Tribute to three doyens of Indian cinema

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

In 1951, legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir came to India to shoot his film ‘The River’ (Le Fleuve). The story was about three young girls who lived in Bengal and who fell in love with an American soldier. Late Ramananda Sengupta, India’s oldest cinematographer, worked with the master as the operating cameraman. To learn more about the technicolour photography, Sengupta was sent to London. The same year, ‘The River’ won the International Award at the Venice film festival.
My father Amar Dutta, a close friend of Sengupta, had a brief stint at Tollywood and had the privilege of working with greats like Bimal Roy, SD Burman and Ritwik Ghatak. Renoir is relevant here because it was him who enthused Satyajit Ray and drew him to the world of cinema.
In the 1950s, a new wave of filmmaking known as parallel cinema, seen as an alternative to the mainstream commercial cinema was started by Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Satyajit Ray began his carrier as a commercial artist with DJ Keymer, a British advertising agency as a ‘junior visualiser’ in 1943. After his brief stay there he joined the Signet Press, a publishing house in Calcutta owned by Dilip Kumar Gupta, where his job was to design covers for books. There, Ray designed covers for books like Nehru’s Discovery of India. One day he got hold of Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhay’s Aam Atir Vepu, the children’s version of Panther Panchali, and with this possibly the seeds of destiny of Ray as a filmmaker was sown.
In 1947, he founded the first film club of Calcutta and the first film screened was Battleship Potemkin, a 1925 masterpiece by Sergei Eisenstein. Ray’s role as an art director came to an abrupt end after watching Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves during his visit to London in 1948. De Sica influenced him so much that he thought of making his first feature film Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) using actual locations and non-professional actors as was the case with Bicycle Thieves.
Ray says, “All through my stay in London the lessons of the Bicycle Thieves and neo-realist cinema stayed with me.” But he developed his interest of independent filmmaking only after he met Renoir in Calcutta in 1951. He used to meet Renoir very often in his hotel and discussed about filmmaking. These meetings bore fruit soon. The versatile genius directed one of the greatest films, Pather Panchali, ever made in India. This was an adaptation of Bibhutbhusan Bandopadhay’s novel of the same name.
On October 27, 1952, Ray shot the first sequence of his epic film, a classic long shot scene of Apu and Durga running across a field to see a passenger train passing by. During the schedule there were several interruptions due to lack of funds and Ray found it difficult to complete his film. A friend of Roy’s mother requested then Chief Minister of Bengal Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy to release some fund to complete the film. He agreed and it took three years for the film to see the light of the day. After the premiere on May 3, 1955, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Pather Panchali was released in Calcutta the same year. Among the guests present at the special screening were Dr Roy and the Prime Minister of India.
Ritwik Ghatak, a genius, was a contemporary of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. A lifelong communist, Ghatak was pained much by the partition of Bengal and the struggle of middle class refugee families. He will be remembered for his portrayal of harsh reality, feminism and partition of Bengal. According to critics, Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha, known as the partition trilogy, are the most powerful films ever made in the world cinema.
Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star), one of his best films, is the story of middle class refugee family. The central character Neeta is a symbol of sacrifice, lost everything, her fiancé, job and finally her health when she contracted tuberculosis. Penultimate sequence of the film was shot in a sanatorium in Shillong. About Meghe Dhaka Tara, the famous film critic Steven Schneider said it is one of the ‘1000 movies you must see before you die’.
Subarnarekha also narrates the life story of three refugees in Bengal. Some long shots by renowned cinematographer Dilip Ranjan Mukherjee around an abandoned airfield in Subarnarekha could easily be mistaken as shots seen in European films by great masters.
Mrinal Sen, the celebrated filmmaker, too was a passionate follower of Marxist ideology and his earlier films clearly shows his leftist leniency. Sen successfully utilized the restless political atmosphere of the seventies in Bengal in a number of his films. He expressed his anguish on social inequality and class struggle in his Calcutta trilogy — ‘Calcutta 71’, ‘Interview’ and’ Padatik’. Many of his films portrayed poverty, hunger and class struggle between the poor and the urban elites.
Calcutta 71, based on four short stories, narrated the agony of the common people amidst persistent political violence in 70’s Bengal. ‘Akaler Sandhane (In Search of Famine), considered by many as Sen’s best, is the story of a director and his crew members who go to a village to shoot a film on Bengal famine of 1943. They discovered a harsh reality that there is no need to go in search of the famine as it is ever present in the villages of Bengal.
‘Ek Din Pratidin’ is the story of struggle of a lower middle class family where the only earning member, a girl do not return the whole night, because of compulsions. Bhuban Shome, a 1969 film by Sen, was a classic deviation from normal and is often regarded by critics as a landmark and the origin of the new Indian cinema.
Bhuban Shome (Utpal Dutt), a high profile railway officer and a very strict bureaucrat, discovers the charm of life when he went on a duck shooting trip and encounters a village tribal woman in a remote village in Gujarat. The countryside, bullock cart drive, simple village folk and sweet Gauri, the village woman who helps him find shooting locations, all changed his vision of life. Even the arid lands of Gujarat come alive with the brilliant photography by KK Mahajan.
The British politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton rightly said, “Genius does what it must, and talent does what it can,” so very true when it comes to the doyens of Indian cinema.

(The author is former head of the Department of Geography,
St Edmund’s College)

Photo courtesy: Google Images

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