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Humane storyteller

Print edition : Feb 13, 2009 T+T-
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Tapan Sinha. Director Mrinal Sen calls him the finest middle-of-the-road film-maker in India.-THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

THE passing away of Tapan Sinha marked the end of an era in Bengali cinema. The 84-year-old director of timeless classics such as Kabuliwala (1957), Khudito Pashan (1960), Jatugriha (1964), Harmonium (1976), Bancharamer Bagan (1980) and Ek Doctor ki Maut (1991) breathed his last on January 15 after prolonged illness.

Hailed by contemporaries and looked up to by successive generations of directors, Tapan Sinha belonged to a rare breed of film-makers for whom commercial success and critical acclaim came hand in hand. According to Mrinal Sen who began making films around the same time as Tapan Sinha, he was the finest middle-of-the-road film-maker in the country. We differed in many ways and I did not agree with him all the time, but that does not mean that I do not consider him one of the finest directors in India. I have also never found a human being as good and as powerful as Tapan Sinha, Sen told Frontline.

Born on October 2, 1924, in Kolkata, Tapan Sinha had his early sources of inspiration from American and British films, particularly those of Billy Wilder, John Ford and Carol Reed. After his graduation in Physics from the University of Calcutta, Tapan Sinha began his film career as a sound engineer in 1946. Around 1950, he got the opportunity to work under director Charles Cryton in London. Upon his return to India in 1952 he took up direction, and his first film Ankush was released in 1954.

In the next 50 years, Tapan Sinha made 40 films, won numerous national and international awards, including the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2008 for his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema. He was married to acclaimed Bengali film actor Arundhuti Devi, who passed away in 1994, and is survived by their son Anindya.

Tapan Sinha was a versatile craftsman. It is impossible to categorise his films in any particular genre or tradition. He constantly shifted from period pieces (Jhinder Bandi, Khudito Pashan) to childrens films (Safed Haathi, Aaj ka Robinhood) to comedies (Bancharamer Bagan), to social issues (Ek Doctor ki Maut, Adalat O Ekti Meye), catering to the tastes of practically every section of cinema-goers.

Soumitra Chatterjee, an iconic Bengali movie star who is most famous for his roles in Satyajit Ray films, said: As far as variety of subject and theme is concerned, Tapan Sinha can only be compared with Satyajit Ray. He never repeated himself; there was always a new subject that he addressed. Soumitra Chatterjee considers it his great fortune that the very second film in his career was Tapan Sinhas Khudito Pashan (The Hungry Stone) in 1960.

In the last 50 years he was not only my friend, but also a great teacher. I dont know any other person apart from Satyajit Ray who has had such an influence on my career as an actor, said Soumitra Chatterjee. He was a humanist, and I admire that aspect of him immensely. He started as a mainstream film director and grew into someone who beautifully told stories of human concern.

Tapan Sinha was a consummate and gifted storyteller, and his craft was characterised by his serious treatment of even popular themes. His was essentially an artistic sensibility working within a popular format. Like Charles Chaplin and Billy Wilder, Tapan Sinhas technique was essentially linear narration, with no fancy or avant-garde distractions, said Subhajit Chatterjee, lecturer at the Department of Film Studies in Jadavpur University. Tapan Sinha could produce effects and dramatic tension using standard techniques and without resorting to idiosyncrasies.

His stories dealt with human struggle against all barriers, like the paternal affection of an old Afghan merchant for a Bengali Hindu child (Kabuliwala); or the humanistic concern of a Muslim vagabond for an ailing Hindu stranger (Aadmi aur Aurat). Apart from Satyajit Ray, he was the only director who took an active interest in making films for children, which could transcend the age barrier and move adults also.

He could address one theme after another with masterly ease. The same masterly touch was noticeable in the music and sound effects of his films. Kabuliwala won the music award at the Berlin Film Festival.

In some ways, he represented reformist sensibility in Bengali cinema in the 1950s and 1960s, keeping at bay the influence of Bollywood masala formulas that pervaded the Indian film industry, and essentially catering to the taste of the middle-class Bengali audience. It was directors such as Tapan Sinha and Tarun Majumdar and their uncompromising adherence to their own style that helped the Bengali industry retain its individuality for two decades.

When the thrust of the Indian film industry was on feudal family melodrama, Tapan Sinhas focus was on the problems of the middle class in the urban context. There was none of the cheap imitations of the vulgar song and dance routines and potboiler ingredients in his movies, said Subhajit Chatterjee.

Alongside Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha was one of the few directors who brilliantly adapted popular and great literature into films. The works of Bengali litterateurs from Rabindranath Tagore to more recent novelists such as Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay, Saradindu Bandopadhyay, Banaphool, and Subodh Ghosh were recreated by him on the silver screen, and never failed to attract audiences.

Director Tarun Majumdar succinctly said that even when the great trio (Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen) reigned supreme, it was a common sight in Kolkata to see large queues outside cinema halls, in pouring rain, when a Tapan Sinha film was released.

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