Tapan Sinha has been just happy making movies all his life, remaining more attentive to his childlike imagination and his attachment to literature rather than to laurels and recognition, both here and abroad. The Dadasaheb Phalke award given to him this week is just one more in his crown, and that too a belated one.
In mid-1950s, middle-of-the-road cinema was largely unheard in the catalogue of Indian cinema. The “art cinema” movement was fledgling and popular cinema was haunted by an elusive logic of socially committed entertainment. That there was the Middle Path between these two egotistical forms was inconceivable.
Enter Tapan Sinha. He came straight from the Pinewood Studios in the UK, where he was working as a sound engineer. He came back to Calcutta and gingerly stepped into film-making. It took some time for the audience to realise that popular Bengali cinema had got its first artiste, and art cinema its first unrepentant entertainer. But soon, a magical union of liberate art and critical populism made Tapan Sinha’s films the raison d’être of middle-of-the-road Bengali cinema. For the next 40 years or so, Sinha has put together a remarkable repertoire of films straddling across the spectrum of genres, styles and narratives — costume drama (Jhinder Bondi), thriller (Sobuj Diper Raja), whodunnit (Boidurja Rahashya), pubescent fantasy (Aj Ka Robinhood, Safed Hathi), comedy (Tonsil, Golpo Holeo Shotti), satire (Banchharamer Bagan), social drama (Hatey Bajare, Sagina Mahato, Kabuliwalah), social realism (Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Adalat O Ekti Meye, Ekhoni, Aponjon), etc. His urbane take on estranged couple hood in Jotugriha, the seduction of wanderlust in Atithi, of epic resistance against nature’s demonic destructiveness in Hansuli Banker Upokotha and the philosophical moorings of a brooding poltergeist in Khudito Pashan are outstanding examples of cinema that eschews the mythical boundaries of art and populism. In Harmonium, he explored the picaresque form with the travails of a recalcitrant harmonium through class and glass ceilings — from faux middle respectability to the joie de vivre of boudoir bohemianism. Sinha has used a variety of lesser known actors and literary influences to his great advantage as much as he has tapped into Tagore’s endless humanist exchequer or Uttam Kumar’s iconic popularity, without getting trapped into characteristic bhadrolok excess.
In the last two decades, however, he has preferred to concentrate on more conventional stories about righteous individuals in a lonely and bitter crusade against the system(s) that have failed them (Atonko, Antardhan, Wheelchair) — a significant departure from the tender tragic-comic chronicles of embattled social orders that he excelled in.
Like other prolific film-makers, Tapan Sinha’s films are unequal in their appeal but that in no way affects his quiet but valuable presence in Bengali and through his influences, Hindi cinema (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar). That he has been overshadowed by the talismanic artistic trio in Bengal (Ray, Sen and Ghatak) and isolated in the slippery world of popular cinema (unlike genre co-travellers Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor) is a tragedy of our culture, which has failed to put him into context.
As usual, Tapanbabu will insist that he is humbled by the Phalke award. But Sir, just in case you prefer to disregard, you, like your films, remain much more than an august assemblage of awards.