Commerce and creativity make for a marriage haunted by incompatibility. West Bengal’s film industry — or Tollywood as it is popularly known in imitation of its more successful cousins, Hollywood and Bollywood — has neither commerce nor creativity. Serious film-making ceased in the ramshackle studios of Tollygunge when a very tall man stopped making films in the Eighties and then died in 1992. Mrinal Sen, always second by a long distance to Satyajit Ray, has also not been prolific in directing films in recent years. That leaves Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh. This by any reckoning is not a long list of creative talent. The scarcity of acting talent in Tollywood is evident from the fact that Soumitra Chatterjee, a star from a past galaxy, is still popular with directors and viewers. Commerce is shy of Tollywood because it does not get returns from Bengali films. It prefers to invest elsewhere. The Confederation of Indian Industry, which now aims to revitalize show business in West Bengal, will have to address the issue that Bengali films do not command the kind of viewership it did in the days of yore when Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen stole the heart of a generation.
The CII could perhaps begin by accepting a distinction between Bengali films and West Bengal’s film industry. The distinction is not as otiose as it might appear. The interest of West Bengal’s film industry — read Tollywood — may not lie in the making of more Bengali films. The latter, because of the paucity of talent and declining audience, is no longer a viable investment proposition. Tollywood has thus moved to making low-grade films aimed at a rural or moffusil market or in the making of television serials. These have become the staple of West Bengal’s film industry because the industry in its self-image sees itself as the maker of Bengali films. This has placed West Bengal’s film industry in a cul de sac. Tollywood’s revival lies along a different path altogether. It should make Hindi films aimed at the national market. The operative word here is Hindi films, not Bengali films imitating Bollywood, or Tollywood stars aping Bombay filmstars. West Bengal has a plethora of talented technicians — a very large number of technicians in Bollywood are Bengalis — and studio rent in Tollygunge is relatively cheap. West Bengal’s film industry should maximize these advantages.
Such a scenario may not be as ominous for Bengali films as might appear to prophets of doomsday and Bengali chauvinists. A rise in the fortunes of West Bengal’s film industry will inevitably have a beneficial impact on Bengali films. The filtration impact will encourage Bengali films to cultivate a niche for itself. It will not be irrelevant here to underline the fact that Bengali films have been at their best in catering to a niche audience. Ray was appreciated and adulated by a small circle of intellectual elites, and the duo of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen captivated a middle-class urban audience eager to live out their romantic fantasies in celluloid. Bengali films should stick to their turf, and the film industry of West Bengal should aim to make more money.