Tapan Sinha chose stories that reflected society in all its varied colours. His speciality lay in making his images speak with masterful use of symbolism.
If one were to wonder what makes cine maestro Tapan Sinha’s films a cut above the rest, it is their sheer simplicity and innocuous manner of storytelling – a straight, uncomplicated narrative structure that slowly grows on you, excellent use of background score that create moods and an unobtrusive technique that stays carefully away from over-dramatisation, relying instead on subtle symbols and immaculate characterisation.
His films not only received both critical and popular acclaim, they did well financially and went on to inspire other filmmakers.
Sinha largely drew his story ideas from celebrated literary works or real-life incidents, which is why his characters were so very identifiable. They reacted to situations as any of us would and yet went on to meet challenges in a way that set inspiring examples for others.
The Dada Saheb Phalke Award for 2006 for Tapan Sinha, came as the crowning glory to a vast and diverse repertoire of films that have won acclaim in India and around the world including 19 National Awards and recognition in international film festivals in Berlin, Venice, London, Moscow, San Francisco and Locarno among others.
Taking literature to celluloid
Take for example Haatey Bajarey, based on an autobiographical story by Bonophul which revolves around a crusading doctor (Ashok Kumar in a stellar role) selflessly serving his patients in a remote village or Kabuliwallah (1957), based on Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated short story, which explores the deep emotional attachment a homesick Kabulliwalah develops with a little Bengali girl who reminds him of his daughter he left behind back home. It is the celebration of simple humanism in these films that touched a chord with the audience instantly.
Sinha turned to Tagore twice more – to explore the bohemian spirit of an adolescent boy in Atithi and the remnants of a discontented past in a haunted castle in Khudito Pashan.
Sinha’s reliance on literature began right from his first film Ankush in 1954, which was based on Narayan Gangopadhyay’s story Sainik with an elephant as the central character.
He chose stories that reflected society in all its varied colours – the impatience of the young generation in Aikhoni (based on a story by Ramapada Choudhury), the mission-less, lonely lives of four widows in Nirjan Saikate (based on a story by Samaresh Basu ‘Kalkut’), the frustrations in a prisoner’s life in Louhokaupat (based on a novel by Jarasandha) and the perils of social inequalities in rural Bengal in the forties in Hansuli Banker Upokautha (based on a novel by Tara Shankar Bandopadhyay).
In fact, only a person with supreme confidence in his craft such as Sinha could dare to bring a classic literary work Hansuli…, which is steeped in lyricism and natural imagery, to celluloid with immense box office success.
The sensitivity with each Sinha delved into each of these social problems etched the protagonists in the minds of the viewers. Nirjan Saikate (1963) not only received the President’s gold medal, it won the National Award for all its five lead actresses Chhaya Devi, Renuka Devi, Bharati Devi, Sharmila Tagore and Ruma Guha Thakurta, which has happened only once in the history of Indian cinema.
Never one to fight shy of experimentation, Sinha presented Soumitra Chatterjee who was fresh from the success of Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, as a picture of pure evil opposite Bengal’s screen god Uttam Kumar in Jhinder Bondi (1961), which was loosely inspired from The Prisoner of Zenda.In Harmonium, Sinha used the journey of a musical instrument to look at the various sections of society, from an aristocratic household right down to the mean streets.
Impeccable use of symbolism
Crafted passionately with a tight script, a perfect choice of actors, locations and music and coupled with excellent camerawork and outstanding editing, these lyrical and sensitive films from Sinha have stood the test of time. His speciality lay in making his images speak more than a thousand words with masterful use of symbolism. For instance, Jatugriho (based on a short story by Subodh Ghosh) had an estranged couple (played by Uttam Kumar and Arundhati Devi) meeting by chance in the waiting room of a railway station after years of separation.
As the past becomes alive again, they deliberate whether to reunite but decide against it. As they leave by separate trains, heading in opposite directions, the shot cuts to the waiter in the kitchen hanging up their tea cups in two separate hooks, far away from each other but looking very much a pair. A remarkable closing shot that summed up the tragedy of marital discord.
As a filmmaker, Sinha’s enviable repertoire showcases a rare capability to tackle varied subjects with equal dexterity – be it films inspired from literature and real life incidents or films that took a satirical look at society’s whims under the guise of comedy or entertaining films made for children.
An inspirational look at real life incidents
Contemporary, real life incidents that had deeply touched Sinha at the core found expression in cinema – the stoic struggle of an old tutor and his family against a gang of murderers (Aatanka), the social ostracisation of a victim of gang-rape and her amazing fight for justice (Adalat O Ekti Meye), the relentless struggle of a crusading scientist to discover a leprosy vaccine and his losing fight against a close-minded, bureaucratic social system (Ek Doctor Ki Maut) and the disabled, crusading doctor’s never-say-die spirit which revives the life-force in a girl struck with paralysis (Wheelchair) are just a few examples.
In all these films, Sinha saluted the indomitable human spirit to fight against all odds, making his seemingly ordinary protagonists emerge as extraordinary and inspiring individuals.
Aadmi aur Aurat is another such ode to pure human compassion through the struggle of a simple villager to help an unknown pregnant woman reach the town hospital in time for delivery.
Although rooted in his native Bengal, Sinha’s films had a universal quality, holding a mirror up to contemporary Indian society, reflecting its contradictions and dichotomies in a no-frills-attached manner.
In Apanjan, he turned the spotlight on the moral dilemma of unemployed youths forced into needless violent politics and the agony of an innocent old village woman caught in the middle.
In Galpo Holeo Shotti (1966), Sinha’s protagonist was a do-gooder cook who soothes the discordant notes in a joint family making them realize each other’s value and appreciate the simple joys of living together. Apanjan was remade in Hindi by Gulzar as Mere Apne and Galpo Holeo Shotti by Hrishikesh Mukherjee as Bawarchi.
Sinha himself remade two of his films in Hindi – Khoniker Atithi as Zindagi Zindagi where a helpless young widow (Waheeda Rehman) in a desperate bid to cure her disabled son returns to her former lover (Sunil Dutt), a doctor running a village hospital and Sagina as Sagina Mahato (1974) in which Dilip Kumar gave a sterling performance as a tea garden coolie who rises to become a leader and is exploited by political vested interests.
Moving away from a serious tone, Sinha also took recourse to comic satire to portray social superficialities through the laugh-riot Banchharamer Bagan, which depicted the struggle of a nearly dying villager to save his beautiful garden from being taken over by a landlord and Ek Je Chhilo Desh, a hilarious fantasy about a scientist’s discovery of a potent drug that makes people speak the unpleasant truths about themselves.
Finding the child within
One cannot conclude a sketch of Sinha without mentioning the films he made for children that have an amazing childlike innocence about them. From an adventure story set in the Andamans Shobuj Deeper Raja and the tale of a poor village boy’s friendship with a white elephant Safed Haathi to a little boy’s courageous fight against an exploitative feudal landlord Aaj Ka Robinhood, Sinha is one of those rare filmmakers whose repertoire of children’s films have won numerous laurels in India and international film festivals.
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