Power to the Bourgeoisie

How the Left left Bengali cinema

Uttam Kumar in Nagar Darpane (1975). His death in 1980 led to mass hysteria among millions of fans. {{name}}
01 December, 2011

ON THE EARLY MORNING of 25 July 1980, Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar’s unexpected death at the age of 54 shook West Bengal. By the following morning, it seemed all of Calcutta was on the streets. Howling millions followed the vehicle carrying his remains. Not far from the scene, in a closed room filled with cigar smoke on Alimuddin Street, the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Pramode Dasgupta, the party’s powerful general secretary, asked his comrades, “Is our government associating itself with the funeral of a Tollygunge matinée idol?” The resounding answer was ‘no.’ The government of the people was not going to associate itself with the commercially elevated leading figure of bourgeoisie cinema. Later that day, Dasgupta harrumphed, “Tell Buddhadeb [Bhattacharjee, then minister of culture and information] that the decision to stay away is right. But Jyotibabu wants a wreath to be sent. Go ahead. I have no objection.”

Inside this uncorroborated but widely reported story sat another. The CPI(M) may not have known it at the time—in fact, few did—but the party’s link with the general public was irreversibly broken that fateful morning in July. After all, only three years prior, the party had swept to power with a huge majority. It considered itself a progressive curator of not just the people’s political mandate, but also of cultural productions. How wrong it was!

Among the many institutional failures of the CPI(M)’s governing logic was the zealous disregard for Bengali popular cinema. And after several replays of this mistake, on issues even more damaging to its prospects, this disconnect took its revenge last May when it was kicked out of power. The moment Mamata Banerjee had a scent of the impending change of regime, one of the first cultural talismans she revived in public discourse was Uttam Kumar, an unfailing instrument of mass mobilisation. She appealed to the middle class, an unfamiliar constituency for her, through her public speeches and meetings, to support her in paying the screen god his long-delayed due. An archive of his films and a film city in his name were among Banerjee’s many promises. It paid her off handsomely.

Uttam Kumar’s death left Bengali cinema deeply divided—between morbid arthouse cinema and gaudy, sickening, retrograde melodrama. The CPI(M) put its weight behind the former, pouring money into what it thought were serious, durable narratives which would cement its self-image as a custodian of high cultural tastes. With this favour to the cultural imperative of ‘good cinema’, (which found fruition in the establishment of the Nandan West Bengal Film Centre in 1986) they thought they could help build a repertoire that, in the years to come, would reinforce the party’s own founding mythology through cinematic memory. All this while, it left popular cinema, once the touchstone of Bengali cultural taste, to languish in abandonment. The urban middle class was complicit in both these ploys, buying into the cultural redemption the party was offering.

This meant that those wanting to work in cinema outside the infrastructure of Tollygunge had to cosy up to the CPI(M)’s cultural apparatchiks, who then took a call on what constituted meaningful cinema. This inevitably meant censorship on more than one level and a stifling, self-denying definition of cinema. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, therefore, ‘good cinema’ was all about poorly lit, sadly textured, boringly mounted, brooding cinema that in no time lost all its cultural value. Moreover, by the mid-1980s, the great Bengali auteurs—Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Tapan Sinha—had either passed away, retired or were barely productive. There was hardly any political cinema; on the contrary, the ‘serious films’, backed by government patronage, focused on family and gender, petty crime in the cities, the changing moral landscape of the middle classes, and other issues that added little to the rich thematic repertory of Bengali cinema through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. There were, of course, exceptions like Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane, Goutam Ghose’s Paar and Mrinal Sen’s Mahaprithibi. But they were largely it.

Popular cinema, having lost both public and institutional backing, sought out the lowest common denominator—by cutting costs and looking for desperate patronage in the farthest of places, distant from the judgement of the city and its dominant classes. The result was a three-decade washout—a series of cheesy, inane and lurid potboilers stripped of reason, rhyme and sensibility, as well as any entertainment appeal. An entire generation grew up in the cities of Bengal in the 1980s and 1990s without having seen a single fine specimen of Bengali popular cinema.

The inevitable change came with liberalisation: the CPI(M) began to lose its credibility, even as its finances dwindled. Private finance began to back serious cinema; and the new money brought in new production values and a better work ethic. Years of television had created a bank of credible actors and technicians; and then, with a bang, multiplexes arrived. Between mid-1990 and mid-2000, with the arrival of Rituparno Ghosh and a few others—and the presence of those like Goutam Ghose and Aparna Sen—providing new traction, things suddenly improved for the arthouse camp.

Cinema started a new conversation with the urban middle class, who began coming back to the theatres. This, in turn, enthused more producers to jump right in. Serious cinema, unchained from the burden of being government-approved tableaux, talked mostly now about the universe of the class which patronised it. A self-consciously isolationist Bengali ‘chamber cinema’ was born. This school has now gained in financial and intellectual weight and reach, and a whole new crop of young directors, producers, technicians, actors and storytellers have emerged, especially in the past three to five years. Not that all of them make chamber cinema—but these new filmmakers are not burdened by having to make revolutionary cinema either. Nor does the cultural logic of late capitalism demand so. The change of regime this year has merely taken away the last bit of guilt of the middle classes, which had wholeheartedly welcomed this new cinema even as it pretended to  bleed for the lost Leftist years.

In the past five years, popular cinema, once left to pot-boil itself to destruction, has also managed to invite new money to create a different paradigm, one hardly better in content but infinitely better in terms of production and dissemination. The best-known faces in popular cinema, disowned by the earlier regime, have now warmed up to Mamata, even managing an election ticket or two.  Mamata, on her part, does not feel she bears any responsibility to back serious cinema, as the CPI(M) had. Instead, she patronises popular cinema, promising new studios, film cities, new infrastructure. This year, she levelled the playing field of the Kolkata Film Festival, once so closely held by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Shah Rukh Khan inaugurated the festival and a special tribute was paid to Uttam Kumar.

Bengali cinema is currently in a state of jubilation: never in the past three decades have its fortunes been so secure. But none of this means that Bengal produces seriously world-class cinema like it once did, many decades ago. But that’s another story.