Beyond the Trinity is an attempt to shift the focus to the anonymous filmmakers of Bengali cinema, because the world seems to think that Bengali films begin and end with the trinity of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
When it comes to Bengali cinema, it’s as if the world can’t see past the devouring Trinity of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Even Bengalis, always on the brink of an identity crisis, often seem to suggest that all they have to show off in the movies is the trio. ‘Beyond the Trinity’ is a series within the ‘Once Upon A Cinema’ series where Aborish sheds some light on some amazing talents in Bengali cinema that the world needs to know about and celebrate..
Bengali movies had a unique phenomenon found nowhere else in the world: directorial teams. Film directing, known to be a lonely trade, was handled by teams of professionals. One of the prominent names in this space was Agradoot, a team made up of Bibhuti Laha, Bimal Ghosh, Sailen Ghoshal, Nitai Bhattacharya and Jatin Dutta. Under the title of Agradoot, this group directed iconic Bengali films, many of which are considered classics: Agni Pariksha, Shobar Opore, Pothe Holo Deri, Nayika Sangbad, Chhadmabeshi… the list is long and diverse. Following Agradoot’s example, another group of young people hoped to make their mark on the cinema. Tarun Majumdar was the youngest member of this group.
Tarun wanted to be part of the world of cinema from the beginning. Interestingly, his family had no objection, despite it being the early 1950s and the stigma attached to the profession in those early days. With the help of a relative, he found work as an apprentice at Rupasri Studios, where veteran filmmaker Ardhendu Mukherjee was shooting a film called Sanket (1951). Due to a misunderstanding with some high officials of the technicians’ union. But one thing led to another, and Tarun found employment with an agency called the Anushilan Agency, which handled advertising for Bengali films. How Tarun’s spectacular advertising design for Debaki Bose’s Pathik (1953) attracted the admiration of the legendary director himself is the stuff of legend. Debaki Bose was so impressed by the young man’s creativity that during the campaign he refused to deal with anyone else.
Kanan Devi, the reigning superstar, was making a movie under her own banner, Srimati Pictures. The film, Naba Bidhan, was being directed by her husband Haridas Bhattacharya. While working on the film’s publicity, Tarun came into contact with Kanan Devi, and moved by the young man’s sincere passion for cinema, she invited him to work for Srimati Pictures. And this is where Tarun Majumdar got a solid foundation in cinema and all related arts. He connected with the luminaries of music, literature, and film, all under one roof. During this period he met Birendranath Sarkar, Kundan Lal Saigal, Gyan Prakash Ghosh and Kamal Dasgupta from New Theatres. Here he also met Dilip Mukherjee and Sachin Mukherjee, who also had dreams of making movies. One of the most significant films this motley crew had assisted in was Rajlakshmi O Srikanta (1958), starring Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, who were gaining something of a reputation as a successful romantic couple on screen. While making the film, Uttam promised Tarun Majumdar that if Tarun ever directed a film, he would definitely star in it. Suchitra made a similar promise to Dilip and Sachin Mukherjee. The three men, encouraged by the success of Agradoot, formed their own team of directors. They called him Yatrik.
The first film the trio directed was Chawa Paoa (1959). Uttam and Suchitra kept their promise and the film was a huge success. Plot-wise, the film had similarities to It Happened One Night (1934). The film had its own charm, but Tarun, arguably the most talented filmmaker on the team, had yet to find his voice. His “voice of him” began to take shape with Kancher Swarga, his next film. Uttam Kumar had no dates, but Tarun suggested that Dilip Mukherjee himself should be cast as the lead. Tarun had read a story about a man who was deeply passionate about being a doctor, but was unable to finish medical school due to lack of financial resources. Eventually, finding an opportunity, he fakes it and gains a certain reputation as a successful surgeon, until one day his charade ends. Tarun found resonance with the moral and ethical dilemma of the story and ended up writing the script himself. Kancher Swarga (1962) found wide acceptance and recognition. It was still a Yatrik film, but Tarun’s influence on the film was crystal clear.
It was a personal tragedy that drew him to one of his most notable films. Tarun’s father had passed away and he was in mourning when he read a book from his late father’s library. It was a collection of short stories by the writer Manoj Basu. Tarun was particularly fascinated by one of the stories, Angti Chattujjer Bhai. He was a quintessential wanderer, an archetype that recurs throughout Tarun Majumdar’s work. The character was named Basanta, a drifter who refused to be tied down by relationships. But at the same time, he craved human warmth from time to time and forged bonds, only to regret it later. Eventually, he would be back on the road, leaving broken hearts in his wake. In a sense, he was lazy and a loser. Tarun realized that he could not allow a conventional leading man to play the part. Envisioning comedic actor Anup Kumar in that role, he wrote the entire script in one frantic sitting. But no one in Bengal wanted to touch that script. It was not about having a comedian as a hero, that too in a tragic story! Tarun called him Palatak, the deserter.
But wonder of wonders: It was a producer from faraway Maharashtra who decided to back this wacky flick. The phenomenal V. Shantaram summoned Tarun to Bombay and expressed the desire to produce a film for him. Tarun wouldn’t have dared show him Palatak’s script, but Shantaram saw the dossier sticking out of his bag and insisted he give her a narration. Tarun narrated the script, frame by frame. Shantaram was hooked and loved the idea of having a comedian play the lead. It was resolved. Palatak (1963) became the first Bengali production under the direction of V. Shantaram’s Rajkamal Kalamandir. But the film was entirely shot in Calcutta and only the music, composed by Hemant Kumar, was recorded in Bombay. Despite Shantaram’s insistence that he add his name as director, Tarun Majumdar made sure that the Yatrik team was credited in the final film. But the team had begun to drift apart. Dilip Mukherjee had been successful as an actor and neither he nor Sachin seemed interested in the team. But Tarun had found his place as director. The first film of his in which he was credited as an independent director was Alor Pipasa (1965), adapted from a novel by Banaphul. Like Palatak, Alor Pipasa was about Roshnibai, a prostitute on the fringes of society.
Tarun Majumdar returned to the theme of a misunderstood wanderer in Sriman Prithwiraj, which is a light-hearted version of the theme. Rashik Lal is a teenager who harbors dreams of running away from home and being a globetrotter, inspired by Atish Dipankar Srigyan, or “Atisa” as he is known to Tibetan monks. But they catch him midway, drag him home, and force him to get married. It is a Bengali bildungsroman, where Rashik Lal comes of age and realizes the value of love, family and country. With Sriman Prithwiraj he introduced two new talents to the Bengali film industry: Ayan Bandyopadhyay and Mahua Roychoudhury. Mahua became a legend in his short career, dying at the age of 26 due to a domestic accident. At his best, he drew comparisons to the likes of Smita Patil. With Balika Badhu (1967), Tarun Majumdar introduced Moushumi Chatterjee. Nine years later, Tarun directed the Hindi remake of the same name starring Sachin Pilgaonkar and Rajni Sharma, which has gone down in history thanks to a composition by RD Burman: Bade Achhe Lagte Hain. Tarun directed two other Hindi films: Rahgir (1969), a remake of Palatak, starring Biswajeet in one of his most acclaimed roles, and Balika Badhu (1976).
In his prime, Tarun made a movie called Sangsar Simante, which was about a petty thief who desperately wants to turn the page and settle down with the woman he loves. But fate had other plans. The Tarun characters, although often presented in the garb of friendly and affable characters, had a dark side and were shunned by society. Probably his most popular film is Dadar Kirti (1980), which for the Bengali middle class represents the equivalent of Padosan or Gol Maal, the definitive comedy of all time. And yet it represents extreme cruelty inflicted on a person who is considered a buffoon, a being of lesser intelligence than is supposed to be ‘normal’.
Tarun Majumdar is a Bengali filmmaker whose work does not translate well in the literal sense. His cinema is Bengali to a fault and he strives to ensure a degree of authenticity and capture the idiosyncrasies of the Bengali ethos and language in a way that cannot be captured with the help of English subtitles. And yet, there is a universality to his stories that makes a Marathi film legend shed tears in a darkened theater.
Ambosh is a National Film Award-winning writer, biographer, and film historian.
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