Bengali Cinema: Tracing its Rich History from 1900s

Although most often than not the story of the film industry of India starts from Mumbai due to the shooting and production of Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra there in 1913, Calcutta did not fall behind too short in terms of having its own robust and functional film industry from the 1910s. Calcutta had a very vibrant culture of drama and theatre and therefore, some of the first movie screenings were held in theatre houses and were acted in by theatre personalities. The Bengali equivalent of Phalke in terms of pioneering movies in the state was Hiralal Sen who started the Royal Bioscope Company and was actively making short films in the 1900s. He was also one of the earliest directors of documentaries or what were then called ‘topicals’ on a variety of subjects which would seem mundane to the modern eye.

Hiralal Sen

The big boost in the roots of Bengali Cinema came with Jamshed Framji Madan  who transformed the industry with a combination of his business and creative acumen. Among his varied business interests was a hugely successful theatre company. Fascinated by cinema, he got film projectors from Pathe Film Company in 1902 and set up regular ‘bioscope’ screening at key point in the city. In time, Madan Theatres would grow into the largest production–distribution–exhibition empire in the Indian subcontinent. Beginning with Jyotish Sarkar’s coverage of the anti-partition demonstrations of 1905, he produced a number of ‘topicals’ which were shown as ‘added attraction’ to the main films he produced. In 1907, Madan built the Elphinstone Picture Palace in Calcutta, the first of the 37 halls they came to own in a decade.

Tollywood – as the Bengali film industry is commonly referred to has never had a static moment since its inception although it has had its set of set backs some so testing that it looks like a miracle today the industry survived the way it did. The biggest recognition bestowed upon Bengali cinema still remains the Oscar received by Satyajit Ray but it is equally important to see the era that he belonged from. Ray along with Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen formed the formidable triumvirate which has produced some of the best realist and art house cinema in this country. Although wildly different from each other in style, concept and handling of stories, perhaps the only common theme between them was the fact that they chose hard hitting themes to make their movies upon. While Ghatak’s films highlighted the plight of the refugees who were driven away from Bangladesh post the 1971 war and the state’s apathy towards them. Ray often dealt with the moral dilemmas faced by the middle to upper middle classes of the society. Mrinal Sen and later Tapan Sinha dealt with the fabric of the Bengali family and what affected it in the political and cultural scenario of the evolving Bengal.

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Satyajit Ray

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Ritwik Ghatak

With the passing away of the aforementioned stalwarts, the industry faced a glut once again and came to be characterised by slapstick comedies and exaggerated action flicks. Eventually, the art house film making Bengal was known for started dying away and along with it faded the number of people visiting the movie halls. The man credited with the turnaround of this situation is the Late Director Rituporno Ghosh who once again started dealing with contentious issues plaguing our society through his films like Chokher Bali, Unishe April and Memories in March. Along with him came up a young crop of directors like Srijit Mukherji, MainakBhaumik, Kaushik Ganguly and Arindam Sil who dealt with a wide array of issues in their films and brought back the finesse and the maturity Tollywood was known to display to the extent that multiple stars from various other film industries expressed their interest in working for the Bengali Film Industry. As of today, there exists multiple healthy streams of films in Tollywood. There is a heady dose of commercial flicks. In addition, directors like Anjan Dutt among the others aforementioned are producing a steady mix of thrillers and mystery dramas much to the delight of the cine goers of the state.

More than history, it is important to realise how deeply embedded films are to the Bengali culture. Films have historically been a mouthpiece for the artists to express their angst or appreciation towards the various societal structures that exist around us –  be it cultural or political. Nandan near Rabindra Sadan is the film centre of Kolkata with its primary aim lying in promoting cinematic awareness. A walk around its campus would reveal several enthusiastic film makers discussing the craft in great detail with great enthusiasm. Nandan and the Academy of Fine Arts provide a pedestal to new and upcoming directors to display their films and give them a ready and enthusiastic audience to dissect any art with great alacrity. In addition, Kolkata boasts of two premier centres for teaching cinema – the Mass Communications Department of St. Xaviers University and The Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. All this has led to a very healthy environment where films are discussed and made on a multitude of issues. Films even today are often used as a vehicle to express dissent or critique what goes on around us by young and old film makers alive. With the entry of well organised companies into production, Tollywood has also had a makeover in terms of the technology it uses to produce it films greatly improving the end product for the cine goers.

Bhobishyoter Bhoot: Actors, filmmakers take out rally to protest withdrawal of film from theatres
Bhobishyoter Bhoot : Protests for its release

Perhaps the only hiccup appears to be in terms of the latest controversy surrounding the release of a film by Anik Dutta titled BhobishyoterBhoot which was political satire. The movie was banned even before release by the State Government which promoted the makers of the film to seek relief in the Supreme Court of India. The makers obtained a favourable order which instructed the State Government to remove any ban that it had imposed on the film and in fact instructed the government to assist the peaceful release and screening of the film. However, the State Government did not give any serious consideration to the order of the highest court of India and multiplexes too were scared to screen the film as they were apprehensive of getting into the bad books of the State machinery. This was a disturbing development which ultimately led to the commercial failure of the film and sets a dangerous precedent for Tollywood. Never before have the cine goers or the directors been scared of viewing or making films on any issue facing our society – be it dowry, the violent crackdown on Communist uprisings or the state of women in Bengal. It would perhaps be the death knell of the industry if the producers of films have to follow invisible “guidelines” of the State Government while choosing the theme and thereafter producing the film. Nothing would constitute a more outright threat to the freedom of speech of the artists and perhaps nothing would leave a worse stain on the rich heritage of Bengali Films.