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Finding Ritwik Ghatak’s boy hero

Soumitra Das | Updated on July 27, 2021

City walk: In the first shot that was filmed, Kanchan turns around to look at the Howrah Bridge as he walks towards Kolkata

Over 63 years after its release, an author traces down Parama Bhattaraka, the impish child actor in one of Bengal’s most loved films

* The boy hero, Kanchan, seamlessly fuses the two faces of Bengal. But who was the lad who played Kanchan?

* Feelers had been sent out to the author and he used to arrive at the Lahiri home laden with books for young Parama Bhattaraka

* “After the film was ready I forgot all about it. It left no impression on me,” he says. Bhattaraka was always an achiever, too preoccupied with academics to get serious about a career in cinema

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The predominance of the boy’s role is established early on in the film. His father doesn’t spare the rod, but the boy, his eyes sparkling with mischief, continues to terrorise his Brahmin classmate, Binod, who had squealed on him. Kanchan pursues Binod while he is bathing in the river, and lurks in the bamboo grove as his victim hurriedly returns home carrying puja offerings. Binod squeals for mercy but Kanchan empties the contents of a large bowl of prasad on his head without thinking of the consequences. He displays the same chutzpah as he faces up to some kids invited to a wedding, and when he dares the child-lifter inside a building under-construction. Kanchan’s impish spirit dominates Ritwik Ghatak’s heart-warming 1958 film Bari Theke Paliye about the escapades of a boy who runs away from his village and wanders about Kolkata.

Growing up: Parama Bhattaraka was a banking executive for 35 years before he retired as the chief general manager of the State Bank of India in 2007

 

Still reeling from the impact of the Partition, wealth and poverty face off in this cruel city. Rarely have the pristine beauty of rural Bengal and the bustling spirit of Kolkata so beautifully been captured on celluloid. And the boy hero, Kanchan, seamlessly fuses the two faces of Bengal. But who was the lad who played Kanchan?

Unlike the teenager in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows made a year later, Kanchan, like Oliver Twist, remains unsullied. In the credits appearing alongside Khaled Choudhury’s brilliant “child art” depicting scenes from the film he is mentioned as Sriman Parama Bhattaraka. But who was he?

This question had been bothering me ever since I first saw the film on TV years ago. Nobody had a clue. The query popped up again in my mind when I recently discovered a wonderful restored copy of the film on YouTube. Moinak Biswas, professor, department of film studies, Jadavpur University, had the answer. He said the boy was the son of Promod Lahiri (1921-98), who had produced the film, and Biswas had his email ID because his permission was imperative for public screenings.

Bhattaraka explained over the phone that thanks to his grandfather, Bibhuti Bhushan, the names of all the male members of his family had the prefix Parama (the great one), and his own name is a royal honorific. He was born on April 20, 1947, and after he worked in Bari Theke Paliye, when he was in class seven or eight, he avoided the cinema world. He is a qualified cost accountant and holds a CAIIB certificate in banking. He was a banking executive for 35 years before he retired as the chief general manager of the State Bank of India in 2007.

So how did Parama Bhattaraka bag the role of the child protagonist of Bari Theke Paliye? Bibhuti Bhushan, a geologist and Sanskrit scholar, had located rich deposits of iron ore in the jungles of Surguja district now in Chhattisgarh. Bibhuti Bhushan approached the princely state of Koriya and masterminded the establishment of a mining township at Chirimiri amidst the forest. Bhattaraka’s father shifted first to Nagpur in 1954, and settled permanently in Kolkata in 1957. They lived at the Rashbehari crossing in a four-storeyed building named Sarbatobhadra, which could be entered from all four sides. The house still belongs to the family, although Bhattaraka’s current address is close to Tollygunge police station.

Bibhuti Bhushan, who was respected as the guardian of the area, used to locate or create jobs for friends, acquaintances and relatives at Chirimiri. Roy, an electrical engineer employed in a nearby mine, was married to Dolly (Sampriti), an elder sister of Ritwik Ghatak. Ghatak came to holiday at Dolly’s after his matriculation examinations and became close to the Lahiri family.

So much so that later Ghatak lived with his family at the Lahiri home in Kolkata. His younger daughter was born there. Promod’s elder brother, Prashanta, had plans to enter the film world as a family venture. He gave this responsibility to Promod who produced four remarkable films within a 12-month period in 1958-59 — Tapan Sinha’s Louha Kapat, Satyajit Ray’s Parash Pathar, and Ghatak’s Ajantrik — his first feature to be released. Earlier he had made Nagarik, which was released later. Ajantrik flopped but, nonetheless, Promod agreed to produce Bari Theke Paliye based on popular Bengali writer Shibram Chakrabarty’s story.

Feelers had been sent out to the author and he used to arrive at the Lahiri home laden with books for young Parama Bhattaraka. The latter reminiscences: “I became very close to Shibram Chakrabarty and still remember the dingy room in the ‘mess’ he lived in at 37 Muktaram Babu Street, its walls scribbled with addresses and phone numbers.”

Lahiri and his elder brother had married two sisters and Ghatak, their “rakhi” brother, held them in great regard. He had written the script of Bimal Roy’s Madhumati and he stayed with the Lahiris in Nagpur during its shoot.

Ghatak had recast the original story of Bari Theke Paliye. Instead of a village boy’s adventures, Kolkata became the focus of the story. Defeated by the cruel city the boy is crestfallen. Bijan Bhattacharya in the role of a Bihari labourer implores him to return home. “Mama (uncle), as I used to call him, interviewed several child artistes. But he wasn’t happy with them. Finally, the choice fell on me. I was an only child and my mother was very strict. My father had produced three films but I never saw a single shoot. I don’t know how mama convinced my mother. Next thing I know, I was absent from school for six months,” Battaraka says.

The village was near Diamond Harbour. The studio was New Theatres 2. Ghatak never deviated from the script but clipped off several redundant sequences even after they were processed. “Several members of the film unit were already known to me. The servant’s role went to Sailen Ghosh, who belonged to the unit. The little girl (Krishnajaya Gupta) — “Mini” in the film — had come visiting our house with her father, a friend of my elder uncle. Niti Pandit, who played her sickly mother, was an aunt of mine,” Bhattaraka says. Master Dipak, who had appeared in several films, was cast as Binod, the Brahmin boy. The kidnapped boy was Swapan Kumar Haldar, who actually served tea at the studio.

Mama used to explain each shot. In the first shot that was filmed, I turn around to look at Howrah Bridge as I walk towards Kolkata. The first take was perfect. I had some mannerisms like rubbing my nose with the back of my left hand and scratching the front of my head. He allowed me to retain those mannerisms to make it look as natural as possible. There was not much dialogue to memorise. Whenever there was a communication gap, he would correct me. When I was running after the fire engine, it was the height of summer and the tar on the road had almost melted,” Bhattaraka recalls.

Kali Banerjee, the school teacher who had lost his job after the Partition, was a complete actor. Ghatak allowed him to improvise. “He acknowledged his greatness,” Bhattaraka says. Bengali actor Nripati Chattopadhyay did not mind appearing in the tiny role of a hawker selling cheap cosmetics. He was sleeping soundly and had to be called minutes before shooting started and he delivered a perfect shot. “After the film was ready I forgot all about it. It left no impression on me,” he says. Bhattaraka was always an achiever, too preoccupied with academics to get serious about a career in cinema. But the film still tugs at a viewer’s heartstrings.

Soumitra Das is a Kolkata-based journalist

Published on July 27, 2021

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