The travelogue is one of the great Bengali literary traditions. Wanderlust is so deeply rooted in the cultural consciousness that it only seems natural. The Bengali has, both, travelled and written from his experiences, and travelled vicariously. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay sent his hero, Shankar, to Africa, in his adventure novel, Chander Pahar, without having never set foot outside his country himself. It would seem natural, then, that this seeped into films as well, particularly Bengali cinema in the 50s, 60s and 70s, much of which was fed by the richness of literature.
Whether it’s summer holidays, Pujo or winters, the pandemic has meant that there is little choice than to travel vicariously again. This list features 7 travel films—that is, films where travel is central to the narrative—from the said period, when the flowering of Bengali intellectual life reached its peak. As it happens, the films featured in the list—from classics for the ages to under-watched gems to timeless comedies—are all adapted from novels and stories.
They are also subjective selections, curated as a package, with the notable exclusion of Satyajit Ray films barring a double bill and a film he wrote the screenplay for. (Readers can seek out Aranyer Din Ratri and Kanchanjungha here). It also means that some of the available prints aren’t pristine, but they are the only prints available.
Tapan Sinha’s solo travel film
Nirjan Saikate (1965):
A young writer (Anil Chatterjee) looking for some solitude, and a group of widows (Chhaya Devi and others) on a pilgrimage. Both roads lead to Puri. What are the chances that their paths will cross and they would develop a bond? It helps that the women are accompanied by their young, unmarried niece, played by Sharmila Tagore. It’s amazing that Tapan Sinha made a film about ‘a solo trip’ in 1965, taking off from a literary tradition of stories featuring writer-protagonists who would go on such excursions, and often come back with a story. Nirjan Saikate is based on the novel of the same name by Samaresh Basu, and features some great outdoor locations: the vast, open stretches of Swargadwar, to the scenery of Chilka lake, where Chatterjee’s character goes on a day trip with the avuncular gentleman, played by Pahari Sanyal. The film accommodates writerly musings, travel nuggets about the history of Puri, the possibility of romance, and a socially relevant comment on the prejudices against widows, all at once.
Available on Hoichoi and YouTube
Romantic comedies on the go
Baksa Badal (1970):
Her uncle stays in Kalimpong, his brother in Siliguri. Their bags get exchanged in the train. And yet Dr Pratul Bhattacharya—he is a shrink—and Minu—she is a college student and a classically trained singer and dancer—don’t meet until halfway into the film, few months later, after they return to Kolkata and again, back in Kalimpong. In the only film he wrote but didn’t direct, Satyajit Ray fashioned a film along the lines of the sparkling Hollywood comedies of the studio era, often featuring a sparring male and female lead at the centre, from a story by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The film is directed by Nityanand Datta.
Chhutir Phande (1975)
As if a few years after Baksa Badal, but as different characters, Chatterjee and Sen are now married, and they can’t wait to set off on their honeymoon in Chhutir Phande. It’s a few days to Pujo, and Utpal Dutt is the boss who will not let his employees take a holiday. Salil Sen’s film, based on a story by Samaresh Basu (who appears in this list the second time), is middling comedy compared to the standards set by the best in Bengali cinema at the time, but it has a great cast that includes Robi Ghosh as a waiter and Chinmoy Roy as Chatterjee’s friend. It’s a screwball comedy, with farcical situations and most of the action takes place in and around a hotel, where Chatterjee and Sen are put up, but his boss lands up too.
Available on YouTube
A Feluda Double Bill
Sonar Kella (1974)
A boy (Kushal Chakraborty) wakes up at night to make drawings of a certain golden fortress and soldiers belonging to another time. Rajasthan beckons. Feluda’s first on-screen case is one of his weirdest—the boy has visions from his past life—and also one of the most outdoor-friendly. The Nahargarh fort in Jaipur becomes the lone witness to a crime, while at the circuit house in Jodhpur, a deadly scorpion awaits Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee) at his hotel room. Much of the action is in transit: Lalmohan Ganguly’s (Santosh Dutta) iconic first appearance happens in the train, and the camel ride in the Thar was unlike anything mounted on the Bengali film screen. Mukul, Dr Hazra (Ajaoy Banerjee), Mandar Bose (Kamu Mukherjee) have become household names that have forever entered Bengali pop culture. While the economical filmmaking, the tension-building, and the smart manoeuvres of the script is as impressive as it was all those years ago, it’s the film’s unique sense of humour—’Hajar Hajar Doctor Hajra!’—that jumps out at you.
Available on Zee5
Joi Baba Felunath (1979)
Winter is the better season for Rajasthan, and perhaps around the time of Puja, Benaras. The finishing touches are being given to the Durga at the Ghosals, who have been living there for generations. A family heirloom, a priceless Ganesh idol, will go missing before Feluda meets his greatest adversary, Maganlal Meghraj–immortalised on screen by Utpal Dutta–a marwari businessman, and a dangerous host. Like Sonar Kella, Joi Baba Felunath has become a part of Bengali life. It’s never a bad idea to revisit them, not the least when traveling is prohibited. The plot is known, and the scenes familiar, yet you discover new things. Ray casts a spell with a riddle that connects Durga, Captain Spark, Akhtari songs and a word that could be both an animal and a surname.
Available on Zee5 and YouTube
Ritwik Ghatak’s Reverse-Travel Film
Bari Theke Paliye (1958)
In the first shot, the eight-year-old Kanchan (a stupendous Parambhattarak Lahiri) is reading a book on El Dorado. Like any child his age, he wants to go out and explore the world. But trust Ghatak to bring his empathy for the marginalised to this premise. Kanchan’s escape to Calcutta is also driven by his urge to earn for his mother and free her from the clutches of his oppressive father. We get a child’s eye view of the big city, but without the usual touristy highlights. Kanchan encounters a world of asphalt and steel and homeless people. He sneaks uninvited into a wedding for food, where rich, urban kids humiliate him, but also finds love and kindness, in a girl his age, and a Santa Claus figure, actually a petty criminal, played by the indomitable Kali Banerjee. The Film at Lincoln Center, that held a Ghatak retrospective in 2019, described Bari Theke Paliye as “a sort of Bengali Huckleberry Finn”.
Available on YouTube
The one and only Tenida
Besides being one of the most celebrated Bengali comedies of all time, Charmurti is also a mystery, a food movie, and a travel film. Exams are over and Tenida (Chinmoy Roy) and team—Narayan Gangopadhyay’s beloved literary creation—decide over a dinner invitation at Kyabla’s place that since there are a couple of months till the results, a holiday would be nice. There is intense debate about whether they should go to Liluah, where Pyala’s aunt has a place or to Habul’s uncle’s country house in Burdwan, when Kyabla’s uncle (a delightful Santosh Dutta) suggests they go to Jhantipahari, where he has bought a bungalow. It’s a lovely place, with shal and mahua forest, fresh and inexpensive food. There’s only one catch: the bungalow might be haunted. Adventures begins in the train itself, when the hilarious villain Ghutghutananda makes his first appearance.
Available on Voot and YouTube