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My Tryst with Bengali Cinema & Literature...
|by G. Venkatesh|
I am overcome by nostalgia as I am writing this. The very first article or rather review that I wrote was for a magazine called – E square that was published by Citi Bank. This was in 1993, 6 months after I took up a job after college. The gruelling schedule in my college [I used to leave home at 7 am to catch the 7.15 pm Churchgate local and return back by 7 pm in the evening] left me with little time to indulge in writing or reading as much as I wanted to. Studies subsumed me completely in the preceding years before I joined industry.
I do not remember watching Bengali movies often. I was exposed to some good movies on National TV (Doordarshan) in the late 80’s and the subtitles helped in understanding the movie better. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali moved me so much that it propelled me to write the review of the movie in E square.
I had a classmate in Class VII called Souren Sarkar who used to recollect memories of his life in Kolkata. Then we had Kabuliwallah, Rabindranath Tagore’s classic which was part of our syllabus in Class IX. I haven’t watched the movie but the story causes a lump in my throat every time I read it.
I presume that Bengalis are not only intelligent, but highly emotional too! This is because if you look at the music compositions by Salil Chawdhury (the maverick music composer) or Hemant Kumar, you realise that these compositions have a soul and are truly timeless gems. These songs never looked out of place in Hindi cinema even though they all had a typical Bengali flavour to them. Some of the best classics in Bollywood are either made by Bengali directors or based on stories by Bengali writers. (Devdas, Parineeta, Bandini, Sujata, Do Bheega Zamin, Sagina, Swami... the list is endless).
Let me talk about Pather Panchali. Last year, my son had a chapter from Pather Panchali in his English literature book. I am not sure how the chapter was taught in school, but he simply couldn’t understand why the protagonist (Apu) should enact the character of Arjun from Mahabharata as part of his playtime activity. Even my daughter who is a voracious reader scoffed at the chapter. I decided to invest time with them and spent close to an hour explaining them about “Pather Panchali”. May be due to the way in which I explained to them about the nuances, they realised the greatness of the story. My son was able to relate to that story better after my intervention.
The movie (Pather Panchali) is slow, no doubt, but you need to have an open mind and patience to watch the movie. It is not a movie in the conventional sense as it is a classic and can’t be looked purely only from the entertainment angle.
“Pather Panchali” was the first in the series of the Apu trilogy by Ray. The story is about a young boy Apu who wanders around desultorily in the village along with his sister. The family lives in abject poverty. The head of the family (Apu’s father) has moved to the city in search of employment and his mother is left in the village to fend for themselves. There is an old widowed aunt too who has to be taken care of.
The neighbours scoff at the brother-sister duo looking at them condescendingly. Apu and his sister enjoy their childhood with unbridled enthusiasm and joy despite the squalor and the frustrating scene at home where it has become so difficult to make both the ends meet. The glee on their faces on seeing the first train chugging along their village even as they run along the paddy fields is a sight to watch. When Apu’s sister falls ill, there is no money for medical care. The sister’s death shatters the family. The movie ends with the family shifting base to the city.
I was appalled to read that the late actress Nargis Dutt had criticised Ray in the Rajya Sabha saying that he was selling India’s poverty in the Western countries. Those who can’t relate to such classics can’t enjoy the movie. I agree. Those who believe that a movie is to be seen, enjoyed and forgotten will not like Pather Panchali. I fully agree.
As per me, Pather Panchali won accolades abroad not because it showed India’s property but it showed the hope against abject hopelessness in an impoverished family in rural Bengal. Isn’t that a stark contrast? The movie was released in 1955, eight years after India gained Independence. The rich-poor divide has only increased over the years, isn’t it ?
Among other things, Pather Panchali showed the effervescence of childhood amidst a situation of despair. Children are so innocent, so gullible; even they can be hurt by cynicism. Children, no matter the socio-economic status, deserve pleasures even from the little things in life. The movie was also an ode to the affection the little boy had for his sister. Picture the scene where he throws away the mala (the bead necklace) into the pond that was stolen by his sister and recovered from her trunk box after her untimely demise.
Unfortunately I have not seen much of Ray’s other movies, though I had a glimpse of “Charulatha” and “Jal Sagar”. As I mentioned in the earlier paras, a film festival on Doordarshan gave us the opportunity to watch classic movies from across India for close to a month.
Ritwick Ghatak’s “Meghe Daka Thara” and “Komal Gandhar” are still fresh in my memory. Supriya Chaudhury immortalised the character of the selfless sacrificing sister in the former movie and I think she looked beautiful in the latter movie which was based on partition in Bengal.
Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Prati Din is another classic. The movie tells us about the plight of a middle class family where the eldest daughter is the bread-winner. One evening she doesn’t return home from office. There is speculation in the neighbourhood about her character, the siblings search for her in hospitals, the parents are a worried lot before she returns home early morning to inform that she had got stuck in between office and home and was unsuccessful in passing on the message to the family members. Mamta Shankar stunned me with her brilliant portrayal. She also played the ever obedient wife in another short movie where the husband who is an upcoming doctor uses her as a guinea pig. He gives her all the wrong medicines and this adversely impacts her already deteriorating health.
Tapan Sinha’s Aadmi Aur Aurat is another Bengali classic. Amol Palekar as “Aadmi” and Mahua Roychawdhury as “Aurat” gave one of the most scintillating performances ever. Their acting prowess remains unparalleled. Sadly, the beauteous Mahua Roychawdhury passed away much before her prime in a freak gas stove accident. All those who love classic movies should watch “Aadmi Aur Aurat” without fail. The movie describes the platonic relation between a man and a pregnant woman who have to undertake an arduous journey on a desolate road to reach their destination.
Do I even need to mention about another classic – “36 Chowringee Lane” that was directed by Aparna Sen and had Jennifer Kapoor in the title role as a retired teacher who is cheated by her former student. The last scene in the movie where a dejected and heartbroken Jennifer walks away from the home of her former student (Debasree Roy) is really really heart rending. The poor old lady is taken for a ride all along. Connoisseurs of good cinema – please do watch “36 Chowringee Lane” if you haven’t watched already.
If there are any Bengalis who are reading this, I request them to help me with the name of this movie. But when I watched this movie one Sunday afternoon, almost 20 years ago, it struck a deep chord within me. The movie is about the world seen from the eyes of a young boy. The boy’s widowed mother has to live with his uncle. The uncle’s wife has eloped. The uncle is an artist who enacts dramas and puppet shows (he is a folk artist, to be precise); but cinema as a modern means of entertainment has eclipsed his art. The man goes through emotions of betrayal and a depressing financial condition thanks to the declining interest in the art forms. The mood of the movie was melancholic but the emotions were conveyed so subtly that one could empathise with the man who is torn between the tensions at home and the struggle to earn a livelihood.
The Bengali language itself is so sweet to the ears; I wish I had the opportunity to learn it! Some of the greatest literary classics in the world are from Bengali writers. So, can I surmise that Bengalis are not only intelligent and emotional, but they are also creative? I wish one of the publishing houses makes a sincere attempt to translate some of the Bengali classics in English.
Even as I finish writing this article at 1 pm in the night, the FM radio is belting out two hit songs back to back. “Hawaon pe likh do, hawaon ke naam” from the 1968 movie – Do dooni char and “Piyu bole” from Parineeta (2003). Do you see the Bong connection here?
Before I forget, Sharat Chandra Chatterjee's Swami and its impact on me need to be documented separately. So, let me say cryptically - 'Wait & watch'.
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