“What is wrong with contemporary Bengali cinema” is a question based on the understanding that everything else is right whatever that ‘everything else’ might be. But the fact of the matter is that everything has been going wrong with Bengali cinema for several years now if one considers cinema to be a business-making proposition instead of Page 3 material to be splashed everyday as headline news or some film being awarded a certificate at some anonymous film festival abroad.
It is not a question of just quality and quantity though these elements simply cannot be ignored. Quantity is at its best in recent time with four and five films releasing every other Friday never mind that they hardly last the first week and run to near-empty theaters. Producers are mushrooming everyday, twenty by the dozen. But these producers are more interested in the glamour the tinsel world promises and the easy entry into rubbing shoulders with glitzy Rituparna Sengupta and the evergreen Prosenjit and appearing in the headlines of Page 3 and color supplements. Most of these producers, Bengali or non-Bengali, have solid mainstream businesses they run very successfully such as jewelry, cooking appliances and even spices and pickles! They do not seem to care much for the box office prospects of the films and are content basking in reflected glory if and when a film is selected for festival screening and perhaps, bags a certificate! A few of these producers are now household names for new directors looking out for funding. The quality of the film they produce is the last thing on their mind not because they do not care but because they do not know!
It is quality that has taken a big beat in recent times, Anyone and everyone wants to wear the directorial hat never mind their knowledge and experience in the art, craft and technique of filmmaking and what is worse, they do not even appear to be willing to learn. I just took a peak at the list of Bengali films entered for the 63rd National Film Awards the results of which may be out any minute now. Of the films already released, some do not deserve even a single viewing. Of 308 entries listed in the 63rd NFA, around 31 are Bengali films which are around 10% of the total entries. Not bad at all considering the languages and the dialects of films entered.
Among the few noted directors whose films are a part of the list are Raja Sen, Srijit Mukherjee, Kaushik Ganguly and Aparna Sen, all of them already having won National Awards for their films. But except Ganguly’s Cinemawallah which has already won the top award at IFFI Goa and now awaits release, the others are not very National Award-worthy though they might bag some awards in the technical categories. Raja Sen’s Maya Mridanga might bag a sectional award because it explores a near-fading out folk art form through a story that has elements of heightened melodrama and good but loud music. One word for one more National Awardee Ashoke Viswanathan’s latest film Bhrastha Tara based on a 100-year-old story authored by Sita Devi. Devi was one of the two talented daughters of Ramananda Chattopadhyay, known as the father of Indian journalism. This film shows us a Viswanathan we have never seen before. But though he tries to capture the social ambience of the 1950s though the story belongs to the 1920s, his new heroine fails to tap the energy and the power the leading character demands.
Of the debutant directors, the best bet among films we have already seen is Babar Naam Gandhiji by Pavel Bhattacharjee. The film offers a completely different take on a slum buy’s perspective on Gandhi and how this changes the course of his life. Dak Baksho (Letter Box) should not even be called a film much less qualify as ‘cinema.’ Directed jointly by Prosenjir and Abhijit Chaoudhury who touted Dak Baksho as a psychological thriller has nothing psychological about the film nor any thrills. Even the technical side of the film is so very bad that its public release was shocking. It is difficult to see this entered for the NFA awards.
Of the relatively new and young directors, Arun Roy might pull out a winner with his second film Cholai that is a fictionalized account of a real life tragedy in a village in West Bengal where more than 170 people died after drinking spurious liquor. The film obviously had censorship issues and the producers decided to get the film censored from Mumbai. Tamal Dasgupta’s Bhalo Meye Kharap Meye takes off from the Park Street rape case and gives it a strong twist pointing out that the wife of the lawyer is in no better position than the rape victim though she does not know it till the end. But the film is loosely structured and resorts to commercial gimmicks that strip the film of whatever little power it might have garnered.
The late Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Sohra Bridge could be a strong contender because of its completely out-of-the-box story, script, treatment and music. But I personally cannot bracket it within the “Bengali Film” category because very little Bengali is spoken in the film. I personally feel that it is time for the National Awards committee to consider a separate category of multi-lingual films for such films that use more than two languages throughout the footage. Bengali cinema is terribly polarized in terms of quality, form, content, treatment and technique. You either have very bad films or reasonably good films. You do not have very good films anymore.
What about the box office in Bengali cinema? One is kept guessing but most known filmmakers claim that their films are big hits. Production houses, big, small and in-between refuse to dish out box office figures to critics and film analysts which is a self-defeating exercise. Har Har Byomkesh directed by Arindam Sil is a Byomkesh Bakshi murder mystery with all the glamorous trappings of a big budget mainstream film. It is a well-made film but certainly does not qualify to be the best film by any means though it has had a reasonably good run in Kolkata theaters. Kaushik Ganguly’s Baastu-Shaap is still running in a few theaters but whether it is doing good business no one knows. Till date, it is Belasheshe, jointly directed by Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee, which has done excellent business. It is about an old couple with grown-up grandchildren where the wife seeks a divorce when preparations for their nth wedding anniversary are on. How the children come together to try and avoid a break-up and what happens in the twisted climax made it a very entertaining film with some hiccups both loud and soft.
The biggest bogie ailing the Bengali film industry today is the lack of exhibition outlets for screening films. Nandan graciously has opened its doors to all kinds of films and has switched over sensibly to screenings of different films for each show. This has given Bengali cinema a space to find some air for its lifeline gasping for breath. Most films even if the audience wants to watch them, are taken off the theaters for God Alone Knows What Reason. One reason is that the number of cinema theaters screening Bengali films has dwindled down from around 850 halls across the State to a meagre 350 today. Besides, existing theaters that exclusively ran Bengali films have now opened their doors to Hindi and even English films narrowing access for Bengali filmmakers. These limited theaters have restrictive policies because they are either owned or licensed or leased out to two big houses, one a production and distribution house and the other an exhibition network. They pull the ropes for which film should be released, for how long, and whether a film should at all get a release or not. It is for these filmmakers who make a film not knowing whether it will reach the audience at all or not that the Nandan screenings have come like sunshine at the end of a dark tunnel. Sohra Bridge is into the fourth week today at Nandan II though the audience is just a trickle. The price of tickets are Nandan are more than reasonable so viewers queue up soon after a new Bengali release.
What one fails to understand is why no government is paying attention to the lack of exhibition outlets for Bengali films. Why aren’t directors waiting forever for their films to be released coming together to form a quorum and try to work out alternate solutions to this massive problem? Why aren’t members of the film fraternity who somehow, refuse to be quoted, not joining the filmmakers to launch a collective movement towards distribution and exhibition? If things continue to go this way, then one shudders to think what will happen to Bengali cinema five years from now.