Bengali cinema lost one of its greatest figures with the death of film-maker Tarun Majumdar on July 4. He was 91 and ailing from age-related illnesses. Majumdar was one of the last great stalwarts from the period known as the ‘golden age’ of Bengali cinema and his passing marks the end of an important chapter in Bengal’s cultural and entertainment history. The maker of such evergreen hits as Balika Badhu (1967), Shriman Prithviraj (1973), Dadar Kirti (1980), Bhalobasha Bhalobasha (1985), Apon Amar Apon (1990), and Alo (2003), Majumdar had remained one of the most revered and relevant directors for six decades. He remained active right until the end of his life and he made his last feature film, Bhalobashar Bari (2018), when he was 88.
At a time when titans like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, and Ajoy Kar dominated Bengali cinema, Tarun Majumdar had not only carved out a space for himself among the immortals, but had also won over the hearts of the Bengali audience with one hit film after another. Like Tapan Sinha, he was one of the biggest hit-makers the industry has ever had. In fact, 90 per cent of the 39 films he made (not including documentaries and short films) were huge box office successes. Right until the end, the public would crowd the theatres to watch a new release by Tarun Majumdar.
However, his popularity among the masses did not diminish in any way the importance of his craft or his artistic contribution to the field of cinema. Madhuja Mukherjee, film-maker and Professor of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, told Frontline: “Tarun Majumdar presented on screen a new kind of visualisation of post-Independence Bengal, its history, its people, and its landscape. It was a very ‘engaged’ exploration that he undertook. He was the last of the Mohicans. After him, there is really nobody left from the great era of Bengali cinema.” She also pointed out that Majumdar was also perhaps the last film-maker of Bengal who made great movies in the realist tradition. “We see in some of his later films, particularly Dadar Kirti, a presentation of a Bengali milieu in narrative and detailing of scenes which harks back to the 1940s, the 50s and the 60s.”
Right from the beginning of his career, Majumdar chose to follow his own unique vision and path in film-making. His first four films, including the critically acclaimed Palatak (1963), were credited to ‘Jatrik’, the screen name for the collaboration venture of three directors—Tarun Majumdar, Dilip Mukherjee, and Sachin Mukherjee. “This is a an important moment in the history of film-making where we see such collaborations being formed with Majumdar at the helm of a group like Jatrik. This was a significant turn from the way movies were being made at that time in the rest of India,” said Madhuja Mukherjee.
Though he often fell back on the rich tradition of Bengali literature for the stories in his films, he never relied on a stock formula to guarantee his box office success. In fact, Majumdar was one of the most versatile film-makers of Bengali cinema. Cultural commentator Yajnaseni Chakraborty pointed out that Majumdar’s versatility and the way he “varied his craft” according to the subject he was dealing with has not yet been explored properly. “He made comedies like Dadar Kirti, social dramas like Palatak, suspense thrillers like Kuheli (1971), romantic films like Fuleswari (1974), and dark socio-economic dramas like Ganadevata (1979). He covered practically every genre with tremendous finesse,” Yajnaseni Chakraborty told Frontline.
Born on January 8, 1931 in Bogra (now in Bangladesh) to freedom fighter Birendranath Majumdar, Tarun Majumdar completed his higher education at the Scottish Church College in Kolkata and then at the Calcutta University. A maternal uncle of his was a film journalist and it was through him that a young Tarun Majumdar first got acquainted with the industry. For all the success he enjoyed and the awards he won—four National Awards, seven Bengal Film Journalists’ Association (BFJA) Awards, five Filmfare awards and many others—he remained a quiet, self-effacing man, choosing to let his work speak for itself. In Cinemapara Diye, his seminal book on Bengali cinema, he barely spoke of his own immense contributions and, instead, chose to talk about the tradition of Bengali films and its other great artistes and exponents. He even requested that flowers and fanfare be avoided when he passed away; and true to his wish, Tarun Majumdar made his final journey draped simply in white, with a flag of the Communist Party of (Marxist) laid across his body and Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali placed on his chest.