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Interiorising Bangla cinema and its decline

by Suruchi Mazumdar

Uttam Kumar passed away thirteen days before I was born. For the uninitiated, he was the matinee idol of popular Bengali cinema of post-Independent era. As the news of the star actor’s untimely and sudden death spread, my heavily pregnant mother – nonchalantly risking my impending arrival and ignoring my helpless father’s vain objections – wobbled through a swelling and maddening crowd to catch a last glimpse of the hero of her youth and childhood.

Uttam Kumar was the last superstar of Bengal. The power of his stardom drove the fortune of an entire film industry for decades. His death in 1980 triggered the downfall of the once-celebrated Bengali popular film industry that emerged as the cultural epicentre of Indian cinema in the years prior to Independence and resisted the influence of an ever-imperialist Bollywood over the following decades. It is intriguing that despite its promising start the industry never quite made it as a formidable media capital (I borrow the phrase from Michael Curtin to refer to commercial media industries that serve multiple, linguistically different markets) and followed a steady path of decline like many other less-fortunate film industries of the world. I argue that it is not just the limitations of regional language that constrained the industry to its local cocoon. Calcutta’s once-celebrated film hub was rather constrained by its cultural distinctiveness that curbed its ambition of conquering distant markets.

However, in its early years the industry showed signs of outward expansion. According to Sharmishtha Gooptu, in the 1930s the Calcutta-based iconic New Theatres studio monopolised most of eastern India and also forayed in non-Bengali speaking markets in parts of north, west and south India by dabbling in both Hindi and local productions and tapping on effective distribution strategies. The integrated studio system of the era nurtured some of the country’s leading actors and technicians like star Pramathesh Barua, Kanan Devi and Nitin Bose.

Despite its outward flow of influence, Bengali commercial cinema retained its cultural uniqueness. In contrast to the multi-cultural talent pool of Bombay film industry (Bombay being a commercial port city), the studios of Tollygunge (the location of studio clusters in the southern part of Calcutta, it earned the industry its nick name, Tollywood) were the cultural reserve of the educated and cultured middle class Bengali elite, commonly referred to as bhadralok (the term has deep socio-cultural and moral connotations). Gooptu noted in her article on New Theatres that in the 1930s the Calcutta-based studios started drawing investment from the Bengali bhadralok – the films of the previous era were financed by Parsi businessmen from western India. The exclusive involvement of the Bengali cultural elite in the production process rendered to the movies a high brow distinctive character (for instance, plots on literary/ social themes) that struck a chord with middle class audience.

Since 1940s the industry’s out-bound tendencies were obstructed by external conditions like the impact of the Second World War, Partition, the loss of the east Bengal (now Bangladesh) market to Pakistan and economic crisis (as noted by Gooptu ). The gaze turned inwards and its cultural peculiarity was further enhanced. In the post-Independence era, Bengali commercial cinema survived on a very powerful star system led by the silver screen’s eternal golden couple, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, whose appeal catered primarily to Bengali sensibilities; the actors saw limited success beyond Bengal. Thus there could never be pan-Indian appeal because of the movies’ inherent Bengaliness. Though many popular films of the 1950s and 1960s borrowed from Hollywood hits and renowned music directors of the era experimented with popular Western music, the cultural proximity with the local audience offered the industry a winning edge over the growing popularity of popular movies.

In contrast, film industries like Hollywood and Bollywood that emerged as powerful media capitals continued to look farther and farther away from their immediate locations (thanks to resources and distribution) and in the process willingly abandoned cultural specificity over multicultural appeal. For instance, the Hindi film industry, despite being centred in predominantly Marathi-speaking Bombay, never adopted Marathi uniqueness and continuously tampered with its cultural content to appeal to pan-Indian audiences and larger international markets at a later stage. Unlike the premiere film studios of Calcutta, Bollywood production was never dominated by a single community.

As the historical trajectories of world’s powerful media capitals have shown, tendencies of outward expansion and lack of cultural distinctiveness are among the key inherent factors that help film industries stand the test of time. Down its history, Tollywood missed out on both. As the industry sped through the path of decline in the 1980s and 1990s, it lost its prime audience base – the Bengali middle class. In recent years there have been attempts to win back lost glory with so-called middle-road Bengali cinema. Dealing with urbane themes, they opened to mixed reviews and some even had Hindi versions for non-Bengali markets. Optimists can chin up! I prefer nostalgia.

References:

  1. Playing to the world’s biggest audience: the globalization of Chinese film and TV (2007). By Michael Curtin. University of California Press.
  2. The Glory that Was: An Exploration of the Iconicity of New Theatres. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Vol. 23 (2003). By Sharmishtha Gooptu.

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