Bengali

RICH TRADITION

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Satyajit Ray (right) and Mrinal Sen in 1991. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Ritwik Ghatak. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

From "Pather Panchali", directed by Satyajit Ray. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

From "Subarnarekha", one of Ritwik Ghatak's masterpieces.

From "Meghe Dhaka Tara" by Ritwik Ghatak.

Uttam Kumar, an icon of Bengali cinema for an entire generation of cinema-goers, seen here in "Sathihara" (1961). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Bengal happened to produce a highly successful set of popular conventions, most importantly a form of bourgeois melodrama that became commonly identified with the stars Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. This cinema embodied an affective response to post-colonial modernisation, sometimes touching deeply on the formation of the new citizen in a vernacular context.
100 years of Indian Cinema

Indians did not take any time to take to the new invention of the cinema, adopting it around exactly the same time as the rest of the world. Photography, some 50 years earlier, had also found instant acceptance here upon its invention. The industrial machines of the visible do not bear out typical assumptions about the East-West cultural divide. They arrived not only as technologies but also as forms of picturing the world. The way they frame reality, create illusion and introduce rational modes of representation indicates modes of perception embedded in the technology. Bridging the so-called civilisational divide was never a problem for these fundamentally modern devices, and cinema was internalised as a global form in India in synchrony with the rest of the world.

Calcutta (now Kolkata) probably witnessed its first public screening of films in January 1897, six months after the Lumiere Brothers emissary Maurice Sestier showed the new “wonder of the world” at the Watson Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai). Contesting claims exist about the exact date and the people involved, but some typical signs are evident in all accounts of the first screenings. The January 1897 show, for instance, was held in Minerva Theatre, almost certainly by a travelling showman, with the Animatograph machine. When Minerva resumed the show in September, it announced the name of the exhibitor, Mr Sullivan, and this time the pictures were shown along with plays and episodes of live performance.

This was the common context—theatre houses incorporating the moving picture in a variety menu, often by inviting the itinerant showman to add the novel item of moving pictures. These were meant to win back, according to some commentators, audiences who were turning away from the stage. These showmen would be touring the whole imperial region in the East—Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India—with motley troupes and second-hand film packages. The machines they brought were mostly of British, French, American and German make. “Cinematographe” being the pioneering Lumiere invention, the name gained wide currency everywhere, including Bombay and Calcutta. The generic name for cinema, “Bioscope”, lodged in the Bengali vocabulary for many years to come, seems to have come from the apparatus used by J.J. Stevenson to show films at the prestigious Star Theatre in October 1898. The bill at Star announced the show to be presented following the regular drama schedule, along with a “rainbow” and “serpentine” dance by Miss Nelly Mountcastle. The Bioscope would feature, it also said, the death of Nelson, Diamond Jubilee processions and the funeral of Gladstone, the British Prime Minister.

Exhibitors as pioneers

When Hiralal Sen, the Bengali pioneer, started in the new medium—by first borrowing projection equipment and stock scenes from the Pathe Freres office in Calcutta, and then importing projection equipment from London—he was primarily an exhibitor, the role that most pioneers played. All film-makers were producers, directors, cinemtographers and exhibitors to begin with, without a clear distinction of roles. According to most accounts, Sen held house shows for the nobility from 1898, a practice that continued in the silent era alongside theatrical screenings and tent and travelling shows.

His cousin, the literary historian Dineshchandra Sen, has written about Sen’s early interest in the magic lantern and his accomplishment in still photography. His photographic shop was formally rechristened “Royal Bioscope Company” in 1902, and he seems to have started including his own films in his shows in the following year. To a great extent, exhibition contexts determined the dynamics of film production. Hiralal shot scenes from the plays at Classic Theatre before showing them there. One of these, Alibaba, is reported to be a full-length reproduction of the sensational stage musical. Celebrations at rich households were filmed for showings held in such places. He also made the earliest known instances of advertisement films for Batakrishna Pal’s malaria pills and C.K. Sen’s legendary “Jabakusum” hair oil. Royal Bioscope’s documentary work involved gatherings opposing the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the Delhi Durbar in 1911, soon after which the company fell into crisis.

Hiralal had peers who, along with him, can be seen as the artisan group that film production everywhere started with. Shortly before his death in 1917, Hiralal witnessed from his bed his whole life’s work go up in flames in his brother Matilal’s storeroom located a few blocks away. The inflammable nitrate film stock has led to many such tragic episodes in film history, but a more cinematic end could not have been visualised for the era Hiralal belonged to.

Age of industrial production

The Madans, the movie moghuls of the silent era, released their first feature film, Satyabadi Raja Harishchandra, in the same year, inaugurating the age of industrial production. Building up their wealth from wine and provisions supplies to the army, the Madans ran a touring company of Parsi theatre. They started holding tent shows of films in 1902 and eventually built the first cinema hall, Elphinstone Picture Palace (later named Minerva, and then Chaplin), in 1907. They set up the first studio for regular production of feature films (in 1919, later named Indrapuri Studio), bought up rights for adaptation (for example, the entire Bankimchandra Chatterjee), built a chain of theatres (numbering 126 in 1931), and retained import rights for foreign films, practically edging out short-film producers and marginalising competing feature-film-making companies of the 1920s such as Aurora, Indo-British Film Company and Tajmahal Film Company. The new professionals who joined Madan Theatres Limited, however, had the peculiar mix of experience and training characteristic of early film careers. Their ace cameraman, Jyotish Sarkar, for example, had toured South-East Asia with the Great Bengal Circus of the Bose brothers learning film craft as part of the circus repertoire. Aga Hashr Kashmiri and Betab, Parsi theatre playwrights, continued to write scripts, and actors like Hormushji Tantra from Corinthian Theatre joined the group of actors.

The depositions before the Indian Cinematograph Committee, whose report of 1928 remains the greatest archival source for silent Indian cinema, reveal the bitter business rivalry between the Bengali producers and the Madans. In the nascent film journalism of the 1920s, it took on the dimensions of a Bengali nationalism of sorts. Accusations were rife against the Madans for bringing a mindlessly exotic and imitative brand of spectacle to the screen that had little to do with Bengali sensibilities. Interestingly, similar complaints would be heard long after the Madan empire crumbled under its own weight of infrastructure in the early years of the talkies, and right into the days when Satyajit Ray and his colleagues in the Calcutta Film Society were taking on the entrenched conventions of the Tollygunge industry. What was primarily seen missing was a truck with the modes of social evocation established in literary fiction.

The critic Sourindramohan Mukherjee, for instance, writes in 1923 that the Madans “do not have a sense of the Bengali mind”, they “stage Bengali social plays imitating foreign drama”. Premankur Atorthy, one of the earliest literary authors to join films and work in Kohlapur, Pune and Bombay, writes in his memoirs in 1950 that the Madans used to insert scenes of sunrise and sunset clipped from foreign films in their productions without any rhyme or reason. “Think of a strange Dhruva, sitting in a strange forest, engaged in a strange meditation,” he writes. “All of a sudden you see a sunset insert. Loud cheers and whistles would come from the audience.” To the historian of Bengali cinema, working with barely four or five reels that survive from the entire output until 1932, these remarks are of more than passing interest. It seems a logic of the spectacle, where sequential flow is not fully worked out in terms of “continuity”-based story-telling, and interruptions of frontal presentations, often conceived in tableaux, had a strong presence in these films. Film scholars have identified these as signs of the pre-institutional mode of representation.

When B.N. Sircar’s New Theatres produced its first sound film ( Dena Paona,released soon after Madan’s Bengali talkie debut Jamai Sasthi) in 1931, Premankur Atorthy was to direct it. Sircar, the pre-eminent architect of the studio system in Calcutta, hired a number of literary practitioners to explore the opportunity offered by sound for building a cinematic culture in consonance with contemporary urban forms. A natural way of grounding the speaking film in the regional soil seemed to lie through its literature, the most important vehicle as yet for envisaging modernity and forging a new collective identity for the language in question. The films that survive from the first sound era, mostly from New Theatres and Bharatlaxmi Pictures, however, reveal a range of practices more heterogeneous than the typical “social” film where this particular exploration of identity was taking place. The big studios made films in several versions throughout the 1930s and 1940s as they commanded a market that extended down to Madras (now Chennai) and across north to Lahore. Multiple versions of the Bengali releases were made in Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and sometimes even in Telugu and Punjabi, often with a rearrangement of the cast. Tamil talkies until 1937 were primarily made in Calcutta, with entire drama troupes from Madras camping in the studios of East India Film Company and Pioneer Films. “Mythologicals” and costume dramas inspired by Parsi theatre were produced in substantial numbers. Entrepreneurs, technicians and actors continued to travel along trans-regional networks, as did themes and conventions.

It was symptomatic for New Theatres to launch the talkies with a Saratchandra Chatterjee adaptation. Saratchandra exemplified both a specifically Bengali perception of social change in the early 20th century and a model of domestic melodrama that the whole of India could identify with. Commentators who find him to be a vehicle for devising a Bengali “bhadralok” cinema should consider his immense popularity in every region, many of which, to this day, know him as a local author. His fiction has been adapted in all major languages for films from early on, especially, Devdas, with the first sound version of which P.C. Barua became a household name in India.

Barua, the prince of Gauripur, was trying out intricate camera movements and expressionist lighting he learnt from his apprenticeship in London to bring a powerful romantic individualism to the “social”, creating a yardstick for the genre. The other highly successful genre of the studio era, the “devotional”, exploited the continuing presence of Bhakti traditions of music and literature in modern collective practices. Chandidas (1932) was the first landmark from Calcutta in that genre, and Debaki Bose, its director, became its most prominent practitioner. The ecstasy Bose created was quite different from the tragic evocativeness of Barua’s films, and that they developed parallel to each other should tell us something about the peculiar historicity of the cinematic encounter with the contemporary.

That encounter had yet another dimension, though. A trend of social realism, critical treatment of social disparity, even political conflict, became visible in the early 1940s, synchronising with a similar trend in Bombay. The radical arts movement, starting with the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936 and culminating in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1943, had some role to play in this development. Bimal Roy’s Udayer Pathe (1944) is the most remembered instance in this regard, but other examples exist, some predating Roy. One had to wait until the dissolution of the studio system in the wake of the Second World War for this tendency to gain ground. In a way, the arrival of the new realists, especially, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in the middle of the 1950s, brought this generic development to a threshold.

Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) happened to come in the year New Theatres produced its last film. Pather Panchali was an aesthetic triumph that certainly signified a break with the past of Indian cinema, not only for its unadorned, sophisticated realism but for elevating the observation of everyday life, including space and duration, to an autonomous function freed from the rule of the dramatic plot. One must remember, however, the almost instant success of the film among the public and critics. A look at the popular press response on its release would reveal an anticipation, a striving, for a certain cinematic ideal that the film fulfilled. One should also remember in this context the great enthusiasm with which the press, film-makers and the new cinephiles had greeted the neorealist Italian films featured in the first International Film Festival of India in 1952.

Ray worked in close conversation with Bengali literature in his first phase, producing many remarkable adaptations besides the celebrated Apu Trilogy, and also tried his hand at genres of all kind—comedy, thriller and children’s fantasy. His work is commonly known for its humanism and lyrical evocation, but a more complex picture emerges as we think of the fragmentary, elliptic and sometimes allegorical style he developed later as a response to the political turmoil of the 1970s (in the Calcutta Trilogy, for instance). The curious aspect of this emblematic figure of Indian “art cinema” is his frequent popular success, which, he maintained, was important for every film-maker.

Popularity remained elusive for his great contemporary, Ghatak, although he tried consciously to work through the structure of popular melodrama from his third film, Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960). His debut, Nagarik (1953), the second independent left-wing initiative after Nimai Ghosh’s Chhinnamul (1951), saw the light of day only after his death. The masterful realism of Ajantrik (1958) showed a complex investigation of the relationship between community, subjectivity and landscape that sought to question the premise of psychologically centred humanism. The turn to melodrama in his Partition films in the 1960s proved baffling to his contemporaries, who found it difficult to put him comfortably within the bounds of the rationalism they expected from socially committed cinema. Ghatak created immensely powerful narratives of collective suffering and reflected on the difficult emergence of a post-Independence subjectivity, setting himself apart from all his fellow travellers in the new Indian cinema. Mrinal Sen, his comrade from the radical arts movement, embodied on the other hand the New Wave turn of that cinema. Starting with Bhuvan Shome (1969), Sen introduced the Brechtian Nouvelle Vague effects with a more directly political style of film-making.

Cinematic institutions cannot flourish without a vibrant popular practice. Bengal happened to produce a highly successful set of popular conventions, most importantly a form of bourgeois melodrama that became commonly identified with the stars Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. This cinema embodied an affective response to post-colonial modernisation, sometimes touching deeply on the formation of the new citizen in a vernacular context. From the late 1970s, the realist cinema as well as this modern popular project fell into a profound crisis. Popular cinema has since been through phases of cheap kitsch and imitations of Tamil and Telugu commercial films. The new middle-class cinema of the post-economic reform period, on the other hand, has developed a thoroughly apolitical character. Realism continues to be a yardstick for the latter, but curiously, it is now a realism committed to the details of the new urban interior and spaces of consumption opening up for gated communities. The signs are clear: it is the television screen that now stands as the spectral mediator for self-reflections of a class. It seems not only to be using those chamber reflections for closing off larger dimensions of reality, it also betrays a happy ignorance of things happening in the cinema outside.

Moinak Biswas is Head of the Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He writes on Indian film and culture and has recently written the script for and co-directed the award-winning Bengali feature film Sthaniya Sambad (2010).

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