From Promothesh to Prosenjit: The Evolution of Bengali Cinema

The cultural sanctity of Bengal has been reinforced from time to time through renowned writers, reputed filmmakers, music composers, singers and of course film actors. Though the history of Bengali cinema dates back to the last decade of the 19th century, it was only in the 30’s that cinema was accepted and acknowledge as a powerful medium for communicating with the masses in Bengal. The silent era in Bengali film industry came to an end by the early 30’s and it is around this time that films in Bengal started to be woven on a new matrix. Promothesh Barua was one of the frontrunners who gave Bengali films a new dimension and changed the entire perspective once and for all. Born in an affluent Assamese family Promothesh soon discovered his potential as a creative genius during his days in Europe. On his return to Bengal he took Bengali film industry to a new height through one after another commercially success films.

However, the untimely death of Promothesh in 1951 gave a jolt to the Bengali cinema fraternity but by that time it was strong enough to make a mark in its own right. The momentum that has been provided by Promothesh and other stalwarts of his time was revitalizing the Bengali film industry from within. By the beginning of the 1950’s Bengali cinema emerged into an important part of Indian culture. A closer look at the films produced during the entire 50’s decade reveals that in most of the cases the main plot revolved around a family and all that it faced in the day to day life. The plight of the people as well as their dreams, hopes, aspirations and struggles in the post independence years marked the essence of more than one film. It was a very tough time especially for Bengal that had suffered bifurcation as a result of independence giving birth to a large number of impoverished diaspora on either side of the newly drawn border.

The Bengali mass found new meaning of life in the Uttam-Suchitra duo that debuted in the film ‘Share Chuattor’ in 1953. Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen became the ultimate romantic couple admired by all Bengalis regardless of age and gender, caste and profession. Even to this date Uttam-Suchitra always means something different to even the ultra modern college going Bengali teens. During this time the Bengali film industry was blessed by some of the finest directors Bengal has ever seen. It was in this decade that India saw the rise of three young Bengali filmmakers who would make history in the next few decades— Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. The three would be the main pillars of Parallel Cinema in India for the next few decades.

The decade of the sixties for both India and Bengal was a decade of rejuvenation. On one hand the problems of the post independence era have been largely dealt with success and on the other hand new international relations were leading towards a gradual but permanent change in the lifestyle of the middle class. This is why the Bengali films of the sixties can be related to easily even today, after half a century of their release. While films like ‘Saptapadi’ and ‘Chowrangee’ depicted the average Bengali life centered around the city, other films such as ‘Palatak’ and ‘Hansuli Banker Upakatha’ told stories of rural Bengal. Yet another genre of films known as Parallel Cinema started gaining impetus in this decade. The main subjects of these films principally revolved around a single character and were quite different from the mainstream films in plot construction and presentation, often leaving a message for the audience in the end. Throughout this decade and for the years to come actors like Uttam Kumar, Soumitra Chatterjee, Suchitra Sen, Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen continued to enrich the Bengali film industry.

The Parallel Cinema in Bengal reached its all time high level in the next decade. Satyajit Ray’s trilogy ‘Pratidwindi’, ‘Seemabaddha’ and ‘Jana Aranya’ are probably the best gems of this era with Mrinal Sen’s ‘Interview’, ‘Calcutta 71’ and ‘Padatik’ sharing equal position in excellence. Set in an era of enormous political turmoil due to disillusionment of the youth with the existing political system, these films are a stark depiction of what Bengal was in the maiden years of the 70’s. Siddhartha, the main protagonist of Ray’s ‘Pratidwindi’ represented the bewildered educated middleclass youth of Bengal, who could neither find comfort with the existing socio-political system, nor could align themselves with the fanatic  movement to topple the establishment and bring something new. In fact, Siddhartha finds a resemblance with Jimmy porter in John Osborne’s evergreen play ‘Look Back in Anger’. Ray’s other masterpieces like the ‘Sonar Kella’ and ‘Gupi Gyne Bahga Byne’ also hit the theaters in this decade.

Throughout the eighties and nineties Bengali film industry saw the production of a large number of films of different merits. On one hand were the so called ‘art films’ that resembled the style of Ray, Sen and Ghatak and on the other were the more commercially oriented films made by new directors. However, these new commercial films failed to attain both the qualitative as well as the economic value that their predecessors have already set in the previous three decades. Though some film makers like Rituparno Ghosh, Buddhadev Dasgupta, maintained individuality and continued to provide food for thought to educated Bengalis, overall the condition of Bengali films was not even near where it used to be in the previous three decades.

The concluding years of the eighties saw the rise of the future superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee, or simply known as Prosenjit to his fans. Throughout the next two decades Prosenjit and his fellow co-actors Tapas Paul, Chiranjeet, Rituparna Sengupta and Satabdi Roy borne the flag of Bengali Cinema with the help of some of the most reputed film directors of their time. However, it was only in the first half of the 21st century that people rediscovered their interest in Bengali films after two long decades of almost barrenness. With promising young directors like Srijit Mukherjee, Kaushik Ganguly, Raj Chalraborty, Kamaleswar Muherjee and innumerable others the Bengali film industry has been able to rediscover itself in a new form. Prosenjit who was always criticized for his roles in low budget commercial Bengali films, has already proved his mettle as one of the most powerful actors Bengali film industry has ever produced.

It will never be possible to pen down the entire history of the evolution of Bengali films within a few words and so it is better not to go into the details of what has been said in this blog and what has not. The fact that Bengali films, in all its forms and dimensions, are an important part of our life is the ultimate truth, a truth that is not going to fade away in the next few centuries.

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