As we reach the halfway mark of the year, Bengali cinema seems to have hit a purple patch, buoyed by two back-two-back hits in Haami and Uma in June. Coming only five years after Partha Chatterjee’s scathing indictment of contemporary Bengali cinema as being in ‘the throes of a crisis from which it is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future … (where) commercial films are a poor copy of their Hindi and Telugu counterparts … (and) the “other” kind of producer of Bengali films is bitten by the bug of so-called meaningful cinema that puts restless insomniacs to sleep’, this is indeed a remarkable turnaround by any standard.
This is not to deny that a majority of films have been at best mediocre, if not downright cringe-worthy (for example, Inspector Notty K [a remake of, believe it or not, the 2013 Punjabi film Jatt and Juliet 2!], Noor Jahan and Sultan: The Saviour), and of course box-office duds have outnumbered the successes – as with any film industry – but what’s heartening is that there has been more than a handful that has resonated with me as a viewer, which is more than what one could say about Bengali films for quite a few years. They might not have been great art, what they accomplished may have fallen short of their own ambition and your critical expectations, but at least they have not been afraid of aiming high and, in doing so, they have not failed to surprise you.
Making The Cut
The year began with Arindam Sil’s Aschhe Abar Shabor, the third film in his successful Shabor franchise, starring Saswata Chatterjee as Shabor Dasgupta, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Lalbazar, this time investigating the gruesome rape and murder of two girls. Shirshendu Mukhopadhay’s tough and laconic detective has long been underrated, overshadowed by Feluda and Byomkesh, and it is to Sil’s credit that Shabor Dasgupta is at last finding his place in the firmament of Bengal’s fictional detectives.
While a few critics have called out the film for its slow pace and at times shoddy writing (a bane of many a good contemporary Bengali film), Saswata Chatterjee’s take on the detective makes it worth a watch, despite its obvious logical flaws and a second half that fails to live up to what the first promised. Though for a thriller and a ‘police procedural’ one cannot help wishing it had been tighter and better researched, it did manage to woo the box office to become the first bona fide hit of the year.
Guptodhoner Sondhane is proof that Bengali film-makers and producers are no longer scared to dream big, even if it means creating a character modelled on none other than Indiana Jones! Here, Harrison Ford’s professor of archaeology makes way for Abir Chatterjee’s professor of history at Oxford University who returns to India and gets embroiled in a roller-coaster adventure involving a hidden treasure from the Mughal era, some Dan Brown-inspired puzzle solving and even a dose of the supernatural. An out-and-out entertainer that manages to keep you rooting for it, Dhrubo Banerjee’s film takes you back to those wonder years when treasure hunts excited your imagination like nothing else. No wonder then that the film has been an unqualified box-office success. I don’t mind keeping the logical/rational part of my mind outside the theatres if a film manages to entertain me well – and Guptodhoner Sondhane manages to do so in spades.
Described by its director as “an attempt to look into my legacy of Bangla cinema, my literature, and tap the mainstream”, Aami Ashbo Phirey may have failed to make the cash registers ring – possibly because of its too-grim and dark plot involving characters dealing with pain and violence brought together by songs of an ‘unknown, unheard young singer/songwriter’ – but it did manage to garner good reviews. The film’s colour palette, in keeping with its sombre storyline, demonstrates the director’s understanding of the nuances of film-making, but unfortunately, the transformations the characters go through lack subtlety – again, a bane of many a Bengali film in recent times, which tend to spell out issues in a medium that is primarily visual. Not surprisingly for an Anjan Dutt film, it boasts of some really good music, courtesy the filmmaker’s son Neel Dutt who sets his father’s words to lilting tunes.
Kaushik Ganguly has over the years emerged as one of Bengal’s most well-known filmmakers with films like Arekti Premer Golpo, Laptop, Shabdo, Apur Panchali and Khaad making waves in the international festival circuit and winning awards galore at home. His new film Drishtikone deals with the relationship of a woman who loses her husband in a car accident and a partially blind lawyer she hires to investigate the circumstances surrounding the accident. Though perhaps not as distinguished a film as some of his earlier ones – with one plot element too many that never coalesce into one smooth narrative – the film has done good business and is well worth a watch for its intriguing plot and some terrific performances from Prosenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta, and a magnificent turn by the director himself as the paralysed elder brother of the man who dies in the accident.
If there’s one ‘masala’ star in Bengali films today – now that Prosenjit has over the years graduated to mature, offbeat roles – who can generate a frenzy among the audience, it is Dev. Despite being trolled heavily in recent times as much for his acting skills, or lack thereof, as for his inability to speak the language, he is a bona fide superstar in the Salman Khan mould. While Kabir once again demonstrates his box-office prowess, it is as an actor that he redeems himself somewhat with the film, bringing a welcome gravity and reserve to his role as the enigmatic stranger who takes hostage a young woman travelling a non-stop train from VT Station to Howrah. With large tracts of the film shot within the confines of the train, and boasting some deft camerawork, writer and director Aniket Chattopadhyay delivers a taut action thriller that seldom fails to keep you invested.
The icing on the cake, so to speak, came with the two big money-spinners in June, Haami and Uma. While Srijit Mukherji makes a welcome return to form with Uma (see review here), it is director duo Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s Haami that has taken the industry by storm, as much for the charming performances by its child stars as for its take on contemporary debates involving child molestation and sexual assaults in school premises. ‘Haami’ in Bengali means an innocent kiss, the kind a parent might give her child, or a brother a younger sibling.
But when the adorable Salman Khan-loving, perennially trouble-courting Bhutu, a student in Class 1, befriends the new girl in the class, Chini, and gives her a peck on the cheek on Friendship Day, it unleashes a chain of events that no one has foreseen. The delightful little film, with two delectable performances at its core, not only manages to raise laughs galore, but also the important question: has the current generation lost out on childhood innocence? Haami has not only emerged as the most successful film of the year so far, but is also being hailed as the best. I for one agree.
What these films have done is whetted one’s appetite, making one look forward to the next six months. With the strong buzz around Pratim D. Gupta’s Ahare Mon and a dream line-up in the months ahead – including the first Professor Shonku film, Shonku O El Dorado (directed by Sandip Ray), Srijit Mukherji’s Ek Je Chhilo Raja, and Anik Dutta’s Bhobishyoter Bhoot (if Bhooter Bhobishyot was any indication), to name just three – 2018 could well end up as one of the best the industry has seen in a while.