This year, Bengali cinema opened up its borders. 2020 had ended with the slow-burn, impressively made Taqdeer, on Hoichoi, featuring Chanchal Chowdhury as a freezer van driver stuck with an unknown dead body and by mid 2021, we had the indomitable Mosharraf Karim in a one-man show in Mahanagar, a one-night-at-the-police-station story, also on Hoichoi. More shows, like Boli that released in December, followed.
This exchange between the film industries of Kolkata and Dhaka is telling: the biggest Bengali streaming platform, struggling to come up with producing quality content, could do with some boost from the other side of the river; while Bangladesh's emerging film scene – that is having its own moment, topped by a premiere at Cannes earlier this year with Rehana Maryam Noor – could do with some amplification. Everybody wins, including the audience.
It's not just Hoichoi; if Zee5 is showing Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's Ladies and Gentlemen (featured in the list), viewers can also access Chorki, a Bangladeshi platform (with an international debit card). If the blurring lines between the two Bengals is the major Bengali film trend of 2021, it only makes sense that it's reflected in this best-of list, sequenced in order of their release dates:
Streaming on: Zee5
Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, foremost among Bangladesh's new wave of filmmakers, traverses the cultural corridors of his country in a post #MeToo story that shifts gears midway and becomes an investigative murder mystery. Sabila's (Tasnia Farin) assault at the hands of her boss and liberal icon Khairul Alam (Afzal Hossain), and the harassment she faces after, becomes a probe into the soul of modern day Bangladeshi society itself as Farooki masterfully weaves a network of characters, subplots and cliffhangers in this eight episode series. The show is a showcase for Bangladeshi acting talent – with a nearly scene-stealing act by Hasan Masood, as a veteran office peon with a secret backstory – as it is a testament to Farooki's flair for visual storytelling, most evident in the way he stages the horrifying scenes of the sexual assault: an interplay of showing and not showing, sound and imagination.
Atanu Ghosh's Binisutoy is the strangest movie about a no-strings-attached relationship. The leads (Ritwick Chakraborty and Jaya Ahsan) aren't even romancing and spend most of the film apart, busy in their individual lives. Come to think about it, the central idea – two characters who fake identities seeking…something – is ridiculous, but Ghosh's puzzle-box structuring of the screenplay and arthouse treatment makes it a rumination on companionship in theage of social media. Rarely do you have a mainstream Bengali film that, instead of infantilising the viewer, gets them to do the work and lets them arrive at their own conclusions.
Streaming on: Chorki
While the world was looking elsewhere, Bangladesh made this: a homegrown anthology series of mind bending shorts that blend satire, dystopia, and eerie fantasy. Think of it as a Black Mirror on such themes as varied and current as mental health, insomnia, domestic abuse and post-truth. One of them is about a guy with a bipolar disorder who ends up participating in a fine dining experience serving puffer fish – which, unless handled with finesse, is poisonous – designed for the suicidal Bangladeshi elite. It's nuts. It's unlike anything that has been made in Bengali in the recent past.
There's no Victoria Memorial, or Howrah Bridge, in Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Once Upon a Time in Calcutta; instead, flyover collapses collide with the fate of fictional characters. A Tollywood ex diva (Sreelekha Mitra) plays the daughter of a late, real life cabaret queen, while speakers on the streets blare out Tagore remixes. Sengupta's film fuses the many realities of Kolkata into fiction with canny casting choices (Anirban Chakrabarti in a wig, as the shady owner of a chit fund company!), use of location and an international technical team headlined by Gokhan Tiryaki (longtime DP of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan). The result is a great big city film that also became the first Bengali film to compete at Venice in the last twenty years.
Streaming on: Chorki
Munshigiri begins like a standard detective noir with a head scratcher of a case – a man is found dead on railway tracks, his hands raised upwards like 'an umpire signalling a six' – but nothing prepares you for the literary crime thriller it transforms into. In a film that echoes the director's earlier, superior Aynabaaji in more ways than one, (with Chanchal Chowdhury playing lead in both), the film's ingenious forgery at the centre more than makes up for its sluggish mid section before it reveals its trump card, once again reaffirming the links between contemporary Bangladeshi cinema and its literature.
Streaming on: YouTube
Pradipta Bhattacharyya continues mining the endlessly weird local quirks of rural Bengal in this five episode web series in which our reluctant, tragicomichero (Sayan Ghosh) gets a teaching job in a remote village. But this is not an exploration of the 'real India' so much as it is a window into the director's mind itself – unlike, say, Panchayat, the Amazon Prime series that roughly follows the same premise – and whatever it is, this stuff gets you high. There is a villain in this Hero's Journey, as there are its small, socially conscious subversions. A sweet love story – between characters called Krishno and Radha – only deepens its connections with the geography. It's not even among Bhattacharya's top three works, but when Birohi drops that bombshell in the climax – a signature move by the director – you're not that sure.
Streaming on: Hoichoi
Released in November, Mandaar is like a stunning last minute goal that might have the potential to change the game, an already better year of Bengali cinema suddenly made even better. But if it is surprising that it came from the house of Hoichoi (not exactly known to send Bengali cinema in new, exciting directions), it's fitting that it came from an actor so sure of his craft making his directorial debut. Anirban Bhattacharya's Macbeth adaptation erupts in a coastal village in East Medinipur pulsating with local pop music, a thriving fishery business, and characters fighting for survival in a "fish-eats-fish" world. Manipulating the game from the sidelines is a character played by Bhattacharya, as the evil, sleazy cop Mukaddar Mukherjee, which is just one among the film's multiple strong, memorable performances. Maybe, just maybe, the tides are turning.