For long years, the rest of India and the Western world identified Bengali cinema with either the pain and poverty of Satyajit Ray’s pathbreaking Pather Panchall or with the strong political celluloid dramas of Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak. Not without reason too, given the themes that permeated films of that generation (even though it ignores the fact that most of Ray’s films did not deal with poverty). But with the changing socio-political situation of West Bengal, as also in the rest of India, by the 1990s the audience had begun to move away from topics of social discontent. Their concerns now had more to do with the onslaught of a consumerist society, and to represent this angst, a new brand of avante garde Bengali filmmakers zoomed into the scene.
The turning point may have come in 1994 with Unishe April. Bengali moviegoers, fed up with the diet of ‘intellectualese’ in the ‘art movies’, and weary of the shoddy tales in the ‘commercial’ ones, suddenly discovered in former adman Rituparno Ghosh a director capable of representing the society they lived in. Themes of feminism, male chauvinism, modernity and consumerism, all find play in his movies. Unishe April was breaking new ground in its exploration of the love-hate relationship between a celebrity single mother and her misunderstood daughter through events on the death anniversary of the girl’s father.
Ghosh did a repeat with his second offering, Dahan. Released in 1998, the film opens with a horrific molestation attempt on the beautiful wife of a junior city executive on the streets of Calcutta. While the ruffians beat up the husband senseless, the wife is rescued by another young woman, a school teacher, who is promptly made a ‘hero’ by the media. What looks like a tragedy averted, however, soon snowballs into a complex drama, causing upheavals in the conservative, middle and upper middle class families to which the two young women belong. As the film progresses, the masks of the progressive Bengali facade peel off, and, in what is the first depiction of marital rape in a Bengali film, the husband gives vent to his anger and frustration by raping his wife.
Rather than focusing on the perils of the jungle that is the modern city, Ghosh takes the battles of the sexes from the streets to the tranquil world of a traditional Bengali family. Dahan was a box office hit, and this despite the lack of staple ingredients of the regular potboiler. Both Unishe April and Dahan not only won national and international awards, but more importantly, the films marked the return to the theaters of the discerning audience who had stayed away from Bollywood imitations and other ludicrous excesses.
Ghosh came and conquered Bengal’ cinema of the 1990s, but there were others, like his mentor Aparna Sen who had been making films in a class of their own. Sen’s 1981 maiden venture, 36 Chowringhee Lane, dwells on the loneliness of an Anglo-Indian woman in a self-centred society, while her second film Paroma is about a housewife’s search for self-identity through an adulterous liaison, for which the director was much pilloried for ‘glorifying’ adultery. In her last film, Yugant, Sen used a conjugal partnership to look at the tension between the sexes in contemporary society and her yet-to-be-released Paromitar Ek Din, explores the traditional stress-ridden relationship between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, and depicts aunique empathy between the two women whose ties survive even after the daughter-in-law gets divorced.
Moving away from the routine theme of intellectualism, Sen and Ghosh have been projecting issues that concern the educated middle and upper middle class Bengali. In their movies, the women characters are never hyped-up feminists, but ordinary people with whom the audience can easily relate to. Yet, for all that, the recurring take-off point in these films tends mostly to be the strains that mar modern-day marriages. If the protagonist in Paromitar Ek Din leaves her first husband to marry a filmmaker, then Yugant calls for an end to the antagonism between men and women.
Perhaps the old master, Mrinal Sen, had anticipated the approaching change of mood much earlier, for his films made in the late 1980s are more introspective than his earlier ones, and echo the subjects the younger directors are now dealing with. Thus in 1988 he made Ek Din Achanak, in which a professor leaves his home one rainy evening never to return, leaving his family to dissect the idolised father’s failures. And Antareen (1992), so far the last film from the reclusive director, addresses the subject of a woman’s confinement and alienation in a desolate house.
There are others such as Goutam Ghose, whose oeuvre include films like Paar and Padma Nadir Majhi. But unlike Ghosh or Sen, Ghose’s beat is not relationship movies. Rather he revels in creating meaningful documentaries and adapting complex works of literature. One such is Padma Nadir Majhi, based on the ‘classic’ novel of the late Bengali writer Manik Bandopadhayay, which describes the struggle of boatmen against the elements as they ply the River Padma, that great expanse of water that flows through Bangladesh.
Possibly the most accomplished among contemporary Bengali directors who are probing the effects of blind consumerism, crumbling family bonds and receding innocence in modern lives, is Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Dasgupta’s films can be placed in the same genre as that of the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s, marked as they are by a non-narrative poetic style. His earlier films, such as Grihayuddha and Andhi Gali of the 1980s, were political in nature, but his works of this decade attempt to characterise man in a new version of reality. Perhaps there is no better testimony to Dasgupta’s skill than his internationally acclaimed Lai Darja (1997).
Based on his own poem, “For Hasan”, Lal Darja is a response to the sadness the director feels at the inevitable loss of innocence and freshness in modern life. Dasgupta’s protagonist is a successful Calcutta dentist whose dull life of middle-class respectability is suddenly shaken up by an impending collapse of his marriage as his wife decides to break out in search of a new life. As he struggles in his bewilderment, he notices the contrast he stands in with his driver, a happy-go-lucky polygamist. Ultimately he finds escape from bourgeois boredom through a journey of fantasy into the lost world of his innocent childhood. Delving deep into the problems of urban life dominated by relentless consumerism, Dasgupta tries to rescue a place for spiritualism in our lives.
The quest thus continues as contemporary Bengali directors adapt themselves to the changes in society and strive to ‘reelise’ modern life in all its complexities. It is a sign of the times that with the death of political idealism, and much too much political opportunism in public life, the audience perhaps love to watch the political circus on the small screen of their cable TV, leaving the theaters to the fine practitioners of celluloid art.