The name Sushil Majumdar will not ring a bell for most filmgoers of the present generation. In fact, apart from academics and a handful of cinema connoisseurs and scholars, few people remember this doyen of Indian cinema. Yet, for more than four decades, Majumdar played a key role in shaping the course of popular cinema, consistently producing hit movies right from the early days of Indian talkies. He was the creator of such iconic hits as Muktisnan (1937), Rikta (1939), Abhayer Biye (1942), Jogajog (1943), Begum (1945), Char Ankhen (1946), Digbhranta (1950), Ratrir Tapasya (1952), Bhangagara (1954), Daner Marjada (1956), Hospital (1960), Lal Pathore (Bengali, 1964), Shuk Sari (1969), and Lal Patthar (Hindi, 1971).
Over the last 30 years, Majumdar has quietly faded from public memory. Now, for the first time, a book exhaustively cataloging his filmography has been published. Titled Action: Sushil Majumdar, it is compiled and edited by Majumdar’s grandson, Sanjay Mishra, who is also producing a documentary film on his life and work. The book and the film will, hopefully, revive interest in this stalwart who made successful films in both Bengali and Hindi.
A book for cinema lovers
The book is a unique professional biography enriched with vibrant visual representation. It charts the course of Majumdar’s filmmaking and acting career through rare posters, booklets, never-before-seen pictures of Majumdar on and off the sets, and advertisements announcing the release of his films. Sanjay Mishra feels that his grandfather was not given due recognition by either the present State government or the previous one. “The book is not just a tribute to a man I loved very much but also a work that will serve the academic purpose of acquainting the present and coming generations with the works of Sushil Majumdar. There is hardly any information on a man who directed so many iconic hits in five different decades and acted in so many films right until the mid 1980s,” he told Frontline.
The importance of the book lies in the fact that it traverses the largely unexplored area of popular mainstream Bengali films. According to Madhuja Mukherjee, filmmaker and professor of film studies, Jadavpur University, Sushil Majumdar was a “pillar” of mainstream Bengali cinema and no study of popular cinema can be complete without taking his work into account. Mukherjee said: “Mostly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ films are judged through the lens of studying art cinema. To study Sushil Majumdar’s work is also in a way to shift the academic focus to directors whose work constitutes the idea of popular Bengali cinema.... These films have mostly remained outside the ambit of serious research; so any new research or book on someone like Sushil Majumdar will help in understanding the mainstream and the idea of popular Bengali cinema better.”
“To study Sushil Majumdar’s work is also in a way to shift the academic focus to directors whose work constitutes the idea of popular Bengali cinema.... These films have mostly remained outside the ambit of serious research; so any new research or book on someone like Sushil Majumdar will help in understanding the mainstream and the idea of popular Bengali cinema better.” ”Madhuja MukherjeeFilmmaker and professor of film studies, Jadavpur University
The book showcases what the cinema industry was like in the early days of talkies and how it later began to change. Mishra said: “This generation has no idea about the concept of film booklets or release posters that used to be so common 40 years ago; nor do people come across hand-painted movie posters in this digital age. I wanted these things preserved for posterity. It is a book for cinema lovers—both old and new.”
A life through changing times
The Doyen’s Journey through Time, the documentary, is scheduled for release in November. Speaking to Frontline, Indranil Sarkar, who is directing the documentary, said: “The fact is that my generation does not know who Sushil Majumdar was, though people have no doubt heard of his films such as Lal Patthar, Char Ankhen and Hospital. Yet he was, along with Pramathesh Barua and Debaki Bose, a pioneer of Bengali talkies.”
The documentary traces Majumdar’s work as a filmmaker and actor from the 1930s until the mid 1980s. “It examines his work in reference to the changing times: from pre-Independence to his last screen appearance [Jibon] in 1986. Alongside his work, there is a parallel narrative bringing out the changing phases of Indian history,” said Sarkar.
Through anecdotes and recollections of family members and the artistes and technicians who worked with Majumdar, the documentary throws light not just on his contribution to cinema but also on the person he was. Mishra said: “My grandfather was a disciplinarian on the sets. His commitment to cinema was absolute. But he was also the darling of the technicians and the staff, who practically worshipped him because he worked tirelessly for them in his capacity as president of the Technicians’ Federation.”
Coming up the hard way
Born on December 22, 1905, in Comilla (now in Bangladesh), Sushil Majumdar came from a wealthy and illustrious family. His father, Basanta Kumar Majumdar, was a first-rank revolutionary leader in Bengal. His mother, Hemaprova, also a revolutionary, was a member of the Bengal Assembly in the 1930s, chairperson of the Congress party of the Calcutta Corporation, and an alderman. Sushil Majumdar went to school in Santiniketan, where he fell in love with acting and was a regular participant in the cultural shows. In 1916, he took part in Falguni, staged by Rabindranath Tagore in his ancestral home in Jorasanko. Post Santiniketan, young Sushil joined the Non-Cooperation Movement and was imprisoned for a while.
Although Majumdar enrolled in the College of Engineering (now Jadavpur University), he did not complete the course and instead joined the film industry in 1928. His first job was as an actor in the production company Bengal Movies. With no godfather, he had to come up the hard way. In his own words, he had to do “all sorts of jobs, including assisting the director, cameraman, make-up and costume designer, and of course, acting”. In 1929, he joined Barua Pictures under the legendary Pramathesh Chandra Barua. The first film Majumdar directed was Ekada, a silent two-reeler comedy written by Barua, in 1932.
Four years later, under the banner of Pioneer Films, he made his first full-length feature film, Tarubala. The following year, he made the hit film Muktisnan. But it was with Rikta in 1939, produced by the Film Corporation of India Ltd, that Majumdar became a major force in Bengali cinema. A colossal hit, it was the first film outside the production house of New Theatres to celebrate a “silver jubilee”—that is, it ran for 25 weeks in the hall. Majumdar had arrived as a filmmaker. Most of his films, in fact, would go on to celebrate their “silver jubilees”.
For the next three decades, until his last directorial venture in 1971, Majumdar remained one of the most popular directors, making films in both Bengali and Hindi. He commanded enormous respect in Bengal and Bombay and often mentored aspiring young filmmakers, including Raj Kapoor who worked in Char Aankhen as assistant director. Majumdar’s swan song as director was Lal Patthar in 1971. This classic was a remake of the Bengali hit Lal Pathore, which he had made with Uttam Kumar in the lead.
First love: acting
He stopped directing films after 1971 but could not give up his first love—acting. He was recognised as a powerful character actor who could not only hold his own against the big stars of the time but also often walked away with a scene from right under their noses. Satyajit Ray used him in Chiriakhana (1967) and the radio play Baksho Rahashyo (1982).
According to Madhuja Mukherjee, the cinema angle in Chiriakhana most likely made Ray choose Majumdar in the role of the main client of Byomkesh Bakshi, the celebrated sleuth in the film: “There must be a reason why Ray chose to cast Majumdar in Chiriakhana. Ray appeared to be playing a subtle game with the audience by casting Majumdar, who for a long time had not made an appearance on the silver screen outside his own films.”
While there have been documentaries and books on Pramathesh Barua and Debaki Bose, there is very little academic material on Majumdar. According to Mukherjee, this could be because of the influence of B.N. Sircar’s New Theatres, which both Barua and Bose were associated with, but not Majumdar: “The history of Bengali cinema has long been channelled through the history of New Theatres. As a result, so many studios and directors of that era have been forgotten. When researchers browse the archives, they go back to popular movie magazines of the time, many of which were largely influenced by New Theatres. This is a bit of a trap for film historians.”
Of the 37 feature films directed by Majumdar, prints of at least 14, including hits like Jogajog, Begum, Char Aankhen and Digbhranto, cannot be found anymore. Said Sanjay Mishra: “Hopefully this documentary and the book will rekindle public memory of my grandfather’s contribution to cinema.”
- A new book on the legendary Bengali film director and actor Sushil Majumdar, titled Action: Sushil Majumdar, is compiled and edited by Majumdar’s grandson, Sanjay Mishra.
- Sanjay Mishra is also producing a documentary film on Majumdar’s life and work, titled The Doyen’s Journey through Time.
- The film, directed by Indranil Sarkar, is slated for release in November.