In an excerpt from his book 'The Cinema of Tapan Sinha' (published by Om Books), Amitava Nag writes about how the filmmaker's work experience at the great Calcutta studios trained him as a top-notch technician.
Calcutta was reeling from the impact of Gandhi's Quit India movement in 1942 and the aftermath of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943–1944. It was during this troubled time that Tapan Sinha found the lure of cinema too powerful to ignore. He was eager to pursue higher studies and in 1946, he found himself at the gates of the iconic New Theatres Studio. The decision to join films was not a sudden whim or a stroke of luck. Tapan had mulled over it deeply before approaching New Theatres, which was at the helm of its creativity. Tapan lacked the courage to share his plans with his father, but he took his mother into confidence.
Jagadish Bhattacharya was a manager at New Theatres and a close acquaintance of Dr. Sudhindra Nath Sanyal, a leading scientist of his time and a close family friend. Dr. Sanyal wrote to Bhattacharya about Tapan and became instrumental in inducting Tapan into the Studio. Having studied Physics, Tapan found it logical to consider the Sound Department as his entry point. During an informal interview, the technicians at the Department dissuaded Tapan from joining the film industry due to its inherent uncertainties. However, Tapan was steadfast in his decision and ultimately, he was offered the post of Associate Sound Technician on a monthly salary of Rs. 70.
At New Theatres, Tapan's formal training in the technique of cinema started. The Sound Department had a number of technical stalwarts including Mukul Bose (legendary sound recordist and brother of film director, Nitin Bose), Loken Basu and Atul Chatterjee as well as Bani Dutta, under whom Tapan joined as an Associate. The informal atmosphere at the Studio allowed Tapan to learn from all these gifted technicians.
New Theatres was the seat of creative genius of the Bengali film industry. Bimal Roy was yet to migrate to Bombay taking along with him highly talented individuals like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nabendu Ghosh and Asit Sen. Roy had already shot to fame by then, thanks to his artistically nuanced and commercially successful Bengali film, Udayer Pathe (Towards the Light, 1944). Tapan got a chance to observe Roy closely while he was at work on the sets of Humrahi (the Hindi version of Udayer Pathe). Roy found in Tapan an attentive learner with a creative and imaginative mind. Tapan borrowed the film's script from Roy and read it thoroughly several times, an exercise that helped him later when he started writing scripts for his own films. To Tapan's advantage, Roy gave him the space to discuss the film's script and share his views freely.
Working at New Theatres fuelled Tapan's hunger to make his own films. He started writing scripts—the first was based on Ernest Hemingway's 1927 short story, The Killers. Incidentally, the first film version of this story was made at the same time (in 1946), starring Burt Lancaster in his debut role, and William Conrad, Ava Gardner and others. Tapan's script did not have many takers among his friends, but that did not dampen his spirits. He continued writing and took up both Western and Bengali stories. Tapan had an unforgettable experience during this period: "I had a brilliant plot in mind, a crime drama. I named it Kara Prachir (Jail Wall). At that time, there was a Hollywood hero named Rod Cameron who was 6 feet 5 inches tall. I had actually visualised an actor in that mould. But a person of that stature is difficult to get. Then one day, suddenly, I found a person on Chowringhee who matched all my required criteria—an immensely tall and healthy figure.
I was about to talk to him, but I restrained myself since I had no resources but the script. So, I couldn't actually get myself introduced to him. However, much later, we came to know each other quite well, and I was fortunate to receive his love and affection. The name of that person is Satyajit Ray."
After working for two years at New Theatres, Tapan moved to a new studio called Calcutta Movietone, which was in the formative stage at that time. Tapan's mentor, Bani Dutta, had already moved there as Chief Sound Recordist. The responsibilities of setting up a studio from scratch helped Tapan to grow as a technically creative person. His mastery over the cinematic medium can largely be attributed to his years at New Theatres and Calcutta Movietone.
At Calcutta Movietone, Tapan got a chance to work independently for the first time. He worked in Satyen Bose's debut film, Paribartan (Change, 1949), as the sole sound recordist and followed it up with Bose's next, Barjatri (The Groom's Party), a year later. Around the same time, noted cinematographer-cum-director Ajoy Kar was shooting his detective thriller Jighansha (Revenge), which was based on Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. The nature of the film's plot allowed Tapan to experiment and he tried incorporating different background sounds with particular emphasis on creating effects with echo iteratively. This was a brand new experience for the audience. The fraternity of technicians too appreciated it greatly.
This success paved the way for more work for Tapan. Then came a watershed moment—French legend Jean Renoir arrived in Kolkata in the latter half of 1950 to shoot his film, The River (1951). Satyajit Ray met him and discussed in detail his ideas and plans for Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), which remains one of Indian cinema's most influential and impactful events till date. The River plays an important role in the history of Indian cinema. Bansi Chandragupta worked as Art Director in the film and Ray and Subrata Mitra as assistants. This triumvirate joined forces to come up with the masterpiece, Pather Panchali in 1955.
Many technicians and aspiring film-makers met Renoir when he was in Calcutta to understand his philosophy and seek his guidance. Tapan was introduced to Renoir's unit and to Charles Poulton, the sound engineer, through a friend. The unit had brought along a magnetic sound-recording machine manufactured by Western Electric, which was the first of its kind. Tapan was interested to learn more about the technique of magnetic tape recording and wanted to join the unit in installing the machine. Generous man that he was, Bani Dutta, Tapan's boss at Calcutta Movietone who knew about Tapan's dream of becoming a film-maker, made this wish come true by approving Tapan's leave application for six months. Tapan joined Renoir's unit and worked there for a month, after which he had to leave Calcutta to be with his widowed mother.
In 1949, Tridibesh Chandra Sinha passed away before he could witness his son's creative exploits that went on to enthrall audiences for decades to come. For Tapan, his father's death was a great loss. Not only because he had shared a close bond with his father and had inherited a lyrical sensibility from him, but more importantly, because he had never discussed his film-making ambitions with his parent fearing he would reject them summarily.