Do our Bengali film actors get the respect they deserve?     

Bengali cinema and filmmakers, though recognised and revered worldwide, still do not draw much attention within India. It may have to do something with the overwhelming popularity Bollywood enjoys

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media
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Monojit Lahiri

Many years ago, Satyajit Ray candidly confessed in an interview that despite the global applause, accolade & awards, outside of Bengal & in his own country “I am just a name people have read about and heard. I doubt if most of them have seen a single film of mine.” In 2020, is it still the same with Tolly’s gifted actors blazing the marquee? Do the names of Prosenjit, Dev, Jeet, Param, Jishu, Abeer, Anirban, Ritwick, Soham, Yash, Ankur draw blank expressions?

“Regretfully, the answer has to be Yes” offers Mahalaxmi Iyer, a Bangalore-based IT professional who is also a huge movie-buff, brought up in Kolkata. She can never forget the cultural impact the city had on her growing up years. “However, I love movies, see lots of Bollywood as well and remain the ideal schizophrenia model! I know what to expect from which movie. In this case, I will not instantly do the Ray-Sen-Ghatak speech because I believe, Tolly, in recent times have unleashed some fabulous films and amazing actors. Be it Autograph, Gumnami, Shawbdo, Prakton, Bishorjon, Bijoya, Gotro, Basu Paribar, Mitin Mashi, Jeshtho Putra, Maati, Chander Pahar, Mayurakshi, Ghawre Baire Aaj ... the list is endless. Unfortunately to non-Bengalis hooked mostly to Bollywood, these films and actors are like UFO – unidentified flying objects! The language, pace, treatment and sensibilities they ride on, is Greek to these guys. Most importantly, there seems to have been no effort made to sell these films to this constituency in a proper, result-oriented professional manner. So, if there’s no interest triggered & exposure guaranteed, it’s an open-and-shut-case!”

Ms Iyer does have a point. I’ve lived in Delhi for four decades before returning to Kolkata a few years ago and have faced this predicament time & again. Forget mainstream, even Habitat and IIC can get tough to navigate. As a marketing communication professional, I continue to be amazed at Tolly’s ignoring a gold mine opportunity. These are sharp, creative and intelligent guys. Don’t they want to advertise & promote their products in an exciting & innovative way that can get the non-Bengalis to take notice & the zillions of NRB – Non Resident Bengalis – to storm the venue? For this lot, one doesn’t have to sell, just inform and watch the Dadas & Didis, across every mainstream metro city, do an Usain Bolt towards the hall! Further, in the digitalised world that we live in and tons of Bengali channels available, the AIDA factor – attention, interest, desire, action – shouldn’t be mission impossible. I remember a friend telling me that he accidentally heard that Buddha-da’s Jaanala was playing at Saket Multiplex. He rushed with his wife and was shocked to see just one more couple in the vast theatre! In a city that has over 15 lakh Bengalis – with South Delhi itself having a huge chunk – it clearly was a case of zero-publicity leading to zero-awareness ...

Which brings me to my main point – Bengali actors and the lack of attention they get from Bollywood. Agreed B-town is an established industry who have their own dazzlers, adored at home & abroad and agreed that the Tolly guys are handicapped by being a regional industry, but times are changing & talent is beginning to be recognised & leveraged in an appropriate manner. Are the B-town biggies so self-absorbed, insulated or indifferent to the wealth of acting talent on display in Bengal? Talent that matches the best of their best?

Dev & Jeet, once positioned as Super-stars specialising on the fight-romance-dance combo adored by the masses, are today moving on to explore different genres in an effort to broad-base their appeal from masses to classes. They are work in progress and going fine. Prosenjit of course is the Miracle Man! Starting out as a saviour to an Uttam-less orphaned industry in the eighties, pushing populist masala to bail Tolly out and generate revenue with thundering success, he moved in the mid-nineties towards the cinema of young genius, Rituparno Ghosh & embraced a template that was radically different from his earlier work. The bonding between them was so strong and successful that it almost resembled the Ray-Soumitra model! Prosenjit’s transition surprised and delighted serious film-makers like Buddhadev, Goutam, Shibu-Nandita, Kaushik Ganguly, Atanu Ghosh – among others – who enthusiastically had him on board for their projects. After Ghosh’s tragic & untimely death, it was young director Srijit Mukherjee who zoomed in. Their bonding, ever since Autograph, has remained strong and successful taking over from Ritu’s legacy. Jishu Sengupta, easily Tolly’s handsomest hero, is perhaps the only hero to do projects outside Tolly. Gifted & hard-working, the ambitious actor is hot stuff. Parambrata is the thinking person’s favourite, who has also done a few roles [Kahani] in Bollywood. Abeer is another fine actor who is brilliant in both, his Byomkesh avatar and challenging roles. Ritwick and Anirban are two exceptional talents. The former may not look like a hero [do Ayushman, Vicky or Rajkumar Rao look like SRK?] but his performance will blow you away. As for Anirban, a stage actor from a small town, he continues to invite new superlatives from the industry, critics & audiences. Every single film showcases his power-house versatility. These actors are all there for the taking! Today, there are some, established and successful Bengali directors doing great work in Bollywood – Shoojit Sarkar, Anurag Basu, Dibakar Banerjee, Pradeep Sarkar, Sujoy Ghosh. Since they are more familiar with the Tolly gang’s work than the Excels, Dharma & Yashraj camps, can’t they pave the way? I remember Hrishi-da telling me in the mid-80‘s, that given half a chance he uses Kolkata-based talents. Apart from Jaya, Samit Bhanja & Utpal Dutt dominating the footage in Guddi, he, along the way, used Sumita Sanyal, Kali Banerjee, Robi Ghosh, Suchitra Sen ... Also, what about the exciting new writers and directors who helmed such wonderful films like Badhai Ho, Manmarzia, Andhadhun, Chichhore, Angrezi Medium...? They are not straying into mined territory, only exploring new talents waiting to bloom in a new & changing landscape where content counts. What about the web? The possibilities are infinite. The Tolly actors deserve to fly. They have all the talent and more. All they need are opportunities.

Did I hear someone mention language barriers? Suchitra, Sharmila, Rakhee, Moushumi or Biswajit & Mithun didn’t exactly speak like Pandit Mukhram Sharma, but they rocked the charts, didn’t they? As Nawaz Siddiqui says, movies are not the platform for great enunciation and pronunciation exercises. Expressions, grace, screen presence are the key. Besides, these Tolly guys are all savvy actors. They will pick up Hindi in a flash.

So here’s hoping Westward-ho happens soon. Godspeed!

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