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Special: The best of Bengali cinema 2011-20

From a tale of an obsessive foley artiste who only registers background noise to an awkward adolescent's coming-of-age saga, here are the best Bengali films of the past decade.

Roushni Sarkar

Bengali cinema, whose glory days were marked by the endeavours of visionaries such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha and many other acclaimed directors, saw a low for a while before being taken to new heights by filmmakers like the late Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen and Goutam Ghose, who boldly ventured into new territory and introduced far-reaching innovations.

It was this second wave that not only carried forward the legacy of its illustrious predecessors with their pathbreaking social commentaries, but also paved the way for the next generation of filmmakers.

Ghosh's passing signalled the era of an era. However, his legacy has been carried forward by contemporary figures such as Kaushik Ganguly, Srijit Mukherji and several other newcomers, who have enriched the medium with their unique storytelling abilities, sometimes coming up with just one or two films in the past 10 years.

Here, then, are the 10 most significant films of the decade. Let us know in the comments below what your best list would be.

1. Shabdo (2013)

Kaushik Ganguly’s Shabdo stands out for its unusual storyline and incredible performances.

The film, which won the National awards for Best Feature Film in Bengali and Best Audiography (Sound Designer) in 2013, saw Ritwick Chakraborty play obsessive foley artiste Tarak Dutta, who goes above and beyond the call of duty to record ambient sounds for films.

Dutta's fixation with background noise — the only form of sound that seems to resonate with him — in real-life upsets and alienates his family and friends. At her wits' end, his wife (Raima Sen) has him visit a psychiatrist (Churni Ganguly), but their efforts come to nought.

Ganguly captured the conflict between Dutta, who desperately maintains that he is normal while unconsciously sinking deeper into his own world, and his loved ones, who see his dedication to his craft as an affliction, in a poetic manner. Dutta’s journey was portrayed compassionately as the character, like so many of history's tragic figures, chooses art above life itself, only to face dire consequences.

Using pathos, Shabdo also highlights the overlooked role of sound-effects professionals who use every object at their disposal to enhance the auditory experience of cine-goers. Chakraborty successfully captured the subtle eccentricity of the character, who struggles to draw the line between his obsession and reality.

2. Nagarkirtan (2019)

Kaushik Ganguly celebrated the glory of love, shattering the binaries of gender politics, in Nagarkirtan. The film fetched Riddhi Sen the National award for Best Actor for his sensitive and hard-hitting portrayal of a transgender. Nagarkirtan also bagged the Best Costume Design, Best Make-up and the Special Jury Awards in 2018.

The raw film sees Sen's character, Punti, fall in love with Madhu (Ritwick Chakraborty), a flute-playing delivery guy in a small Chinese restaurant.

Powerful yet shorn of melodrama, Nagarkirtan, which attempts to show that Punti and Madhu's story is no different from the transcendental bond between Radha and Krishna, depicts how love can doom a sensitive soul who is passionately looking for validation and recognition despite being a social outcast.

The film also sees an individual who is searching for his identity happily accept the status of an outcast while surrendering to love. Nagarkirtan, which featured several transgenders, takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Ganguly refrained from forcing some kind of resolution at the end.

See also: Nagarkirtan is also a celebration of two towering performances: Kaushik Ganguly

3. Baishe Srabon (2011)

Considered one of the best thrillers made in recent times, Srijit Mukherji’s Baishe Srabon, which is centred on the hunt for a serial killer who cryptically leaves behind couplets at crime scenes, sees the incorporation of elements that are quintessential to Bengali culture into the police procedural sub-genre.

In the film, Prosenjit Chatterjee essays the role of Prabir, a foul-mouthed former police officer with a violent past and nasty reputation, while Parambrata Chatterjee plays the rather soft-spoken and agreeable police officer Abhijit Pakrashi, representing two contrasting facets of masculinity. Rather than generational conflict, these two characters and their responses to crime and the world at large speak of different values at play.

The murders apparently have a connection with the eccentric poet Nibaron Chakraborty (a brilliant Goutam Ghose), who believes himself to be a part of the Hungry Generation, a literary movement in the Bengali language that was dominant in the 1960s. Meanwhile, journalists Amrita Mukherjee (Raima Sen) and Surya Sinha (Abir Chatterjee) do some digging of their own.

Unlike most thrillers, Baishe Srabon, which has an ending that is open to interpretation, is more about the journey than the destination. With its subtle commentary on social life and thought-provoking dialogue, the film, which ostensibly seems like a knockoff of Seven (1995) and Righteous Kill (2008), is more than a mere slash fest. 

4. Cinemawala (2016)

Kaushik Ganguly was not only responsible for giving viewers a brilliant cinematic experience with this tragic tale of an elderly theatre owner, but also gave veteran Paran Bandopadhyay the opportunity to deliver arguably the best performance of his career.

In this sensitive yet simple story, Ganguly highlighted the declining state of single-screen theatres. Bandopadhyay's character Pranabendu Das's attachment to his cinema hall, Kamalini, turns it into a living, breathing character. This results in a rift in his relationship with his son Akash (Parambrata Chatterjee), who embraces the digital medium and wants to move with the times instead of clinging on to a glorious bygone era.

In the conflict between the new and the old, both father and son fail to come to a compromise. Though the film is a nostalgic tribute to a cherished institution, Ganguly refrains from donning rose-tinted glasses when it comes to the reality of single-screen theatres and, hence, in his film, both Pranabendu and his beloved Kamalini meet with a tragic end. The film also makes a strong statement on piracy and copyright infringement.

Cinemawala won the coveted ICFT-UNESCO Fellini Prize at the International Film Festival of India in 2015.

5. Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013)

Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s experimental film was not only a fitting tribute to the legendary Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976), but also to the era in which the master filmmaker lived and worked.

Using montages, the narrative of the black and white film, which is non-linear in structure, comments on various epochs in the controversial artiste’s life, which are presented in the form of jumbled vignettes. The film, which is anything but a typical biopic, goes to great pains to establish the historical backdrop against which the artiste's life unfolded, from the Bengal famine of 1943 to the India-Pakistan war of 1971.

Adopting a stream-of-consciousness approach, the film gets inside its subject's head, depicting the conflicts and ironies of Ghatak’s life while paying homage to his philosophy of cinema. Saswata Chatterjee as the lead character, Nilkantha Bagchi — which, incidentally, was the name of Ghatak’s on-screen alter ego in the largely autobiographical Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) — delivered his best performance till date, portraying the eccentricity and genius of the filmmaker, who was much misunderstood in his era but garnered international acclaim after his demise.

Mukherjee was inspired to write and direct the film after watching Jukti Takko Aar Gappo and named it after Ghatak's 1960 film, whose title (which translates to The Cloud-Capped Star) he felt defined the auteur's life.

6. Sahaj Paather Gappo (2016)

Based on beloved writer Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s story Taalnabami, Manas Mukul Pal’s Sahaj Paather Gappo (Colours Of Innocence) is a raw, heart-wrenching film centred on two siblings from a poverty-stricken family in a serene, verdant village in West Bengal. After their father is badly injured in an accident, elder sibling Gopal (Samiul Alam), who tends to bottle up his angst and despair, is forced to become the family's breadwinner. The younger Chotu (Nur Islam), on the other hand, harbours dreams that his family finds downright audacious.

The striking contrast between Gopal’s grounded demeanour and Chotu’s penchant for dreaming sums up the conflict in the tale. As the family hits rock bottom financially, Chotu, totally oblivious to the ways of the world and the class divide, fantasizes about being invited to a lavish lunch at a prosperous household.

The innocence of children is highlighted with Chotu discarding all realistic reasons as to why he does not receive an invitation. However, Pal refrained from making a completely pessimistic or tragic statement, choosing to focus on the children’s resilience in the face of adversity. The duo were the first artistes in a Bengali film to win the National award for Best Child Artist in 2017.

7. Bakita Byaktigato (2013)

Pradipta Bhattacharya’s absurdist take on romance and longing, Bakita Byaktigato (The Rest Is Personal) won the National award for Best Feature Film in Bengali in 2014.

Shot in the documentary format, the film, which is steeped in magical realism, throws viewers into a world that is weird and unpredictable. It revolves around the journey of independent filmmaker Pramit (Ritwick Chakraborty), who is no stranger to rejection and is quite literally on the lookout for love, and his confidant and cameraman Amit (Amit Saha).

The duo embarks on an unlikely quest to learn the nature of romance and is spurred into tracking down individuals who might rid them of their blues. Their frequent surprise encounters exude an intoxicating aura of romance that is impossible to resist.

The decision to choose a medium of realistic documentation for a fantasy story, the colourful menagerie of characters — from an astrologer with two wives to an elderly physics professor who dwells in a decrepit house — and their uncanny connections and, more importantly, the idea of Mohini village, a mythical region where people miraculously fall in love, point to the film’s strength: original and imaginative writing.

One can safely say that Bakita Byaktigato was unlike any other Bengali film that had come before.

8. Open Tee Bioscope (2015)

Anindya Chatterjee’s debut film Open Tee Bioscope is a nostalgic tribute to the tail end of the 20th century and childhood in North Kolkata. The film delves into memories and cultural associations of adolescents by depicting friendships, teenage romance and first adult experiences.

The film is centred on the experiences of the recently expelled Fowara (Riddhi Sen), a young man who is sent back home from school to North Kolkata for indulging in rowdy behaviour. Apart from Sen, Open Tee Bioscope introduced audiences to a host of new faces like Rwitobroto Mukherjee and Surangana Bandyopadhyay, who play Fowara's crafty friend and love interest, respectively, who have proved to be some of the more promising artistes of their generation.

Apart from heartfelt moments and commendable performances, Open Tee Bioscope also gifted the song ‘Bondhu Chol’, which has become one of the most popular friendship anthems in Bengali.

9. Rainbow Jelly (2018)

Soukarya Ghosal’s fantasy film Rainbow Jelly revolves around an orphaned child, Ghoton. The boy stays with his uncle (Kaushik Sen), who, in the fashion of the cruel stepmother of fairy tales, forces the child into servitude and thrashes him on the slightest pretext. One night, Ghoton is visited by a mysterious woman (Sreelekha Mitra) who offers to help the child win his uncle’s heart.

Ghosal made the brave choice of casting a special child, Mahabrata Basu, who has been suffering from septicaemia since birth, as the protagonist. The child artiste wonderfully emotes the pangs of a lonely and mistreated child who is prone to daydreaming and yearns for love.

Ghosal’s original storyline about an underdog being aided by a fairy, Ghoton’s witty reactions, the heart-wrenching screenplay and Sen’s brilliant performance help Rainbow Jelly stand out as the best children’s film made recently in Bengali cinema.

Read also: Wanted to tell a story that carries essence of eastern culture: Soukarya Ghosal

10. Phoring (2013)

Indranil Roychowdhury’s sensitive coming-of-age film focuses on a 15-year-old loner, Phoring (Akash Adhikari), and his experiences and responses to the world around him. Beset by an abusive father, played by the fantastic Sankar Debnath, the awkward lad, who is curious about nature, has conversations with ‘god‘ in his head and whiles away the hours with best friend Lattu.

Set in the suburbs of North Kolkata, the film delves into the loss of innocence that is presaged by adolescence with its impulsiveness, inquisitiveness, awkward sexual curiosity and sudden behavioural changes.

Though the film adheres to the familiar trope of a teenager falling in love with an older teacher (Sohini Sarkar), it boasts of lush cinematography, phenomenal performances and a narrative that incorporates all the nuances of a riveting screenplay.

Good, bad, ugly... what did you think of this list? Let us know in the comments section below.