The Bengalis are boisterous people.
We love to talk, and we love to eat.
Along with applying copious amounts of “Boroline” and eating tons of fish, we are raised on a steady diet of loving our heritage, our culture; a great part of which is composed of literature and films.
So, when we are not busy having our daily quota of “Bhaat Ghum” or debating about politics, we are busy with our cup of “cha” and “Shinghara/Telebhaja” in an “Adda” about movies: past, present, and the future.
Or in the contemporary sense, with our trusty bottle of “Old Monk” and delicious Fish Fry. (Enough with the stereotypes! :P )
And it can become a bloodbath if you try to compare recent Hindi mainstream movies with the ones we grew up on.
Not only do we have great directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak among others, whose brilliance the directors of today cannot even begin to grasp, we have compelling stories which make you think and initiate a stimulating discussion.
What Makes Bengali Movies Different?
Bengali movies show the human side of people, the real face of humanity, the fate of society.
It is about those small moments which change a person. Gone is the hullabaloo of the city, the glitz and glamour. Yet, it encompasses parts of the charm.
Importance is given to the apparent monotony of life, the day-to-day conversations which seem trivial but constitute our society. The movies are beautifully directed, have superb cinematography and powerful portrayals.
Contrary to popular perception, the Indian Film Industry is made of more than just Hindi commercial/mainstream movies; there is Arthouse cinema, Parallel cinema, regional language films which include exceptional Bangla, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Telugu, Assamese movies, et al.
And all of these can give mainstream movies a good run for their money. The thing is, people don't watch these movies because the movies do not have the budget for promotion, or the audience is just unaware of them.
So, if you, like me, have been crying with rage over the fate of Indian cinema, courtesy of the mediocre and utterly bland movies in the mainstream (Yes, looking at you SOTY 2!), here are 13 Bengali movies that will change your perception of Indian cinema:
(Note: There are numerous Bengali movies which are absolutely brilliant, but all cannot feature in a single list.)1. Mahanagar (The Big City / 1963):
© R.D. Bansal & Company
Set in the financially strapped Calcutta of the 1950s, one of Satyajit Ray's first women-centric movies, Mahanagar, tells the story of Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), a middle-class woman who has to step into the corporate world to support her economically crunched family.
Though initially supportive of his wife's job, her husband Subrata starts resenting her new-found success and independence, after he loses his job. Subrata is left struggling with his masculinity, guided by societal pressures warning him of the “perils of a working woman”.
Arati, now, turns into the sole breadwinner of the family; a feat for which she both begrudged and loved.
Arati starts loving her freedom, the liberation the job gives and befriends her modern colleagues which doesn't go down well with her orthodox family.
As the story moves forward, Arati realizes her role in society is more than what society teaches her, and she finds a version of herself which had been hidden behind layers of tradition and customs.2. Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star / 1960):
Ritwik Ghatak's masterpiece is a dialogue on society and human nature; the way we take others for granted and leave them the moment tragedy strikes.
Neeta (Supriya Chowdhury), Ghatak's heroine, is a beautiful, sweet-natured girl from the suburbs of Calcutta.
After the recent upheaval of the Partition, as Neeta and her family, refugees from East Pakistan (Bangladesh), try to make a living in the city, tragedy after tragedy befalls them. In the midst is young Neeta, whose altruistic disposition is exploited to no end by everyone she knows, ultimately putting her on a path of devastation, decorated by problems along the way.
Neeta's sacrifices make her a strong woman, but they are also a cause for her despair. Mr Ghatak uses music to elevate the trials and tribulations of Neeta in the viewer's mind.3. Bhooter Bhabhishyat (2012):
© Mojo Productions
When ad-director Ayan (Parambrata Chatterjee) visits apparently haunted Chowdhury House to shoot for an advertisement, he gets stranded for the night.
A while later, while exploring the manor, he runs into Biplab (Sabyasachi Chakrabarty), a local man who offers to tell him a story to provide him with some perspective upon learning Ayan's desire to become a filmmaker.
A funny story about the quirky inhabitants of Chowdhury Baadi who just happen to be ghosts!
As the movie unfolds, each character which their unique idiosyncrasies, try to subvert a terrible calamity which befalls them. Being a ghost be damned! No peace even after death!4. Jatugriha (1964):
© Uttam Kumar Films Private Ltd.
Directed by the talented Tapan Sinha, this social drama concerning two people who are as alike as they are dissimilar, locked in marital discord, is based on Subodh Ghosh's novel “Jatugriha”.
Shatadal (Uttam Kumar) and Madhuri (Arundhati Debi) are on the brink of divorce; a happy marriage that has unwittingly turned into a loveless façade.
Ironically, their marriage starts crumbling as the construction of their dream home begins.
In the heart of it all, unfulfilled desires and misunderstandings mar the couple's time together, as they slowly drift apart. In the backdrop is their completed home, now standing as an empty house, as Madhuri finally leaves him one day without much ado.
Years later, they meet at a railway station, reminiscing about their married life and ruminating over what went wrong.5. The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959):
© Government of West Bengal
Satyajit Ray's magnum opus, which cemented his name as one of the greats of cinema universally, is an adaptation of the novels “Pather Panchali” and “Aparajito” by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, monumental in earning him the much-deserved honorary Oscar.
A movie that lies bare the pathos of human life.
It follows Apurba Roy (thespian Soumitra Chatterjee's debut as the adult Apu), lovingly called Apu, through three phases of his life: a tragic childhood where he experiences the worst of circumstances but overcomes them (Pather Panchali, Song of the Road, 1955), begins his adolescence (Smaran Ghoshal) with nothing and seems to achieve success (Aparajito, The Unvanquished, 1956), falls in love but then life happens (Apur Sansar, The World of Apu, 1959).
© Government of West Bengal
Touted as one of the greatest films of all-time, it is an eloquent human story which touches you at the most visceral level.
A first of many Soumitra-Satyajit collaborations.
© Government of West Bengal6. Chokher Bali: A Passion Play (A Grain of Sand / 2003):
© Shree Venkatesh Films
Based on Rabindranath Tagore's eponymous novel, 'Chokher Bali', directed by Rituparno Ghosh, is a story of love, lust, and longing.
With themes of adultery, friendship and, societal pressure, focusing on the intertwined lives of Binodini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), Ashalata (Raima Sen), Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee), and Bihari (Tota Roy Chowdhury), the film delves into the dynamics of a complicated friendship between two diametrically different women: the intelligent and shrewd Bindoni and naïve Ashalata, connected by their love for one man, the callous Mahendra (Ashalata's husband). Matters further complicate when Bihari gets entangled in the passion play.
When recently-widowed Bindodini arrives as a guest into the Mukherjee house, the newly-wed Asha finds solace in the company of this wise, new-found friend, and strikes up a friendship, unwittingly naming it: Chokher Bali, a constant irritant in the eye.
But Binodini has other plans; she aspires to exact revenge from the two suitors who had previously deemed her unworthy of marriage. Will she succeed in her quest of vengeance? Or will it lead to self-destruction?7. Antarmahal: Views of the Inner Chamber (2005):
Set in 19th century Bengal, the movie, directed by Rituparno Ghosh and based on the short story “Pratima” by author Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, tells the story of human desires and ambitions which when left unchecked bring utter ruination.
Zamindar Bhubaneswar Chowdhury (Jackie Shroff) has two ambitions in life: sire a male heir and be feted with the honour of “Raibahadur”.
The only problem is that he is unable to do both.
Tyrannical yet incompetent, horny, and perennially grumpy, he has been married twice; very recently to young, fresh-faced Jashomati (Soha Ali Khan) whom he ravages every night.
His first wife, Mahamaya (Roopa Ganguly), whom he has dismissed as barren, has given up on him and takes pleasure in terrorizing her new adversary.
To finally win the coveted title and demean the neighbouring village's zamindar, Bhubaneswar along with his estate manager concocts a plan; make a colossal change to the Durga idol for Durga Puja.
Enter handsome Brijbhushan, the sculptor who has to complete the task. But the comely youth seems to attract the attention of the ladies, especially one of his wives.
On the home front, Bhubaneshwar's desperate desire to have a son makes him take horrendous decisions entangling his wives, which eventually lead to the unravelling of his life in a traumatic way he never envisioned.8. Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder):
© Balaka Movies
Satyajit Ray's Asani Sanket is an adaptation of Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's novel of the same name.
It explores the aftermath of the 1943 Bengal Famine, which was solely responsible for the deaths of more than 3 million people.
Set in provincial Bengal, Mr Ray uses Gangacharan (Soumitra Chatterjee), a Brahmin doctor/teacher and his wife, Anaga (Bobita), as the chroniclers of the story as their calm, leisurely village life gets upended by starvation and hunger.
Not only do the lives of the people change for the worse, ironically, but it also starts the collapse of the rudimentary customs and traditions which were strictly followed in better times of the village.9. Saptapadi (Seven Steps / 1961):
© Alochhaya Productions Pvt. Ltd.
The iconic duo of Bengali cinema “Uttam-Suchitra” star as star-crossed lovers who meet under unsavoury circumstances.
We are taken back via flashback to the 1940s, pre-independent India where Indian students compete with Anglo-Indians with abandon. That is where young, intelligent Krishnendu from a staunch Hindu family, meets beautiful Rina Brown, a talented Anglo-Indian Christian.
Love isn't far away, and with the legendary scene of the lovers seated on a motorcycle singing out to each “Ei Poth Jodi Na Shesh Hoye”, it seems that everything will finally fall in place.
That is when tragedy strikes, secrets are revealed which spell doom for the bubbling romance. The question is now, after years, will they still be able to have the happiness that has forever eluded them?
(Directed by Ajoy Kar, based on Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay's “Saptapadi”.)10. Deep Jweley Jai (To Light A Lamp / 1959):
© Badal Pictures
Suchitra Sen stars as “Nurse Mitra”, in one of the most ingenious roles of her career, a nurse in a psychiatric facility where the doctors are trying to experiment with a new type of therapy for the patients: emotional support for their trauma.
The nurses are to remain available to the patient as a friend/lover, help them but not get emotionally attached to them. Radha Mitra starts her journey of caring for a particular patient, Tapash (Basanta Choudhury), and seems successful.
But what lies ahead for her as she struggles to keep her feelings at bay: a gruesome reality or love forever?
A movie questioning the depth of human emotions and lays bare the fact that love is an emotion not be counterfeited.
(Ashutosh Mukherjee's short story adapted to screen by Asit Sen)11. Devi (The Goddess / 1960):
Set in rural 19th century Bengal, Kalinkar Choudhuri (Chabbi Biswas), an ardent devotee of goddess Kali, has a vision that his younger daughter-in-law, Dayamoyee (Sharmila Tagore) is an incarnation of the goddess herself.
Dayamoyee, always the docile daughter-in-law, dutifully agrees to humour her father-in-law and begins to “bless people”, until it starts wreaking havoc on her mental state.
When her husband Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee), away at Kolkata, learns of the turn of events at home, he rushes to save his wife from her fate but tragedy strikes.
Another great movie directed by Satyajit Ray, based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay shows how extreme beliefs can turn into a ghastly reality.12. Goynar Baksho (2013):
© Shree Venkatesh Films
A comedy surrounding a jewellery box full of secrets!
Directed by Aparna Sen, starring Konkona Sensharma and Moushumi Chatterjee, the story focuses on three generations of a Bengali family, with their connecting factor to be a coveted jewellery box.
Widowed matriarch Rashmoni (Moushumi Chatterjee) is as cantankerous as they get; quick to anger and extremely fond of her beloved wedding jewels which she keeps hidden in a box, away from the prying eyes of her greedy, materialistic family.
When her nephew marries Somlata (Konkona Sensharma), a naïve young girl who is extremely scared of her new in-laws, Rashmoni strikes up a grudging friendship with her, eventually bequeathing her with the “goynar baksho” to save it from getting pawned off by her family.
Somlata, now the secret keeper of the box, endeavours to change the luck of her family with her new acquisition. But to make things difficult and keep her niece-in-law in check, Rashmoni returns to haunt Somlata as a spirit.
What follows is a laugh riot where the vulture-like family tries to pry away the box from its rightful owner.13. Charulata (The Lonely Wife / 1964):
© R.D. Bansal & Company
Based on Rabindranath Tagore's Nashtanirh (The Broken Nest), Satyajit Ray's Charulata explores the psyche of the human mind through the protagonist Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee).
With themes of forbidden love, alienation and loneliness, Charulata focuses on the namesake heroine, a lonely wife who whiles away her time around the house with nothing specific to engage her. Excitement comes in the form of her worldly brother-in-law, Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), whose company she starts enjoying until it all starts to unravel as desire comes into play.
Critically acclaimed and internationally admired, this is one of Satyajit Ray's finest films.
Go, give these a try!