Tarun Majumdar was one among a handful of filmmakers in Bengali cinema, who consistently gave his audience films that were extremely popular box-office hits on the one hand, and won critical acclaim on the other. He is also responsible for introducing some of the best talents in Bengali cinema and has drawn wonderful performances out of actors whose versatility had remained largely unexplored in other films. Music has played a meaningful role in all his films. An integral part of this music has been songs created and set to music by none other than Rabindranath Tagore. He had one of the best ears in music because every single film of his had wonderful songs, delivery-wise, situation-wise, melody-wise and choice-wise.
Majumdar was born on January 8, 1931, in Bogura, now in Bangladesh. His father, Birendranath Majumdar, was a freedom fighter while his father’s elder brother, Hemchandra Majumdar, was killed in custody in prison during the British rule. Having the freedom to choose his career removed any inner turmoils Tarun Babu might have suffered for choosing to make films though his family was neither affluent nor had any filmy connections. Making Calcutta, now Kolkata, his home when he graduated from Scottish Church College, Majumdar got introduced to world cinema at an International Film Festival held in the city. He was mesmerised with the neo-realist films of Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, whose films represented a devastated Europe during World War II. What particularly touched him was the terrible condition of the ordinary people there. “I found a strange oneness, a harmony with those victims of the War II. I began to believe that a good film can change a man to become ‘good’ inside and the impact of cinema to communicate with the common man was profound. This pushed me to make films and focus on ordinary people with extraordinary characteristics – good and bad,” he said.
All Majumdar had as his ‘training ground’ were the memories of having lived and grown in a mofussil town and gleaning from all the literature he had read. He also was an avid watcher of Indian films whether it was PC Barua, Nitin Bose or Debaki Bose from Bengali cinema, or whether it happened to be Bimal Roy and V. Shantaram from the world of Hindi films. He also got close to the creative people, who revolutionised music and song through the people’s theatre movement, like Jyotirindra Maitra, Salil Chowdhury, Hemanga Biswas, Suchitra Mitra and Debabrata Biswas. “But the biggest turning point in my life was when Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) was released,” he would reminisce. “While good Indian cinema was lifting our films up the ladder, step by small step, Pather Panchali reached our cinema right to the top.”
“Some friends of mine and I went to watch the film (Pather Panchali) at the hight show. We saw the magic of cinema unroll in front of our eyes. But we also concluded that the film would not run in the theatres at all and we felt we had to do something about it. We sat down and painted some posters on white sheets of paper saying ‘See Pather Panchali, it is our duty to see Pather Panchali.’ We took these posters and went on a march the next morning. As we walked along the streets, silently, the small group began to grow till it turned into a procession of about 150 people,” reminisces Tarun-da. Much later, Ray’s comment on his film Sansar Seemanthey (1975), calling it an extremely good film, is something he cherished forever.
The soft-spoken, quintessential Bengali ‘bhadralok‘ director debuted with Chaowa Paowa (1959) under the ‘Yatrik’ group formed with two other directors, Sachin Mukherjee and Dilip Mukherjee. Chaowa-Paowa was the first of four films made by Patrick and starred Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. The film was a remake of the Hollywood screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), directed by Frank Capra and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Capra’s masterpiece had already been adapted in its entirety in the Hindi film, Chori Chori (1956), starring Nargis and Raj Kapoor and was also the basis for Raj Khosla’s one night story, Solva Saal (1958), starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman.
Yatrik then made Smriti Tuku Thak (1960) with Suchitra Sen in a double role of twins separated at birth, which was also very well received. By now, Majumdar had made up his mind not to bank on superstars like Sen and Kumar though he always acknowledged how much these top notch actors had helped him, especially Uttam Kumar. He went on to make Kancher Swarga (1962), featuring one of the Yatrik members, Dilip Mukherjee, in the leading role. The film was the touching story of a doctor forced to fake his degree, which he did not have due to a past mistake, for a new job. Palatak (1963) saw Anup Kumar, slotted till then as a comedian in Bengali cinema, excel in the role of a wandering vagabond even though he was the younger brother of a very rich landlord. The film saw Majumdar revoke some folk music and songs for the film including Kobigan, which means a slanging match through song and music between two good singers and their instrumentalists. Composer Hemanta Mukherjee, under his banner of Gitanjali Films, remade Palatak in Hindi as Rahgir (1969) with Majumdar again directing but sadly, the film was a flop.
After Palatak (1963), Majumdar decided to move away from Yatrik and go independent. This resulted in two films in 1965 – Alor Pipasha and Ek Tuku Basha featuring Soumitra Chatterjee and Sandhya Roy in the lead roles. 1967, saw the release of his all-time hit Balika Badhu, which saw the debut of a 14-year-old Moushumi Chatterjee as a child bride. Majumdar would later helm the Hindi remake as well in 1976 for fellow filmmaker Shakti Samanta’s production company, Shakti Films. The Hindi adaptation saw Rajni Sharma take on Moushumi Chatterjee’s role opposite Sachin. It is remembered even today for the hugely popular song, Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, composed by RD Burman and sung by Amit Kumar Ganguly, an early hit song for the singer.
After the disappointing show of Rahgir, Majumdar returned to a golden and prolific period of filmmaking that lasted well into the 1980s. He made some of his best films in the decade of the ’70s as he successfully satisfied both the classes and the masses. He had married actress Sandhya Roy in 1967 and gave her some of her most memorable roles in his films. Nimantran (1971), a moving love story, sees her as a village belle, who falls in love with a young man from Calcutta, played by Anup Kumar, only to be separated from him. The two meet years later and though married to different people, find their feelings for each other rekindling… Kuheli (1971), a suspense thriller, sees her play the the ghost-wife of a zamindar who haunts the mansion and tries to mesmerize the daughter. In Thagini (1974), Roy played a young girl trapped in her father’s fraudulent manner of trapping young men to marry his daughter and then running away on the wedding night with all their money. Trouble brews when she falls in love with the man she marries the last time. In Sansar Seemantey, she portrayed a cheap prostitute living in a red-light area in Kolkata. She also played a prostitute in Ganadevata (1978), perhaps the best exposition of Tarun Majumdar’s métier as a filmmaker – creating films that are strong on drama and characterization and balancing the demands of commerce and a strong politically charged social significance. The film, based on a famous novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay, entertains and holds the attention of the audience with its dramatic story-line and competency in all departments of the medium of cinema.
If one observes closely, Majumdar drew out less-than-average people and chose their stories over affluent and powerful and beautiful men and women to perform in his films. If the hero in Kancher Swarga was a fake doctor who owned up to his faking his medical qualifications risking a prison sentence, Kedar in Dadar Kirti (1980), which introduced Tapas Pal, is a bumbling, naïve, young man who takes every joke poked at him as if that is what he deserves and does all manual chores when he is not supposed to do them. Aghor in Sansar Seemanthey is a thief, who falls in love with a sex worker, and one must see this film to watch Soumitra Chatterjee in a completely out-of-the-box film, which he cherished as one of his best.
After reducing his workload in the 1990s and taking a break from the world of feature films following Aranyer Adhikar (1997), Majumdar made a successful comeback with Alo (2003), starring Rituparna Sengupta in the title role. The film, based on a story by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, was like a whiff of fresh air in the paradoxical ambience of Bengali films at the time. Sengupta gives a radiant performance in the film as a woman, who visits her husband’s ancestral village following her marriage and influences the backward, poverty-stricken villagers to better their lives. Some of the later films that Majumdar directed include Chander Bari (2007) and Bhalobashar Bari (2018).
Majumdar’s work has received its share of accolades at both the state and national levels. His films have been awarded multiple National Awards and have won several Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) awards as well. Nimantran won the National Award for Best Bengali Film and Best Male Playback for Hemanta Mukherjee while Ganadevata won the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment. Majumdar himself won the BFJA Award for Best Director for Nimantran and Sansar Seemanthey while Sandhya Roy was declared BFJA’s Best Actress for both films. Earlier Moushumi Chatterjee, too, had won the BFJA Award for Best Actress for Balika Badhu while Rum Guha Thakurata won Best Supporting Actress for Palatak. The BFJA also awarded Anup Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee Best Actor Awards for Palatak and Sansar Seemanthey respectively. Hemanta Mukherjee, among other films, won the Best Music Director for Palatak and Phuleswari (1974), the latter for Best Male Playback as well.
With his phenomenal cinematic career, one would think that Majumdar is an institution Bengali cinema could never ignore. But ignore it did. Film societies spread across the state never thought of paying a proper tribute to him when he was alive. No critic or film scholar has ventured to write a book on him or on his films and this is one of the intriguing questions that dog the film industry, who shower accolades and nostalgic slices of anecdotes only after the said person is no longer around to witness it. Not that this would have changed Majumdar’s unassuming approach to life, people and cinema in any way. A mini retrospective of his films was finally organized by Cine Central, Kolkata as late as in 2015 to give audiences a taste of not only Tarun Majumdar’s cinematic works, but also an impression of how the popular idiom of Bengali cinema had changed over the years.
Tarun Majumdar passed away in a nursing home in Kolkata on Monday, the 4th of July. Before his demise, he had left instructions for his family to donate his body for medical research. He also stated that he did not wish for any state tribute paid to him, or fans covering his body with floral tributes, or even a gun salute that has become a regular practice in this part of the country. All he requested for was his body to be covered with the famous red flag of the Communist Party of India and a copy of the Gitanjali placed beside him. His family lived out every request of this great man, the greatness clouded over by his inherent humility, total accessibility and soft-spoken nature.