi, in a coloured sari and jewellery.

Deep Jweley Jai has survived the onslaught of time, technology and evolution to remain one of the best films directed by Asit Sen, marking Suchitra Sen in an unforgettable performance in a heroine-orientated film. Despite not having a romantic hero in the lead, the film was a box-office hit. It is, perhaps, one major film with a female protagonist that does not offer a feminist slant on the film, the story or the character.

The difference of approach, treatment and style by Asit Sen and his team in the two films — Uttar Falguni in black-and-white and Mamta in colour — reflects the respective complex relationships between and among physics, technology, culture, economics and audiences. These were precisely balanced in both films and the results are obvious in the commercial success of the two projects and in the reassertion of Suchitra Sen as a star who could carry the burden of an important film with dual characters by herself, without the support of a conventional leading man.

The three important men — Rakhal and Manish in the life of Debjani and Pannabai on the one hand, and Indranil in Suparna’s life on the other — are not heroes or villains in the conventional sense. They are more like pillars of support, negatively and positively, in the history, transitions and evolution of the ‘three’ characters, which marks a difference in the usual plots of patriarchally coded films, though Mamta and Uttar Falguni are very much reflective of patriarchy’s victimization of women. It is a powerful, woman-centric film even when it places the central character as the victim. But Debjani/Pannabai rises above her victimization to take control not only of her own life, but, more importantly, of her daughter’s, though she has voluntarily kept away from any direct contact with her during her growing-up years. In this sense, Pannabai remains an absent, almost non-existent, person in her own daughter's life.

Under the guidance of Asit Sen, Suchitra Sen manipulated her expressions differently in the two films through her emotional response mainly as Debjani/Pannabai because the portrayal of Suparna did not demand much change in strategy. For both versions, credit goes to Asit Sen who masterfully controlled the visual frames with the help of his cinematographers (Anil Gupta and Jyoti Laha) who used slow dissolves effectively as transitions between scenes. The scene showing Pannabai shooting Rakhal cuts to a close shot of the bars of a jail cell appearing before her. Even before the first shot fades out, the camera tracks back from the bars and moves to show her with Manish in her cell. The technical mastery most certainly added to Suchitra Sen’s performance as Debjani, as Pannabai and as Suparna.

The film, with special reference to the Hindi version Mamta, throws up an image of heightened melodrama with lavishly mounted sets, glittering zardozi costumes, heavily made-up face with bold eyeliner, glitter and eye shadow, and upwardly curled eyebrows that make Suchitra Sen look much older than she would have looked with more subtle make-up. But looking back, one can presume this was done by design because the Hindi audience would expect more colour and glamour in the production values than the Bengali audience, which was still culturally attuned to black-and-white films. If this was done by design — to make Uttar Falguni in black-and-white and Mamta in colour — the concept worked very well indeed because both versions were big hits.

Uttar Falguni and Mamta offer a model lesson in how important a role music and songs can play not only for the current and future value of the film, but also in the performance of the lead characters. There is a difference between the Bengali and Hindi versions of the film in terms of the musical score, the lyrics and the songs. The music is rich, memorable and melodious in both versions, but there are cultural differences that are determined by the language of the films.

In the Bengali film, the music was composed by Robin Chatterjee. The songs and the music were used tellingly as editorial strategy, as expressing time-leaps in the life of Pannabai and then Suparna, as denoting mood swings and narrative progression. Pannabai being more skilled in music than in dance, the songs served a definite purpose in the narrative.

Three classical pieces in the Bengali film deserve mention. The first is when Pannabai is established as a very good courtesan. The second appears in a flashback sequence where Debjani is being trained by Meena Bai and slowly metamorphoses into Pannabai. The third mixes sound with music to enrich the aesthetics of three shots and adds to the mood of the scene.

In the first of these three shots, the music director uses the melodious sound of church bells and mixes it with the sound of thunder and blowing wind, symbolically, with the camera capturing a singing Pannabai in slow dissolves juxtaposed against Suparna and Manish in her missionary residential school. The second blend of sound and music shows Pannabai singing against a backdrop of dark monsoon clouds, moving on to a leafless tree in the last of these shots as a time-leap showing Suparna growing up and Pannabai slowly greying and getting older. This also suggests the radical differences in the evolution of the two women — mother and daughter — the latter growing up in a conducive and productive environment created through the sacrifices of the former. The pace and tempo of the classical piece becomes slower towards the end and the camera moves to show a greying Pannabai suffering from a heart ailment.

The music of Mamta, however, was composed by Roshan on lyrics penned by Majrooh Sultanpuri, two giants of Hindi film music, and has greater archival value than the music of the Bengali film. The reason is not the narrower audience reach of Uttar Falguni but the immortal quality of the music and lyrics of Mamta. The first line of each song immediately brings the situation alive. The music complements as well as enhances Suchitra Sen’s performance and offers solid support to the narrative progression of the text.

The music and lyrics of Mamta were milestones in the careers of both Majrooh and Roshan, with€ numbers like ‘Rahe Naa Rahe Hum’, ‘Chhupa Lo Dil Mein Pyar Mera’, the immortal ghazal sung by Lata Mangeshkar that goes ‘Rehte Thay Kabhi Jinke Dil Mein’, alongside her other number ‘Vikal More Manwa Unn Bin Hai’. The romantic duet belted out by Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle, ‘Baharon Mein Akele Na Phiro’, also adds to the drama of the scene elaborating the relationship between the lovers.

Among Asit Sen's less discussed films is Jiban Trishna (1957), a thumping hit. Basically it is a story of revenge cleverly woven into a powerful script that is extremely mainstream yet focused on six different characters instead of just the romantic leads portrayed by Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Among his two Hindi films that are memorable are Anokhi Raat (1968) and Khamoshi, the Hindi version of Deep Jweley Jai. Khamoshi is enriched by the melodious musical score by Hemant Kumar to lyrics penned by Gulzar that are immortalized in the annals of film music. 'Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi' and 'Humne Dekhi Hai Un Aankhon Ki Mehekti Khushboo' keep ringing in your ears long after the film is over.

Anokhi Raat is a milestone because, for the first time in Indian cinema, the composition of music was split to two tracks: the background score was composed by Salil Chowdhury and the music for the songs was composed by Roshan. It was an emotionally rich film and, like most of Asit Sen’s work, placed the woman at the centre though the hero occupied major space.

It was a tragic story of the innocent young caretaker of a guesthouse, played by Sanjeev Kumar, turning into a dreaded dacoit. Zaheeda in a double role had a tough task as a less experienced actress, but she did justice to her role. Aruna Irani shone in her personification of the social commentator on injustice on women. The film, however, flopped miserably, marking the downfall of one of Indian cinema's best directors.

Annadata (1972), a powerful film, featured a young, fiercely self-respecting independent woman as the protagonist who would not take favours from anyone despite steep personal challenges. But this did not stop her from being ready to help others with free medicines, which are not easy for her as she is very poor herself and earns through stitching orders. The role was played by a young Jaya Bachchan and complemented brilliantly by Om Prakash’s performance as a very rich man whose relatives are interested only in his wealth.

Annadata had beautiful songs composed by Salil Chowdhury, but this film, too, was a flop. Another film, Anokha Daan, released the same year with newcomers, also did not do well. All this perhaps hastened the great filmmaker's slide.

Later films such as Bairaag (1976) and Vakil Babu (1982) just hammered the final nail in the coffin of hopes that he would resurrect himself. It did not happen and Asit Sen passed away in 2001, 16 years after his last film, Pratigya (1985, Bengali) was released. In the final years of his life, Asit Sen simply disappeared from the film circuit.

The author is indebted to Karan Bali’s review of Uttar Falguni in his online magazine upperstall.com for his insights into the music of the Bengali film.