In first person: Soumitra Chatterjee

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Print edition : October 18, 2013

Soumitra Chatterjee.

Soumitra Chatterjee in Ray's "Ashani Sanket".

In "Apur Sansar", which was Chatterjee's debut film.

100 years of Indian Cinema

LIke everything, else cinema on the whole has gone through various kinds of change. The same applies for Indian cinema, especially after the transformation brought about by the great Bengali directors like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sina and others. Through their films, one can say, Indian cinema has matured into something that can be compared to world cinema. The beginning of Indian cinema took place primarily in Kolkata—the New Theatre studio and a few other centres—and in Mumbai, particularly the Bombay Talkies. At that time New Theatre used to make bilingual films, but somehow the Mumbai-made Hindi films took over, and the business aspect of commercial cinema was taken over by the Bombay film industry. This was primarily for its ability to reach, language-wise, to a large section of the north Indian public. But the south Indian audience never surrendered to Hindi films; they had their own films, their own stars who were extremely popular in their own regions.

You see, the big market that Bengali films used to enjoy was lost after Partition. Even after Bangladesh got liberated from Pakistani rule, it did not quite accept the Bengali films from this part as by that time they had their own industry and did not want to be submerged by Bengali films from India.

Up to a certain period Bengali films could resist the influence of Bombay, but ultimately it had to accept the dominance of Hindi films, mainly for commercial reasons. Bengali films were not being shown in so many theatres; most of the show-houses were playing Hindi films. The film-makers and producers thought it would be more convenient to imitate Hindi films, and this happened at the expense of originality. This was a major reversal of things because before this phenomenon it was the rest of India that used to borrow stories and ideas from Bengali films.

More than Hindi films, I should say Bengali directors started copying from films from the South. This happened in the 1970s, and was one huge change that took place since I came into the industry in the late 1950s.

With the demise of Satayjit Ray and all the great artistic directors—they never proclaimed themselves to be “artistic directors” but you could count on them to make films on a par with the artistic standards of world cinema—a vacuum was created. Subsequently, Bengali films became just copies of popular films from the south—the dance sequences, the fights, etc. The industry is now gradually getting out of that rut. Different kinds of stories on different aspects of life are being produced. This was bound to happen, as people were getting tired of the same sort of films.

Uttam and I were products of a time

Uttam Kumar (considered the biggest Bengali movie star ever) and I were products of a time—the films of those days were generally based on the rich heritage of Bengali literature. The actor had much to do in those films, particularly if he was talented and good looking and was accepted by the audience. With the death of Uttam Kumar in 1980, another great vacuum was created. There was no one as popular as Uttam Kumar and with so much of acting talent. This was the time that coincided with blind imitation of films from other regions. By copying other films, one can never have one’s own stars.

I did not become a film-maker for various reasons; primarily because for the kind of films I would like to make, it would be difficult to find financiers. In the beginning there was no National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). It was mostly private finance, but private finance always wanted to make run-of-the-mill films.

So, even if I wished to I could never make my kind of films. For me there was also my great attraction for the theatre, in which I was entrenched from a very early age. I worked with one of the greatest theatre personalities ever—Sisir Kumar Bhaduri. And so I wanted to make my own theatre, where I was also a bit successful. Because I could engage myself in theatre, I could avoid the corroding process of being in cinema for too long.

In my time I had to make my way when Uttam Kumar was in his absolute glory. It was very difficult, but no one else could do what I could. My name and Uttam Kumar’s name became almost like the two institutions in our State—Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (the rival football clubs). You can imagine there had been no such star who could match the popularity of Uttam Kumar until I came. Today, there is not one star however much he may publicise himself, who can compare with Uttam Kumar—his grace, his acting ability—not one. The current generation of actors, being brought up on the films that were copies from other States, have learnt to dance well and to fight well, but they have not learnt to emote well. This is a big difference.

The future is not too bad

But I don’t think the future is too bad. In the last few years Bengali cinema has once again started depending on the variety and richness of stories from Bengali literature—which was always the main attraction of Bengali films. So they will break out of this imitative formula. Bengali film-makers must realise one thing, that moneywise they cannot compete with Bollywood or the south Indian industry, so they have to get back to those days when Bengali films were chiefly liked for their stories.

You know one big advantage in today’s cinema—and I am talking about films that are being made in Mumbai—is that there are still good actors coming up. Among the seniors there is Naseer [Naseeruddin Shah], one of the best that you have; there is Aamir Khan, and umpteen number of character actors like Manoj Bajpai, and so many others.

But that is not happening here [in Bengal], because people from all over India converge in Mumbai and there is a lot of competition and a lot of possibility of discovering new talents there. You may not have great actors like Dilip Kumar or Balraj Sahani, but you have at least a formidable star like Amitabh Bachchan or a great actor like Naseer.

The scene is not bleak from the point of view of actors, but what is rather sad about Mumbai films is that no more alternative films are being made, like Shyam Benegal’s. Such films are now missing from the scene. And for the Indian diaspora there are these entertaining Hindi films finding a market everywhere. While that is good in that it is providing entertainment to Indian audience living abroad, these films shy away from competition with world-class cinema. They are keeping themselves confined in this box-office entertainment formula.

As told to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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