New guard in Bengali cinema
A mere brace of films does not quite constitute a full-fledged revolution. But could they be the first rumblings of resurgence in the fortunes of a struggling industry? Abhijit Chaudhuri's Patalghar (The Underground Chamber) and Subhadro Chowdhury's Prohor (The Course of Time), two of the numerous Bengali films that are vying for top honours at this year's National Awards, do have the future of cinema in Kolkata emblazoned across their entire running time.
Patalghar and Prohor are glowing examples of what an infusion of new blood can do to revive a cinema that has been groping in the dark for quite some time now. More than that, they are proof that the post-Ray generation of Bengali filmmakers have finally found a band of worthy successors.
World class in terms of technique and production values, these two films - one an ambitious sci-fi thriller, the other a minimalist probe into the mind of a young woman who is grappling with the trauma of rape - have unveiled the depth and width of the talent pool that seems to be currently available in Kolkata.
Shot by the FTII-trained cinematographer Aveek Mukhopadhyay, Patalghar is as remarkable for the originality of its storyline as it is for the inventiveness of its production values and sound design. The drama revolves around a scientist who stumbles upon the existence of a lost gadget and a little boy who inherits a sprawling mansion in the countryside. The gadget in question is a sound gun that can put a person to sleep for decades and it is hidden in a secret underground chamber of the mansion.
The two protagonists are obviously not the only ones searching for the all-powerful 'weapon'. On its trail are a megalomaniac Queen (played with pizzazz by Mita Vashisth), a bunch of lackeys and a brawny but clueless alien who has woken up from a 150-year slumber. Director Abhijit Chaudhuri meshes the physical attributes of the real world and the confounding details of the realms of fantasy in seamless harmony, in the bargain delivering a film that is riveting all the way through.
Much smaller in scope but just as classy is Prohor, directed by another first-timer Subhadro Chowdhury. The technically stunning film alternates between two skillfully framed spaces - a lower middle class Calcutta home and a hospital ward - and adopts a low-key and precise mode to tell the story of a nurse (played by Debashree Roy) haunted by a traumatic act of violence that had torn her happy little world apart six years ago. Prohor eschews physical trauma, opting to present the unfolding of events through the inner psychological dynamics of the central character and a wonderfully evocative soundtrack.
Much of the beauty of the film, however, hinges primarily on its translucent camerawork by Amlan Dutta. The colour palette, the texture, the quality of the lighting and the depth of focus suggest craftsmanship of the very highest order.
That is only a part of the story. Technical proficiency has been the stock in trade of Bengali directors like Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh for years. So what is it precisely that Patalghar and Prohor have achieved? They have announced the advent of a new breed of cinema professionals who have the power to bring about dramatic change in the Kolkata filmmaking scene.
Coming as they have in the same year as Dasgupta's poetic Mando Meyer Upakhyan (A Tale of a Naughty Girl), Goutam Ghose's nostalgia-laden Abar Aranye (In the Forest… Again) and Rituparno Ghosh's Shubho Muhurat, a whodunit inspired by the exploits of Miss Marple, and the upcoming Chokher Bali, based on a Rabindranath Tagore classic, Patalghar and Prohor could well take Bengali cinema to a plane that it has not touched for a while now, especially in the matter of sustained technical finesse.