The film critics in the West commonly dub Bengali cinema as ‘Tollywood” referring to the Indian Bengali language film industry based in the Tollygunge region of Kolkata, West Bengal, India. As the very first Hollywood inspired-name in India, Tollywood merely connotes the commercial and popular genre but it overlooking other films produced in the West Bengal region. For the outsiders, Indian cinema is only associated with the Hindi language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) or popularly called “Bollywood,” although Bollywood accounted for less than 25 percent of all the films produced in India. As it is well known, India has eighteen officially recognized languages, and films are made in all of them. Thus, Bengali cinema, which was first produced by the Madan Theatre Company of Calcutta and released on 8 November 1919, is classified as a regional cinema similar to other films produced in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, and Assamese.
Indeed, popular and artistic films are being produced in all regional cinemas in India. Thus, the terms “popular” and “parallel” cinema is equally relevant in the discourse of regional cinema. “Parallel cinema” is the term employed by film critics in India and elsewhere to connote the artistic tradition of filmmaking that has grown alongside with popular cinema. Popular films were largely melodramas given to excess and sentimentality. The elements of exaggeration, excess theatricality, declamatory dialogues that characterize Indian popular films are not conspicuously present in films that are generally included in the category of “parallel cinema.” Film directors associated with the “parallel cinema” have sought to explore vital social experiences connected with the everyday life of the people in a realistic fashion. In contrast, “popular” filmmakers deal with fantastic and melodramatic experiences that do not display the kind of deep commitment to social exploration that “parallel cinema” does.
It should be noted that the strength of regional cinema resides in the “parallel cinema.” Not surprisingly, Bengali cinema reflects the vitality of regional cinema as well as its resistance to be simply incorporated into “Indian national cinema.” Like other regional cinemas, Bengali cinema has become a vital site for the discussion of public issues and negotiation of cultural meaning. The strength of Bengali cinema as regional cinema lies in the way local forms of culture and cultural practices were captured on the screen.
The incredible works of leading Bengali filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray(1921-1992), Mrinal Sen (1923-2018) and Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) can be understood not only as an expression of personal visions of the filmmakers but they also dealt with contemporary issues, mostly social hardships, the suffering of women, the plight of the dispossessed; in many of them there was a political edge to the textualised experience. Although those works address issues of the subalternity and the economic underprivilege, they can still be considered as an auteristic cinema where the personal signature of the director was in clear evidence, as opposed to “popular cinema” in which genre was privileged over auteurship.
While depictions of poverty and suffering or social ills were not new to Bengali cinema, for a large part these had been tempered by means of a certain view on human goodness and the underlying sense that hardship did not necessarily destroy the individual’s moral fabric and his zest for life: the classic case was Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar). Here poverty did not mark a process of dehumanization, as it would in the work of those who made ‘parallel’ cinema.
Of course, while contemporary Bengali cinemas might retain the social realism inclination, it explores the new terrains in addressing contemporary urban themes, issues of sexuality and even reinterpreting Bengali ‘classic’ cinematic traditions. Reality and fiction, surreal and bizarre may come together. Furthermore, they may also indicate the distance traveled by Bengali filmmakers since the wide-eyed innocence and idealism of Apu, and the optimism of the post-independence years. There are three contemporary Bengali films in this program: Indrasis Acharya’s Parcel (2019), Amartya Bhattacharyya’s Rananubandha (The He Without Him, 2019) and N. Rashed Chowdhury’s Chandrabati Kotha (The Tales of Chandrabati, 2019). While Parcel and Rananubandha are set in the contemporary urban landscape imbued with psychological thriller and mystic journey, Chandrabati Kotha is a tribute to the ballad writing traditions in the 16th century East Bengal.
We hope this program will provide more nuanced take on Bengali cinema on its 100 years of establishment in India and the rest of world.
This article first appeared in the catalog of the 14TH Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (19-23 November 2019).
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