Bong Shots is a fortnightly column on Bengali cinema.
Bengali cinema just had something of a dream spell. Suddenly, for about four weeks, I shut up and wasn't complaining about how covering Bengali films has ruined my life. Suddenly I wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel, but dealing with the best—we are not used to this, remember. Week after week, month after month, you are reviewing mostly mediocre, often terrible, films and web series that don't hold a candle to the kind of things being made all over India. In fact I was barely recovering from Anjan Dutt's Murder in the Hills and Srijit Mukherji's Rekka when the cinema gods decided to intervene and orchestrate things in a way that reinstates some of my faith in Bengali films.
First came Atanu Ghosh's Binisutoy, still continuing its theatrical run at Nandan since its release on August 18, then all the episodes of Unoloukik, a kickass little anthology series from Bangladesh. Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Once Upon A Time In Calcutta premiered at Venice on September 8—the only Indian film at the world's oldest film festival this year. What are the odds that Pradipta Bhattacharyya's web series, Birohi, dropped its first episode on Friday the same week? Hypothetically, if an uninitiated viewer were thrown bang in the middle of the contemporary Bengali cineverse (this month), it would have given him a fairly inaccurate picture of the state of affairs.
He would have seen that not only does the city have a State-funded repertory cinema in Nandan, it still plays the role it was supposed to when it was conceived back in 1980, which is to screen non-mainstream, offbeat films—besides the unusual, arthouse Binisutoy, Nandan ran in the last month the documentary Char: The No Man's Island and the small, independent film Runanubandha—and by extension, that the city has a healthy film exhibition system that accommodates all kinds of cinema.
Anybody clued into the film scene in Kolkata for the past few years knows that nothing can be farther from the reality: the city's theatres have garnered a reputation for muscling out indie films in favour of films backed by big studios. Nandan has long ceased to be the cinematheque it was meant to be, and has been playing mainstream fare, including Bollywood films, since the 2000s. It's the lack of big releases owing to the pandemic that has enabled Binisutoy's dream run, not Nandan going back to its manifesto.
What else would the uninitiated viewer have seen? That Bengali cinema has kept the flag flying in the international arena, competing in one of the top three film festivals in the world. Only, it's an exception and not the norm. It would obfuscate how insular the Bengali film has become, not even in conversation with the rest of India, let alone the world—Once Upon A Time in Calcutta is the first Bengali film since Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Uttara (2000) to make it to a major competitive section in Venice.
He would've seen that Hoichoi isn't the only Bengali streaming platform around. There are Bangladeshi shows in the platform, but none like Unoloukik—whose closest approximation is something like Black Mirror, Love, Death + Robots and a Ray short story—which you will find in Chorki, Bangladesh's homegrown OTT launched last month. It's time we redefine what constitutes the modern day Bengali film and start looking at stuff being made across the border—they make us look better.
It's time we look beyond the same old names that have become flag bearers of Bengali cinema to the rest of India—same old stories, same old songs. Like Unoloukik, Birohi offers other alternatives—available on YouTube under a new OTT banner Uribaba—and like Bhattacharyya's other films, is rooted, handcrafted and homegrown. This is not a column. It's a clarion call.