Historicizing a Past, Homogenizing a Tradition: A Note on the Discourse Generated around Bengali Cinema in the 1980s-1990s

…films were more innocent then, more romantic, more magical. The stars of the 1930s were smarter and more elegant than those of today. Memories of adolescence, as Sally Alexander points out, bear the weight of possibility, those dreams of a better life, of a more beautiful self, that pervade the adolescent’s intense wondering what might become. For the first movie made generation, the dreams were saturated with cinema; today their cinema is gone. But the dreams are not forgotten1.

In An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, Annette Kuhn beautifully discusses how for the 1930s generation in Britain, certain patterns of remembrance of cinema going got associated with their memories of growing up, of adolescence and childhood. The memory of the film texts, and the memory of cinema-going or the possibilities of cinema-going were an important element of the shared ‘dream’ of a generation who lost their cinema but kept the dream alive with them. Consequently, it is not rare for any generation habituated to a mode of film going practice and certain patterns of film culture to become disappointed when they encounter a newer film culture.

However, in historicizing a film culture we only recognize something as a ‘break’ when the past/present trope or lamentation for something lost goes beyond the generational conflict. We may call it a break when the remembrance of ‘something lost’ acts not only in the registers of a generational difference but also in some other broader parameters – in larger socio-political measures, in the patterns of the constitution of new elements of social class formation or in alternative patterns that ‘reclaim’ that loss. In the 1980s-1990s, Bengali cinema experienced just such a sense of ‘loss’, and the attempt at ‘reclaiming that loss’ in film texts, production and film discourse took place at a scale that can potentially be called a ‘break’ in the Bengali cinematic practice. Interestingly, this perception led to a practice of writing Bengali film history that established a historical trajectory of cinema and Bengali culture. Further, parallel to the emergence of the new production circuit and the advancement of cinematic technology2, in the 1980s Bengali cinema experienced new form of cinematic knowledge which manifests concerns around the development of Bengali films. Accordingly, my concern in this article is to explore the process of this historisization and its politics while relating it to the question of class imagination, policy of cultural representation, media, community and taste discourse. Further, I will attempt to look at the intersecting planes and interactions between state bodies and cinema as a mode of communication and will explore the politics of governmentality and good taste and questions of community and popular culture written over the history writing practice. As theorists have already problematized the concept of ‘objective’ history writing and the presence of the ‘innocent eye’ in interpreting the narrative of “what really happened”, it is obvious that the historicizing discourse that I am pointing towards is not devoid of any agency. The agency is demonstrated in ‘finding’ the ‘provided’ facts of Bengali cinematic past and ‘selecting’ and ‘ordering’ them in a generalized narrative. Drawing from Claude Levi-Strauss, Hayden White elaborates that ‘History’ is never simply history, but always ‘history for’, history written for some interests and with an aim. My paper also attempts to explore these interests and the aims3.

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In 1977 West Bengal experienced the emergence of Leftist regime which remained in power for more than three decades. During their regime, and especially in the 1980s, the CPI(M) government took serious initiatives to ‘promote’ film culture and to educate the film crowd in West Bengal. The State government and their cultural rhetoric and the media discourses around the cinematic production of West Bengal in the 1980s not only focused upon developing cinema in Bengal but also initiated a battle against ‘bad taste’ that the mainstream film industry allegedly promoted4. On the other hand these two terms ‘sanskriti’ (‘culture’) and ‘apo-sanskriti’ (bad culture) that appeared in public sphere in the mid to late 1980s spread almost like wildfire and created anxiety regarding a ‘crisis’ of Bengali films. And a knowledge discourse about Bengal’s cinematic past was developing through the networks of new media, state institutions and intelligentsia. Newer communication events like film screenings, educational programmes like film appreciation courses held at state-run exhibition places and mediums like television took part in this new paradigm of knowledge production. This new paradigm of knowledge production led to the ‘formation’ of the historiography of Bengali films.

Hence, the 1980s-1990s is a period when historical awareness about Bengal’s cinematic past was developing in different sections of the Bengali public sphere. To begin with, in the film society scenario a major change came about with an awareness generated about the earlier Bengali cinematic practice. My personal interview with Shamik Bandyopadyay and the interview of Bandyopadhyay published in Vol. 10 of Silhouette revealed how in this period film societies took an interest in earlier Bengali mainstream film makers and their technical excellence5. Veteran film society activists like Partha Raha or Surya Bandyopadhyay however see this as ‘selective’ awareness of some filmmakers like Tapan Sinha or Tarun Majumdar and an ignorance about others6. In popular press discourse, features about the earlier ‘glory’ of Bengali cinema became quite regular with a nostalgia discourse generated around an icon like Uttam Kumar or film makers like Asit Sen or Ajay Kar. Not only did this discourse circulate in the written form, but also many discussions and forums were organized remembering that ‘cinematic’ past. Apart from these, an exhibition center like Nandan made it possible to revisit that earlier ‘glory’ of Bengali cinema in its retrospective sessions. Television’s growing presence and the telecasting of earlier Bengali films on Doordarshan’s Bengali channel and later on other Bengali cable television channels contributed to foregrounding this cinema and making people aware of and remember a popular tradition.

Thus, in this historicizing attempt, a sense of the lost past was generated in different patterns and through different mediums. With constant comparisons between the present and the past of Bengali cinema, a common narrative of Bengali cinema history was forming. Its interesting to notice that when the news of the inauguration of Nandan was published on 2nd September 1985 in three different Bengali newspapers (Anandabazar Patrika, Dainik Basumati and Jugantar), a particular article titled “Bangla Chalachchitrer Kramabikash” (“The Development of Bengali Cinema”) featured in each of these three newspapers where a linear historical trajectory was presented tracing the initial years of Bengali cinema, then the glorious middle period of the 1950s and the 1960s and the decaying contemporary. This is the linear narrative structure that is mostly followed in all the other historicization attempts and that provided the basis of the rewriting of Bengali cinematic history.

This may be traced to the emergence in the 1980s of a new group of film makers and producers with films like Shatru (Anjan Chowdhury, 1984) and Gurudakshina (Anjan Chowdhury, 1987). The narrative frameworks heralded by directors like Anjan Chowdhury in the earlier 1980s were followed by filmmakers like Swapan Saha and Haranath Chakraborty in the late 1980s and 1990s with films like Mangaldeep (Haranath Chakraborty, 1989), Bedenir Prem (Swapan Saha, 1992), Ajker Santan (Haranath Chakraborty, 1997), Pabitra Papi (Anup Sengupta, 1997) or Baba Keno Chakor? (Swapan Saha, 1998). While being extremely popular, these films earned widespread criticism from a section of the Bengali bhadralok intelligentsia for their ‘vulgarity’ and the ‘crudity’ of their narrative model. Popular newspapers and magazines published letters of a dissatisfied Bengali film audience, and the opinion of industry persons regarding this ‘crisis’ of Bengali cinema. Perhaps the main reason for bhadralok discomfort was that the mainstream model of Bengali cinema started incorporating ‘masala’ elements like song and dance sequences, stereotypical villains, modes of hyper melodrama which were seen as closer to Hindi film aesthetics in the public sphere. There were instances when Hindi films were dubbed in Bengali7 and Bengali films like Tinmurti (Pramod Lahiri, 1984) had a Bombay star cast. In the 1990s Bangladeshi film production houses also made films like Beder Meye Josna (Motiur Rahman Panu, 1991) or Swami Keno Asami? (Manowar Khokan, 1997) that became hugely popular in the Bengali mainstream film market. The popularity of these films caused a strong sense of disapproval and anxiety amongst the bhadralok intelligentsia.

In this context, some films like Unishe April (Rituparno Ghosh, 1996), Asukh (Rituparno Ghosh, 1999), Paromitar Ekdin (Aparna Sen, 2000) Ek Je Achhe Kanya (Subrata Sen, 2001), Shanjhbatir Roopkathara (Anjan Das, 2002) emerged in the mid-90s in direct opposition towards the mainstream and constructed the paradigm of the post liberalization Bengali ‘parallel’ cinema, not only in terms of their use of particular aesthetic devices or their cinematic appeal but also their imagination of an audience, their marketing structure, their production patterns and the logic of their publicity. Even as dissatisfaction with the mainstream model continued in the press and in public sphere discussions, popular press columns appreciated these films for regenerating a ‘lost’ literary pleasure and reclaiming the lost (bhadralok) audience of Bengali cinema.

Significantly, these films also contributed in the ‘history writing’ practice of Bengali cinema. In films like Unishe April, Asukh, and Paromitar Ekdin, a legacy of the Bengali cinematic past is imagined as the ‘exceptions’ of the contemporary. Press features and other historicization attempts imagined films carrying that legacy. On the one hand, the historical trajectory works to imagine a continuing thread between the cinematic exceptions in the contemporary and the ‘glorious’ past of Bengali film history, and on the other hand, it differentiates them from the ‘vulgar’ and contemporary mainstream.

What is important for us concerned with this history writing practice is how in this process the question of class imagination became the central concern. The limitation of this history writing practice is that it homogenizes the contradictory tendencies of Bengali cinema in a narrative of bhadralok culture and Bengali-ness. This historical trajectory does not talk about instances like Bengali directors and technicians working in the South Indian films shot in the studios of Calcutta during 1931-1935, or the influence of Kashmiri or Parsi theater figures in films like Jhinder Bandi or Khudhita Pashan during the 1950s and the 1960s. Similarly, the 1980s instances of Bengali cinema ‘remaking’ Bombay film hits were mentioned as the only exceptions. Even in popular New Theaters films like Vidyapati or Chandidas, the art direction, acting style, and background music is in many ways much closer to other regions of India than bhadralok Bengali culture, but the historical trajectory never talked about this.

This seems so because this Bengali bhadralok class or Bengali culture is seen and treated as an ahistoric, fixed category that remains stable across time. Bhadralok, literally meaning ‘gentle folk’ in Bangla, is a term widely used in Bengal to refer to the educated, though not necessarily affluent, middle and upper sections of society, and is referred as a cultural entity. In the Bengali film industry, this bhadralok presence gained significance in the 1930s with the remarkable success of New Theaters that continued in the later decades of the Uttam-Suchitra era. In Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation, Sharmistha Gooptu sees how the New Theaters’ success led to a Bengali bhadralok cinema supported by its close connections with Bengali literature, the literati and the discourse of Bengali culture. What she calls the “perfect marriage of economics and respectability”8 and the discourse of Bengali-ness is, according to her, continued in different generic practices, cinematic figures and directions in the later period of Bengali cinema, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s. Hence, even though the being and becoming of the bhadralok class or Bengali culture the changing idea of the self, socio-political transformations, the emergence of newer belief systems and other major and minor social phenomena have always acted on this category as in the case of any other social and cultural type, the historical discourse of the 1980s completely ignores the slipperiness of these terms while using it in history writing9. This ‘ignorance’ not only speaks of the limitations of these history writing practices but also indicates a policy of class imagination and an ‘othering’.

The perception of ‘high’ culture against the assumed ‘low’ has always been significant in the Bengali cultural history and the cultural frameworks in the different periods of Bengali society describing the bhadra were many, but in the 1980s many of them were united in their disdain of popular Bengali cinematic practice. The cinema of this period and their representation of Bengali culture earned widespread criticism from a segment of the Bengali intelligentsia and they were seen as something ‘new’ and non-bhadra in the historiography of Bengali filmic practice. Perhaps this conscious ‘outing’ of a sphere from the so called old bhadra perspective and a neo-bhadra sphere works as a primary factor behind the formation of Bengali film history. What appears interesting to me are the way two different groups, film historians and contemporary filmmakers, frequently use the term ‘middleclass’ and bhadralok in their mapping of the audience for the Bengali films. In the imagination of popular film makers like Anjan Chowdhury, Swapan Saha or Haranath Chakraborty this middleclass bhadralok10 is different from what is traditionally thought of as the bhadralok middleclass of Bengal. What is this new class then, and when did it emerge? Historian Parimal Ghosh’s article, “Where Have All the ‘Bhadraloks’ Gone?” (2004), and his ongoing research on the history of the twentieth century bhadralok answers this question partly.

Ghosh in his article, while mapping the transformation of Calcutta neighborhoods, observes the change in the belief system that marked the term ‘bhadralok’ from the colonial period to more recent times. He observes the changed code of conduct about being and belonging to bhadralok culture during 1970s and 1980s in Bengal. According to Ghosh, a significant change took place in the bhadralok profile during this period since with the expansion of Calcutta as a city, a new section of the rural population created a new world of ‘semi migrants’ who increasingly started visiting the city as a source of work supported by the development of the suburban railway system connected to Calcutta11. Ghosh argues that this massive number of people traveling to and from the city everyday is in clear contrast to what happened previously “when middle class babus instead of commuting daily settled down in the city”12. This narrative of this new city based emergent class explains the threatened existence of the old bhadralok sphere in Calcutta.

For veteran film journalist Ratnottoma Sengupta who has been working with Times of India for more than twenty five years, this new emergent (middle) class became the ideal target audience of Bengali cinema from the mid-1980s13. She points out another significant aspect of this new film culture. According to her this new film culture offered not just a new kind of folk entertainment and celebration of Jatra14 aesthetics in films which were unconventional compared to earlier Bengali cinema, but also these films constructed the pleasure they offered through a strong denial of the conventional ‘bhadralok pleasure’ of Bengali cinema. This was a denial of what was considered to be gentle, decent (literally the bhadra part of bhadralok culture) and sensible and targeted towards a ‘better’ cinema going class, and on the whole a denial of the Bengali literary and cultural tradition and the importance of education for the cinema going class. This newly gained access to the city and city bred culture by an emergent lower middle class which in turn generated new cultural needs of this class was seen as a serious threat in the press and by the urban educated public sphere. Furthermore, this resulted in a serious engagement with the ‘crisis narrative’ of contemporary Bengali cinema and a need to (re)write Bengali film history. The politics of strategic omission and homogenization of Bengali film culture function as an ideology in this historical trajectory.

The over-all discourse of this Bengali film history involves the Bengali Press, prestigious magazines, published books, television etc in the creation of the discourse of ‘good taste’. For instance, Partha Raha in his book Bengali Cinema writes about Bengali cinema’s ‘now’ and ‘then’ narrative not only in terms of the deterioration of film quality and the emergence of the control of Tollywood by the non-Bengali film producers chain (with surnames like Kejriwal, Agarwal or Khaitan) but also with reference to a style of film making that does not follow the ‘rich tradition’ of Bengali cinematic practice. Somen Ghosh in his book Bangla Cinemar Palabadal (The Changing Phase of Bengali Cinema) has tried to analyze this ‘crisis’ ridden period of Bengali cinema when he observes that “when a totally unrealistic, lower standard film made its silver jubilee at the box office, it expressed our shameless nature in our cultural characterless-ness” (Ghosh). In the writings of others like Partha Raha or Rajat Roy the ‘cultural superiority’ of earlier Bengali films compared to both other regional films of that period and contemporary Bengali films is discussed.

Hence, this is a period in West Bengal’s film culture when a certain line of Bengal’s historical development ‘outed’ itself more publicly than in the other periods and in that process different institutional practices joined together to form a past/present comparison of Bengali cinema that became a necessary trope in that ‘outing’. Further, certain ideas and imaginations of class and the politics of class representation became important in this process of ‘outing’. In this process of ‘outing’ the contradictory tendencies of Bengali film history and its cultural representations are homogenized in a narrative of uniform bhadralok Bengali-ness. The idea of class in this history writing practice resides in numerous subsidiary texts15 and their intertextuality. They are ‘formed’ in a system of self-definition and self-differentiation. Drawing from Partha Chatterjee, I feel that in the ‘forming’ of history, different sectors also take part in ‘making’ that historical past in the public16. Chatterjee writes that while writing a history of the past, if the ways of writing “are inextricably entangled in the ideologies of the historian’s present, is not the historian, by ‘doing’ history, also participating in the ‘making’ of it?”17. Because in this history writing, the ‘present’, the crisis ridden ‘present’ of contemporary Bengali cinema, was strongly present, perhaps this historical awareness, and historicizing of Bengali cinema18 in the 1980s, not only indicates the cinematic transformation of Bengali film industry but also narrates a reality of ‘social transformation’ of West Bengal.

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Notes:

1 See Annette Kuhn, Ch. 5, “Growing up with Cinema” in An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London & New York: I. B. Tauris & Co, Ltd, 2002) p. 134.
2 For instance in the 1980s the emergence of colour became a major factor in the codes of narrative structure and visual registers of the contemporary Bengali films. And the filmmakers consciously thought of a new kind of editing technique that would complement the new technology.
3 See Hayden White, “Interpretation of History” in his Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) p. 56.
4 Firstly, the state government produced a number of films and secondly they set up institutions like Nandan and the Rupayan lab that took part in their promotional mission.
5 Author’s interview with Shamik Bandyopadhyay, September, 2010. Also see interview of Shamik Bandyopadhyay in Silhouette, Vol. VII, 10th November 2009, p. 142- 156.
6 Author’s interview with Partha Raha, July, 2010 and with Surya Bandyopadhyay, December, 2010.
For instance the dubbed version of Hindi films like Mastan (Aseem Samanta, 1989) or Dalal (Partho Ghosh, 1993) had parallel releases in Bengal.
8 Gooptu, “An Appeal Beyond Aesthetics,” p. 2414.
9 Refer to Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Aseema Sinha, The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India: A Divided Leviathan (Indiana University Press, 2005) for comprehensive comments on bhadralok history.
10 Author’s interview with Swapan Saha and Haranath Chakraborty.
11 Parimal Ghosh. “Where Have All the ‘Bhadraloks’ Gone?” Economic and Political Weekly, January 27 2004.
12 Ibid, p. 250. Ghosh says about this previous migrating class: “They were the typical colonial merchant office employers, the clerks; also the school and college teacher and other poorly paid white collar workers, who could not afford to bring their families to the city. They constituted the rank and file of the bhadralok…Today however the new travelers often belong to a different social background: the domestic workers, the hawkers and peddlers in the city’s market, the transport workers… in brief the daily wage earners of different categories. The city now has to cater for a huge number of people who previously had little access to it.”
13 Author’s interview with Ratnottoma Sengupta, 23rd December 2010.
14 Jatra is a category of Bengali theater that runs commercially in rural West Bengal. Jatra plays are usually performed on stages that are open all sides in open air. Use of minimal prop or no prop, extensive use of musical instruments and a particular kind of ‘loud’ acting style are some of the characteristics of Jatra plays.
15 Here by subsidiary texts I mean the publicity and media texts that were generated along with film texts, like posters, or other publicity materials, review columns of these films in newspapers etc.
16 Here I draw from Partha Chatterjee’s introductory essay of his edited book History and The Present (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002) p. 12. Chatterjee uses the term ‘by doing’ history how one also takes part in ‘making’ that history.
17 Ibid.
18 In recent times this historical trajectory has experienced some changes. Whatever the reason may be, in last five/six years, public sphere discussions of Bengali cinema have moved from the ‘crisis’ of the contemporary towards the ‘celebration’ of contemporary Bengali films. In this celebratory account, the news of recognition of Bengali art house films on national/international film festivals is shared along with the ‘record breaking hits’ of the mainstream releases. And both the new age filmmakers of Tollygunge industry and the media discourses generated around their work engage with this neo taste discourse. So the strategic ‘outing’ of the neo taste discourse in the 1980s-1990s gets transformed into the broader policies of inclusion in the contemporary media discourses generated around the Bengali films. These remodeling of bhadralok cultural code and formation of new taste discourse are questions which deserve serious academic interests, but are not within the scope of this paper.

Bibliography:

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Biswas, Moinak. “Jatiyota O Atmaparichayer Taan.” Anandabazar Patrika 2 April 2011. Print.
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Chatterjee, Partha. History and The Present. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002. Print.
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Gooptu, Sharmistha. Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation. New Delhi: Roli Books, 2010. Print.
Gooptu, Sharmistha. “Changing Contexts, New Texts.” Television in India: Satellites, Politics and Cultural Change. Ed. Nalin Mehta. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Kohli, Atul. Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.
Kohli, Atul. The State and Poverty in India: The Politics of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.
Kuhn, Annette. “Growing up with Cinema.” An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory. London & New York: I.B. Tauris & Co, Ltd, 2002. Print.
Mittra, Smita. “Post Colonial Modernity: Melodrama and Self- Fashioning in Popular Bengali Cinema of the 1950s-1970s.” M.Phil Dissertation. New Delhi: Unpublished JNU, 2012. Print.
Nag, Anugyan “The Contemporary Bengali Film Industry: From Tollygunge to Tollywood” M.Phil Dissertation. New Delhi: Unpublished JNU, 2012. Print.
Sarkar, Sumit. Writing Social History. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.
Sinha, Aseema. The Regional Roots of Developmental Politics in India: A Divided Leviathan. Indiana University Press, 2005. Print.
Sur, Ansu ed. The Bengali Film Directory. Calcutta: Nandan, 1999. Print.
White, Hayden “Interpretation of History.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. Print.

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Spandan Bhattacharya has done his MPhil in Cinema Studies from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University and MA in Film Studies from Jadavpur University. Currently, he is working as a visiting faculty at the Department of Media Studies, University of Calcutta and NSHM knowledge campus, Kolkata. He is also working on a publication project on art writing in Bengali periodicals with the Asia Art Archive. As part of his doctoral research he is working on Bengali film industry from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He may be contacted at spandn@gmail.com.

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