What’s common between Ritwik Ghatak’s ‘Ajantrik’ and ‘Jukti Tokko Goppo’ , Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s ‘Durutyo’ , Barin Saha’s ‘Tero Nodir Pare’ , Nimai Ghosh’s ‘Chinnamul’ , Mrinal Sen’s ‘Baishey Shravan’ , ‘Kolkata 71’, ‘Interview’ , ‘Bhuvan Shome’ and ‘Padatik’ ? All these movies, in their own way, offered new cinematic experiences and were, more often than not, far ahead of their times.
Cut to contemporary Bengali cinema and today , there is no dearth of filmmakers churning out intelligent and smartly-made movies. Even if one were not to use the term ‘experimental fare’ to avoid the risk of being drawn into the quagmire of linguistic debate over what constitutes experimentation, how many of them are actually offering new cinematic experiences?
Unfortunately, the number of movies from the land of Ray, Ghatak and Sen that are truly pushing envelop is too few and far between. Madhuja Mukherjee’s first feature, titled ‘Carnival’ , has been selected for its world premiere at the 41st International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Bright Future category . Q’s ‘Gandu’ has become a toast of many international film festivals including Berlin and London . Moinak Biswas’ ‘Sthaniya Sambaad’ too has done its share of festival rounds. But this number isn’t flattering from an industry that churns out over a 100 movies in a year? In the last decade, Bengal has produced only ‘Uttara’ , ‘Kaalpurush’ , ‘Herbert’ , ‘Mahanagar@Kolkata’ , ‘Byatikromi’ , ‘Arekti Premer Golpo’ , ‘Andhokarer Shobdo’ , ‘Houseful’ , ‘Aamra’ and ‘Clerk’ that attempted to challenge the accepted parameters of movie-making .
So, what’s going wrong? Lack of talent and government patronage? Absence of the film society movement or a radically-charged environment to trigger the directors into thinking in terms of creating an alternative cinematic language? Ask Moinak Biswas, film studies professor and director of ‘Sthaniya Sambaad’ , and he says, “When Mrinal Sen made those movies, he was inspired by French Radical cinema and New Latin America’s cinema. There is a strong culture of avant-garde and independent cinema across the world. This culture is very vibrant even in countries like Thailand , Malaysia and Philippines. But, where is that attempt in Bengal today? Here, makers are too obsessed with drawing room drama of the middle class to contemplate about anything else.”
Explains the maker of ‘Clerk’ , Subhadro Chowdhury (professor, direction, SRFTI), “In Kolkata, directors are not putting themselves at stake, they are happy putting a formula at stake. In the name of new experimental fare, what’s happening is that people are using a public forum to express what they would have otherwise said in personal quarters after having ganja and rum.”
That, says composer Indraadip Das Gupta, doesn’t qualify as any example of a new cinematic vision . “What’s happening today in the name of experimental cinema is shock therapy. Few contemporary movies that were really experimental would be ‘Herbert’ and ‘Aamra’ . The form of Birsa Dasgupta’s ‘033’ was to some extent experimental. But there is neither a Mani Kaul kind of an experimentation happening in Kolkata nor an Anurag Kashyap-stylled ‘Dev.D’ or ‘Shaitan’ -styled innovation in terms of form of Bengali cinema. Tollywood still prefers to hear linear stories. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that just by using nudity and foul language, one can become an independent filmmaker with an experimental tag,” Dasgupta says.
Director Amit Sen of ‘Natobar Notout’ admits that his efforts at experimenting had indeed gone sour. “An experiment is a methodical procedure carried out with the goal of verifying, falsifying, or establishing the validity of a hypothesis. But when we refer to experiments in film, we probably tend to indicate the emerging patterns of shift in cinematic language. I am not sure whether Bengali cinema has come of age in terms of playing with the language as well as form. I can only speak for myself . I did try to catch the bull by the horns in ‘Natobar’ and ended up getting bruised. I did try to package Tagore in a form, hitherto unexplored. I had him actually perform on screen. Out of necessity, the content was deeply steeped in literature – but it proved counter productive. Contrary to popular belief, I will not claim that the film was ahead of its time. I will simply put it this way – I failed as a director.”
Very few directors would admit in print about their failed experiments and would rather live in denial. This often resulted in a false sense of pride for self-indulgent makers, who made it imperative for viewers to praise their complex and tangentially difficult movies for fear of being called ignorant!
Today’s Bengali cinema has moved beyond that. But the space it inhabits is more uni-dimensional . “Acting has gone down the drain. Bengali cinema today is another new theatre that is still based only on words and philosophical dialogues. If a woman tells a man that she too can sleep around if he does, it doesn’t qualify as a new cinematic experience for me. I have seen all that on-screen some 20 years ago when I watched world cinema. Today, I have problems with directors churning out different clones of Rituparna Ghosh’s cinema. This obsession of art decor , costume, make-up , light design and constructed shot taking predominantly gives birth to a very plastic drama which is mimicry of life but not life. Another cinema, which is predominantly dedicated towards actuality, regardless of lights, designs, beauty, make-up and costume, aims to capture truth and not fabricate it. Truth has to be livedin even while giving a new cinematic experience. That is missing in today’s antiseptic cinema. I didn’t like ‘Gandu’ but there is no denying that it is a new experience,” Subhadro says.
Director Suman Ghosh believes that subject-wise , Tollywood is experimenting. “I liked Goutam Ghose’s ‘Moner Manush’ that was on a saint, Srijit Mukherjee’s ‘Baishey Srabon’that was based on a serial killer, Anjan Dutt’s ‘Ranjana Ami Aar Ashbo Na’ or Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘Ar Ekti Premer Golpo’ that was based on a gay artiste. I have heard good things about ‘Gandu ‘ too. Bengal is not experimenting with form and technique as much as Bollywood is. ‘Peepli Live’ , ‘Dhobi Ghat’ and ‘Udaan’ pushed the boundaries of cinema. These movies had the backing of Aamir Khan and Anurag Kashyap. Unless one has a proper backing, it is difficult to experiment,” Suman says.
Ashoke Viswanathan prefers to use the word avant-garde instead of experimental to describe the kind of cinema he, at least, has been trying to create or support over the years. “In the period between 1988 and 1996, the three major avant -garde films emerging from Bengal were ‘Kaal Abhirathi’ ( Amitabh Chakravarty), ‘Sunya Theke Suru’ (Ashoke Viswanathan) and ‘Kahini’ (Moloy Bhattacharya ). In the following years, the only filmmaker who made a consistent endeavour to subvert traditional modes of narration was, in fact, Buddhadeb Dasgupta with films like ‘Uttara’ and ‘Kaalpurush’ . Of late, not much of avant-garde stuff has emerged from Tollygunge. Instead, a new breed of filmmakers is being applauded by the media for work that may at best, qualify as smart and slick but is far from being cutting-edge . Q’s latest creations and Amitabh Chakravarty’s latest offering are exceptions that prove the rule that avant-garde film is a rarity these days,” Ashoke insists. Another lacuna is that most of the movies have protagonists from either the middle class or the upper middle class. That, Suman Mukhopadhyay, whose ‘Herbert’ and ‘Mahanagar@Kolkata ‘ has seen interesting experiments on-screen , can be limiting for any director’s gaze. “These characters speak in a similar language. They liberally use words such as f** k and s** t as much as they use b******* a and b***** d. The interiors of the houses look identical. While some will have a Picasso on the wall, others might have Jamini Roy. This uniformity creates a code that doesn’t leave much space for experimentation . Independent cinema, in the true sense of the term, is non-existent in Bengal. The moment one pans the camera away from this strata, the language of cinema will also change,” he insists.
That, many feel, is the key to chartering a new course which is very different from what Biswas would describe as the new wave of ‘Neo Bhadrolok cinema’ of Kolkata. The middle class crisis and brittle relationships have been done to death and hope directors and producers realize that it’s time to go beyond and find new voices.