Growing up in Delhi Bengali films remained synonymous with Sunday afternoon DD slots, black and white, dull, boring, slow. Something everyone was crazy about at home, but nobody discussed during school lunch breaks. When I was in primary school the only other Bengali my schoolkids knew was probably Mithun Chakraborty and as fate would have it, I shared the same last name. Sourav Ganguli had not taken the cricket world by storm, nor had Sushmita Sen been crowned Miss Universe. The K serials were yet to emerge and make the ritual of “kaal ratri” a subject of mainstream discussion. I have spent a lot of time in life telling people that being a Bengali is more than aami tomake bhalo baashi and Rosogolla.
The only Bengali movies I loved watching while growing up were the Gupi Gain Bagha Bain (the famous trilogy) along with Sonar Kella, especially the scene in which Mukul gets hypnotised. Over the years my relationship status has changed with Bengali Cinema and it was not until this pandemic induced lockdown that I absolutely fell in love with a lot of them. I fell in the love with them because they were way ahead in the way they chose to depict women. Women irrespective of their age have agency, they are free to make choices and these films addressed a woman’s sexuality for what it is, and not from the male gaze.
The stories are more relatable because the characters are not larger than life. They have their follies and vices. This not saying that there aren’t films in Bengali which do not demean women but even for a hardcore Bollywood buff like found these films more relatable.
If you want to explore this world of cinema, I leave you with five films I enjoyed watching the most.
(Since Satyajit Ray’s wonderful films and his enigmatic female protagonists is worth an article itself I am writing on Bengali films from more recent times.)
Based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel by the same name Rituporno Ghosh’s (2011) version is what gave me goosebumps. Noukadubi means boat wreck. A law student, Ramesh, (Jisshu Sengupta) loves his friend’s sister Hemnanlini (Raima Sen). Nothing is said or done it is through their easy banter that you pick it up. However, Ramesh leaves Kolkata upon receiving a letter from his father and goes missing since the day of Hemnanlini’s birthday. He was called home and ordered to get married to a widow’s daughter, after vehemently refusing and arguing that he is in love with someone else he gives up and marries Susheela. During the boat ride back to Kolkata the boat capsizes and Ramesh wakes up ashore with a woman dressed up in bridal attire next to him. He brings her home, as per the customs he has not seen his wife’s face as yet. However, the person whom he has got home is Kamala who was married to Nalinaksha Chatterjee a doctor based in Kashi. Ramesh upon realising puts an advertisement to find out more. He doesn’t have the heart to break this news to either Hem or Susheela. A heartbroken Hem also visits Kashi with her father and meets Dr Nalinaksha Chatterjee. The truth is revealed but at an easy pace…
Apart from the complexity of romantic relationships, the balances, the dynamics, which is so wonderfully portrayed what I also could not get over is that this story was written in 1906. Though Ghosh has set his film in 1920s where a father stands by a daughter (Hemnanlini) in her decision to not get married because she cannot marry unless she can love her partner. Hemnanlini and her father’s relationship is the highest point of the movie for me; you cannot miss how ahead the narrative is of its time. They discuss things that even many modern father-daughter duos would shy away from. It is a movie which will leave an aftertaste that you will savour for a long time, once you are done watching it.
Paromitar Ek Din
Translated as a day in life of Paromita, Paromita (Rituparna Sengupta) and Sanaka (Aparna Sen)are a daughter and mother-in-law duo and share a very strong bond even though they are very different kind of people. Paromita is the daughter of a neo-liberal, middle-class Bengali family of the nineties Kolkata whereas Sanaka is an old worldly person. She has a grown-up daughter who is schizophrenic.
The story unfolds on the day of Sanaka’s funeral and opens with Paromita sitting and staring into nothingness, alienated from her immediate surroundings as she mourns her erstwhile mother-in-law and companion Sanaka. The film reveals itself largely in flashbacks through which we learn the kind of relationship the duo shared. Their worldviews clash at first but they come together and find solace in each other’s company in a patriarchal set up that suppresses their sexuality and self-expression and tries to rid them of their agency.
After Paromita gives birth to a child who has cerebral palsy in this deeply bigoted family which looks down upon people with disabilities, their bond strengthens. There is a scene in which Paromita shampoos her mother-in-law’s hair and it beautifully establishes their deep connection. Paromita remains sexually and intellectually dissatisfied in her marriage. After her son dies, she finds love, and after initial objection, Sanaka lets her walk out of the unhappy alliance when she tells her about her affair. We also learn about a secret romance that Sanaka had. The movie uses memory as a trope to understand the uncommon bond that the duo share and shatters many myths about the proverbial mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship.
Parama (Rakhee Gulzar) is a middle-aged housewife, a bouma of an affluent Bengali home with a workaholic husband who mumbles about work while making love to her. She is happy fulfilling the routine marital acts, the household chores and not demanding more. She is content in living with that identity. When Rahul, a photographer from another continent, comes to do a story, a photo essay on “An Indian Housewife” that is when Paroma’s world starts turning upside down. They have a torrid affair, which is also a way in which Parama rediscovers herself, her sexual identity, her needs and her self-expression. Rahul eventually moves on to his next project, in Africa. However, the family discovers the magazine which has some of Parama’s semi-nude pictures. (These were published by Rahul even without her consent.) Parama’s world falls apart.
Parama attempts to end her life. She has self-realisation lying on the half-reclining hospital bed. Her shaven head for a brain scan makes her look like a different person. She has realised her agency and doesn’t want to be just somebody’s wife, mother, or daughter-in-law any more. Even when the family agrees to take her back she walks out saying, “I’ve no sense of guilt”.
Anuranan means resonance. The film is the story about two couples, Rahul and Nandita (Rahul Bose and Rituparna Sengupta) and Amit and Preeti (Rajat Kapoor and Raima Sen) and out of marriage friendships. Situation paves way for a connection, a bond, which develops between artistically inclined Rahul and an unusually quiet person Preeti. There is no adultery, no lines are crossed, just that when it comes to attraction there are no laws. Rahul has moved back to India from London to build a Hill Resort in Sikkim, Nandita desperately wants a child, but is unable to conceive. Amit is a typical corporate honcho who is driven only by ambition.
Preeti dares to visit Rahul at the resort site. Unfortunately, next morning Rahul is found dead in his room. Conjectures are made and even Nandita also falls prey to these rumours. Unable to take the shame Preeti tries to end her life. Nandita comes to meet her at the hospital and they have a conversation… Watch it, this one has also been dubbed in Hindi.
This is the story of Upama (Tanuja) retired school teacher who is almost estranged from her son and daughter-in-law. She has been a single mother and now at this stage in life is rigid in making any adjustments. Through an NGO she meets a little boy Bitlu, who eventually starts to come over to her place and spend some time every day. He is mischievous and sharp, a unique friendship develops between the duo. The naughty Bitlu reveals he is HIV positive and his life is different from that of other kids. Upama starts reading the stories that she once wrote for her son. Bitlu wants to visit ‘Shonar Pahar’ a story Upama had written for her son. Both take off on that journey to find Shonar Pahar.
It is a wonderful story which mirrors a grandmother and grandson relationship. Upama believes in what she stands for and doesn’t behave like a “traditional mother”, and how that helps Upama and her son Soumya (Jisshu Sengupta) mend their relationship. After Upama goes missing what ensues is an emotional journey for her son Soumya to find his mother and they eventually mend the distances.
The views expressed are the author’s own.