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Moviemaking in Calcutta

May 14, 2023 | By

Following is an article written by Mrinal Sen nearly fifty years ago in 1975. The politics of our lives was different then, as was the polemics of his films. The essay looks at a brief history of Bengali cinema but doesn’t shy away from observing “The spirit of challenge is now seen evaporating.” After nearly five decades it is probably more real now than when Sen penned his caveat. It is in this premonition that this essay has become contemporary as well as an archive.



Mrinal Sen (Pic: Mrinal Sen family’s personal collection)

To make a film, whether on the surface of the earth or under the sea, you need a camera and a sound recorder and also the necessary gadgets and, maybe, more of these, depending, of course, on your understanding of the medium and on their availability and your requirement. You also need raw film to record the visuals and to capture the aurals, the words and the incidentals. And, then, with a heart to feel and a brain to operate and organise, you use these materials to produce what the Americans and the fashionables in India call a “movie”.

Hiralal Sen

Hiralal Sen (Pic: Wikipedia)

I am not an archivist; that is not my business. I shall, therefore, make no attempt to find out who was the first to collect all the available materials as well as the heart and the brain to make the first movie in Calcutta. But as a Calcuttan, I shall no doubt have an enormous sense of pride if someone can prove beyond debate that Hiralal Sen of North Calcutta had made his feature-length movie before the world could come to know of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1904. As claimed by certain people, this and another one-hour-long movie by Hiralal Sen were full of innovations such as close-ups, pannings, tilts, etcetera. There are many other stories about Hiralal Sen, the most sensational being that his lifetime’s work was burnt two days before his death in 1917. All these, if true, would certainly make the history of movie-making in Calcutta much more exciting than it is now. But there are historians who hold different opinions and who have more reliable materials to prove that the first movie in India was made in 1912 by Dadasaheb Phalke of Poona.

In the beginning, there was the camera with no adequate arrangement for proper lensing; there was raw film not sensitive enough; there were laboratories to process the film, editing table to cut the pieces and rejoin, and technical know-how to apply. The result was just an assemblage of moving pictures coherent enough to record an event or, at most, a story. It was all crude, never going beyond its physical perception, marked by total absence of characterization and atmosphere.

The early stuff, because of the novelty, became immediately saleable; the early audiences were the least demanding. Gradually, with sure success on the commercial front, the employer-appointed technician became more certain than ever about the use of tools and, in the process, began to introduce “stiffer” variety in the story material.

From independent scene to picturisation of dance, from dance to mythology, from mythology to the Alibaba variety, then to farce, from farce to Bankim Chatterjee and even to Saratchandra: that was generally the march of events during the “silent period of Calcutta moviemaking.

With more cogent stories to tell now, even though the characters portrayed were more or less linear, the need for controlled operation of the tools and the players became more evident.

This, eventually, led to more activities inside the studios and less outside. As a result, there came more gadgets to Calcutta studios. The gadgets having definite properties, moviemakers making use of them invested their work with additional properties broadly on the technical plane. But, to be objective, not much of substance was achieved during the “silent” period. The basic reason for such poor performance was the absence of a reasonable awareness both on the social and artistic planes.

Mrinal Sen Portrait By Late Nemai Ghosh

Mrinal Sen Portrait by Late Nemai Ghosh (Pic: Shoma A Chatterji)

Sound came, as it did elsewhere.

With sound, movies became more life-like, more exciting, more saleable. And now, with the benefit of the spoken word and the incidentals and also having the musical score to create the atmosphere, a number of sporadic and independent attempts were made here and there, in which one could detect some promise, technical as well as aesthetic. But the promise did not last long; and in a total sense there was very little improvement in the standard.

Movies mostly remained “talking pictures”.

Small bits of competence in the works of some individuals could, by no means, alter the general picture of movie-making in Calcutta. But, as usual, movies made in those days continued to be increasingly popular and went on collecting fat revenue.

With these enormous successes at the box office, the pre-War moviemakers found themselves in a position of absolute security. As a result, they remained generally indifferent to the needs and possibilities of this art form. Economic success resulted in complacence, and it was perhaps due to such complacence that moviemakers of those days could afford to stay away from the “contagion” of other arts, particularly the contemporary Bengali literature which had made a tremendous advance in the ‘thirties.

The moviemakers of the ‘thirties thus lost a golden opportunity. They failed to realise that all arts, if they are to grow from strength to strength, need to be continually cross-fertilised.

It was a shame that in the ‘thirties, in spite of an intensely invigorating climate on the literary front, Calcutta moviewallahs lived comfortably in isolation.

Then came the War, which made a severe impact on the people. Things moved fast, sometimes too fast for one to comprehend them. And the mind, in the midst of such confusion, moved faster. The impact was violent. It became difficult for the artist to escape the reality around him. At the end of the War, some of the movies started becoming noticeably different, both in Calcutta and in Bombay. Several moviemakers, during that period of transition, derived a lot of inspiration from other arts, drama in particular, and almost inevitably, a definite trend in Calcutta began to take shape. What followed was not without an element of uncertainty. Activities were very often uneven, and the trend-in-the-making got very much diffused when, at last, moved by the terrible misery of the East Bengal refugees crowding the streets of Calcutta in successive waves, a man called Nemai Ghose came out into the open with his camera and with almost nothing else besides.

Ghose, an active participant in the Indian People’s Theatre Movement sponsored by the Communist Party of India, collected meagre funds, and a group of non-professional players (all refugees). The most remarkable of them was an old woman picked up from the depths of suffering, who had just arrived from East Bengal. With these “human” materials and very little money, Ghose left the glamour world of the Calcutta moviemakers and made his own movie. He named it Chhinnamool (The Uprooted). True, it was not artistic enough, but it was no doubt very timely for more than one reason. Watching this movie one could detect a certain courage, a certain conviction and a certain austerity, the like of which had not been seen before.

Although a box-office failure, one could read on the faces of a minority metropolitan audience the reverence of a new experience.


Chinnamool poster (Pic: Facebook)

In 1952, the First International Film Festival was held in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. As far as Calcutta was concerned, the festival had an unusually remarkable role to play, that of stirring the imagination of Calcuttans. To give an idea of the impact of the festival, I quote from my own diary. It was a Friday. That was the time when I had nothing to do with movie-making except nurturing an impossible hope, that sometime in the near future, I would get into the movies. At that time I was a medical representative, my job being to detail the company’s products to doctors. The writing on the diary was as follows:

Friday 10 am to 12 noon: Visiting 4 doctors.
(My daily quota, however, was visiting 8 doctors.)

Friday, 3 pm: At Purna Theatre
Open City, Rome by Roberto Rossellini.

Friday, 6 pm: At Menoka Theatre
Jour de Fete by Jacques Tati.

Friday, 9 pm: At Lighthouse
Miracle in Milan by Vittorio de Sica.

That was the time I had. That was the time my friends had. That was the time film enthusiasts had. They got busy, running frantically like me from one theatre to another, religiously watching the wonder that was post-War world cinema. Calcuttans, thus, became very active, they became more demanding; and soon the “contagion” spread. So intense was the experience that it took no time to partially invade the film studios, corrupting, so to say, the young technicians. And, at last, in 1955, after years of stress and strain, the greatest event in the history of Indian cinema took place: the making of Pather Panchali.

Pather Panchali train scene

Apu and Durga run through the kash to see the steam train – a scene from Pather Panchali

With absolutely no experience in movie-making, Satyajit Ray collected a group of young men to work as technicians and, like Nemai Ghose, selected a group of non-professionals and also one professional actor. And then walked straight into an unknown and uncertain world, defying everything that was prescribed for the moviemakers of the Calcutta studios.

The result was stupendous. It gave him an assured place among the world’s living best.

It was, in fact, the same landscape that Ray filmed, the same old locomotive running across the distant horizon that he put in a sequence, the same old pond with stagnant water that appeared so many hundreds of times in Calcutta movies. All these and many other typical village scenes not unknown to our audiences were recorded on the same type of celluloid by the same camera with no extra gadgets; but everything in Pather Panchali, the visuals and aurals, assumed an entirely different dimension. And that was great!

What, in essence, caused this difference? The movie materials being the same, the heart and the brain at work made all the difference. With the growth of science and technology in our country and a growing sense of sophistication redefining our social values, there was indeed a vacuum. To fill this vacuum, there was the need for a man like Satyajit Ray.

Pather Panchali set the ball rolling; a case for a lasting trend was sharply defined and the ethics of moviemaking most eloquently brought in.

Years that followed saw happenings in Calcutta, things that contributed significantly to the art of the movie.

Trends took definite shape; styles to communicate ideas came up on the screen, and with the growth of trends and styles, cropped up problems of diverse nature. The years to follow were indeed quite eventful when the medium was handled in different manners, problems dealt with differently. A movement, so to say, became very much apparent during the post-Pather Panchali period with Ray and a few others giving an animated account of themselves.

The Calcutta Film Society in early 2016 (Pic Courtesy: Internet)

The movie scene in Calcutta since Pather Panchali has taken an altogether different turn. Talking about the film society movement, the societies are almost always found in a festive mood, screening world movies of outstanding merit and also those suffering from mediocrity, studying movies in their minutest details and being religiously analytical of every bit of detail done on celluloid. Over-enthusiasm does at times become tiresome, but a continuously growing sense of awareness is inescapable.

With this growing consciousness, mostly outside and partly inside the studios, the future, at least on the surface, appears to be quite encouraging. But, to take a practical view of things, the present state of affairs is pretty uncertain. To do the minimum good to the investor who always wants maximum returns at the box-office, a large audience is required, larger than what our film societies can mobilise. And the fact remains that the majority of people continue to patronise, as before, anything that is nearer gross stuff.

So, here is one problem which, as in other countries, worries the thinking moviemaker in India. A constant sense of insecurity arising out of fear, fear of a possible financial crash, is liable to cool down the enthusiasm of even the most honest artist.

And this is exactly what is happening to Calcutta’s moviemakers more of cautiousness, more of re-thinking, more of checking and double-checking and much less of courage and conviction. The spirit of challenge is now seen evaporating.

There are growing instances of conformity to set rules rather than of furthering the cause of non-conformism. The trend that appeared in the mid-‘fifties and continued for a considerable period thereafter, is now in the process of disintegration. Moviemaking in Calcutta is now tending to go the Establishment way.

Whether in art, business or politics, the Establishment, to ensure its existence and growth, sets certain rules and uses its own machinery to tell others that the rules must be strictly observed. The Establishment in the movie business is no exception.

It has set norms for the story, prescribed rules for the application of movie materials, of techniques, and has the last word on audience reaction. It has been trying to convince others, if not itself, that movie-making is solely its monopoly and not the outsider’s business.

But history decrees that “outsiders” make aggressive infiltrations at all levels of social movements. This is precisely the essence of history. The history of Calcutta movie-making cannot be different.

To hasten such invasions from “outside” which, in the process, revolutionize the inside structure of all social scenes, there are catalytic agents operating from all directions. A film festival, from what we saw in 1952, is one such effective catalyst.

And as I look back I only wish that Nemai Ghose had made his Chhinnamool not before but after the International Film Festival in 1952.

(Courtesy Department of Information & Public Relations, Government of West Bengal, circa 1975.)

Click Mrinal Sen@100

for Critiques, Reviews, Interviews

— The Centenary Tribute Series

More Must Reads in Silhouette

Mrinal Sen in Conversation with Italo Spinelli

For the Love of Cinema – the Story Behind the Calcutta Film Society

Mrinal Sen: The Man Who Fought Through Cinema

Ek Din Pratidin – Mrinal Sen’s Indictment on Patriarchy

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Silhouette Magazine publishes articles, reviews, critiques and interviews and other cinema-related works, artworks, photographs and other publishable material contributed by writers and critics as a friendly gesture. The opinions shared by the writers and critics are their personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine. Images on Silhouette Magazine are posted for the sole purpose of academic interest and to illuminate the text. The images and screen shots are the copyright of their original owners. Silhouette Magazine strives to provide attribution wherever possible. Images used in the posts have been procured from the contributors themselves, public forums, social networking sites, publicity releases, YouTube, Pixabay and Creative Commons. Please inform us if any of the images used here are copyrighted, we will pull those images down.