Late on Monday afternoon, in a spacious conference room on the sprawling premises in the heart of ‘new’ Lucknow. Sahara Pariwar managing worker and chairman Subrata Roy Sahara makes a pledge to the newest entrants into the ‘world’s largest family’. “Together, we will revive the Bengali film industry in a big way. Let’s go for it,” says the man at the head of many tables, drawing lengthy applause from a 30-plus Tollywood delegation of actors, directors, producers, singers and exhibitors flown in for the mega meet.
Late Monday evening, on the manicured lawns by the sparkling poolside of Roy’s palatial house in Sahara Shahar. Soumitra Chatterjee, the elder statesman of the team from Tollygunge desperately seeking some Sahara, turns back the clock a few decades to jive to Ke tumi, nondini, being belted out by Indranil Sen and Rupa Ganguly. Joining the grey-haired hero are Moon Moon Sen, Indrani Halder, Tapas Pal, Prosenjit, Pallavi, Tota… From a distance, Jaya Bachchan — who changed her travel plans from Johannesburg to touchdown at the Sahara helipad for the Tollywood meeting — just can’t stop clapping.
For both work and play, it was a day to remember for the Bengali film industry. It marked, according to Ray’s favourite actor, “the most positive first step” towards a Tollywood turnaround he had witnessed in his long, long career, “the beginning of a shared dream”. And calling almost all the shots, three hours of Sahara flying time from the Tollygunge studios, was the man they all call “Saharashree” (Jaya, of course, refers to him as “dada” and gets things done before one can say ‘Jai Sahara’).
Roy — almost entirely in Bengali, interspersed with Hindi and English — was messiah, mastermoshai and Mogambo (as singer Indranil Sen put it) rolled into one. As messiah, he promised to address the problems of infrastructure and start pumping funds into film production. “I have decided to give the necessary infrastructure support to the industry, but in a proper planned manner,” said Roy, before being bullied by “bon (younger sister) Jayaji” into committing to transfer to Calcutta “the best sound equipment in Asia” imported by Sahara and parked in its Mumbai studios.
Other concrete commitments from the Pariwar, with establishments touching 1,700, workers numbering seven lakh and assets approaching Rs 50,000 crore, ranged from the financing of “Banglar gourab” Rituparno Ghosh’s film with Amitabh Bachchan, the debut directorial venture of Prosenjit, Vande Mataram, and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam for the small screen, to the creation of a dedicated space for artistes’ adda (or maybe seminars).
The luring of Bollywood producers to a Calcutta with hi-tech equipment and studios to the screening of Bengali films in special shows at the cinemas across the country Sahara is planning to buy. Pushing the Centre for export of Bengali films to Bangladesh to persuading “good friend” Goldie Hawn and her Hollywood gang to take films from Bengal to the world stage.
As mastermoshai, Roy held forth about “product and packaging… entertainment and emotion… marketing and mission… glamour and governance”. The way forward, he insisted, was to create rich products, package them well and sell them hard to the 22-crore Bengalis across the globe and more. “We, at Sahara, don’t believe in mediocrity or half-measures. We aim to make the Bengal film industry the biggest and the best. Bollywood is paying for putting packaging before product and we must achieve the right balance.”
As Mogambo (the no-room-for-failure badman in Mr India), he was “khush” enough with turnout and tenor of the talks. But he did add a near-ominous note: “I am driven by my mon (heart), not mastishko (mind), emotion, not commerce, in this project. But I want to make two things clear — do not try and exploit my Pariwar and do not indulge in groupism. The minute I realise that there are people who are trying to make a murga out of us, they must be boycotted by the rest. That is my demand.
“Money is not the issue, par kaam apnapan se karna hai (but we must work as one),” said Roy, tossing the ball into the court of an industry keen to be adopted.
The lead roles in Tollygunge, “to prove that we Bengalis can work together and revive this industry”, will be played by Prosenjit (also vice-president, east, Sahara Manoranjan, and whose wife Arpita enjoys a special place in the Roy home) and Soumitra Chatterjee. The support cast will include the likes of Deepankar De, Ranjit Mullick, Rupa, Pallavi and EIMPA president Arijit Dutta.
But the key, one feels, is held by Jaya Bachchan, who admitted that “as an artiste”, she would not like to work in the present infrastructural conditions of Tollygunge. “Dada can start making a difference from tomorrow and I will make sure he does,” smiled Jaya, who pushed for a three-day workshop in Tollygunge to put down the things to do, “immediately”.
Tollywood’s time starts now.