Sunday, December 3, 2023

Why does Bengali cinema shy away from patriotic films?


Bengal has produced some of the finest patriotic films in the history of Indian cinema. There was a time, in the 50s and 60s, when movies like ‘Beyallish’, ‘Sabyasachi’, ‘Debi Chaudhurani’, ‘Mahabiplabi Aurobindo’ and ‘Chattagram Astragar Lunthan’ found many takers. Even now, patriotic films manage to grab eyeballs. Some, like ‘Gumnaami’, have been controversial too. So why, even with a guarantee of a positive turnout, is today’s Tollywood shying away from making patriotic movies, when Bollywood makes them like clockwork?

There are many reasons. As National Award-winning director Atanu Ghosh points out, it isn’t easy to recreate that particular period. The city’s architecture, colours – all have undergone a massive transformation. Secondly, recreation is very expensive. His views are echoed by popular director Shiboprosad Mukherjee. “In these difficult times, who will bear such escalating costs?,” asks Shiboprosad.
There is also a problem of lack of perspective amongst the current generation of filmmakers. “The films made in the 60s and 70s were made by a generation who had actually seen and relived those days of freedom struggle. They had witnessed that particular history from very close quarters. That gave them an edge and added that necessary perspective needed to make such films. For us, making those films in the present times is doubly difficult owing to our distance from that particular history,” says Atanu.
However, there are a few exceptions too. SVF, the biggest and the only production house of Bengal, has churned out three hit films on patriotism in recent times – ‘Aami Subhash Bolchhi’, ‘Rajkahini’ (re-made as ‘Begum Jaan’ in Hindi with Vidya Balan in the lead role) and ‘Gumnaami’. “For us, the reason behind making such films was never to make it commercial. Rather, we wanted to present something impactful to the audience. If you look at ‘Gumnaami’ or ‘Rajkahini’, they were made in a way that infused a subtle sense of patriotism, along with the main storyline. The idea was to present something unique and thoughtful from Bengal. And these films did well at the box office as well. Especially, a film on Subhash Chandra Bose presented a different level of nostalgia and pride for every Bengali out there,” says Mahendra Soni, co-founder and director, SVF Entertainment.
Despite the hits, cost is the single-most problematic issue for producers now. Shiboprosad sums it up, “Now, Tollywood makes films that are totally dependent on sales of satellite rights. Earlier, it was Hindi remakes. The present situation is depressing. The halls are empty. There is no guarantee that producers will get their money back. Even actors and directors are not willing to experiment. So, producers are not willing to take the risk.”
Atanu’s example is a case in point. “Since long I have wanted to make a film called ‘Agnipurush’, based on a story by Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay. The protagonist is unique. But there are no takers,” says Atanu.

Apart from the escalation of costs, there is the issue of anti-establishment rhetoric that hinders sales. Shiboprosad says, “If one wants to make a patriotic film, besides cost, one has to be wary of anti-establishment rhetoric. There is a fear of not being able to recover satellite rights costs. So basically, everyone wants to be in a safe place. For example, when we made ‘Accident’, we had dialogues that went against the system. Hence, we had problems in selling the film.”
So, is there no way out? Atanu thinks the concern of a serious filmmaker should be to add a new perspective to the whole thing. “It should be backed by proper in-depth research to avoid being superficial. That is lacking. Also, the producer should also understand the dynamics of the situation and should be willing to invest in such ventures,” he says.
Shiboprosad feels either the director has to be a brand or one has to have the assurance of satellite sales. “That is why it’s so important for halls to re-open. The audience does not care whether the film has stars. If they like the content, the film will pick up by word-of-mouth. In between, we had this content-driven cinema. Now it’s back to square one,” he says.