Perspectives on Bengali Film and Literature

Mitali Pati & Suranjan Ganguly. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.


A commonplace Bengali word for “film” is boi, which literally means “book.” While most younger Bengalis frequently use the words “cinema” and “movie,” among the older generation “book” remains a synonym for “film.” This unusual usage of “film” and “book” as synonyms calls attention to the fact that the modern Bengali film has a major debt to the rich tradition of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Bengali fiction.

In the Bengali culture, film is popularly critiqued as “text.” Modern film versions of Bengali classics often reinterpret fictional texts to comment upon certain major contemporary social issues of Bengali and Indian society. Because of the literate Bengali moviegoer’s attachment to the notion of “text,” it is not uncommon to hear the members of the audience leaving a movie theater lamenting that the screenplay has distorted the essence of the “book.”

For the usually literate Bengali audience, literature commands greater respect than popular film. Overall, modern Bengali film may be categorized as popular/ commercial films and art films, and the “great books” of Bengali fiction often provide materials for successful screenplays. Like all Indian-made films, Bengali film reveals a sharp contrast in the overall quality of popular films and art films, although both types of film use well-known literary texts quite freely. The main distinction between commercial Bengali films made in Calcutta and the enormous number of commercial Hindi films produced in Bombay has been in the depiction of gender roles and the Bengali film’s overall avoidance of explicit displays of sex and violence. However, in the 1990s, the Bombay formulas have become more influential in all regional Indian films.

Both Bengali commercial films and art films have relied fairly often on the classics of Bengali fiction in different ways. For the commercial filmmakers, the classics provide plots of reliable quality and hence good possibilities of making money. To ensure box office success, the commercial films have tended to cast the popular matinee idols of Calcutta over and over again in the leading roles in their screenplays of well-known Bengali novels, wreaking havoc with character development, symbolism, and visual imagery.

Bengali Commercial Cinema

Upon reexamining the films of the past four decades, one observes that this tendency of relying heavily on superstars, such as the late Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, with their all-too-familiar mannerisms, diminishes the effective reinterpretation of texts. The screenplays tend to endorse the traditional values of Indian society even when the literary text contains a social and political critique. Cultural clicheés tend to prevail instead of creative commentaries upon contemporary issues. Seven successful commercial films of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s— Rajlakshmi and Srikanta, Haar Mana Haar, Bipasha, Ami Shey O Sakha, Shilpi, Stree, and Chowrangi —are analyzed here to show how the individualistic perceptions of the original literary texts are blurred in their movie reinterpretations and that an evolving cultural mythology of idealized gender roles becomes obvious to the viewer. Although the films span 30 years, there is little change discernible in the never-never land of the Bengali commercial cinema. In many ways, Bengali commercial screenplays and films reassert the traditional gender roles of Hindu culture that the novelists so frequently attempt to question. The literary text remains more subversive in terms of traditional values than the cinematic interpretations.

Three stereotypical clusters can be formed from the seven films analyzed in this chapter based on formulaic sentimental themes. These themes are also lasting, money-spinning formulas in the world of Bengali commercial film because they have second- and third-generation imitators. Interestingly, these formulaic film plots are based on Bengali fiction and are perhaps rooted in traditional Bengali culture. Two of the films— Shilpi and Haar Mana Haar —dwell on artist figures and their romantic relationships. Bipasha, Rajlakshmi and Srikanta, and Stree have weak (almost infantile) heroes and have their unreasonably devoted women involved in romantic plots. The third cluster is represented by Ami Shey O Shakha and Chowrangi, and their thematic unity lies in their depiction of the corruption of moral values in postcolonial Indian society.

Bengali films tend to de-emphasize women’s attractiveness as sexual objects, concentrating, instead, on the Hindu traditional view of women as conscience-keepers of homes and even society, as strong individuals responsible for upholding moral standards and human values amid a world of erring men.

Rajlakshmi and Srikanta (date unavailable on videotape) has the overall quality of an early 1960s black-and-white miniseries that takes us back into nineteenth-century British India. The screenplay is based on the set of novellas centered around the travels of Srikanta written by the nineteenth-century Bengali social problem novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay.

The film begins with a shot of a handwritten page, presumably the opening of the original manuscript. This visual image suggests that the director, Kanan Bhattacharya, opens the “book” and that she seeks to preserve the authenticity of the fictional narratives. The hero, Srikanta, appears to be a member of the anarchists in his village who break the taboos of Brahminical Hinduism. Srikanta and his friends are staunchly supported by the local physician, who has a Western education. The conflict between Western logic and moribund, nineteenth-century, rural Hindu taboos is clearly developed in the opening scenes, and this authentic critique comes from the writer himself.

Although well educated, Srikanta has no immediate family and hence does not belong in the social structure of a nineteenth-century Bengali village. The hero accepts an invitation from a rajah to join the traditional princely hunt (shikar). There is a swift transition in setting from the poverty of the village Brahmins to the wealthy living conditions of the prince. In this wealthy environment, he finds out that the beautiful singer Rajlakshmi is a girl from his village. An adolescent romance revives in an unusual setting.

The episodes in the crematorium illustrate the hero’s disregard for superstitions and of the heroine’s obvious affection and concern for what she considers self-destructive behavior. The meaning of the ghostly voices cannot be explained with relevance to plot and character. Perhaps they are only eerie special effects that made the film exciting to its original audiences over 30 years ago.

Rajlakshmi reclaims Srikanta as her own. Their love is obviously platonic, but it is intense, for he refuses the hand of an unseen bride chosen for him by his relatives. Most of the romantic scenes rely heavily on facial expression. Very little physical affection is displayed. He pledges faith to her, for he cannot marry her in the nineteenth-century social structure. He leaves for the colonial frontier in Burma. The film ends, but the novellas continue to describe the wanderings of Srikanta in Rangoon.

Rajlakshmi O Srikanta casts the late superstar Uttam Kumar in its leading role, and many of its flaws are traceable to this actor’s style. Similar situations are present in the 1960s romantic tragedy Shilpi, based on the fiction of a less-known regional author, Nitai Bhattacharya. Shilpi is a critique of the caste-based social class system, which has been a chronic problem in Indian society for centuries. Dhiman, a working-class boy artist, comes to the house of a wealthy landlord, or zamindar, receives his patronage, becomes educated, and starts to flourish as an artist. The zamindar’s only child, Anjana, falls in love with Dhi-man. Her mother reprimands her on pursuing a childhood friendship. The heroine’s family forces her to break up their friendship, which has turned to love. This formulaic plot of a weak hero but a strong heroine has often recurred in the romantic dramas of many Bengali films. The antihero of modern fiction is the origin of such character depiction. In such depictions of leading male roles, Bengali films are markedly different from Bombay films, which emphasize machismo to this day.

Defeated by the rigid class structure of Bengal in the early twentieth century, the rejected hero returns to his slum origins to die of tuberculosis. Single shots heighten the pathos of the end. Anjana becomes chronically depressed. The seductive heroine takes the lead in the courtship, while the naive hero is quite restrained in his showing of feelings. The focus on woman’s ability to express her emotions freely indicates that the spirit of the 1960s had made its mark on Bengali films.

There are close parallels between Shilpi (1966) and Haar Mana Haar (1972), based on the novel Mahasweta, written by mid-twentieth-century novelist Tarashankar Bandopadhyay. Haar Mana Haar is the story of an artist and his muse. Mahasweta, the heroine, functions as a muselike figure inspiring the artist hero. The hero is a nationalist and a grassroots educator of orphan schoolboys. The romance is set in a village school run by the hero, where she becomes a teacher. His neurotic wife dies conveniently after several episodes of making trouble in the school. He secretly paints his feelings into his pictures. The use of canvases as a communication medium suggests that the director is beginning to move away from the limitations of film as “text” toward a greater use of symbolism. Again, there is a very strong heroine, but the casting of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar with their typical mannerisms detracts from character development to its fullest extent.

Bipasha is a 1968 version of a novel by Tarashankar Bandopadhyay of the same name. The valley of the river Beas (Sanskrit “Bipasha”) had been the scene of tragic Hindu-Muslim communal riots in the late 1940s. As a teenager, the heroine loses her family in the riots and comes to Delhi.

Bipasha depicts middle-class Bengali society in the first half of the century as being full of taboos. The plot focuses on the redemption of the hero by the heroine, who saves him from suicidal depression and helps him to find his parents. Once again, Uttam Kumar as a romantic hero plays the part of a boy who has not grown up. As in Rajlakshmi O Srikanta, the camera focuses on eyes, face, and bust in tense emotional scenes. In a traditional Hindu way, man is depicted as a confused sinner and the woman as a self-sacrificing redeemer.

Stree, a 1972 film version of Bimal Mitra’s popular novel of the same title, is another critique of the emptiness and absence of values in the lives of the wealthy in colonial Bengal. The plot is the eternal triangle of the childhood sweetheart married to a rich, insensitive, debauched landlord. The wandering hero returns to find his lady gone forever. Madhab Dutta, the landlord, and Mrinmoyee have a loveless marriage. He returns drunk every night. Sitapati, Mrinmoyee’s teenage sweetheart, is a photographer. He is the artist figure in this plot, and his vision is also the camera’s vision. Hence, the camera emphasizes Mrinmoyee’s loneliness and attractiveness, dwelling on her face and bust. Because this film is Sitapati’s narrative, the plot of woman as pursuer and man as pursued reverses the traditional romantic schemes of the patriarchal Bengali culture. The plot turns on the heroine’s sexuality in this romantic melodrama, focusing on her adultery as her revenge on her husband. Despite her middle-class values, she has a son by Sitapati whom her husband believes to be his child. The screenplay presents class differences sympathetically. Both men suffer in their friendship because they desire to be competent fathers to the boy. Tortured by his love for Mrinmoyee and the boy, which he cannot reveal, Sitapati leaves and joins the nationalist movement. He is jailed. The heroine dies. An old pendant she used to wear on a chain around her neck reveals the identity of her lover. The infantile Madhab Dutta goes to kill the dying Sitapati; then he kills himself. He has also gone bankrupt. The melodramatic ending of the screenplay is at variance with the novel and suggests that a wealthy life of leisure is, in itself, a form of madness in the eyes of the working middle class, the audience to whom the Bengali authors and directors address their works.

Chowrangi (1980) is based on well-known modern novelist Shankar’s fiction with the same title. The text and the film provide the audience with the same kaleidoscopic view of life in downtown Calcutta through the eyes of Satta Bose, the manager of a large downtown hotel, the Shah Jehan. The fiction and film resemble Western films and novels that use hotel settings. The theme of the film is the corruption of Bengali urban society and the decline in values, a recurring topic in the literature and films of postcolonial India. The call girl Karabi commits suicide when she realizes that she can never marry her lover because she is a permanent social outcast from middle-class respectability. Satta’s own girlfriend dies when her plane explodes in flames. He leaves the hotel. In the final scenes, he is at the seaside remembering her song. Chowrangi is one of Uttam Kumar’s better films. The supportive relationships of an earlier period are absent, and women are destroyed in a vicious man’s world. The influence of Bombay on regional Bengali films is evident in this transition.

In Ami Shey O Sakha (1975), a film based on the fiction of popular modern novelist Asutosh Mukhopadhyay, we have a screenplay written by the author himself. The heroine is a writer who opens her autobiography, her “book” by the seaside. The entire film is a flashback. A young history professor and her graduate students tour Mogul ruins. Monkeys attack the women’s group. Two men rush to their rescue. A romance develops between two urban professionals. Scenes revolve on witty repartee. The men are physicians in a partnership. The writer heroine marries one of the physicians.

The focus of the film changes to a critique of the medical malpractices of the Third World. The hypocrisy of Indian society in sexual matters fosters these malpractices, such as illegal late abortions and hysterectomies. The physicians Prasanta and Sudhir are friends, colleagues, almost brothers, who separate on the Poddar malpractice case, as the greed of the medical profession is exposed in this film. The wife symbolizes conscience in an attempt to return to traditional Hindu norms in a changing and morally corrupt society.

Yet, even in commercial films that criticize society, there is no clear attempt to develop the social and political critique that compares with the art films of the same period directed by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak. The most significant difference between art films and commercial films is in the art films’ capacity to engage in sociopolitical controversy.

Satyajit Ray and the Bengali Art Cinema

While Bengali commercial cinema has continued to churn out tepid adaptations of well-known novels, skirting controversy and only hinting at change, the so-called art cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal, Sen and Ritwik Ghatak (which now includes Gautam Ghosh, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Aparna Sen, and Utpalendu Chakravarty) has been far more radical in framing a social and political critique. What is often overlooked is the fact that many of the films by these filmmakers are based on literary texts. Since Satyajit Ray (1921-92) is the most prominent name on this list and has consistently adapted short stories, novellas, and novels to the screen, his work serves as a prime example of the “other” Bengali trend in transforming text into film.

The product of a progressive, reform-minded family of poets, writers, and artists with strong links to the Bengali Renaissance, Ray spent his early years in a highly literate household, complete with printing press and a children’s magazine edited by his father (which Ray would revive in 1961, the year that also saw his emergence as an extremely popular writer for young people). Thus, when Ray decided to make his first film, he turned to a classic of Bengali literature, Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay, and later made three more films based on his work. Another writer for whom Ray had an enormous veneration all his life was Rabindranath Tagore. Charulata (1964), Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961), and Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984) all have their source in Tagore. Devi (The Goddess, 1960) is also linked to Tagore since he provided the author, Prabhat Mukhopadhyay, with the germ of the story. Then, in the politically tense climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ray chose to adapt two novels— Aranyer Din Ratri and Pratid-wandi —by Sunil Ganguly, whose work differed radically from the liberal humanist tradition of Bandopadhyay and Tagore. His protagonists, who live in the urban jungle of Calcutta, are mostly young men caught in the rat race, struggling to hold onto their inherited values in the face of betrayal and compromise.

Since the work of these three writers constitutes the basis for important and diverse films by Ray, it would be appropriate to explore his cinematic manipulation of the written text through a study of Pather Panchali (The Song of the Little Road, 1955), Charulata, and Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970). But, first, it is necessary to examine Ray’s own views about the relationship between text and film.

Ray has reiterated from time to time the importance of story in his films, going so far as to affirm that he prefers stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end in that order. Accordingly, one notices in his work the following: the classical unities of time, place, and action; linearity; cause-effect relationships; psychologically complex characters who serve as causal agents; and a preference for realism, all of which have been branded as “literary” traits influenced by the very conventions of the source material. What critics and detractors often overlook is the fact that Ray’s conservative storytelling masks a highly idiosyncratic system. As Robin Wood has pointed out, the films tell stories, but they are “built on a complicated pattern of echoes and cross-references, both thematic and visual, with almost every incident finding an echo somewhere, down to details of camera-movement and set-up” (1971, 13). Wood is describing an intricate structuring process in which all things are placed in a variety of contexts and endlessly qualified and requalified until they acquire a multiplicity of meanings. In this musical balancing and counterpointing of elements, Ray subtly subverts the literary text he has inscribed on film. The viewer enters a dense, richly textured filmic text in which the most disparate elements are interrelated through repetition and variation. What emerges within the contours of a traditional plot is a cinematic “cellular” (Ray’s own term) universe in which even the smallest details convey a sense of the larger, the whole (Issakson 1970, 120). With this formal sense of the written text radicalized, one must consider the radicalization of content.

Pather Panchali is said to have revolutionized Indian film in terms of language and subject matter. Shirking the crude melodrama of popular mainstream cinema, Ray chose Italian neorealism as a model for his deeply humanistic portrayal of village life from the perspective of a Brahmin family and their son, Apu. The film, thus, has little to do with the pastoral genre of Bengali cinema with its overblown romantic rhetoric and its reductive oppositions between the corrupt city and the redemptive rural world. Likewise, it has little to do with most of the conventions of mainstream Bengali pastoral literature, which nourished that genre and which Bandopadhyay himself rejected. Instead, in his portrayal of nature, which is a constant backdrop to the human drama in Pather Panchali, Ray subverts the popular stereotype of a benign and bountiful mother nursing her children. Nature is beautiful and life-sustaining, but it can also kill. Apu’s older sister, Durga, revels in the first monsoon shower, but the soaking leads to a cold, and Durga dies a few days later during a severe storm when nature seems to unleash its fury on humans (the house in which the family lives collapses). Ray describes this duality inherent in nature through unobtrusive details as well, focusing on a litter of kittens that lives with the family and that steadily dwindles in number until only a few manage to survive. Thus, nature is shorn of its romantic aura and is given a realist basis in relation to human existence and experience.

The same unsentimental tone surfaces in Ray’s handling of children and childhood. Much has been written about the scene in a field of flowery grasses where Apu and Durga glimpse their first train, but that moment endures (like other moments of discovery in the film) because we know how hard life really is for them. The conventional idyll of a pastoral childhood is dropped in favor of the “ring of truth”—what it is like to grow up in poverty, to be accused of theft, to watch a sister die and hear the mother’s heartrending wail, and finally to be uprooted from home (Ray 1976, 33). Yet, within this tragic and precarious world, Ray captures all the magic of childhood without sacrificing his realist aesthetic.

Ray’s commitment to realism is also apparent in the way he films Pather Panchali. The normal lens is used consistently to reproduce everyday human vision, and eye-level shots tend to dominate. Exteriors are shot in natural light; interiors, in “bounced lighting” to create a lifelike quality. Ray’s preference for the long take and the moving camera reinforces our sense of a lived-in world, since time and space are rendered whole. Moreover, Ray’s frame is a highly inclusive frame in which nothing is too trivial to be exempt. Thus, reality is captured in all its forms, and what is conventionally beautiful has no place in Ray’s scheme of things unless it is relevant within a certain context. The roots of Ray’s poetic realism lie here—in the many juxtapositions and interrelationships he fashions out of seemingly incompatible material. He knows how to exploit the cinema’s ability to travel back and forth through space, to present multiple points of view, to create significant parallels, and to suggest, rather than proclaim. What makes Pather Panchali a great film is that, in the final analysis, it is a truly cinematic work, inspired by a book but never bookish. Thus, its most radical message in 1955 to Bengali cinema (and to Indian cinema) was that it, too, must stop being literary and simply be film.

Charulata, made nearly 10 years later, extends the visual language of Pather Panchali and is probably Ray’s most perfect “cellular” film, with complicated cross-references and counterpointing of motifs that attest to the influence of Mozart’s chamber music on its structure. In Tagore’s novella, set in the 1870s, a young wife neglected by her husband falls in love with his cousin. Ray maintains the story line but embellishes it with many little nuances that give it texture and density of meaning.

The film is full of moments that have been described as “pure cinema,” where nothing happens as such, and yet so much happens. In the opening sequence, with virtually no dialogue, Charulata wanders through the large empty rooms of her house, picks up a book to read, looks out of a window through a pair of opera glasses, and sits down at a piano. From these seemingly irrelevant details, we sense her loneliness and her boredom, her interest in the world outside, and her love of reading. The scene, of course, does not exist in Tagore’s story; only the cinema can do justice to such a moment. Similarly, when seated alone on a swing in the garden, she feels the first stirrings of love for cousin-in-law Amal; the camera holds onto her face and captures each flicker of emotion. After peering at Amal through her opera glasses, when she trains them on a mother cradling her child in a neighboring house, a connection immediately springs up among her childlessness, her desire for Amal, and her loneliness. Thus, Ray’s understated style achieves a new complexity and sophistication in Charulata.

This success in creating a cinematic equivalent of Tagore’s text is matched by Ray’s success in creating, perhaps for the first time in Bengali cinema, a female protagonist who is defined in her own terms and within her own space. In this respect, he goes even further than Tagore, describing Charulata’s subtle move toward independence from a twentieth-century perspective.

Although confined to her inner sanctum, Charulata can sense that the world outside is changing. Her husband, a Western-educated liberal who runs a progressive newspaper, earnestly believes in reform, but his work keeps him so busy that he has no time for her. Ray frequently alternates scenes in which the two of them are together with scenes where she is alone but trapped, nevertheless, within her role of the dutiful housewife. Attracted to Amal who is of her age, shares her literary tastes, and gives her attention, she has a chance to be free, but the self-serving Amal is too weak to sustain her bid for freedom through forbidden love. In the end, despite the prospect of a reconciliation with her husband, she is doubly alone, but with a sense of her own self and her own space within a world of men.

Although Charulata never reads like a feminist manifesto, it is a film in which Ray clearly supports the emancipation of women from the strictures of a repressive society. By linking her inner change to change in the sociopolitical macrocosm, he emphasizes the need for women to participate in the moment of historical transformation. In his later films, Ray was even more forthright about women having to resist the cultural taboos of their time.

Pratidwandi was Ray’s first film to grapple with the contemporary scene, the Calcutta of the late 1960s in the grip of “revolution.” This was the time of the Naxalites, a Maoist guerrilla group that disrupted daily life in the city with bombs, pipe guns, and bullets. In Ray’s film about a jobless young man, there is a new sense of urgency. To capture the intrusive reality of the streets, Ray chose to abandon his preferred classical model of continuity in favor of the subversive aesthetic of dislocation.

Pratidwandi opens in negative, with shots of a corpse being carried out of a house for cremation. This highly idiosyncratic beginning is a pointer to what is to come: more sequences in negative, disorienting jump cuts, freeze shots, flashbacks, and dream and fantasy scenes. There is virtually nothing here that could be called bookish. Ray marshals the resources of the cinema to give us a sense of the disjointed thinking process of his protagonist, Siddhartha, a medical student, forced into the rat race by his father’s death. The Calcutta he experiences is likewise a city out of joint, given to political rallies, sudden bomb blasts, squalor and poverty, bureaucratic chaos, and indifference to the plight of the victims. In the end, Siddhartha has to dislocate himself from the city and from the woman he loves for life in a small town. In chronicling his frustrations, Ray makes an indictment of the social and political system in India that is new to his work. It is also new to Bengali cinema with its watered-down protest films and its refusal to adapt literary texts considered politically inflammatory.

At the same time, Ray does not openly endorse revolution. Siddhartha is not a gun-toting revolutionary, but a vulnerable and troubled man who does not find ready answers in the political tracts that his Naxalite brother reads. Ray shows him to be more responsive to the memory of a bird call he had heard as a child, rather than to the chant for revolution. Siddhartha, unlike his brother, has not committed himself to an ideology but can still think and feel on his own. Thus, when his anger explodes at the end during an interview scene, it stems from an inner rage and is not a calculated political gesture. While Ray condemns the moral anarchy he sees around him, he is not willing to dictate solutions as an ideologue. This does not weaken the film; in fact, Siddhartha and his problems become all the more real. Pratidwandi, then, is an important film that anticipates Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middle Man, 1975), which together would constitute the Calcutta trilogy, Ray’s bleak testament about contemporary India.

The film is also remarkable in the way Ray refuses to idealize the middle-class home as a small haven of Bengali values within the corrupt metropolis. After wandering the streets most of the day, Siddhartha returns every night to a dingy flat to hear his mother complain about his sister’s moral turpitude and to endure his brother’s talk of revolution that will never happen. Ray frequently uses chiaroscuro lighting to suggest the cell-like confines of this world within which each is a prisoner. It is no different when Siddhartha visits his girlfriend, Keya’s flat where she lives with her father. The father complains all the time like Siddhartha’s mother and blames the problems of the city on the young without any real understanding of their problems. Like Siddhartha, Keya will leave home and city and shift to Delhi.

Perhaps the most complex character in the film is Sutapa, Siddhartha’s sister, who is the sole breadwinner of the family, a good-looking woman with material ambitions, bent on furthering her career even if it means reciprocating the sexual advances of her boss. Ray refuses to turn her story into one of guilt and redemption; instead, Sutapa remains a strong-willed, independent woman who, despite Siddhartha’s demand that she resign, keeps her job and seems to have no regrets about her relationship with her boss. In her defiance of middle-class morality and the role created for her by her class, she introduces a brand of feminism that is also new to Ray’s cinema.

Thus, the move away from the conservative, literary cinema begins with Ray, who remains a major source of inspiration for those committed to a cinema that is socially, politically, as well as stylistically progressive. Among them, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen are Ray’s contemporaries, who also made their first films in the 1950s but, unlike Ray, were firebrand Marxists with a specific political agenda in mind.

Ghatak (1925-76) grew up in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and could never reconcile to the partition of India, which made him a stranger in his own country. His major films, Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), Komal Gandhar (E Flat, 1961), and Subarnarekha (1962), describe the personal and cultural dimensions of this tragedy in an epic style that fuses the mythic with the ordinary. Resisting the temptation to graft Western ideas onto his films, Ghatak created an original cinema that has roots in his native Bengal and draws on folklore, myth, memory, local traditions, and the collective experience of people displaced by history. While some of his films are based on short stories by contemporary Bengali writers, Ghatak’s daring, expressionistic use of camera as well as sound constantly draws attention to the cinematic idiom he forged.

Mrinal Sen has made nearly 30 films, in which he examines the social and political injustices rampant in India and the plight of the common person, who is always the victim. In his complex analysis of the nature of oppression in films like Calcutta 71 (1972), Chorus (1974), Parasuram (Man with the Axe, 1978), and Akaler Sandhaney (In Search of Famine, 1980), Sen has tried his hand at different genres and experimented with form in ways that point to the influence of Godard, Brecht, Rocha, and others. He remains India’s most celebrated political filmmaker actively committed to changing society by loudly proclaiming its ills to the people.

Of the new generation of filmmakers, Aparna Sen, a popular star of Bengali commercial cinema, has directed three films, all centered around women. 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981) is about an Anglo-Indian schoolteacher coming to terms with old age, loneliness, and rejection; Paroma (1983) focuses on a married woman who causes scandal in her middle-class home by having an affair with a young man; and in Sati (The Wife, 1989), a woman is married to a tree. Sen is the first woman filmmaker of the Bengali cinema to explore gender issues from a feminist angle.

Three other filmmakers of this “other” cinema deserve mention. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s films—Neem Annapurna (Bitter Morsel, 1974), Dooratwa (Distance, 1978), Grihajuddha (Crossroads, 1981), Phera (The Return, 1986), and Tahader Katha (Their Story, 1991)—trace the moral and spiritual decline of a society where commercial values are replacing human values. Utpalendu Chakravarty, a political activist turned filmmaker, has made films that describe the problems of specific groups like tribals (Moyna Tadanta [Post Mortem, 1981]) and workers (Chokh [Eye, 1982]). Finally, Gautam Ghosh has made wholly cinematic adaptations of work by Tagore and, recently, Manik Bandopadhyay (Padma Nadir Majhi [Boatmen of Padma, 1991]). But he is best known for his films dealing with the poor and the exploited (Dakhal [Occupation, 1982] and Antar-jali Jatra [Voyage Beyond, 1988]), in which he especially emphasizes the oppression of women.

Despite the work of these filmmakers, lack of funds and poor distribution threaten the survival of this cinema. Moreover, like the Bengali commercial film industry, it has to reckon with its Goliath—the all-powerful Bombay cinema, which swamps its markets and lures away audiences. Yet, hope for the Bengali cinema lies in the making of such films, for if a meaningful cinema is to evolve, it must reformulate its political stance as well as its reliance on the text and aspire to be truly cinematic.