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Tapan Sinha and the Triumvirate of Bengali Cinema

September 28, 2021 | By

Amitava Nag’s upcoming The Cinema of Tapan Sinha, An Introduction book provides a succinct introduction to the cinema of Tapan Sinha and the significant place he holds in Bengali and, indeed, Indian cinema. With characteristic erudition, the author explores Sinha’s deep roots in the Bengali cultural climate, mainly music and literature, and how they shaped his cinematic storytelling. For anyone interested in understanding the works of an underrated and often-neglected auteur, The Cinema of Tapan Sinha, An Introduction is the perfect place to start. Silhouette presents an excerpt from a chapter in the book.

Tapan Sinha and Satyajit Ray

Most serious discussions on Bengali cinema start and end with the holy trinity of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. This is regrettable because in the process the intermediate strands of creative energy which satiate the minds and imagination of the educated, middle-class Bengali are ignored. Directors like Ajoy Kar, Asit Sen and Tarun Majumdar made sure that there was no polarisation within the movie-going audience from the fifties to the seventies in Bengali cinema. The literary flourish of the time and the richness of theatrical productions along with inspired cinematic practice formed the three main vertices on which the spirit of Bengali intellectualism rested. There was homogeneity of cultural preferences within this spectrum. The urban-rural divide and the diversity between audiences belonging to different economic strata were not pronounced in the appreciation of fine arts.

In this milieu, Tapan Sinha occupied a very significant role. He was the link between Bengal’s famed troika (Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen) and their less celebrated compatriots. Our overt obsession with genius, placing it at a higher pedestal than talent, has always been problematic when it comes to analysing art and artists. William Shakespeare was a genius. Rabindranath Tagore was one and so was Satyajit Ray. To compare any film-maker of that era with Ray time and again is to hoodwink our own analytical capabilities. Critics fail miserably when they try to measure everyone using the same lens. This monumental blunder singed all compatriots of Ray but damaged Tapan the most. Tapan’s one limitation as an artistic film-maker probably lay in the fact that unlike the triad, he failed to find a theme to which his aesthetic sensibilities could be tied. He took up diverse subjects for his films, no two subsequent films seemed similar. If that was his strength, it was his tragedy too. Bergman had several repetitive themes in his repertoire, Tarkovsky’s frames freeze with the luminance of paintings, Antonioni’s explorations of the human soul reverberate in the hearts of viewers, Ozu’s stylistic simplicity makes him distant and equally commonplace, Kurosawa’s plaintive grandeur pulses with passion, Ghatak’s nostalgia for a lost land and time is full of pathos while Ray’s subtle wit targeted at the Bengali middle-class holds a mirror before us. What Tapan lacked was such a signature theme, one he could repeat either in style or in narrative symmetry. It is foolish to assume that Tapan could have emerged differently. His deep roots in the Bengali cultural climate, mainly music and literature, entrenched in him a particular practice of story-telling. The one minor inadequacy was his inability to paint an image through his films. All great filmmakers, at home or in the world, have a facility to paint pictures onscreen. In his finest films, Ray envisioned a vast canvas of oil paints. So did Ghatak through the lashing sweeps of his wide-angled frames. Sen never believed in the grand narratives of life. For him, the picture was broken already, and he broke it further to create his own collage of fractured realism. Through his films, Tapan neither made nor attempted to break away from that unattainable image, which lures and fascinates audiences for a lifetime.

Yet, Tapan’s mastery as a film-maker has always been recognised by the mass audience though critics seldom understood its relevance. In a culture that thrives on comparison with foreign philosophies and vision, one in which despair and self-pity are paramount, an artist who unabashedly celebrated a somewhat romantic vision of life, where guile ultimately gives way to righteousness, is likely to be thought of as shallow and weak. That is why in most writings on Tapan, he has been praised for providing ‘wholesome entertainment’. This was Tapan’s purpose, a philosophy he developed based on his fondness for classical Hollywood films. He wanted to provide his audience with an ease of repose, not to agitate them or awaken them to the social problems that plagued their quotidian lives anyway.

In the first two decades of his film-making till 1970, this was Tapan’s clear intention. Looking back, it is easy to see how with diverse stories, disparate locales and settings, Tapan could successfully attain his goal. The typical Bengali mindset favours the proverbial ‘have not’. Money, to some extent even today, is equated with having less class and being dishonest. Tapan’s box-office successes and modest ambition to entertain his audience rarely impressed armchair critics. The critic, suffering from an inferiority complex about Indian art, was enamoured by accolades and awards from foreign film festivals. Tapan slowly but surely drifted away from the radar of film society activists of the fifties to the seventies. His films were still being appreciated in newspaper reviews but the proliferation of pseudo-intellectual, film-society-influenced apprentices in the ranks of the dailies started to show.

Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen in the former’s residence

There was another reason for Tapan’s animosity towards the Bengali intelligentsia which was rife since the mid-sixties. What was a hint in Galpa Holeo Satyi became a statement in Sagina Mahato. As the city of Calcutta reeled under revolutionary unrest and being a reactionary (at least in terms of ideology) became fashionable, Tapan’s stance was unacceptable for the majority of educated Bengalis who were naturally left-inclined in their political beliefs. Even the darling of film-society critics, Satyajit Ray preferred to keep Tunu, the communist brother of the ambivalent Siddhartha in Pratidwandi (a film released in the same year as Tapan’s Sagina Mahato), out of narrative focus. Meanwhile, Sen went all guns blazing with his overt political messages in Bhuvan Shome (1969) and in Interview (1970). Ghatak heaped praises on armed revolution and hailed it as the harbinger of hope, albeit in a bit of a misguided way in his last film, Jukti, Takko aar Gappo (1974). During this turbulent time, the other directors with whom Tapan Sinha gets inadvertently bracketed with often by later film critics, were continuing with their earlier brand of film-making. Ajoy Kar made Parineeta (1969) and Malyadan (1971). After shifting to Bombay, Asit Sen made many tear-jerkers: Khamoshi (1969), Maa aur Mamta(1970) and Safar (1970). Whereas Tarun Majumdar could muster Nimantran (1971), Kuheli (1971) or at most an adolescent love story Sriman Prithwiraj (1973), bolstered by the success of an earlier Balika Badhu in 1967. None of these film-makers, along with the ones more attuned to commercial success, seemed to bother much about the changing times in the political environment of West Bengal. As the state burned, having a political ideology in the arts meant being leftist—any deviation came at your peril. Ray’s political ambivalence in his films was criticised as well, but his stature was so untouchable that it was left relatively unharmed. Critics then and even later on mostly failed to realise that Tapan was not uncertain in his message. He had a political statement to make, as strong as a Sen or a Ghatak. His message was just not in vogue at the time. Tapan’s films started to be clubbed with the works of film-makers who were arguably less gifted than him due to the callousness of film scholars and critics who were marking his position in the canon of Bengali cinema.

After a less inspiring ‘70s, Tapan came back much stronger with what I call his Conscience TrilogyAdalat O Ekti MeyeAtanka and Antardhan . Shortly before the hard-hitting trilogy, he had made the hugely successful Banchharamer Baganin 1980, a satire about an old man who refuses to die. The spirit of Banchharam, the old farmer, is the spirit of Tapan himself and also the ethos of an old-world psyche which refuses to give up hope and retains a romantic vision of the world. As with Tapan, Banchharam’s vision is not based on falsehood, rather, he chooses to embrace the positives and gaze at the sun to live a luminous life. Tapan’s second phase, which started off in the 1980s, is crucial in understanding his mental makeup as a film-maker. Just as some trees which grow very well in the initial years turn hideously peculiar with time, so do human beings as they age. Ultimately, we deserve the face and the fate we have as we embellish or denude out histories and that of our families. Many artists, blessed with promise and fortitude pale with time. This does not diminish the glory they earned for their earlier works. But an artist who adapts well is a thinking being, acutely aware of his role in the context of society and time.

A young Tapan turned to classics for the content of his films. These stories have an element of latent harmony. With age, cynicism usually grips the best of us, but Tapan’s Conscience Trilogy was full of raging angst against society and the system. The anti-establishment traits, however, almost always, culminated in closed endings in his films either on a happy note or occasionally tragic ones. The multifarious ambiguity that marks the works of several extraordinary artists was never Tapan’s forte. But within the realms of conventional, narrative storytelling Tapan could expand his boundaries and that of quasi-commercial films. His sensitivities evolved over time as he confined himself to the world of the middle-class which he knew well. His discipline as a film-maker is worth emulating for every newbie. In his subdued attempts at experimentation, his drive to explore different facets of human life, his simple rendition of complex stories, his strong belief in the ultimate nobility of the human soul, Tapan’s films hold up a unique mirror to our lives and to the society we live in. Not many film-makers who succeeded Tapan saw value in his brand of film-making, unfortunately. Through some of his films, he achieved an intangible grace. His body of work echoes across time. His cinema touches you even when it is detached from your own lived reality. That is where it triumphs. No other film-maker in Bengali cinema was so diverse, so commercially successful yet humble like the illustrious Tapan Sinha.

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Om Books International (2 October 2021)
Language ‏ : ‎ English
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 208 pages
ISBN ‏ : ‎ 978-9385252860
Available on ‏ : ‎ Amazon

More to read

‘Tapan Sinha Deserved More’

Never Have I Made the Same Kind of Film: An Interview With Tapan Sinha (Part-I)

Saluting Indomitable Human Spirit: Tribute to Tapan Sinha

Modes of Storytelling: Tapan Sinha’s Kshudita Pashan (1961)

 

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Whether you are new or veteran, you are important. Please contribute with your articles on cinema, we are looking forward for an association. Send your writings to amitava@silhouette-magazine.com

Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at amitavanag.net.
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