India, Luminary, Profile

Chidananda Dasgupta

The film critic in India is marginalized within the world of journalists in general and critics in particular. The investigative journalist, the political commentator, the environmental reporter and the rural explorer lead the hierarchy of journalists with their ‘hard-core’ writing. Chidananda Dasgupta has changed the scenario forever. Film criticism is now as ‘hard-core’ as mainstream journalism, though it does not command the space and the platform in the print media the way it used to when Dasgupta was a practising critic. Rather, it is Film Studies that is now a much-in-demand discipline in several universities in India. In this sense, Dasgupta is a pioneer in the movement towards serious writing on cinema, stressing time and again, through his writings, that the distinction between art house cinema and mainstream cinema is a myth. He made history with the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on him for Best Writing at the Sixth Osian”s Cinefan Festival of Asian Cinema in July 2004. This is the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award to have been conferred on a film critic and scholar. “I am getting this award at a time when film criticism is almost dying out in India. We spent our lives teaching people the value and worth of cinema. When we first asked for government help to form the first film society, the official at the ministry said, “Film society, what’s that?” Thankfully, lots of things have changed since then,” he said in his response to the award.

To label Dasgupta only as ‘film critic’ however, is unfair because he pioneered the Film Society movement along with like-minded friends Satyajit Ray and Harisadhan Dasgupta in 1947. “A comment from Cyril Connelly, editor of Horizon, who said, “Calcutta is a city which has no film society” set off the trigger, more because Bombay had already laid the foundation for two film societies, one in 1937 and another in 1942. Neither of these evolved into a movement. Nor did they bring about changes in Indian cinema. We decided to change all this. With 50 members at a membership fee of Rs 5.00 per month and Prasanta Mahalanobis as our first President, the membership looked like a veritable Who’s Who of the Calcutta intelligentsia.” Dasgupta suggested the forming of a Film Federation and along-with six others. “We met Krishna Kripalani in 1959 and in 1960, the Federation began to function,” reminisced Dasgupta.

Surprisingly, Dasgupta hardly saw films till he was 21. His interest, till then, was focussed on literature, not in cinema. “Manik (Satyajit Ray) egged me on to see good films and would sometimes take me to see a film for the second time. I was personal assistant to Prasanta Mahalanobis, the economics scholar, at the Indian Statistical Institute and taught English literature in the evenings at City College. The turning point came in 1946 when I attacked an essay penned by noted author Buddhadev Bose in Parichay. The impressed editors, Hiren Mukherjee and Niren Roy, asked me to write for them. In 1947, Satyajit Ray, Harisadhan Dasgupta, fresh from the UCLA, and I, founded the Calcutta Film Society,” recalls Dasgupta.

Born in Shillong in 1921, Dasgupta had staunchly Brahmo parents who were dead against cinema of any kind. Ironically, their son evolved into one of the few cinema scholars and critics ‘ if not the only one” to have placed Indian cinema on the international map – in terms of research, analysis, interpretation and criticism. While in college, Dasgupta was externed from Patna for his involvement in the 1942 movement. He came to Kolkata to do his post-graduation. An early marriage in 1944 his parents were opposed to (though Supriya his wife, is also from a Brahmo family), forced him to take a lecturer’s job at St Columba’s College in Hazaribagh at a salary of Rs 100.00. At the time, it was not really a modest sum. Much later, his long span with ITC – beginning in 1955 – as their Public Relations chief did not interfere with his objectivity as a critic who writes with equal fluidity in Bengali and in English.

In what way is his approach to cinema different and distinct from the rest that makes him an institution unto himself? In his response to this question, this flossy-white-haired scholar says, “I approach cinema holistically and like to place milestone films and filmmakers against their socio-historical and political perspective. Having had the chance to travel around the world, watching films and interacting with filmmakers internationally, my books on cinema are rather broad-based though I tend to zero in on Indian cinema. I have edited books on cinema and culture too and write an occasional column on culture for a woman’s fortnightly called Sananda, edited by my daughter Aparna Sen. Among my books are – Talking About Films (1981), The Cinema of Satyajit Ray (1980) and The Painted Face Studies in India’s Popular Cinema (1991). All of them have run into several editions. I have also written prolifically for international publications. I won the Best Film Critic award at the National Award many years ago. I wrote the musical score for my daughter’s film Sati. One of my papers is entitled The Black Hole of Indian Film Criticism. The paper points out what I feel are wanting among Indian film critics.”

When asked about how her interest in serious cinema was born, daughter Aparna Sen says, “When Renoir arrived in India to make The River, I was a baby. In his younger days, my father strove untiringly to gain a respectable hold for the film society movement. He also made delightful films himself like Bilet Pherat (1972) and Amodini. He has remained singularly devoted to the cause of ‘legitimate’ cinema. As a little girl, I knew and heard people who were to become famous filmmakers in years to come. To know Bunuel and Bazin, I did not have to come out of my house. My father and his friends discussed them at home. We were taken to screenings held by the Society. At times, there would be screenings in our own home. This evolved within me an eye for good cinema. Till this day, unless the visuals please me, I don’t like the film. I never rely only on the story. We were not allowed to see populist Bengali films like Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957) etc. Suchitra Sen-Uttam Kumar starrers were a big no-no. It is an irony that later, I became a leading star in these very populist films I was not allowed to watch. Pather Panchali was the very first Bengali film I saw.”

“While researching for a book on Mrinal Sen, the Public Service Broadcasting System offered me a proposal to make a few biographical documentaries on some filmmakers, I jumped at the chance. That is how this film came about. I should have thought of this earlier, but strangely, it escaped me. I should have made a similar documentary on Satyajit Ray while there was still time. I did not. I honestly believe that Mrinal Sen’s contribution to Indian cinema has not been properly recognized or honoured. Praises, awards, international acclaim have been showered on Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, effectively marginalizing Mrinal’s contribution. I consider this unfair and wish this film would shed light on his rich and unforgettable contribution to cinema per se,” elaborates Dasgupta.

Dasgupta was lucid in his comments on the present trend in film criticism.”Film critics today lack a consistent ideological positioning. Some of them lack aesthetic sensibility. Some mistake aesthetics for sensibility. They spend much lesser time on reading and research than needed. This often reflects on their writing. There are also critics writing books on Indian cinema. Sociological scholars now write papers and books on cinema which is a happy thing.” This came across when sometime back, he was persuaded to speak at a panel discussion at a book release function at the British Council, Calcutta. The book was Shyam Benegal by Sangeeta Dutta. He fascinated the select audience with his amazing command over the socio-political-backdrop against which Shyam Benegal made the transition from the synthetic and technically sophisticated world of ad films to feature films with Ankur (1973), tracing Benegal’s evolution over time, till Zubeidaa (2001).

His reminiscences of his old friend Satyajit Ray were filled with deep reverence. “Ray was a multi-faceted personality but sadly, most of his greatness as a filmmaker outside West Bengal, his home state, has been based mainly on hearsay. He has been rightly described as a renaissance man. In his films, he composed or controlled all aspects of this normally collaborative medium so completely as to become an auteur (author) years before the French developed the concept and made the word fashionable. If he had not made films and had simply written for children, he would still have become famous. Ray represented a set of high moral values and a large world view, at once deeply Indian an universal, that has sustained the best of Indian tradition through a series of great men of Indian renaissance of the 19th and 20th centuries, of whom he was the last.”

Dasgupta also ventured into filmmaking, directing documentaries like Portrait Of A City (1961), The Dance Of Shiva (1968), The Suff of Steel (1969), Birju Maharaj (1972) and Zaroorat Ki Purti (1979), besides the feature films Bilet Pherat (1972) and Amodini (1994). The first, a documentary of 20 minutes length brings to the screen, the activities of a typical big city – Calcutta – full of factories, newspaper offices, racecourses and other interesting features. The last has daughter, Aparna Sen, and granddaughter, Konkana Sensharma, both acting in it and won the National Award for Best Bengali film of 1994, while wife Supriya Dasgupta won the National Award for Best Costume Design for the film as well.

With age, Dasgupta’s hair had become like cotton candy – flossy and white. So also his lately cultivated goatee. His smile was sweet and his voice, soft. It could be deceptive for some because he is an acutely sharp-witted man who defies age with intellect. Till recently, one could catch him between his trips across the globe to adjudicate at international film festivals. His painfully arthritic limbs would fail to keep his spirits down, and he would pack up for yet another trip to Uncle Sam country, where his eldest son-in-law Kalyan, teaches literature at the Morris College. But then, the mind would always focus back home in the relative peace and quiet of the Dasguptas’ Alipur Park Road apartment in Calcutta.

Chidananda Dasgupta passed away on May 23, 2011 in Calcutta.

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