Did Bengalis direct Indian films for successes in Bollywood and beyond?

By Madhubani Dutta
Indranil Halder

The recent film industry news that captured all Bengali hearts including ours, the Australian-Bengalis was – Shaunak Sen directed ‘All That Breathes’ being awarded the Cannes Best Documentary, France(2022) and nominated for the Oscar, United States(2023), the presence of Gourab Kumar Mullick in his dhoti to attend La Fabrique Cinema Du Monde( tailored program for talented young directors) at Cannes Film Festival,France(2022) and the sudden demise of a renowned director-Pradeep Sarkar. These moments made us recall how Bengali directors in the Indian subcontinent created a sustainable culture of filmmaking which has lost its creativity due to limited finance, rather has been admired by local, national, and international audiences.

Bengali Film Industry Debut:

Hailing from an aristocratic family, Hiralal Sen is known today, for his great contributions to the Indian film industry. Sen known to have purchased an Urban Bioscope camera (1899) from the Warwick Trading Company in London signalling an extraordinarily beginning in Indian film creativity. With his brother Motilal Sen, formed the Royal Bioscope Company on Chitpore Road, Kolkata. In 1905, he meticulously created India’s first advertisements – for C.K. Sens’s Jabakusum hair oil. It is even said that Sen filmed India’s first documentary. Also, credited for filming Surendranath Banerjee’s (Founder of the Indian Liberation Federation) lecture in Kolkata Town Hall(1906). Historical evidence suggest that in 1905, Jyotish Sarkar directed Bengal Partition Movement, followed by Satyawadi Raja Harishchanda (Bengal’s first feature film, 1917) and ‘Bilet Pherat’ (the first Bengali language talkie, often considered as the first love story in the Indian film industry, produced by Madan Theatres, 1921).

With the creations of many outstanding early films in Bengali, Indian state of West Bengal became the fertile ground for the establishment of many production houses. Dhirendra Nath Ganguly established Indo British Film Co, the first Bengali-owned production company(1918) while Himanshu Rai established an Indo-German co-production house. As a foreign educated visionary with an aristocratic background, director Himansu was avid risk taker, who produced ‘Light of Asia’/‘Prem Sanyas’(1929) which was classified by English poet and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold as ‘perfect’. His next film was ‘A Throw of Dice’ (1930). Bengali film culture started taking shape with milestone films by Amar Choudhury‘s ‘Jamai Sasthi’ (the first Bengali short film as a talkie, 1931), Nitin Bose’s ‘Bhagya Chakra’ (1935), P.C.Barua’s ‘Grihadah’ (1936), Debaki Bose’s ‘Sonar Sansar’ (1936) and Satyen Bose’s ‘Paribartan’ (1949) to name a few.

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Bollywood Legacy:

In Bollywood, Bengalis over the years have delivered unique, memorable, and ground-breaking styles of filmmaking. It started with Bombay Talkies (1934), the first modern movie studio in India, where silent movie director Niranjan Pal with Himanshu Rai and his wife Devika Rani (grandniece of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) joined hands to make films.They produced blockbuster films, encouraged professionalism and set technical standards for the Bollywood film industry. From 1950, legendary Bollywood directors like Bimal Roy, Satyen Bose, Satyajit Ray, Asit Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Mrinal Sen, Shakti Samanta, Basu Chatterjee and Basu Bhattacharya who were all Bengalis, explored stories, created many unconventional film concepts, and gained praises from viewers and critics across all ages. Other mainstream Indian Bengali directors like Buddhadev Dasgupta, Anurag Basu, Ayan Mukerji, Dibakar Banerjee, Rituparno Ghosh, Srijit Mukherjee and Shoojit Sircar made films to work with many industry newcomers who are now popular actors of Bollywood films.

Director Pradeep Sarkar was also known for mentoring and supporting many young and new talents throughout his career too. He started his career in advertising and became a popular name with many of his commercials for companies like Tata Yellow Pages, ICICI and Prudential amongst others. Sarkar became a sought-after music video director in the industry. He filmed over thousand commercials too. Some of his notable films include Munna Bhai MBBS and Mardaani. In 2005, he directed the critically acclaimed adaptation of the classic Bengali novel ‘Parineeta’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which again signalled a creative approach to the adoption of a rich tradition of Bengali classic and contemporary stories.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Devdas’, Shyamal Gupta’s ‘Galpa Holeo Satyi’ and Bimal Mitra’s ‘Saheb Bibi Golam’ were also used to remake notable Bollywood films. Many will agree that Bengali filmmakers are experts in bringing legendary characters from Bengali literature to life – a style that influenced new generations of film directors such as Aditya Vikram Sengupta. He released his first directorial debut, ‘Asha Jaoar Majhe’/ ‘Labour of Love’ (2014). The film won the Indira Gandhi National Film Award for Best Debut, India and was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Italy.

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Rush of Global Recognitions:

In 1945, with India’s independence, Eastern India Motion Pictures Association was set up in Kolkata (Calcutta) and Diptendu Pramanick with President Sri B N Sircar worked together to help built a strong base for Indian film industry producers, distributors and exhibitors. This gave a strong base for film directors in West Bengal for global recognitions. Veteran directors such as Bimal Roy directed ‘Do Bigha Zamin’ which won the prestigious Prix Internationale at the Cannes Film Festival, France(1954). Aparajito, directed by Satyajit Ray, received the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival,Italy(1957). In the same year, Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwala received a special mention for music in Berlin, Germany. Ritwik Ghatak’s Ajantrik, (regarded as India’s first science fiction) won a special entry to the Venice Film Festival, Italy (1959). Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film ‘Anuradha’ was nominated for Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival, Germany(1961), Satyajit Ray won the best director’s award at Berlin Film Festival, Germany(1963) for ‘Mahanagar’ and Director Ajoy Kar’s film ‘Sath Pakey Bandha’ made Suchitra Sen, the first Indian actress to receive international best actress award in Moscow Film Festival, Russia(1963).

In 1969, the first Satyajit Ray retrospective was held at Cinematheque in Paris which gave him enormous popularity in France. He received the highest decoration in France – Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour(1987). While Mrinal Sen received a Silver Prize for his movie Parashuram at Moscow International Film Festival, Russia(1979) and his directed ‘Chalchitro’ had lead actor, Anjan Dutt, who received an award at Alitalia Prize, Italy (1981). Aparna Sen directed the film, ‘36 Chowringhee Lane’ won Golden Eagle for Best Feature Film at Manila International Film Festival, Philippines( 1982) and was nominated in the Best Actress category in the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), United Kingdom(1983). Again in 1983, Kharj by Mrinal Sen owned Gold Hugo from Chicago International Film Festival, United States and Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, France (1983). Tapan Sinha won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the 7th Berlin Film Festival for Kabuliwala, Germany(1988) and Gautam Ghosh won the Golden Simurg Grand Prix at the Tashkent Film Festival, Uzbekistan(1988) for his film ‘Antarjali Yatra’, followed by ‘Ek Din Achanak’ by Mrinal Sen won Silver Pyramid for Best Director at Cairo International Film Festival, Egypt (1989).


And It Continues!

Even after facing various challenges like lack of funding (private & governmental), political instability and reduced access to techniques & technologies, Bengali directors are consistently making films they want to make. Films that engage attention, self creativity and recognitions. It is now in their DNA. Directors such as Raja Sen who won the Juvenile Audience Award for ‘Damu’ in 2000 at the Bangladesh Film Festival, Dhaka and Tapen Sighna directed ‘ Aamar Bhuban’was also honoured by France government’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Russian Government’s Order of Friendship (2002). The legacy of filmmaking by Bengalis continues with ‘Kamera’ (2012) by Aneek Chaudhuri, ‘Ahalya’ (2015) by Sujoy Ghosh, Interior ‘Cafe Night’ (2016) by Adhiraj Bose, ‘Mia I’m’ (2016) by Debjani Banerjee and ‘Urmimala’ (2021) by Indranil Banerjee.

In 2023, Kolkata-born film editor Sanchari Das Mollick (daughter of a noted documentary filmmaker Subha Das Mollick) became the first Bengali woman to be part of an Oscar win for the short documentary, ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. Hailing from Kolkata, Mollick graduated from St Xavier’s College and studied film editing at the Film and TV Institute of India. Recently, we were also excited to see the celebration of Satyajit Ray’s retrospective at the 2023 Sydney Film Festival.

The Bengali film directors’ consistent approach to excel has built a strong foundation for other Indian film directors and universal audiences. Today, the news of a Bollywood Bengali director, Onir, directing a movie collaboration with Mitu Bhowmik(the founder-director of Mind Blowing Films and Melbourne Indian Film Festival) to strengthen Indo-Australian bilateral relationship gave us immense joy and pride. As Bengalis, it is important that we acknowledge those amazing Bengali film directors, their extraordinary creations and unique styles to keep celebrating their creations for years to come.