When a new breed of sleek and technically sound Bengali movies such as Anuranan and Dwanda made its way into the theatres in the land of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, many felt the dwindling film industry would be revived. But leading filmmakers feel such films don't promise big bucks.
A handful of these movies, catering to a globalised upper middle class audience, has done well at the box office. But this genre ignores the vast number of rural and semi-urban Bengali population, making it economically less viable.
"The so called 'urban middle class audience' is so small that it fails to generate substantial revenue for producers," ace filmmaker Gautam Ghosh told IANS.
The new experiment began in 2006 with ad filmmaker-turned-director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury's "Anuranan", which explored the beauty of human relationships when individuals strike a chord or resonance with one another.
The principal characters, all from the upper classes, included an NRI couple - played Rahul Bose and Rituparna Sengupta - that returns to Kolkata and runs into another affluent couple - Raima Sen and Rajat Kapoor.
Anuranan became the first Bengali movie to be released in the US and ran for 10 weeks in Kolkata. Its success inspired films like US-based Suman Ghosh's Dwanda, Roy Chowdhury's Antaheen, besides Anjan Dutt's Bong Connection.
Well known director Rituparno Ghosh's latest film Sob Charitro Kalponik, starring Bipasha Basu and Prasenjeet, also has NRI characters.
Bong Connection that had Raima Sen in one of the lead roles got released only in the metros and some big cities, but director Dutt says the strategy was wrong.
"The distributors do not release our films in the suburbs as they think it only appeals to the urban audience, which I think is wrong," said Dutt.
"Urban cineastes mostly watch films on DVD. And I do think that the rural audience is huge. At the end of the day money matters," said Dutt, who has also told the story of the shrinking Anglo-Indian population in his film Bow Barracks Forever.
"I don't think all the movies belonging to this genre are being appreciated, except a few creations like Bong Connection, Madly Bangali or Anuranan. The Bengali film industry is in fact going through a mediocre phase," said Dutt.
Young filmmaker Suman Ghosh, whose Dwando roped in Hollywood's second largest distribution house LongTail, partly agrees.
"Honestly, I don't think there has been any seachange in the Bengali movie world. But certain filmmakers like Dutt have brought some polish to Bengali films that attract cinegoers who previously may have been shunning them, making an exception only for works by Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen," he said.
Bengali movies have always had two separate wings - an intellectual arm represented by filmmaking geniuses of the class of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak, and a commercial side for directors who made films with matinee idols like Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in the past.
And till now, for the average moviegoer in West Bengal's small towns and villages, low-brow stuff like Poran Jai Joliya Re (Bengali adaptation of Namastey London) and Mon Mane Na.
"There's a serious dichotomy in our industry and the two threads - new Bengali films that have a cosmopolitan appeal and the other catering to the rural and semi-urban bases - are far removed from each other," said Gautam Ghosh.
Veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta points out that even Ray's films did good business only in urban areas.
"They were never acceptable to the rural audiences as they did not cater to their tastes. So if we only paint a rosy picture about the success of new urban Bengal films, it would not be appropriate."
Producers also feel Bengali cinema is no more a "bridge between the urban and rural audiences".
"Even in multiplexes, the ticket sales of urban Bengali films are not very encouraging. It does not offer a good value for our investment," said Abhijit Sarkar, creative head of T. Sarkar Productions that produced Sandip Ray's whodunits like Tintoretor Jishu and Kailashey Kelenkari, based on his father Satyajit Ray's stories.
"So we producers have to bank on the rural audiences and they want no intellectual subject, but a package of commercial treatment."
(Soudhriti Bhabani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )