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The Golden Thread of Bengali Cinema: A Journey Through 100 Years

November 17, 2019 | By and

Coinciding with the Kolkata International Film Festival 2019, the National Museum in collaboration with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur of the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) and author, film historian and archivist SMM Ausaja unveiled a grand exhibition to celebrate the glorious history of Bengali cinema through rare film memorabilia. Opening on November 8, the exhibition will be on display for a month.

The exhibition entrance at Metcalfe Hall

The exhibition entrance at Metcalfe Hall (Pic: Joy Sengupta)

As you climb up the grand steps of the Metcalfe Hall, and step into the archaic beautiful gallery, a beautiful cut out of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen on one side and Satyajit Ray holding his trademark pipe on the other greet you at the arched gateway, giving you the feel of entering into a hall of fame of glorious history strewn with milestones.

The first wall, on the right, on entering the exhibition speaks volumes about Bengali cinema and Bengali music. The wall bears a sketch of Hemanta Mukherjee (known better as Hemant Kumar across the subcontinent) and a photograph of Uttam Kumar – the heavenly combination of body and voice, which has created cinema and musical nostalgia that can’t ever be forgotten.

Hemant Kumar and Uttam Kumar

Hemant Kumar and Uttam Kumar

Titled ‘The Golden Thread of Bengali Cinema’, the exhibition showcases a mix of memorabilia including rare film posters, lobby cards, art works, booklets, film stills and also an LP record cover at the newly restored heritage building, the famed Metcalfe Hall on Strand Road.

SMM Ausaja was approached by FHF to dig into his collections on Bengali cinema for this exhibition. “It was a very challenging project for someone who is not a Bengali. I was especially worried about how Bengalis would react to the selection,” says SMM Ausaja. “I decided to do it in consultation with few of my closest Bengali friends and colleagues including Shrikant Dhongade, Rajib Gupta, Rohit Mookherjee, Rajesh Kumar Singh, Antara Nanda Mondal, Bikramjit Gupta, Sukanto da, Saillesh Acharekar, Sounak Chacraverti and Amitava Nag.”

SMM Ausaja and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

SMM Ausaja and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur

Along with FHF, Ausaja classified the exhibition into two parts – legendary personalities and path-breaking films that have mattered over the last 100 years. “I didn’t want to include anything that people may find not required,” emphasises Ausaja. “To avoid that, I identified the landmarks of Bengali cinema in terms of films and the legends of Bengali cinema across years.”

The selection was nothing less than a Herculean task. To shortlist 20 legends and 40 films from Bengal’s most popular as well as most critically-acclaimed cinema was a Hobson’s choice – whom to keep and whom to leave out. “The criteria strictly is prominence, whether in creative or in commercial terms. Films that may not have been box-office hits but are world class cinema had to be included just as superhits that left a mark in public memory,” says Ausaja.

Satyajit Ray's sketch, still and cartoon

Satyajit Ray’s sketch, still and cartoon

There are walls dedicated to Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha among others where we can find the original posters of their legendary films like Pather Panchali, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Kabuliwala and Sagina Mahato. Two sketches of Ray adorn one of the walls, and reflect the personality he was.

There are three walls dedicated to the Bengali screen queen Suchitra Sen, which feature posters of her famous films like Sare Chuattor, Agnipariksha, Indrani, Uttar Phalguni, Trijama, apart from photographs and a beautiful sketch of the legend.

Suchitra Sen's still and posters

Suchitra Sen’s still and posters

Walls have been dedicated to the early era of Bengali Cinema, focusing on New Theatres. The exhibition features photographs of Raichand Boral, Pankaj Kumar Mullick – the musical doyens of the New Theatres, a LP record cover of the first star actress of the Bengali Screen, Kanan Devi, apart from a poster of the famous Pramathesh Barua film, Devdas and a still from Mukti.

A wall that relives the evergreen music of Bengal showcases Sachin Dev Burman, one of the eminent music directors and singers of early Bengali cinema, with a sketch of the legend. The same wall has a beautiful portrait of Geeta Dutt, one of the famous singing voices of Bengali films.

Sachin Dev Burman, Soumitra Chatterjee and Geeta Dutt

Sachin Dev Burman, Soumitra Chatterjee and Geeta Dutt

“The only thing I made it a point to make sure is that what I display is not online,” says Ausaja. “Otherwise there is no novelty factor. If people see something and say ‘Wow, I have never seen this before’, then it has a novelty value. Also the variety of memorabilia on display keeps the people glued.

The exhibition also features photographs of distinguished film personalities like Soumitra Chatterjee, Utpal Dutta, Aparna Sen and others. The directors, apart fron Ray and Sinha, whose photographs have been exhibited include Bimal Roy, Debaki Kumar Bose. Photographs of Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, legendary singers who have created unforgettable musical moments in Bengali films have also been exhibited.

“I apologize for the omissions. There definitely would be some because it was a very limited display and I could not include everybody. Say, if there are 5 people who are equally deserving and I have space for only one frame left, then I will be unfair to the balance four. That can happen in any exhibition.”

It is Ausaja’s second big exhibition after the much talked about 75 Frames on Amitabh Bachchan.

About the exhibition:

বাংলা চলচ্চিত্রের সুবর্ণরেখা

The Golden Thread of Bengali Cinema

bengali cinema exhibition

Any journey down the history of Indian cinema will have to begin from here, Bengal. This city, Calcutta, has been the torchbearer for many path-breaking firsts in Indian cinema, not only Bengali cinema. Think of one of the first filmmakers of India. It was Hiralal Sen, a Bengali photography enthusiast, who went on to direct short films, advertising films and documentaries, beginning with his first film based on a series of scenes from ‘The Flower of Persia’ in 1898. The Royal Bioscope Company which he set up with his brother Motilal Sen in 1898 was India’s first movie company. Hiralal’s films were shown after stage shows in Star Theatre and Classic Theatre and were very popular before a devastating fire doused all the negatives.

A film needs to reach the people. As the moving pictures started becoming popular, Jamshedji Framji Madan, took up the initiative of exhibiting films as early as 1902 in Calcutta. He founded Madan Theatres, the company that set up India’s first cinema hall Elphinstone Picture Palace in 1907. In the first half of the 20th century, Madan Theatres emerged as the largest filmmaker, distributor and theatre business in India.

History is not only about firsts. It is also about milestones in innovation and creativity that would become trendsetters. In this regard, New Theatres Studio played a peerless role that will always be remembered as a shining and inspiring game changer. It was its founder Sir BN Sircar’s vision that he drew in a huge pool of talent into his studio. Imagine a team that had the phenomenal filmmakers such as Pramathesh Barua, Debaki Bose, Dhiren Ganguly, Phani Majumdar; technicians and cameramen such as Nitin Bose, Mukul Bose, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee who went on to become illustrious filmmakers themselves; actors and singers such as KL Saigal, Kanan Devi, Prithviraj Kapoor, Uma Sashi; music directors such as Pankaj Mullick, RC Boral, Timir Baran. With such people putting their minds and efforts together, what can you create except excellence?

Debaki Bose, a poster of Devdas and Dhiren Ganguli

Debaki Bose, a poster of Devdas and Dhiren Ganguli

The year 1935 saw the biggest revolution in the journey of the film song. Nitin Bose along with his brother Mukul Bose and music directors RC Boral and Pankaj Mullick introduced the pre-recorded song in the Bengali film Bhagya Chakra and its Hindi version Dhoop Chaaon. That was the start of playback singing in films and it grew into a vibrant world of music in Indian cinema.

Bengali films drew richly from literature, especially Sarat Chandra and Bankim Chandra. Can we ever forget the massive impact of PC Barua’s Devdas in Bengali (1935), and its Hindi version that had KL Saigal in the lead? This connect with literature gave Bengali cinema powerful storylines and characters that not only created great entertainment but also had a huge impact on the social psyche.

Bimal Roy Kanan Devi Pankaj Mullick

Bimal Roy, Kanan Devi and Pankaj Mullick

Along with literature, Bengal’s cinema was also projecting the changing social realities in the 1940s and ‘50s. Bimal Roy’s Udayer Pathe in 1944 was a landmark social-realist text and so was Nimai Ghosh’s Chhinnamul (1951) that was India’s first neo-realist film even before Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali whereas Hemen Gupta’s ’42 evoked strong patriotic feelings. Romantic musical films got a massive boost when Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen came together to create some of the biggest hits of all times. Actors par excellence such as Soumitra Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sabitri Chatterjee set new benchmarks in performances, that even today mesmerize audiences.

Posters of Pather Panchali and Kabuliwala

Posters of Pather Panchali and Kabuliwala

When we look back on the path-breaking films made by stalwart directors like Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar, Asit Sen, Agradoot, Tarun Majumdar, and others, we find that these films also gave us such talented actors in character roles such as Chhabi Biswas, Chhaya Devi, Tulsi Chakraborty, Rabi Ghosh, Bhanu Banerjee, Bikash Roy, Utpal Dutt to name just a few who could carry films on their shoulders alone.

Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak opened up a whole new world of cinema that depicted a life that was grounded and real. Pather Panchali changed the way we looked at cinema and unleashed a wave of films that wished to break away from the common trope of make-believe worlds on screen. While Ray’s films were mellifluous human documents, Ghatak’s reflected the anguish of the uprooted. The third of the triumvirate Mrinal Sen’s films spoke of the struggles of the common man. The Oscar for Lifetime Achievement conferred on Ray is a proud milestone for Indian cinema as a whole.

With such an illustrious history, Bengali cinema has only moved from strength to strength. Films by Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose and others ensured that the art of cinema is not lost from the land. In its truest sense, a journey down the golden walkway of Bengali cinema is like sauntering in a magical hall of fame that has continued to inspire generations of artists of Indian cinema.

More to read

75 Rare Memorabilia, Unique Artworks to Celebrate Amitabh Bachchan’s Platinum Year

A Manzil of Memories: Rare Memorabilia Of Basu Chatterji’s Films

Salaam Cinema – An Extraordinary Tribute

 

 

 

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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

Editor in Chief, Learning and Creativity; Consulting Editor, Silhouette Magazine As a professional business journalist, Antara spent 14 years covering business stories but alongside kept alive her passion for writing on cinema. She writes extensively on the changing trends of music, direction and filmmaking in cinema and her articles aim to provide well-researched, complete and accurate information on the legends of cinema for the movie enthusiast. She is also the Founder-Editor of Blue Pencil, a New Delhi-based publishing house and recently edited and published Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, the biography of SD Burman written by HQ Chowdhury. Her articles have also been published in Dearcinema.com and Du-kool.com. Antara is Editor-Creative Director of Wisitech InfoSolutions Pvt. Ltd.
All Posts of Antara Nanda Mondal
Sounak Gupta is a regular blogger and writes on various websites. His writings (in English and Bengali) as an amateur author have also been published in magazines and news dailies in India and abroad. Currently doing his masters in Literature, Sounak takes keen interest in Music. One of his loved passions is the collection and archiving of Indian Music on Gramophone Records. His YouTube channels GeetaDuttDevotee and Sounak93 are great storehouses of rare and peerless Bengali music.
All Posts of Sounak Gupta

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