CULTURAL LABOUR: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India by Brahma Prakash. Oxford University Press India, 2019.
Brahma Prakash’s Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India is based on 15 months of extensive fieldwork on five major folk performance genres practiced in northern India, particularly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The book covers three domains of cultural labour, studying folk performance as ‘an object of study, a model and a method and as an alternative space of struggle’1describing the performance traditions of subaltern communities in caste-based Indian society.
Ethnographically, the book presents a worm’s eye view of folk performances collected in four districts of Bihar, namely Patna, Nalanda, Vaishali and Jehanabad on such genres as bhuiyan puja (worship of land celebration), bidesia (theatrical performances about the travails of migrant labour) and Reshma-Chuharmal (a Dalit ballad depicting a love saga of a Rajput woman and her Dalit paramour who belongs to the Dusadh caste), and dugola (singer duels). Along with this, aesthetics of performances of Gadar and Jan Natya Mandali from India’s southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh respectively have also been discussed.
Analytically, this book engages with the Brahmanical denigration of the performance cultures of labouring communities in India. Through the prism of performance studies, the book elucidates the performance of cultural labour (theatrical performance produced by labouring bodies of lower castes) by deploying such metaphorical terms or tropes or thematic categories as landscape, materiality, viscerality and (syn)aesthetics, performativity and choreopolitics, invoking both affective and performative dimensions of performance. The book is based on ‘ethnographic research, archive material and personal memory’.2 The discussion in the book begins its subject matter with Antonio Gramsci’s quote that invokes the mainstream society to take folklore and performances associated with it seriously and not treat it as some kind of an eccentric outpouring of emotions that belies aesthetic standards. The placing of the quote is so clear that it would almost lead the perspicacious reader to easily know what lies in the subject matter of a highly engaging book.
Why is there such hostility from the purveyors of the mainstream culture towards the performance cultures of the labouring poor of lower castes, one may ask? The answer lies in the harsh material conditions from where emerges the acerbic language of subaltern performers that refuses to venerate the Brahmanical discourse.
The twice-born social elites cannot take the lampooning or ridiculing of their socio-cultural practices by those they consider both socially and culturally inferior. Therefore, they resort to eviscerating folk performance of its artistic significance as well as reducing its value within the cultural economy. This denigration shown to the performance cultures of lower caste laboring bodies, however, blatantly overshadows their ontological connection that is deeply embedded into their material conditions. Thus, the aesthetic value of subaltern performance comes to be hegemonized by the sanskritised custodians of high art, thereby marginalizing it further.
After setting this background to the cultural conflict between these two ends of India’s caste hierarchy, Prakash begins to discuss a conceptualization of folk performance in India with the chapter, ‘Landscape’. The essence of the argument here is how the ritualized performance in a land worship ritual (bhuiyan puja) accords lower caste drummers (manariyas) a power to assert themselves, but the same assertion at times faces ritualized oppression.3 A subtext of the argument is how upper caste patriarchy is gradually changing the nature of Bhuiyan puja, with deities such as Bhuiyan maiya (mother figure) being ‘sidelined and replaced by Bhuiyan baba’ (father figure) by the cultural politics of patriarchal social elites.
Subaltern performances, peppered with gestures, wordplay, double entendre, are considered to be risqué or indecent and deeply resented by the upper caste social elites. Such obscenity driven performances as launda naach (a dance form involving female impersonators) and jokers’ satires in bidesia are employed as tools to unmask upper caste hypocrisy. The bidesia joker in his satirical performance makes sly innuendos through verbal and bodily gestural utterances that stand in stark contrast with the cultural codes by which Sanskritised social order is constituted. Juxtaposed to morality, materiality of such folk performances is constantly berated as obscene and vulgar by the antediluvian mindset; it is by erasing materiality that puritanical morality secures its credibility. But Prakash rightly argues that these ridiculing artists are fine artists and their art forms performance arts. Convinced by their materialist aesthetics, he therefore naturally resents those puritans who objectify the subaltern artist’s performance aesthetics as sexualized, and not performing, bodies.
Along with materiality, viscerality is another signifier by which folk performances are underscored, constituted as much by ‘intensely mixing bodily rhythm, sense and genre’ as by the instinctive and sensational participation of audiences in a folk performance. In this context, Prakash presents the case of dugola performance (a singing duel between two male singers) detailing how the duel invokes the verbal participation of the audiences. The power of visceral energy, created by jocular exchanges between bidesia joker and his audiences, does not remain confined to performers alone but spills over and draws in the participation of their audiences, creating ‘a community bound by senses’. Prakash considers the viscerality by folk performers as an articulation that problematizes power relations between upper castes and lower castes and in Indian society.
Whether it is bhagat (shaman) and manariya’s intense participation in bhuiyan puja or untouchable dugola performers engaging in acerbic exchanges between themselves along with their audiences or the offensive joker drawing in the participation of his audiences or Gaddar and his troupe invoking general audiences’ participation to generate feelings for the revolutionary movement in Telangana, they all show the boisterous presence of viscerality. Viscerality in folk performance effectively bridges the chasm between the touchable (upper caste audience) and the untouchable (lower caste performers) bodies in a caste ridden society.
Performativity is another significant element of folk performance analyzed by Prakash. It is studied here through the lens of a bidesia-party ballad that narrates the controversial love saga of an untouchable caste hero, Chuharmal, belonging to the Dusadh caste, and his upper caste paramour Reshma, of Rajput caste. The highly controversial love story performed in a balladic genre has seen virulent caste atrocities committed against Dalits in Bihar. One can then imagine in a state notorious for bloody caste killings the response of upper caste men to a play that shows their caste pride seriously compromised.
Analyzed in this chapter are the performances of actors involved in the play and the interpretation of its narrative. Since the staging of the love story stirs up caste passions, the play Prakash studied presented a watered-down version which involved no romantic liaison between the legendary couple. Chuharmal was presented as a virtuous man who stoutly refused to succumb to the advances of an upper caste woman smitten by his charm. While enjoying the hospitality of Reshma’s brother at their place, Chuharmal spurns her advances. He treats Reshma condescendingly chastising her, for he does not want to betray her brother who he regards as his good friend.
This spin on the plot, showing Chuharmal as a morally upright person who dissuades his upper caste friend’s sister from falling for him, helps tame the flaring tempers of Rajputs’ from running high which could have otherwise resulted in attacking the Dusadhs. In this conciliatory staging of a narrative sans romantic liaison between a Dalit lover and his upper caste paramour, Prakash reads a reproduction of upper caste patriarchy which perpetuates Dalits’ subordination in the caste society. Similarly, Chuharmal’s snubbing of Reshma’s desire to be with him is also read as reproduction of upper caste patriarchy. Instead of directly confronting the Rajputs, Dusadhs’ assertion, Prakash argues, is marked by ‘flexibility, inconsistency and contradictions’ which dilute their subversive potentials.
Although Prakash’s subjecting this folk performance to critical scrutiny is well taken, in this context his criticism of Dusadhs’ watering down of the plot of the love saga that ends up reproducing caste and patriarchal values, to some extent appears to have misread the caste context in the ballad. Since Dusadhs’ survival is dependent on the economically powerful Rajputs, through this play they use conformity as well as resistance to subvert the latter’s domination not only to survive but also resist. The fact that there have been various avatars of Chuharmal deployed through stories by the Dusadhs in rural Bihar for decades shows that they negotiate everyday caste relations strategically.
I think the inconsistency and contradictions in the Dusadh behaviour could be read as hidden transcripts (anonymously used acts of subversion/resistance) which Prakash’s analysis misreads. The makers of the Reshma-Chuharmal ballad Prakash studied seem to be aware of the limitations of the weapons that the weak have to use to subvert upper-class domination to transform material relations on the ground substantially. For subaltern communities, Prakash argues, direct confrontation with a powerful caste/community becomes impossible, so performativity comes to be a consciously made political choice to assert ones identity.
Another field of contestation between upper caste elites and lower caste performers Prakash explores in the book is Telangana’s revolutionary poet Gaddar and Jana Natya Mandali’s (JNM) choreopolitics problematizing caste and its relations with the mainstream theatre. This politics of reclaiming folk performance through the songs that spoke about the body, land, labour, cultivation, agriculture, by using such percussion instruments as dappu (played by Dalits in the state) is the core of this discussion. The choreopolitics genre espoused by Gaddar and JNM is an attempt to resurrect the performance genres of the castes from below. They are involved in ‘reconfiguring the language and aesthetics of political theatre performance in India’, since middle class dominated cultural movements of the left seemed less inclined to take up questions of cultural justice. Although Prakash recognizes the contribution of Gaddar and JNM to reclaim ‘cultural labour and materiality of labouring body in the caste-based Indian society’, he criticizes them for maintaining ‘silence on the issues of desire and sexuality’.4 Throughout the book, Prakash, as far as the issue of gender in folk performance is concerned, maintains that folk performance, like Brahmanical society, enforces hierarchical gender norms.
One might ask why practitioners of folk performance should attach so much importance to what social elites think about their performing cultures. The reason is that this assessment, Prakash argues, practically excludes performative art forms of the subaltern communities from the mainstream domain of art in general and performance in particular. The Brahmanical appraisal does not remain confined to the realm of their theory alone. It tends to spill over the perimeter of theory portending the demise of subaltern art forms. ‘It is no art at all’ proclaim the purveyors of a Brahmanical school of aesthetics. With such unilateral pronouncements, the art forms of the socio-economically dispossessed gradually come to be replaced by sanskritised art forms. Even if recognition is bestowed, it does not necessarily add to the aesthetics or elevate the status of these marginalized forms. Such derecognition, on the contrary, is aimed at coopting cultural labour into the fold of the twice-born world. This potentially means that the earthy performance genres of the subaltern communities become ‘purified’ of the rustic content rooted in their materiality. This concern is at the heart of Prakash’s project.
Prakash’s skepticism regarding the unilaterally imposed devaluing appraisal by the Brahmanical social elites on the performances of the labouring poor originates from the ontological roots where the two different performance cultures emerge: the earthy and rustic artistry of labouring bodies must not be evaluated by the mainstream aesthetics standards, which are deeply embedded in leisure. Contrasting lower castes performance with that of upper castes, Prakash argues that cultural labour is structurally dispossessed of leisure; it simply cannot afford leisure. Leisure is the domain and sole concern of social elites and is abundantly possessed by them. The subaltern, without the privilege of leisure, has performances that are deeply embedded in and influenced by the manual labor they expend to survive. This material context must not be overlooked by the custodians of the mainstream.
This separation itself should not be problematic. Two aesthetically different domains can coexist. The problem arises, generally speaking, when social elites assert their hegemony over the folk performances with the aim of obliterating the latter of its supposed impurities.
While for social elites, culture and labour remain two distinct categories, for the subaltern communities they are deeply connected. Prakash argues that when they are inextricably linked, these categories blur into each other, becoming the field of cultural labour. In other words, the realm of ‘bodily and cultural practices of manual labour’ is designated as cultural labour. The materiality of folk culture creates affects, it is not spiritual; it generates feelings. Hence, Prakash suggests that cultural labour can serve ‘as a framework to study the performance cultures of subaltern communities’.
Prakash’s analytical approach foregrounds one of the significant strands of his argument, which is that cultural labour is also about performance and vice versa. Committed to their performing arts, the folk performers love to perform and use it to confront the domination of social elites, especially when they do not possess the wherewithal to confront it directly.
Another important analytical strand Prakash advances in the book is his skepticism about folk art going global or mainstream, becoming a commodity, but this is not because he doubts the aesthetic richness in folk performances. His skepticism has its ideological moorings that clearly bear antipathy to market forces. But it does not entirely emanate from there. It is as much influenced by his ideological affinities with the Marxian aesthetics and postcolonial theory as by his concern to preserve the materiality of folk performance that runs the risk of being not only ‘purified’ but also erased. He convincingly shows the relevance of the theories by furnishing concrete data (pp. 172-174) – e.g., a middle class admirer of folk performance who talks about sanitizing ‘vulgar’ expressions in the launda naach performance as he finds them offensive to his middle class taste. Solidly aided by the ethnographic data, Prakash is convinced by the earthy richness of the materiality of folk performance.
Prakash analytical framework clearly shows the influence of cultural Marxism. Following Raymond Williams, Prakash argues that ‘folk performance is counter hegemonic to the social elites’. He posits that folk performance needs to be unpacked creatively but critically, for the world from which it emerges is heterogeneous. By juxtaposing cultural labour, as a product of manual (agricultural) labour untouched or uninfluenced by modernity (read market), and modernity-driven mainstream, popular aesthetics, Prakash has cast his ambitious project of conceptualizing the realm of folk performance in India in a subaltern school inspired post-colonialist dye. A clear statement in this context is reflected from the book’s preface, along with setting the dichotomous relationship between the modernity-driven middle class and the folk performer performing in the village away from the corrupting influence of modernity struggling to make both ends meet.
Prakash even questions the report that points out how launda naach performers indulge in sex trade risking their lives. He finds such an intervention hackneyed. Here, Prakash, in order to be objective, appears to be excessively dismissive of certain genuine concerns. But it is also a fact that however genuine such cases could be, people pursuing them end up tarnishing the image of a genre, blighting it more than objectively helping those affected to come out of it. And Prakash perhaps did not want to offend his interlocutors in the field who may accuse him of reifying such portrayals of folk artists. This also shows a kind of uneasiness ethnographers tend to go through when deeply involved in the field.
Although rich in their performance traditions, and the adulation they enjoy in the countryside of Bihar and UP, folk performers appear to be frozen in time from where they have no escape, no avenues of mobility. However, perhaps for ideological reasons, this does not appear to be Prakash’s concern which could be a problem with his analysis. But even if influenced by his ideological inclination, this analysis is also reflective of the social reality which exists on the ground and which suffers from the hegemonic intrusion of a regressive Brahmanism and the avaricious market. The marriage between the two is ideologically intent on erasing the folk cultures of ‘obscenity’ and the performances associated with it, His concern against commoditization is that the so-called obscene performances of the socio-economically lower orders run the risk of not only being chastised but also eliminated.
Prakash acknowledges this very possibility of the commoditization of cultural labour. In fact, he also discusses some of dugola performers, when two singing parties engage with each other in a musical banter, having successfully transitioned becoming celebrities in their own right in the mainstream Bhojpuri musical industry of North India. Nevertheless, he is clearly averse to this inevitability. This sits neatly with his allegiance to Marxist cannons showing that the commoditization of folk performance will lead to its disaster, eliminating ‘the real artists for middleclass copycats’. Despite drawing on these influences, Prakash, à la James Scott, does not bat an eyelid to point out the fault lines in the left-leaning, progressive IPTA’s approach in its earliest avatar and the radical left’s cultural movement in Andhra Pradesh, from where emerged the iconic balladeer Gaddar, could be described as jejune. The nationalism inspired IPTA theatre neglected folk performers from its scope.
Another concern with which Prakash engages in the book is the uncritical submission of folk performers to their art. However invigorating these performances are, the unrestrained devotion of the subaltern artists to their performance genres perpetuates their marginalization. Tinged with a downside, this devotion, Prakash argues, is so total that it almost appears to be enslavement to their craft. Whether it is the nine-month pregnant tamasha artist Vithabai Mang’s performance which she continued even after delivering a child backstage or the bidesia artists’ unbridled passion making them run away from home to become ‘infamous’ or Gaddar’s and JNM activists’ undiminished commitment to their performance despite being given death threats show their ‘enslavement’ to their art. In this sense subaltern communities performance traditions are both ‘emancipatory and imprisoning’.5
We do not see here any emancipation in a material (monetary) sense, perhaps in an artistic sense, but an unquestioned subjugation to their craft which borders on self-abnegation. This overpowering sense of altruistic abstinence is as much a result of their struggle to withstand poverty as of their devotion to their art as artists. The underlying message in the book is that folk performance embodies a constant struggle of the performing bodies to reclaim cultural labour and the materiality of the laboring body in a caste-ridden society. What Prakash seems to suggest by deploying the notion of materialism, as opposed to that of idealism, to analyze folk performance, is that the gatekeepers of high culture need to eschew denigration of the folk genres, as aesthetically substandard.
Prakash does not demand sympathy for folk performers, but civility from the purveyors of mainstream aesthetics. He appears to suggest that subalterns’ performances should coexist with those of the social elites and not be coopted or erased. Along with recognizing their aesthetic richness, Prakash also looks at these performances as a form of resistance to the caste hegemony. They are there to ruffle/outrage Brahmanical sensibilities. In the field of cultural labour, folk performance represents the negation of Brahmanical negation.
But does the resistance thus waged offer them any possibility of emancipation from the constant persecution that either ends up with their cooption or obliteration? This resistance seems to have become perennial. Moreover, since the world of folk art is heterogeneous how effectively can these fragments resist their characterization as offensive, uncouth and vulgar? Can fragments mobilize their energies clamouring effectively to ward off their negative characterization? How do they resist the might of the cultural elites that discredits the language of materiality of its substance? To these questions, Prakash provides no answer. His epistemic project of conceptualizing folk performance in India appears to be interested only in describing the process. To what extent and whether they can succeed in subverting the social elites’ politics of erasure is not known. The cultural struggle between the two ends of the caste hierarchy appears to hang in the air and hence remain perennially locked, inconclusive.
Prakash does not appear romantic, but objective enough to recognize these limitations to performance cultures of the dispossessed. But romanticism is required to envision and build an egalitarian society that will have space for everyone and not the perennial suspension of that romantic vision.
This attempt made by Prakash of conceptualizing an area which has been relegated to the realm of eccentricities is admirable. Such an ambitious project of conceptualizing folk performance on such a scale as this one is an arduous task generally undertaken by a scholar who has spent decades in his/her academic career. That Brahma Prakash has conceived and delivered a dense book consisting of 328 pages at the beginning of his academic career is in itself noteworthy. Easily accessible, his writing style is interspersed with catchy sentences that remain in memory long after reading the volume. Cultural Labour will not only be useful for students of performance arts, but also for those of anthropology for its rich, engaging ethnographic content collected with a worm’s eye view. Brahma Prakash has, I must say, straddled these two epistemic realms with unusual ease.
Assistant Professor, Centre for
Informal Sector and Labour Studies, JNU, Delhi
NAGARIK. Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Quartet – The Screenplays (volume 1) edited by Ira Bhaskar, translated by Rani Ray. Tulika Books, Delhi, 2021.
Ritwik Ghatak passed away, in penury and neglect, in 1977. He left behind a small but significant and brilliant body of work. His films have, today, acquired almost a cult status.
Satyajit Ray commented on the fact that Ghatak’s films bore no influence of Hollywood cinema, rather unusual for filmmakers of the time. Derek Malcolm, the film critic, described him as an ‘intensely national filmmaker’.
Ritwik Ghatak was deeply affected by the trauma of Partition. He did not believe, like Nehru, that the pain of Partition should be left behind in the past; to him, it was an omnipresent reality, which cut deep welts into and shaped his films. He was also moved by the Bengal famine of 1943, the brutality of the communal riots, and the economic hardships inflicted by the Second World War.
Ghatak was deeply involved in the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India, the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association. He wrote, directed, and acted in plays. His cinema was imbued with ideology, and empathy for equality and optimism. Today, once again, forced migrations have led to loss of identity and a struggle for survival. Ghatak’s work seems even more poignantly relevant in the present context.
Although Meghe Dhaka Tara, Subarnarekha and Komolgandhar are regarded as Ghatak’s Partition trilogy, Ira Bhaskar (who has collaborated with Tulika Books to publish the screenplays) has included Nagarik, Ritwik’s first film, in this group. She writes, in a powerful introductory essay to the volume, that Partition was ‘the structuring absence’ in Nagarik.
Nagarik, funded by artistes associated with the IPTA, never got a commercial release. The original negative was destroyed. Twenty-five years later, a torn positive print of the film was miraculously discovered. A dupe negative was created from it and the film restored, although the original camera and lighting work were permanently impaired. This, we learn, from the enlightening piece written by Nagarik’s cinematographer, Ramananda Sengupta, who was instructed by Ghatak, to simply follow the life of the characters.
However, the restored version was enough for Samar Bandyopadhyay to remark, in his essay, that had Nagarik been released in 1952, it would have marked the arrival of neorealism in Bengali cinema, earlier to Pather Panchali in 1955. Nagarik is the first volume of the planned production of the ‘descriptive’ screenplays of the four films, with detailed reference to the lighting, the camera work, the mise en scene and the soundtrack. The volume has, undoubtedly, a direct relevance to the student of cinema, but it can equally be read as a document of socio-economic decline in a truncated state or at another level, simply as a story of two families, marginalized and oppressed, people they interact with and the class solidarity they feel as they veer increasingly towards the Communist Party.
Ramu hopes to find a job but is unable to clear even a preliminary interview. He dreams of a red tiled house and pursues a street violin player, haunted by an elusive melody that he begs the man to play. His sister, Sita, suffers a different kind of rejection as her mother fails to find a suitable groom for her. Sita eventually makes an anguished appeal to their lodger, Sagar, begging him to take her away from the squalor of her drudgery and despair. Ramu’s lover, Uma, stitches garments for a living while her sister, Shefali finally leaves home with a local youth saying, ‘Whatever one has to do for survival is alright, that is justice.’
The introductory essay by Bhaskar is long and detailed. Since the soundtrack is a very important aspect of any Ghatak film, Bhaskar analyses the significance of the sarangi in heightening Sita’s melancholy, the violin in Ramu’s pursuit of an ideal life, the persistent striking of a hammer to create claustrophobia and dread, and the brazen whistling of the unscrupulous predator as he breaks down Shefali’s resistance. The musical leitmotif of the film combines with horizontal pans across the city to transform Ramu’s story into a more pervasive one.
Bhaskar also explains how certain dialogues resonate in a similar vein in Ghatak’s other ‘Partition’ films. At the moment of his death, Ramu’s father accuses an invisible force, ‘I had begun my life well. Is it fair that it should end like this?’ The same line is reprised in Komolgandhar. Sita’s plea to Sagar, ‘I want a respite… I want to live’, is famously wrung out in Meghe Dhaka Tara, as the anguished cry of Nita rings out to her brother, relentless in the finality that she is never going to recover from her fatal illness.Humour is also a persistent note. Jatinbabu, Uma’s neighbour, on the verge of starvation, is always on the scent of a gastronomic adventure; even when he moves to the slum, he can’t help pointing out its proximity to a market where lobsters are famously cheap.
The screenplay is replete with footnotes. Bhaskar makes sure that every reference alien to the non-Bengali reader from the Durga Puja to the order of a ‘double-half’ is explained in clear detail, at the bottom of the page. When Uma arrives at Ramu’s house, an accompanying footnote immediately explains how she replaces Ramu’s mother in the earlier shot composition, indicating her future role as a carer and anchor of the household. The manner of presentation helps to sensitize the uninitiated reader and the volume turns out to be a masterclass in itself.
The screenplay is accompanied by an appendix of six essays related to Nagarik, written by associates of the film, including Ghatak’s own wife, Surama. They recollect the early days of the IPTA movement in 1948, when the Communist Party of India was banned, and the actors would have to disappear as soon as a performance was over. They speak of Ghatak’s impassioned idealism, the impact of the first international film festival, his meeting with Pudovkin and Cherkasov and the thought processes behind Nagarik. Ira Bhaskar helps the reader once again, by summarizing the significant points of every essay.
The volume is slickly produced with clear, sharply etched photographs. The covers, front and back, in black and white, have arresting stills of Sita and Ramu, capturing the mood and essence of the film. There is also a profusion of photographs, and they accompany the written words with a fluidity akin to movement on screen. In the crucial sequence, when Sita declares her love for Sagar, there are about seven photographs between two pages that clarify the shot composition and sequencing.
This is a volume that takes the reader on an important journey, through the troubled birth of a nation and into the heart and soul of a film maker who was not able to severe the umbilical cord with his motherland. The Bengal he left behind was a planet lost in space, while the Bengal he inherited, suffered and bled. But what this screenplay, and its sensitive presentation, leaves behind is an uncompromising determination to overcome all odds. Ramu cries out at the end, ‘Life will evolve out of this pain itself.’
We look forward now to Meghe Dhaka Tara, in which many of the themes, still tentatively handled in Nagarik, emerge with sharper focus and more uninhibited expression.
Former Senior History Teacher
La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata
TOLLYGUNJE TO TOLLYWOOD: The Bengali Film Industry Reimagined by Anugyan Nag and Spandan Bhattacharya. Orient Black Swan, Hyderabad/Delhi, 2021.
Tollygunje to Tollywood deals with the changes in the Bengali film industry, over the last forty years. The authors largely rely on press reports, interviews, articles and books. They identify important trends, focus on individual contributions and the increasing corporatisation of film culture. Thus, eventually, it becomes the story of regional cinema in most parts of the country, particularly in areas which have a thriving history of films being viewed, acclaimed and made in the local language.
Bengal was something of a pioneer in film production. Unlike Bombay films, there was no patented formula for box office success. They relied largely on literary adaptations, so much so that the films were popularly referred to as ‘boi’ or book. The bhadralok preferred to entertain themselves with this superior fare and Hindi films were disdained as melodramatic and predictable in their story line and characterisation.
By the seventies however, Bengali films became mediocre and technically shoddy. Films made by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak were in a class by themselves; others like Tapan Sinha, Ajay Kar and Tarun Majumdar struggled to maintain a fine balance between commerce and art.
Then, in 1980, Uttam Kumar, the iconic megastar of the Bengali film industry, died tragically of a heart attack. Tollygunje was struck by thunder. Not a single film was produced for the entire year after Uttam Kumar’s death, taking the industry almost to the verge of collapse.
This is the point at which the authors step in to trace the fightback process, ranging from individual filmmakers to the evolution of Shree Venkatesh Films (SVF), founded by Shrikant Mehta and Mahendra Soni, in 1995.
In 1984, a young scriptwriter, Anjan Chowdhury pulled the industry out of despondent failure. Shatru ran to housefull boards and black market tickets. The story revolved around the eternal battle between good and evil, but Chowdhury brought in issues like class conflict and vendetta, put together in a heavily theatrical jatra style. Prabhat Roy, who had been assistant to Shakti Samanta and had worked on stage, returned to the literary format with Bani Basu’s, Swet Pathorer Thala. The film was adjudged the best family film at the National Awards.
Simultaneously, technicians and actors began to work for television productions; this ensured regular work and increased pay. In 1991, Sushma Swaraj officially recognised the Bombay film business as an industry. Earnings were now extended to overseas markets. The Bengali film industry, in contrast, was struggling to survive, working with Bangladeshi actors, exploring folk and jatra themes in films like Beder Meye Josna (Josna, Daughter of a Snake Charmer).
Bhattacharya and Nag make case studies of successful filmmakers during this bleak period. They analyse how demand shaped content and then how content subtly influenced audience taste. They study the careers of two prolific filmmakers, Haranath Chakraborty and Swapan Saha. It is from this point that the book picks up pace. Chakraborty never took a gap of more than a few weeks between two films and his crew always kept busy. Saha could make three films at a time on paltry budgets and he completed most of his films within two months. The thoroughness with which the authors explore their maverick styles is admirable, but they fail to devote dedicated space and insight to filmmakers like Aparna Sen, who experimented with both language and content and drew mainstream audiences.
The chapter on the ‘consolidation’ of Tollywood and the ‘logic’ of corporatisation of SVF Films, is painstakingly researched and follows their trajectory from unabashedly commercial ventures to riskier projects like Srijit Mukherjee’s Autograph. SVF launched the first twenty four hour Bangla film music channel, Sangeet Bangla, which largely played songs from their films. Raj Chakraborty polished the formula films and Jeet Ganguly produced a steady stream of chartbusters. Foreign locations became standard staple. Jeet and Dev became the new superstars, equally adept at action and romance. Successful South Indian films were adapted to the Bengali screen.
Autograph was a turning point in SVF’s chequered career, as a marketing blitz supported a different kind of talent and sensibility. This was also entertainment, but for a more thinking audience and by an auteur, who would experiment with every new film he made. At the same time, mega budget films like Dui Prithibi (2010) earned five crore in the first week of its release. Srijit’s next, Baishe Srabon, broke all records at the box office and satisfied the critics. By then, SVF had digitised more than 50 lakh halls across W. Bengal.
The most interesting chapter in the book is the third one, which marks the emergence of a ‘new parallel’ Bengali cinema, which reinvented nostalgia as its central theme. In this context, the authors study the brief but remarkable career of Rituporno Ghosh who was as good at marketing, strategy and brand creation, as he was in telling stories on screen.
The chapter on nostalgia starts with Ghosh’s Utsab, where an extended family gathers for the annual Durga Puja celebrations. Satyajit Ray’s actress, Madhabi Mukherjee, plays the matriarch and the opening sequence contains references to Ray’s films, Debi and Jai Baba Felunath. In Chokher Bali, Aishwarya Rai uses an opera glass like Madhabi in Charulata. Ghosh also re-filmed Tagore’s Noukadubi; the authors refer to Raima Sen as playing the same role as her grandmother, Suchitra Sen in an earlier version of the film. That, perhaps, was not the case. Suchitra did, however, play Sarayu in Chandranath, set in Benares, like much of the former film.
Gautam Ghose’s Abar Aranya, started with visuals of Aranyer Din Ratri. Even the development of a romantic relationship between Snehamoy and Miyagi, in Aparna Sen’s, The Japanese Wife, took shape through letters which the authors explain, had become a rather ‘obsolete art of romantic expression.’ The theme of nostalgia was also explored in films which dwelled on the isolation of an older generation, whose values clashed with those of their children. These films explicitly dealt with the ‘inner crisis’ within the bhadralok community and the anxiety story of relationships.
The book makes a detailed examination of the relationship between music channels, FM radio, the print media and even jewellery stores like Anjali, as they buoyed up and profited from the film industry.
Tollygunje to Tollywood provides insights which are equally applicable to the general story of the regional film industry in India. The ingenuity of adaptability, the quest to establish viable financial models through media management and commercial sponsorship; the restructuring of the traditional formulae to create a new sensibility; the restless and sometimes harmonious coexistence of individualist and the more popular cinema – these trends have been scrutinised and displayed in the book. It is clearly a labour of love and provides an overview of the alleys and high roads of contemporary Bengali cinema.
Former Senior History Teacher
La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata