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BONG REEL

Tollygoonj: Sound of success

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SFF spoofs, college romances, family sagas, uber-cool sex comediessuddenly, audiences for Bengali cinema are spoilt for choice. Never before was Tollygunge this imaginative or prolific.

Suman Mukhopadhyay is a busy man these days. This three-film-old director in his mid-40 s is making another three films this year. Kangal Malsat, the first one, is a quirky story about flying subalterns launching a guerilla attack on the establishment. Made in record time, it is now ready for release. His second one, a new-age interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore's Shesher Kobita, is currently being shot in the rain-soaked Shillong hills.

"These two films have little in common and I don't have a particular audience in mind. Audience taste is evolving fast, producers are forthcoming and censorship principles are changing - all this is making life easier for filmmakers like me, " says Mukhopadhyay. Once he is through with the postproduction of his period drama, he would like to start working on the third - a contemporary adaptation of Hamlet. Onir, his university batchmate, is doing something similar in Hindi. "Is he? That's so exciting!" Mukhopadhyay sounds upbeat.

Bengali cinema appears to be rediscovering its Midas touch. The number of Bengali films released will touch the 150 mark this year. And the variety is mind-boggling. From college romances to family sagas, uber-cool sex comedies to a serious look at suicides, the audience is spoilt for choice.

Till a few years ago, the annual turnover of Bengali cinema was a few crores, says veteran filmmaker Goutam Ghose. A hundred prints per film was a rarity. Today, at least a dozen films have done business to the tune of several crores. A dozen more are about to reach the magic figure. The star system is yet to take a beating. But the audience has opened up. Without popping a single star, a film like Ichchhe may run for ten weeks. Male fantasy may be redefined by a Tin Yaari Katha. Saswata Chatterjee, the menacing Bob Biswas in Kahaani, has his hands full of late.

From sadak-chhap roles to playing Ritwik Ghatak in a biopic, Chatterjee is a busy actor indeed these days. When she is in Kolkata, Paoli Dam, the revenge-seeking Kavya in Hate Story, is getting under the skin of a Tagore heroine in Elar Char Adhyay. Bengalis working in Mumbai, including Dibakar Banerjee and Shoojit Sircar, are said to be considering Bengali film offers. Will Sujoy Ghosh, and Onir be far behind? Bengali cinema is obviously set for a quantum leap.

Sanjoy Mukhopadhyay, professor at the Department of Film Studies, Jadavpur University, ascribes this resurgence to two factors - improved filmmaking technology and liberalisation. The political uncertainty of the 1970s had affected film studios with the best of Bengali technicians shifting base to Mumbai. But the digital system has changed it all. "From a work of art in the age of 'mechanical reproduction', filmmaking has become a work of art in the age of 'electronic reproduction'. Most regional cinemas have gained in this process, " he says.

It has also triggered the decentralization of Indian cinema. With cameras available for within a lakh of rupees and film school graduates in plenty, Bengali cinema has managed to reinvent itself.

Q's Gandu, a rage among the urban youth, is a case in point. Anurag Kashyap is among the followers of this cult film that went viral on the net. Kashyap is reportedly producing Q's second film.
Bengali cinema, by and large, catered to the middle class. It hit a purple patch in the 1950s. But the 1970s brought in a period of uncertainty and the middle class struggled to cope. Post-1991, the middle class has begun to consolidate. The aspirations and the desires of the new middle class started finding resonance in the cinema of Rituparno Ghosh. The sectarian division between art and commerce in cinema eroded. Today it serves the metropolitan clientele like never before. With cinema halls spruced up, resto bars tucked into lounges and niche audiences getting their due, the movie-going experience has undergone a sea-change.

Frames are getting picture-perfect with admen taking to full-length features. Aneek Dutt, the latest to join the bandwagon, has achieved celebrity status overnight. His refreshing Bhooter Bhobishyot (Future of the Past) is a rib-tickling spoof made in quintessential Bengali idiom. "The entire film wanted to mock at the middle-class nostalgia, " says Mukhopadhyay. Made on a shoestring budget, Bhooter Bhobishyot is high on intelligence quotient. "I've two more scripts ready, " says Dutt.

When Anjan Dutt's Bong Connection and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's Anuranan finally broke the multiplex jinx in July 2007, the last bastion of Bollywood had been stormed. Today the multiplex cake is equally shared by Bengali, Hindi and English films. Nobody bats an eyelid if a Bengali film gets a better opening than a Hindi blockbuster.

Interestingly, Bengali cinema is winning admirers across continents. There is nothing unusual about a Bengali film festival in San Francisco or London or an annual award function in Bangkok. When the state government sought tenders to set up a 500-acre film city on the outskirts of Kolkata on the banks of Ganga, 20 private parties, including big entertainment groups, submitted proposals.

Interestingly, mainstream masala movies have not done well this year. Mostly remakes of Telugu and Tamil originals, these potboilers did recover their investment but failed to break new ground. Even the formidable Prosenjit Chatterjee's return to his action-hero avatar did not set the cash registers jingling. The new audience simply refuses to be taken for a ride. They are warmer to Chatterjee playing Dr Ahmadi in Shanghai.

But a few miles off Kolkata, the story is different. Except for some pockets in Howrah, Burdwan and Birbhum, formula films reign supreme. No one knows this better than Mamata Banerjee. She was prompt in picking two popular celluloid stars for the 2009 elections. And guess who received the maximum cheer when she celebrated her historic victory last July? It was Dev, the latest matinee idol!

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