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Monday, Apr 05, 2004

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Bengali films fight back

Indrani Dutta

The Bengali film industry is on a roll, and with the spate of Bengali films that are going into theatres — about 700 are reserved these days exclusively for Bengali films — it looks like bad times are over.

Aishwariya Rai on the sets of the film, Chokher Bali.

The Bengali film industry, which had been a beacon for the country's film industry until the 1980s, is in a turnaround mode. At a time when Bollywood continues its roller-coaster ride, there are cheers in the Bengali film industry with several commercial successes.

The dark period of the 1990s when Bengali tinsel town was on a steep decline seems like a nightmare that's best forgotten. And, with the money pouring in, producers from other States are now knocking on the doors of Bengali directors.

Industry sources say that the best proof of the comeback is seen in the increasing number of cinema houses showing Bengali films. Even a few years ago, of the 800 movie theatres in the State, no more than 350 were showing just Bengali films. The remaining had spread their risk showing a mix of either Hindi and English or Hindi and Bengali films. Today, nearly 700 theatres are showing Bengali films exclusively, says Arijit Dutta, President of the Eastern India Motion Pictures Association.

Riding the wave and further consolidating the revival is a movie done by Satyajit Ray progeny Sandip Ray, which is based on a thriller written by the maestro. The movie, produced by Ramoji Films at a cost of Rs 65 lakh, recovered its costs within three weeks and is still raking in the moolah for its distributors, producers and theatre owners since last December.

The movie has brought back the concept of family entertainment with Sandip Ray's gambit of contemporising the plot paying him rich dividend. Admitting that he did not expect this success, he told Life that he was now lining up another such film for release next year.

Earlier, a film by award-winning director Buddhadeb Dasgupta — Mondomeyer Upakhayan (The Tale of a Fallen Girl) produced by Arjoe Entertainments netted nearly Rs 7 crore through sale of overseas rights against a cost of Rs 60 lakh.

Haranath Chakraborty, who directs commercial movies, says, "A good storyline is a sure-shot recipe for a good Bengali film." He should know. His film Sathee (Companion) created a record by recouping over five times its production cost, although the film Chokher Bali, with big names like Aishwariya Rai, Rituparno Ghosh and Tagore, failed to yield expected results. The movie, billed at Rs 1.65 crore (the highest among Bengali films), is yet to recover its money.

According to a report on the Bengali film industry put up jointly by the CII and Ernst & Young, the general fare dished out to the Bengali audience over the last couple of decades was very poor both in terms of aesthetic standards and commercial viability. Loose and unorganised production activities, dominated and dictated by providers of capital led to proliferation of sub-standard films, which were most often commercial failures.

The recent successes have come through some concerted effort by parallel cinema which has tapped the domestic market, even while scouting the overseas ones, hitting the festival circuit somewhere in between. As such, celluloid creations of award-winning directors like Gautam Ghosh, Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen started bringing money for their producers. However, at around the same time, movies in the commercial circuit (directors like to call them mainstream cinema) also started doing well, supported strongly by the response from the semi-urban areas.

According to Sanjay Sinha, who tasted success with his maiden foray into movie production (he was earlier a distributor of Hindi films), it is only when a movie runs successfully in the districts that it truly caters to the entertainment of the masses, even as it brings success to its producers.

He also feels that the current success of Bengali movies is partly attributable to the fact that there have been few hit movies in Hindi. Moreover, producers of Bengali movies are now spending more on sets making their production as slick as the ones from Bollywood, while maintaining a good story line.

"Glamour plus a good storyline goes a long way in ensuring success of a Bengali movie," he says. Getting ready to encash on this emerging boom are event management companies like KMP of New York which is planning to market `mainstream' Bengali movies abroad although some still doubt the marketability of these movies among the overseas Bengali audience. Debu Ghosh of KMP says that his company was instituting awards for commercial Bengali movies. "Through this award, we hope to popularise and market Bengali films... Bollywood depends on overseas earnings for the commercial success of many of its films," he says.

According to Arijit Dutta, whose family was involved in the production of the epic Ray film Pather Panchali (Song of the Road), with the revival of the Bengali movie industry the bar has been raised for the entire sector.

"Now film budgets are higher, movie halls are going for makeovers that give the audience an experience to take home (rather than bed bugs!), and actors and technicians are all getting paid better."

Little wonder then that big Bollywood banners such as Mukta Arts and Rajshri films are now showing interest in funding Bengali films. Hollywood houses like Columbia Tristar have already made their debut in distributing Bengali movies (it was the first time that a Hollywood studio have released a regional film in India).

Reigning queens of the Bengali movie industry also want to be there and are floating movie production companies.

Recently, one such film was not only running well at the exhibition halls but also got an international award for the social communication message it spread.

However, according to industry experts, several issues need to be addressed to build on this resurgence and consolidate it.

These include inadequate infrastructure, which often compels moviemakers to go outside the State for facilities pushing up costs, poor marketing and distribution and increasing competition from Bangladeshi films.

Picture by Parth Sanyal

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