I want to celebrate ‘Indian Cinema’, I wrote in my inaugural post. Let me qualify by saying that by ‘Indian’ I mean Hindi and Bengali cinema. Hindi cinema is popularly known as ‘Bollywood’ and Bengali cinema originates from the province of India that I come from – West Bengal. India has many languages and many film industries – Bollywood is the pan-Indian industry, but by no means the only one! And Bengali cinema happens to be one of the oldest and most distinguished of the regional film industries in India, and one that has had a symbiotic relationship with Bollywood from its earliest days.
Like most Bengalis, I have had this twin exposure to Indian cinema. But looking back, I realize, that my initial exposure to Bengali and Hindi films happened differently (English films became a part of my life much later) – I heard Hindi films and saw Bangla ones, though even here, songs were an important part of my enjoyment of them. The Hindi film posters (of which I wrote in my first post) would continue enticing me throughout my school years, as only something forbidden could… mean while, it was Bengali films that kept me engaged.
The first film that I remember watching is Tarun Majumdar’s Dadar Kirti [Deeds of my Elder Brother, 1980]. I was in Primary school then. Remember watching it at home and doubling up with laughter – my sister and I falling over each other on our couch, watching the fumbling, mumbling Kedar in the film. He is a simpleton from Calcutta with no brains but a gifted voice and a golden heart who is thrown out of home by his father and sent to live with his uncle’s family in Hazaribagh, Bihar. Bengalis are a vibrant migrant community here, and he is forcefully made to be a part of its cultural scene by his cousin’s gang of boys. The inevitable happens – he falls in love, but it is an unusual affair. The girl in question (Saraswati) is a serious, studious, morally upright person whom everybody is afraid of. He is shit scared of her, but falls in love nevertheless seeing her dance, while she melts, after a while, hearing him sing. Inevitably again, they have a misunderstanding, caused deliberately by the leader of the boy’s gang (Bhombolda, played by Anup Kumar), who later repents and brings the lovers together at the end.
Though I lived in proper Calcutta and not in a ‘Prabasi’ (migrant) setting, there was a lot in the film that I could relate to, even as a 6/7 year-old – the sub plot of the two sisters (Saraswati and Beena), Rabindrasangeet, rehearsals for a local Durga Puja function – all of which formed an important part of my life.
Majumdar introduced two new actors who, though not the lead pair in the film, would eventually become one of the hit-pairs of the 1980s – Tapas Pal and Debashree Roy (Beena in the film). Tapas was an instant sensation and his role was so well loved that he became typecast in it. But it was Mohua Roy Chowdhury (as Saraswati) who stole the show. Dancing has been a ‘must’ quality for Hindi film heroines, not for Bengali ones. But Mohua could dance and act equally well – a rare combo in Tollywood. In my school, her dance (to the tune of the song ‘bodhu kyon alo laglo chokhe’) was repeated for years in cultural programs and I sang the songs of the film endlessly, without understanding a word of the lyrics. The next batch of film-songs that I sang to death was five years later, from Majumdar’s next hit, Bhalobasa Bhalobasa [Love Love]. The young Debashree had bloomed by then and Tapas, while essaying the same kind of role, exuded a more confident screen persona. A lot of elements were common in the two films; it was a rehash of DK, and the audience lapped it up. This one I remember seeing in a cinema hall in Shyambazaar, just after my class VII terminal exams.
This time, too, it was the music that drew me to the film – more specifically, the Rabindrasangeet used in it. Rabindranath Tagore’s songs were a part of the ambience of my home – my mother sang them constantly and taught me quite a few. And like every little girl in Bengal (at least in my generation), I had already danced to its tunes in local functions. But now, on the brink of teenage, (apart from singing the mandatory Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar songs, both in films and separate albums, that were hugely popular), I also found myself singing Tagore’s songs everywhere – in local functions, on the wedding night of numerous aunts (in fun-filled musical soirees called ‘bashar’), in the classroom (during ‘off’ periods), and of course in the bathroom. It was the songs used in Majumdar’s Bhalobasa Bhalobasa, I remember distinctly, that gave a new fillip to my interest in and love for Rabindrasangeet. The meaning of the lyrics were still a bit hazy for me, though less so than the songs of Dadar Kirti.
By the time I saw Amar Geeti [Timeless Music], however, I had no problems with the lyrics at all – I understood and appreciated all the love songs in it! This film was a biopic of Ramnidhi Gupta or Nidhubabu (as he came to be known), who introduced a new form of music in Bengali in the 18th century – tappa – and changed it forever. Tappa originated in the Punjab and few could accept it in its Bengali avatar, especially as Nidhubabu brought a whole new dimension to it by introducing secular romantic love as its main theme. At the heart of the film’s narrative is the triangular love between Nidhubabu, Sreemati (a nautch girl turned disciple, who was his great muse), and Raja Mahananda Roy (to whom Nidhu was indebted). Soumitra Chatterjee, Sandhya Roy and Biswajeet – as the romantic trio – all delivered stellar performances in the film; but it is Ramkumar Chatterjee and Arati Mukherjee’s renditions of tappa (as Nidhubabu and Sreemati’s playback singers) that remain unforgettable.
Music had always been a hallmark of Majumdar’s films, which dealt mostly with romantic comedy. But Amar Geeti was a romantic tragedy, and here the music was the story – not just an aesthetic addition. I loved the melody of the songs in the film, and for the first time, responded to the beauty of its lyrics. But I could sing the songs only imperfectly, as I was not trained in Indian classical music and singing tappa requires that training.
Somewhere between Dadar Kirti and Amar Geeti, my music sense had developed. Of course, I discovered this only in hindsight. I certainly did not see only these three Bengali films in all those years – there were many more in between (mostly Bengali, a handful of Hindi, and one or two English films as well). But it is undeniable that my introduction to cinema happened through Tarun Majumdar. By 1985, Majumdar had been a presence in the Bengali film industry for more than three decades. He never got the kind of critical acclaim that some of his more illustrious contemporaries (Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen) received – but he remained one of the most popular filmmakers of all time, providing ‘wholesome’ entertainment to his audiences, and being rewarded with ‘hits’ in return.