Friday, June 22, 2012

The Year of The Bengal

Last year on a random Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of watching a pirated copy of Memories in March, originally released in 2010. The movie exudes sheer power striking you like a piece of bullet and leaving you enthralled for the longest time, quiet subtly though. Director Sanjoy Nag lends a rare effect and an indelible impact on the viewer, engrossing him in the drama perennially. The lesser known fact is that Memories in March went on to win the National Award for Best Feature Film in English that year. 

I write reviews for almost all the Hindi films that are released every week. Over the past few years of evolution of Indian cinema to find its own niche, we have constantly been served half baked to crass products that have devolved the meaning of entertainment into something that no cine-lover can relate to. However, we have been blessed to have some crafty movies every year that renege these trends and formidably carry forward the flag of change, making some money at the Box Office too.

This year, 2012, has already sprung a few welcome surprises despite the trite state of enshrined cinema. Personally, the three most well made pieces of cinema this year have been Kahaani, Vicky Donor and Shanghai, in no particular order. If you havent already noticed it, allow me to break it to you. All the three films mentioned above had Bengali directors at the helm of things. Yes, it is the year of Bengalis truly. Its almost seems that these Bengali directors secretly joined hands to set the tone of mainstream films. Even Kolkata Knight Riders rose from ashes and are now recognized with their historic win of the IPL 5 rather than being a team that has constantly provided fodder to the macaws and mynas of sensationalist media. In politics, Mamata Banerjee is in the news everyday for all kind of reasons, including calling college students Maoists. Prophetically, there may be many other parallel stories that adhere to the synchronicity of my assumption, but I am happy to conclude that I can call this the year of the Bengal. However, being terribly amateurish in my knowledge of the other domains, I would restrict my discussion to cinema.

In 2012, Sujoy Ghosh goaded with an inherent desire to go back to his roots worked with a completely new crew to deliver some gut busting cinema and erase all the crap collected by his past ventures with Kahaani exhibiting the power of a bound script, effective leitmotifs, marvelously sketched characters and formidable execution. A one-film old Shoojit Sircar, dealt with sperm donation in Vicky Donor, a rampant taboo in India and reinvents himself to deliver a soulful laugh riot. He handled Vicky Donor with a rare sense of humor that runs perennially through its veins, yet it does not let the issue become a matter of jest. And more recently, we had Shanghai, directed by Dibakar Banerjee, who is condescendingly posit amongst the top 5 feature film directors of India. Dibakar's vision as a director is alarmingly remarkable being laconic in his treatment of words but gracious with his visuals.providing the little touches of detailing that take Shanghai to an all together different level of awesomeness. 

But one does wonder, if this is all a coincidence that the warped evolution of Indian cinema has an organic contribution from Bengal? Bengali cinema has been promiscuously latent in the popular mainstream scene, keeping it limited to some Rituparno Ghosh movies recently. Lesser people have known the filmmaking prowess that thrives in the grassroots of Bengal, unless otherwise exposed to the world. But some of our best filmmakers have been nurtured in this very state. Hiralal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and now Rituparno Ghosh - all these names strike a chord but the talent here is bespoke for much more recognition than it has attained in the recent times. Satyajit Ray received 32 National Awards, and we are yet to find someone who can match up to him. Hrishikesh Mukherjee pioneered the art of simplistic storytelling and is graciously aped by directors and filmmakers even today while they masquerade their way to re-bottle his style as their own.

From the silent era to the talkies, these stalwarts led the way giving way to revered actors and performers over the years and making a mark for India on the global landscape early on. Its imperative as well as futile to lay out the efforts of these filmmakers and actors in chartering the trajectory of parallel Indian cinema because this very distinctiveness trickled down into obscurity and turmoil in the 1980s and 90s until Rituparno Ghosh came to revive it. Bengal has given us a gamut of tremendous technicians and artists over the years but their cinema is still struggling for the past couple of decades to find mainstream space, seemingly content with their niche in their own region. However, films with crotch cams, boob cams and disturbing action make it to the theater everyday. Rituparno Ghosh may have won 10 National Awards, but the more pertinent question would be that what percentage of Indian movie going audience is actually aware of his oeuvre?

I do wish to elucidate that success of Bengali filmmakers should just not be mis-attributed to just these films as more than a handful of directors have given us many gems over the years, albeit sporadically. Its only this year that I observe this hegemony more spirited. Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta, Ayan Mukerji's Wake Up Sid, Aparna Sen's Mr and Mrs Iyer are some other examples of deft ventures led by Bengali directors in mainstream cinema in the recent years. Indpendent film-making has always found shelter in Bengal giving birth to scores of other films and directors which never see the limelight. My persistence for more exposure on the mainstream platform stems from the school of thought that the due appreciation and support is attained when more and more people actually watch those films as they come out breaking the barriers that clip them within the region.

Two elements which has been common to most of the outings of Bengali cinema is their cerebral content and innovation. Bengal has been traditionally known to intone the melting pot of cultures where most people grow up involving themselves in an environment bespoke with opportunities to do more than just academics. Be it stage arts, theater, music or technical skills, they grow up with a lot of creative inspirations around them. The conglomerate of varied influences over the years has shaped up these artists and it could be projected to their bourgeois participation in Indian cinema. In my recent visit to the region, I did witness a couple of things that validate my argument. People of Bengal, otherwise deemed as mostly laid back, voraciously pursue their dreams, much more than an average Indian does. With the numerous chai sessions and long discussions they engage themselves in, there is a constant effort and an inherent undercurrent to further their creativity in one of the arts , at least in most of the younger generation people that I met. The tremendous social influence and spirited interests end up in films, media or music industry more often than not.Despite the riveting potential, one can only help but notice that the collective collections fetched by Kahaani, Vicky Donor and Shanghai at the Box Office would fall short of the recently released Rowdy Rathore, or many other films of the same cadre. The relinquishing nature of the Box Office run or the awareness of possibly better regional films is a problem that pervades not only in Bengal but across the country. Regional cinema direly needs an organized framework of production, distribution and appreciation.

According to a recent study by Business Standard, "70 Bengali movies are released every year and are produced with a budget of Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 1.5 crore per movie in 2008. India's big house Reliance Big Entertainment and Home Entertainment announced the most expensive Bengali movie will be made with a budget of Rs 3 crore, while other regional movies like the ones in Tamil and Telugu will have a budget of Rs 40 crore as on 2008. This explicitly lays out the reason behind the need for a special focus on Bengali cinema to consolidate its talent. During the 1980s and 90s the number of theaters showing Bengali movies had dropped to almost 40%, which has now been resurrected to almost 80%. Like the foray of Reliance Entertainment into Bengal, we need better support from bigger production houses and corporates to cultivate this growth. Eventually, we can aspire to regurgitate the lost elitism of cinema in this region. Regional cinema can definitively alter the landscape of Indian cinema for the better, if it is allowed to do so. This could be the year of Bengal in mainstream cinema, but it would be overwhelming to have a year with successful stories from many regions standing up to their Bombay counterparts. Our fingers are already crossed!

Originally published at the online journal Long Live Cinema here

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