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a short guide to notable bengali films

Devdas (1935)
Directed by Pramathes Barua, this remains one of the most admired versions of the film currently making box office waves in Bollywood.

Udayer Pathe (1944)
Bimal Roy, the acclaimed Hindi film director, made his Bengali directorial debut with this film.

Pather Panchali (1955)
Many believe this film, directed by legend Satyajit Ray, marked the beginning of the golden age for Bengali films.

Amanush (1974)
Bollywood fans will no doubt be interested to see this blockbuster hit, which stars Sharmila Tagore and Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar.

Shatranj Ki Khiladi (1977)
Adapated from a story by famous Hindi novelist Premchand, this was actually Satyajit Ray's Hindi language directorial debut, and is still considered one of his greatest works.

Paroma (1983)
The second film made by acclaimed actress and director Aparna Sen, this film caused a minor storm by sympathetically portraying the extramarital affair of a young Bengali woman from "good family.


To find out more about Bengali cinema


Sharmila Tagore, Bengali screen legendLong considered the seat of Indian high culture, Bengal has produced numerous luminaries, including Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, "Devdas" novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and above all, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who singlehandedly brought Indian cinema to the world's fawning attention. Indeed, most Westerners who have seen an Indian film will have seen only Ray's work.
It would not be amiss, then, to assume that Bengali cinema occupies a place of honor amongst the film industries of India. During the 1950s and '60s, Bollywood actors considered an invitation to work in Tollygunge (the headquarters for Bengali filmdom, and the root of its occasional nickname, Tollywood) the ultimate compliment. Tollygunge also sent forth homegrown stars like Sharmila Tagore, Jaya Bhaduri, and Rakhee to conquer Hindi cinema. What these actresses encountered in Bollywood was an industry far less inclined to the literary and realist work that had nurtured them to professional maturity. Bollywood was largely entertainment for the masses; Tollygunge prided itself on playing to the intelligentsia.

To the intense displeasure of Tollywood afficionados, they can no longer comfortably assert such a claim. In 1980, the death of superstar Uttam Kumar -- THE Bengali film hero, whose name had consistently sold out state cinema halls since his first hit in 1953 -- created a vaccuum that the industry has yet to fill. The ever-encroaching threat of Bollywood, which caters to the sensibilities of rural, illiterate audiences;

Uttam Kumar the advent of cable television, which permits viewers to choose from numerous films in the comfort of their own homes; and the rise of Bangladeshi films, which offer Muslims an alternative to the largely Hindu-driven storylines of Bengali cinema -- all serve to further weaken the industry. Additionally, a lack of government funding compels Tollygunge to recognize profit, rather than quality, as the fundamental consideration when making films today.

   The result is a slew of recent movies which owe more to the traditions of Bombay than Bengal. Masala -- that term used to denote a formulaic mix of action, melodrama, and romance -- has become a fixture in recent Bengali films, as producers struggle to regain the rural audience lost to Bollywood and, increasingly, dubbed southern imports. Some films are even released now in outlying districts before they reach the urban centers, a telling disruption of Calcutta's identity as the arbiter of Bengali culture. Literary adaptations, which have long been the source of the best Bengali films, are no longer in vogue, viewed as too elitist to reap returns.

Aparna Sen    Bengal still owns a wealth of talent, but directors like Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghosh face an uphill battle to secure the funds as well as the audiences which would validate their work. Perhaps as a result, they have turned away from feature films for the time being, with Sen focusing on television and Ghosh putting the final touches on his documentary about Satyajit Ray -- who would, we have no doubt, be appalled by the current state of the cinema he helped to make one of the most respected in the world.


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