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Reel wars & real concerns at cinematic debate

The debate started even before the debaters could take the stage, with an auditorium full of argumentative Indians sparring over the motion: “Bengali films of recent times have failed both commercially and intellectually.” The occasion was the XXIV Father Joris Memorial Nihil Ultra Trophy Debate, organised by the St. Xavier’s College Calcutta Alumni Association, in association with The Telegraph on Saturday.

From Chander Pahar and Jaatishwar to Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen, Bengali cinema from every era was invoked by the speakers to wage this war of words, moderated by filmmaker Anjan Dutt. The verdict: The motion was carried.

Highlights

FOR: Kunal Sarkar (cardiac surgeon)

We recognise the fact that because a Kamaleswar [Mukherjee] exists today, because an Anjan Dutt exists today, the dark horizon is occasionally lit with the glimmer of light. But that does not lighten the gloom that is cast over the industrial scenario in general and obviously the film industry in particular. I admit Chander Pahar was an exceptional contribution to Bengali cinema. But Kamaleswar, you and I will have to scale many more mountains and cross many more moons before you realise that the level of industrial and economic viability where you can hold your head high and claim that today the Bengali film industry has come to some level of independent viability and on competitive terms with the rest of your colleagues and peers in the Indian film industry.

Two hundred and twenty million Bengali-speaking people in the world, 40 per cent on the west side of the border, 60 per cent on the east. We have been so engrossed with the little scrunches, with the two drops of water going from this dam to the other, that this region, this state has not had the depth of vision to integrate politically, culturally, cinematically in terms of the entertainment industry, the film industry, the publication industry. The entire Bengali-speaking mass of Bangladesh remains at a cultural divorce from this notional concept of West Bengal. I fail to understand why! If this is not intellectual suicide then what is?

FOR: Dhritiman Chaterji (actor)

Mrinal Sen gave me a piece of advice once, which is never indulge in nostalgia, never say ‘our time everything was better and everything was good’. So therefore our intention is not to say that things were better in some mythical past, whatever that past might be. We are trying to address a concern… a misgiving that is slowly taking shape that due to supposed recent successes the Bengali film industry both creatively and commercially is becoming complacent. There is an air of self congratulation, patting on backs, saying nobody has done what we have done. And that is not good for the industry….

The point about the films of Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, who today remain the point of reference when it comes to intellectual or creative content in Bangla cinema, the point is that all of them told stories that were not just stories. They started from the particular but then transcended to a universal. They spoke to the world. They were not content just by speaking to the urban Bengali middle class in South City Mall or City Centre. Where is that speaking to the world now? This is an age of anti-intellectualism, where cinema is no longer the medium for intellectual deliberation. Perhaps things will change and perhaps one of them will make it change. But to make the change you have to be self-critical, abjure self-congratulation and above all you have to cultivate humility.

AGAINST: Mayukh Bhadra Chowdhury (second-year student of economics, St. Xavier’s College)

The first reason why I feel intellectually Bengali cinema is not diminished is because of the fact that we have a sense of purpose…. The objective of movies today is expression of ideas. This is something that is lacking considerably in all movie industries today. The fact that cinema has become so predictable…. The fact that you know that even when a Vicky Donor comes along, which tells you it’s something different, by the time the movie is over it will come back to that same point.... The Bengali industry welcomes you to new ideas, new expression, bold directors, which gives you in recent years a Rituparno [Ghosh], who did not restrict himself to love between a man and a woman but also explored other relationships, like the love that a mother has for her daughter, in Unishe April.

Next, the competitive nature of the industry seen today. Throughout the ’80s we have known the industry to be centred around one particular figure — either Tapas Pal or Prosenjit. Today the whole idea is being broken. You have 10 leading heroes like Parambrata and Abir. Bengali films have seen commercial success and the reason I say that is that we have found our audiences. Today if you have Paglu 2, which caters to the masses and gives them what they want in terms of commercial cinema, you also have far more refined films that appeal to the intellect of an individual, like Shabdo.

FOR: Ananya Chatterjee (academician)

Chander Pahar is a novel on which we have grown up. Our dreams of Africa were shaped by this novel, so when Chander Pahar came we were all very excited and went to watch the film. We are still looking for that Chander Pahar. While watching the film I was trying to look for some intellectual element — tried looking for it in Dev’s cowboy hat, I tried looking for it in the fork he was eating with, when he was pouring a bucket of blood on his head and I kept looking. So what are we looking at? We are looking at smart films versus cinema. We are here to discuss cinema and not some smart techniques, some smart business in the name of cinema, which is murdering cinema. We are talking about films that move us, films that do not necessarily require smart techniques, which do not require manipulative distribution, films that we remember even today. Films like Pather Panchali, where Durga’s death sequence and when Harihar comes home, that sequence moves us even today.

AGAINST: Arijit Dutta (of Priya Cinemas)

Somehow the audiences we have in Bengal today — intellectual and commercial — do not match, where commerce is concerned, where ticket sales are concerned. Meghe Dhaka Tara, excellent film, Phoring, superb film, but how many of you’ll have even heard of it? Over the years we have been used to probably 50 films a year, today around 150 are being made and 111 being censored. At the end of the day, remember filmmaking is a commercial venture…. It is someone’s money so one has to look at the commercial aspect while making a film.

Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen was an out-of-ordinary and bigger-than-life film. We still have those guts. I am not going into the making, but Chander Pahar is also a larger-than-life film… this means we still have the guts to do it. We have the guts to do Mishawr Rawhoshyo. The film industry has gathered up the guts and resources and is giving much more on the plate than ever before.

FOR: Ashoke Viswanathan (director)

The major reason why not just Bangla films but films in India and in the world are on a low is because we are at a very important transition point in history — philosophically, intellectually, technically. We have moved away from celluloid. Films are not shot on films any more and we have made this transition at a time when digital technology has still not come up to the same level as celluloid and yet we have discarded film totally. Therefore it is a political and economic disseram funded by big corporates like Viacom who would like the market to be flooded by products from Sony. So if that be the case and we are living in a transitory world obviously the interest in cinema on the whole is less. So to say that recent films have failed commercially is not always a fault of the films but a fault of the so-called post-modern globalised situation.

AGAINST: Kamaleswar Mukherjee (filmmaker)

(Aldous) Huxley had an apt definition of intellectuals — ‘An intellectual is a person who’s found one thing that's more interesting than sex.’

I don’t call myself an intellectual, it is a slang to me. How can I be an intellectual if I am instinct-driven and I believe every human being is instinct-driven? If we are intellectual then why are we waiting here? Why are we not protesting against all the wrongs and all the social injustice?

We are every time trying to conform to our societal norms and definitely we are compromising not only in the film industry but also in our lives. And I do not consider my audience to be intellectuals too.

If the question of rise and fall of cinema arises I would say ever since we got civilised sometimes we got good works of art sometimes we got bad works of art and frequently we got bad works of art and the legacy follows in Bengali cinema too, or any other cinema industry in the world.

You cannot get 90 per cent of cinema to be good in any industry.